Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Confinement, Consolation, and Confession in Galdós's la Desheredada

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Confinement, Consolation, and Confession in Galdós's la Desheredada

Article excerpt

In an essay entitled "Observaciones sobre la novela contemporánea en España," written in 1870 at the start of his novelistic career, Benito Pérez Galdós lamented the lack of a national novel in Spain, while at the same time he explained why he felt its arrival was imminent. In this prophetic essay, so concerned with belatedness and the need for timely action, the terms with which Galdós describes the predicament of the modern Spanish novel are striking precisely because they are not temporal, but spatial. Confinement, or the restriction to a single social space or class, is the malady of the novel of the time. Liberation from such restraints, the novelist implies, will be the defining characteristic of the national novel to come. Galdós associates wide open space with what he foresees will be the new novel of the middle class: "No ha aparecido aún en España la gran novela de costumbres, la obra vasta y compleja que ha de venir necesariamente como expresión artística de aquella vida."1 And he repeatedly resorts to metaphors of enclosure to describe the suffocating novelistic forms in vogue at the time. Suffocating, since Galdós seems to have been stricken with claustrophobia every time he found himself ensconced in the pages of a society romance. Anticipating how the novel of the bourgeoisie will differ from that of high society, he writes impatiently that

La novela, el más complejo, el más múltiple de los géneros literarios, necesita un círculo más vasto que el que le ofrece una sola jerarquía, ya muy poco caracterizada; se asfixia encerrada en la perfumada atmósfera de los salones, y necesita otra amplísima y dilatada, donde respire y se agite todo el cuerpo social. ("Observaciones" 110)

Lest he be misunderstood as merely advocating the writing of the rural novel, Galdós was quick to criticize others among his fellow novelists for not recognizing how confined their own studies of rustic manners were and how far from being the fullest realizations of the novelist's ambition of representing all of Spanish society. The "novela de costumbres campesinas," Galdós continues, is too restricted in subject matter. Although the novels of his compatriot Fernán Caballero depict colorful bucolic subject matter, this writer fails when she attempts to "salir del breve círculo del hogar campestre" (111). Galdós similarly deplores the failure of José María Pereda to apply his considerable talents to a wider terrain: "En un horizonte más vasto, aquel ingenio tan observador y perspicaz haría cosas inimitables" (111). Of this writer's Escenas montañesas, Galdós laments, "iLástima que sea demasiado local y no procure mostrarse en una esfera más ancha]" (111).

In one sense Galdós did fulfill his desire to expand the horizons of the Spanish novel. Beginning with La desheredada, published in 1881, he wrote a series of novelas contemporáneas, lengthy tomes that spanned a broad range of social spaces and depicted characters from all strata of society.2 Yet in another sense the writer did not realize his ambition of liberating the novel from what he perceived to be its asphyxiating confinement. One has only to think of some of the many novels in which the narrative dwells upon characters imprisoned within the walls of insane asylums, prisons, poorhouses, and convents to understand that the "novela moderna de costumbres" inaugurated by Galdós could not have cured the writer of his earlier claustrophobia. La desheredada begins with Tomás Rufete locked away in the insane asylum Leganés. Rufete's daughter Isidora is temporarily jailed in the Cárcel Modelo, and his son Mariano faces the prospect of imprisonment in a "Penitenciaría para jóvenes delincuentes" (462). In Fortunata y Jacinta (1886-87), Fortunata is interned in the Micaelas convent reformatory, and the novel concludes with the pathetic musings of Maxi Rubín imprisoned in Leganés. The title of the late novel Misericordia (1897) alludes to saintly compassion, but also to the Asilo de Ancianos de la Misericordia to which it is suggested that the novel's angelic protagonist Benigna be sent away (252, 299). …

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