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ArribaAbajoCharity in Galdós

Douglass Rogers

«Perhaps the most frequently commented, yet least studied aspect of the novels of the nineteenth-century Spanish novelist, Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920), is the theme of love or charity», says Arnold Penuel in the introduction to his book, Charity in the Novels of Galdós230. On describing the neglect shown the subject, he is presumably referring to the shortage of systematic monographic or book-length studies specifically on the subject of charity in Galdós and perhaps of any which embraces the whole chronological range of Galdós' work, since brief studies on the subject do exist, devoted largely to specific works (Misericordia in particular), and since many major writers on Galdós have dealt with the matter in relation to different orientations231. Even so, one can scarcely disagree with the author that the topic is a fundamental one, and one which was standing in need of concentrated study.

But how does one approach such a topic? And to begin with, what is charity? Penuel starts out by acknowledging the complexity of the term. Even allowing the possible superiority of the term «love» in the case of Galdós, he validly eliminates its consideration from his study232, and enumerates as follows the meanings of charity which will apply in his study:

To assure clarity with respect to the precise purview of the study, «charity» is considered to include the following meanings: (1) the love of man for God and for his fellow men in Christianity; (2) the feeling of benevolence and tolerance toward others; (3) acts of compassion or kindness toward others; (4) the giving of money, advice, and other help to those who are in need; (5) institutional help for those in need; (6) self-sacrifice; (7) self-love and self-hatred. Cruelty and intolerance are included where the absence of charity per se is thematically focal. The category of friendship is subsumed under the various aspects fo charity.


The magnitude of the topic is evident: it intersects social, moral, religious, and psychological problems, not to mention the literary ones.

The amount of material investigated is equally broad: it includes almost literally each and every one of the Novelas de la primera época and the Novelas españolas contemporáneas. The author's statement, «Because of their primarily historical content I have excluded the Episodios nacionales» (vii), implies a debatable motive for their omission, but it is certainly a defensible procedure simply from the standpoint of manageability. One of the book's strong features is its extensive and varied collection of examples, which tend to verify what the reader of Galdós perceives sooner or later; that an awareness of charity as a human value is practically omnipresent in his work, in one fashion or another, including latently, when its «opposites» are dominant, as in Doña Perfecta and the Torquemada series. In addition, the analyses of individual plot fragments and character interrelationships are done with sound judgments, expressive skill and a good sense for Galdosian values. On the other hand, due both to the lack of a unified conception of charity as well as to the great expanse   —170→   of ground covered, the study lacks cohesion and may be characterized as more of a descriptive survey (although not in chronological order) than an in-depth study. By way of contrast, one could mention an article nearly contemporaneous with Penuel's work, by Peter A. Bly, «Egotism and Charity in Marianela»233

, in which the concentration on a single problem and a single volume allows a thorough development of the question studied, and, in fact, through a limited number of references to other novels, a reasonably clear picture of its relationship to the general development of Galdós's novel. Still, Penuel's study probably reveals a more accurate impression than Bly's of the extent to which the novelist's work is saturated with the theme of charity.

The book carries an introduction dealing briefly with the question of «religion and public beneficence» in Spain in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The subject of the first chapter, «Psychological Aspects of Charity», which is also largely preliminary in nature, could be summed up as «the psychology of love and personality» as found in Galdós. Stressing the importance of the presence or absence of love in the makeup of the Galdosian character, the author derives this key formula:

The need to love and to be loved is an essential and permanent part of this inner self; when this need is met, the individual thrives as a full human being, when not, he suffers not only a disintegration of his personality, but also a diminution of his humanity.


The second and third chapters, «Charity and Society», and «Religious and Ethical Aspects of Charity» (pp. 22-77), are the heart of the book. Of the two major sections of the former, that entitled «Institutional Charity», with familiar examples from Marianela, El amigo Manso, Fortunata y Jacinta, and La desheredada, confirms the essential pessimism of Galdós's attitude toward public institutions established for official succor, including Leganés and Las Micaelas, his irritation at ostentatious philanthropists, but also his apparently ambivalent attitude in certain cases, particularly that of Doña Guillermina Pacheco, an institution in herself. Illustrating the variety of facets to the problem in Galdós, Penuel says of El amigo Manso:

The novel dramatizes a spectrum of various types of service ranging from giving advice to organized charity, and the spectrum extends to the evident opposites of service to mankind: selfishness and parasitism. Service which involves face-to-face contact between the benefactor and the beneficiary is held up for admiration; organized charity, egotism, and parasitism are satirized.


Prior to this examination of charity as a full-fledged social problem, considerable attention is devoted to the question entitled «Charity as a Producer of Vice». Referring to La familia de León Roch, Tormento and La de Bringas, Lo prohibido, and La loca de la casa, Penuel shows how charity is condemned as a negative value by certain characters (particularly Cruz, of La loca de la casa) or produces destructive results on individuals. This pattern is not necessarily a surprising one to find in Galdós, but neither the significance of the distorted cause-and-effect relationship nor the intentions of the novelist are satisfactorily explained by such facile conclusions as these: «The tendency of charity to   —171→   promote vice, then, depends upon the personality of the beneficiary» (30); «Galdós [...] uses these arguments to condemn only the negative aspects of charity» (32). One might also regret that the nature of the discussion apparently precludes treating such supreme examples of counterproductive charity as the stoning of Benina (Misericordia is dealt with in another chapter, although not this specific incident).

A generally sound and interesting discussion is found in Chapter III, «Religious and Ethical Aspects of Charity», which appears to place in their proper hierarchy the different values making up the system of ethics contained in the Galdosian novel. Some of its major points are summed up by the author as follows:

Galdós is revealed to be both traditional and modern in his view of charity: traditional in that he harks back to the primitive emphasis on adhering to the spirit of the command to «love thy neighbor as thyself» rather than to the mere letter; modern in that he breaks the theological crust that over the centuries has hardened this teaching into rigid religious dogma. Galdós values love as an emotion or a mental state rather than merely a principle. The characters in his novels who practice charity out of duty rather than out of genuine feeling are held up to ridicule. Those who, by going through the motions of religious devotion and by giving alms, believe that they are demostrating their love of God are considered by the novelist as hypocritical or superstitious. To say this is not to preclude authentic religious feeling in any of those characters who observe external religious practices; all sorts of combinations are found.


Basing himself on Gloria and El abuelo, Penuel studies «Charity as Duty versus Charity as Emotion», illustrating ways in which the former is deplored and the latter esteemed in Galdós. He examines «Love and Dogma» in Doña Perfecta and Gloria, where he shows how «religious precepts which in a confusion of means and ends have been hardened into dogmas more important than the human beings they are supposed to serve, are often the object of Galdós's criticism, especially in his earlier novels» (52). A fundamental point commonly associated with the practice of charity as found in Galdós is stressed in a section entitled «Humanitarian Charity» -Nazarín's lesson that «love of God is inseparable from love of man» (67).

The last two major chapters in the book might have been more fruitful if they had been incorporated into the body of the work. The first of these is a ten-page study of Misericordia alone, a separation defended on the basis of the novel's importance to the topic, but a questionable procedure in our opinion, because, as it stands, its relationship to the whole is foggy, because the subject of charity in Misericordia has already been singled out for study by other scholars234, and, more importantly, because its integration into the body of the study could well have clarified and strengthened the presentation of a variety of points treated under primary topics.

The following chapter, «Charity as a Factor in Characterization, Plot, and Setting», illustrates various ways in which charity in given moments may be seen as a central element in each one of the three novelistic functions indicated. If the chapter's organization appears conventional, its conclusion seems somewhat arbitrary, as though purely literary considerations were added as an afterthought, and thus gives the impression of negating the synthesis of elements which is   —172→   such an essential part of Galdós's modernity. With a little additional attention to certain other creative factors, including narrative structure, irony, style, etc., introduced where appropriate, along with the central problems of the work, some of the author's investigations might have attained more rewarding proportions. Is it really an unrelated question to ask, for example, if the narrators -and the «author», and the man behind them all, Galdós- are charitable or uncharitable as they view the world of personages in which charity appears as an «internal» problem?

If we are yielding to a temptation to dwell on what the book is not, or on approach which it does not pretend to adopt, it is, on the one hand, because of its restricted scope, evident not only in its modest size but in the handling of its topic, which, as suggested by its title, has its focus on charity within the subject matter of Galdós's novels, rather than on a broader concept (such as the idea of «Galdosian charity» implied above). Consequently, it fails to move toward conclusions which are larger than the elements of the study itself (the final chapter of «Conclusions» is a résumé of major points covered). But on the other hand, precisely the accomplishment and potential of the book lead the reader to look for more. Among the «literary problems», for example, a further exploration of such a suggestive observation as the following -which is one of many- could only be most illuminating:

Galdós's conception of charity as a fluid, flexible, elusive feeling requires that it be experienced through the non-discursive form of the novel rather than conveyed through the discursive language of reason.


With respect to «organized charity», the author's findings seem on the verge of throwing new light on the particular combination of social problems, church problems, and individual problems as they intermingle within Galdós's concept of charity, but then stop short of sifting new meaning from the variety of implications set forth. The same holds true with regard to that phenomenon of «spiritualization» found in Galdós's mature novels, in which the problem of the proportions of ethics and religion is touched upon by Penuel in his illustrations of the striking coincidence of the human and the divine, but not explored intensively. Even though much has been written about both the author's socio-political stance and his spiritual one, neither can be considered truly a «closed question»235.

But most of all, the broad dimensions of the book's subject arouse from the beginning an expectation of a broad, new, synthetic view of Galdós's overall vision of charity, perhaps including the stages of its «desarrollo orgánico», to borrow Casalduero's term236. And it is not only a matter of vision but of process: we sense that the whole question of charity in Galdós brings us very near to the secret of the source of the monumental energy which produced a work of an expanse and concentration which almost defies credulity. «Lo que en la totalidad de la obra galdosiana resplandece es un supremo idealismo amoroso, la piedad y una compasión grandes por el dolor ajeno», says César Barja (who is not an apologist for Galdós)237, reminding us that this primary force is in no small measure a kind of humanitarian compulsion, that many of Galdós's novels were the limosnas born of his own charitable impulses and convictions.


Arnold Penuel's interesting and very readable book offers much in the way of both groundwork and verification. It leads us to look not only for him but for others as well to be prompted to delve further into the cluster of problems associated with the concepts of love and charity in Galdós.

University of Texas

Austin, Texas

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