Structuring Empire in the Opening Chapter of la Regenta

By Pennington, Eric | Romance Notes, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Structuring Empire in the Opening Chapter of la Regenta


Pennington, Eric, Romance Notes


IMPERIALISM entails thinking about, settling on, and controlling land that one does not possess: terrain that is distant, occupied, and owned by others. The endeavor enriches some and engenders untold misery for others. But imperialism is not merely an act of accumulation and acquisition. It is sustained and even driven by impressive ideologies that include notions that certain territories and people require and beseech domination, as well as attitudes affiliated with domination reflected in words and concepts such as "inferior" or "subject races," "subordinate peoples," "dependency," "expansion," and "authority" (Said 9). In the imperial culture, there is a commitment--an "ideologeme" as Frederic Jameson characterizes it--in constant circulation wherein men and women accept the notion that distant territories and their native peoples should be subjugated, perceiving an almost metaphysical obligation to rule and subordinate 'inferior' or less advanced peoples.

Although the era of classical high imperialism has ended, the experience and aftermath of the imperial past has entered into the reality of millions of people, where its existence as a shared memory and a very problematical confluence of ideology, culture, and policy still exercises tremendous force. Its imprint remains in a general cultural sphere with recognizable manifestations in education, religion, literature, and the visual and musical arts, as well as in specific political, ideological, economic, and social practices. The task of the literary critic is to scrutinize these manifestations, while taking stock of "the anger and resentment the experience and memory provokes in those who were governed" (Fanon 101), as well as the nostalgia for empire persisting in those who ruled. The culture that nurtured the sentiment, rationale, and imagination of empire is examined, together with the discrepant voices and experiences of the subjugated, in order to grasp the hegemony of imperial ideology and discern how literature makes constant references to itself as colluding in imperial expansion by creating what Raymond Williams terms "structures of feeling" that support, elaborate, and consolidate the practice of empire (Fekete 1; Simpson 13).

Taking Williams' notion as a point of departure, Edward Said, in his pivotal treatise, Culture and Imperialism (1994), examines how dominant cultures use language (literature, specifically) to mold a nation's feelings by generating "structures of attitude and reference favorable to the objectives of empires" (50). His study examines the imperial presence in a variety of well known literary texts from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Heart of Darkness, Mansfield Park, Kim, and even Verdi's Aida, among many others. We can utilize aspects of Said's analyses in the examination of Spanish literature produced during roughly the same period, including the masterpiece of Leopoldo Alas, La Regenta (1885-86). Reviewing this novel from a similar perspective reveals covert and overt references to the Golden Age Empire and uncovers how the text reflects Spanish attitudes toward imperial designs at the time.

Alas's novel is highly contextualized, containing specific and oblique textual references to the Spain of the Restoration period and its social problems while reflecting the paradoxes and quandaries of the last half of the nineteenth century. Several studies detail the striking textual referentiality to this time period. The essays of Jean Becarud and Robert M. Jackson as well as the collections edited by Frank Durand and Maria Jose Tintore offer insights into the strict connection between text and historical context. Emblematic of its historical content, the novel reveals numerous references to the Spanish Empire both in retrospective and contemporary terms. Nevertheless, the subtext of empire has scarcely been addressed critically. A fortunate exception is the work of Rosario Ramos Gonzalez, who examines the colonial presence and imperial mindset in La Regenta through the metaphor of fluidity, concentrating particularly on the figures of Paula Raices and Fermin de Pas. …

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