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ArribaAbajoAnimal Imagery in Misericordia

Jennifer Lowe

«Si vale comparar rostros de personas con rostros de animales, y si para conocer a la Burlada podríamos imaginarla como un gato que hubiera perdido el pelo en una riña, seguida de un chapuzón, digamos que era la Casiana como un caballo viejo, y perfecta en su semejanza con los de la plaza de toros, cuando se tapaba con venda oblicua uno de los ojos, quedándose con el otro libre para el fisgoneo y vigilancia de sus cofrades» (1881).152 This extract from the second chapter of Misericordia is both interesting and revealing. It occurs when Galdós has already given us a detailed description of the appearance of these two women (1880-81) and in this respect it can be considered as a kind of summary of the preceding pen-portraits, The common factor in the presentation of the two beggar-women here is the use of animal-based similes. Animal-like characteristics had already been hinted at in the reference to la Burlada's «ojuelos sagaces, lacrimosos, gatunos» (1880, my italics). In the quotation given above the treatment of both women is identical in that the initial basic comparison of como + animal is then elaborated to convey as precise an image as possible. It is in this elaboration that Galdós' inventiveness is revealed. The opening words of this extract are also worthy of attention. Galdós appears initially to have some slight reservations about the validity and effectiveness of the technique he is about to use. Further, he seems to suggest that the readers must use their imagination in order fully to appreciate the equations he is presenting. Although Marian Smolen rightly associates this technique with Galdós' use of caricature and his dehumanization of certain members of the begging fraternity,153 it is perhaps more rewarding to take these two similes as the starting-point for a consideration of Galdós' use of animal-based images and references in Misericordia.

In the course of the novel Galdós makes use of several clichés or stereotyped references to animals. In a work where material poverty is described in great detail, it is not surprising to find the expressions «más pobre que una rata» and «más pobre que las ratas» (1902 and 1925 respectively). The silence traditionally associated with mice is vividly expressed in an extended simile: «Calló súbitamente doña Paca como el ratoncillo nocturno que cesa de roer al sentir los pasos o la voz del hombre» (1946). «Mirada de lince» (1932) and «vista de lince» (1949) show similar recourse to standard animal metaphors. In recounting to Benina her dream in which Don Romualdo brings news of an inheritance, Doña Paca commented that, on discovering that Ponte was in the house, he had exclaimed «matamos dos pájaros de un tiro» (1936). Birds feature also in Benina's advice to «no reñir con nadie y tomar lo que Dios nos ponga delante, como los pájaros» (1988). A variant on this traditional   —86→   image of God's loving care was shown earlier when Benina, resolutely stressing her belief in Divine Providence, affirmed: «Los gorriones, un suponer, ¿tienen vergüenza? ¡Quia!... Lo que tienen es pico...» (1892). Flies are used with their conventional and idiomatic significance of armoyance in Benina's comment to the angry Almudena: «¿Qué mosca te ha picado?» (1939), eliciting his curt response: «Picar tú mí, mosca mala» (1939). Similarly, after Benina has been unable to avoid spending the few coins she possesses on loaves for a hungry but importunate crowd of people, she has a feeling of relief when eventually «se creía libre de aquellos moscones» (1956). Dogs occur twice in stereotyped references. Although la Pedra was lying in a drunken stupor on the floor, Almudena proceeded with his religious rituals and incantations for «no le hacía más caso que a un perro» (1890). Later, Benina's dismissive reaction to the changes which have occurred in doña Paca's house as a result of the inheritance is to «dejar que se peleen aquéllos por un hueso como los perros» (1988).

To this list of stereotyped references we can add la Burlada's description of some beggars who are alleged to have money in the bank as «hormigonazos» (1883), the «toser perruno» of Pedra (1910) and the «ojos de animalejo vivaracho» of her companion, la Diega (1911). The homeless state of the hapless Ponte at one time made him like «el caracol por el aquel de llevar su casa consigo» (1919). The same Ponte is branded as «un viejo verde muy zorro» (1927) by an angry doña Paca. The oaths and lies of la Burlada are conveyed by means of the picturesque expression «sapos y culebras» (1929). The crowd of beggars who accost a wedding party as it emerges from the church is «como nube de langosta» (1929). An importunate shopkeeper is referred to as «un bestia» (1930). Doña Paca considers that, if a certain relative were not to remember her in his will, «sería un puerco» (1937). «Más que burros» (1957) is used as a scathing commentary on the beggars who had confused Benina with doña Guillermina. Immediately after his fall from the hired horse Ponte is «rojo como un pavo» (1980). Many of these examples have become a part of everyday speech, with the result that their original connection with the animal world probably passes unnoticed.

However, the very fact that so many stereotyped references are used in a conventional fashion provides an effective yardstick against which we can measure the equally numerous examples of Galdós' creativity in the area of animal-based expressions. On several occasions Galdós draws on the animal world to help him convey more graphically the physical appearance of his characters - as he had done initially with la Burlada and Casiana. A priest, clutching his cassock as he battles his way across a windswept square, is «como pájaro negro que ahueca las plumas y estira las alas», holding down his hat «que también quería ser pájaro» (1878). Almudena's beard is described as «negra como el ala del cuervo» (1886); the specification of the wing here is perhaps intended to relate to the shape and size of the beard. When Almudena insists on continuing his self-imposed penance on the rubbish heap, Benina comments that he is becoming «más seco que un bacalao» (1953).154

The notary who visits doña Paca to discuss the legacy is described thus: «chiquitín y con perfil de cotorra, parecía un perico que se dispone a encaramarse por el tronco de un árbol» (1969). The tree is, of course, Romualdo   —87→   Cedrón. The vivid and picturesque description of this anonymous and insignificant character serves chiefly to reveal doña Paca's growing sense of unreality. Similarly, Juliana's reference to Ponte as «ese orangután mal pintao» (1977) tells us as much about her harsh character as it does about Ponte's appearance.

On other occasions ostensibly physical descriptions are revealing chiefly of abstract qualities or particular situations. Benina's hands «no terminaban en uñas de cernícalo» (1882, my italics) but were clean and well cared for, underlining her sense of self-respect which never deserts her. We notice that Almudena also has neatly cut nails (1887), and the two companions thus contrast with la Burlada, whose long nails are as sharp as her voice, for she speaks with «la lengua más cortante y afilada que las diez uñas lagartijeras de sus dedos negros y rapantes» (1882). A metaphorical use of claws is found later, when doña Paca is presented as «rebulléndose bajo las garras» of Juliana (1977). Doña Paca earlier lamented that, despite her poverty and various ailments, her appetite and digestion remain as good as ever «privándome de recursos, dispone [Dios] que yo digiera como un buitre» (1893). In her more affluent days she had been an easy prey for unscrupulous people who fed upon her «como gusanos en cuerpo corrupto» (1893). Her social descent has been marked by progressive removal to less and less prestigious addresses in streets named after trees, and thus «por esta fatalidad de los nombres de árboles en las calles donde vivieron, parecían pájaros que volaban de rama en rama, dispersados por las escopetas de los cazadores o las pedradas de los chicos» (1895). Escaping birds again feature when doña Paca punctuates don Romualdo's account of the death of Rafael with the ejaculation «ay»: «Estos ayes eran suspiros que a doña Paca se le salían del alma como pajaritos que escapan de una jaula abierta por los cuatro costados» (1965). However, with her increasing mental disorientation after the inheritance, she is unable to express her ideas, which «zumbaban en su cabeza como las moscas cuando se estrellan contra un cristal, queriendo atravesarlo para pasar de la oscuridad a la luz» (1969). The irony of these images is obvious. Doña Paca may have been freed from poverty, but, as the result of her wealth, she is soon to become the prisoner of Juliana. The attempt of the flies to move from dark to light is echoed later, when we find doña Paca overwhelmed by «las ideas negras» (1990). Juliana was laughingly described by doña Paca as «cargada como un burro» (1977), when she set off home laden with food. But, when doña Paca moves to a larger house, Juliana is in a more dominant position, as is indicated in this very expressive description: «Detrás iba Juliana arreándolos a todos y mandándoles que fueran de prisa por el camino que les marcaba. No le faltaba más que el palo para parecerse a los que en vísperas de Navidad conducen por las calles las manadas de pavos... Doña Paca era la res humilde que va a donde la llevan, aunque sea al matadero; Juliana el pastor que guía y conduce» (1987-88). Concealed in a doorway, Benina «dio algunos pasos para ver el triste ganado» (1988). Later, when Juliana's health is undermined by her guilty conscience, we are told that such weakness is surprising in a person who «por su lozana robustez había hecho gala de compararse a las mulas» (1990). The changing situations and relationships are effectively conveyed to us in the above examples through the use of animal-based references.


Humor is something found when an accepted expression is used in an unexpected manner. La Diega is «un águila para pañuelos y puntillas» (1914). The anticlimactic nature and alliteration of the second part of the statement combine to create a humorous effect. The two people whom Benina meets in Bernarda's lodging-house are referred to as «aquel par de congrios» (1931), and it was probably no more coincidence that the narrow door through which la Pitusa comes in a neighbouring house is described as «grieta que da paso al escondrijo de una anguila» (1932), and she is «el ejemplar más flaco... que pudiera encontrarse en la fauna a que tales hembras pertenecen» (1932).

Galdós' initial hesitant suggestion that there may be some value in creating an equation between the faces of humans and animals has been amply justified. He frequently makes effective use of some of the standard animal comparisons, occasionally in unexpected contexts. Moreover, he also elaborates his own animal-based comparisons to convey aspects of situation, theme and character. Finally, the fact that the story unfolds in an urban setting makes this continuous emphasis on the animal world all the more remarkable.

University of Edinburgh

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