Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Disrupting Nineteenth-Century Dichotomies of Gender: Reading and Imagination in Emilia Pardo Bazán's la Madre Naturaleza

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Disrupting Nineteenth-Century Dichotomies of Gender: Reading and Imagination in Emilia Pardo Bazán's la Madre Naturaleza

Article excerpt

E ansí este mi libro a todo omne o muger, al cuerdo e al non cuerdo, al que entendiere el bien e escogiere salvaçión e obrare bien, amando a Dios; otrosí al que quisiere el amor loco; en la carrera que andudiere, puede cada uno bien dezir: ''Intellectum tibi dabo, eçetera''.

-Libro de buen amor

Reading has often been considered a dangerous practice, especially for those deemed incapable of navigating the latent threats posed by the written word. The interpretations engendered by Juan Ruiz's Libro de buen amor- many of them alarmingly contrary to Christian ideals of ''good love''- exemplify the anxiety that textual ambiguity may lead unwary readers astray. Meanwhile, Don Quijote's reading-induced confusion of fiction and reality demonstrates another potential danger, especially for those who read novels. In nineteenth-century Spain, women are considered particularly susceptible to the dangers of reading. Social commentators and moralists alike are acutely sensitive to the pernicious effects of female literacy; for many, the reading of fiction is a harmful practice wholly inappropriate-if not downright dangerous-for women. JoséMaría Gutiérrez de Alba's comedy Una mujer literata (1851) epitomizes the not uncommon conviction that books are fundamentally incompatible with women and their domestic roles of wife and mother. The play relates the story of doña Josefa, whose love of reading and intellectual pursuits has thrown her household into complete disarray. Utterly distracted by her reading material, she neglects her husband and children, threatening the cohesion of her family and the future of her marriage. Fortunately for all involved, the intervention of her husband's uncle makes doña Josefa rather inexplicably see the error of her ways. At the play's end she announces, ''No señor, sémi deber, / y desde hoy renuncio a ser / una mujer literata'' (III, 14), and willingly burns all of her books except one: a cookbook.1

Doña Josefa's fate represents an extreme position in divisive contemporary debates regarding the proper role of women in Spain's emergent bourgeois society. The so-called cuestión femenina comprises a series of deeply controversial topics that repeatedly surface in nineteenth-century social and medical commentaries. Of particular concern in the second half of the century is the issue of women's education, including what-and how much-women should be encouraged to read (Jagoe and Enríquez de Salamanca 39). A pioneer of Spanish feminist thought, Emilia Pardo Bazán dialogues extensively with nineteenth-century social commentators concerned with la cuestión femenina;in1892 she writes, ''Es la llamada cuestión de la mujer acaso la más seria entre las que hoy se agitan'' (''Una opinión'' 72; emphasis in original). Particularly concerned with issues of education, Pardo Bazán argues vehemently for the equal education of women and men, defying mainstream opinion that such equality would endanger feminine virtue and morality.2 In a speech delivered at the international Congreso Pedagógico HispanoPortugués-Americano of 1892 and published the same year in Nuevo Teatro Crítico, she writes: ''Es la educación de la mujer preventiva y represiva hasta la ignominia'' (''Educación'' 31); she later concludes, ''Ante mi conciencia juzgo el sentido tradicional de la educación femenina tan erróneo como las opiniones de la antigua cosmografía, que suponían a la tierra tendida de Oriente a Occidente como un tapiz'' (59).

This aspect of Pardo Bazán's legacy tends to be studied separately from her literary production and particularly apart from her canonical naturalist novels, most likely because Los pazos de Ulloa (1886 -1887) and La madre Naturaleza (1887) take place in the Galician countryside, far from Spain's urban bourgeoisie and the issues that preoccupied them. Yet in her recent book, Carmen Pereira-Muro demonstrates that as Pardo Bazán penned these works, she believed fervently in ''la capacidad nacionalizadora de la novela'' (113). …

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