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ArribaAbajoThe function and presentation of the world of nature in three galdosian novels

Jennifer Lowe

In the Novelas españolas contemporáneas Galdós appears essentially as an urban novelist. Writing his «Observaciones sobre la novela contemporánea en España» in 1870 he proclaimed that the future success of the modern novel depended upon the author's ability and willingness to depict the middle classes. Thus, it is not surprising that from 1881 onwards portrayal of a Madrid -based society dominates his novels. Michael Nimetz considers that, as a result, portrayal of the natural scene is virtually excluded from the major part of Galdos' work:

There are few descriptions of nature in the Novelas contemporáneas, except in El caballero encantado, Nazarín and Halma. The landscape for the most part is strictly urban. Flats, streets and shops tend to blot out the earth and sky. If landscape description does appear in a text, it is usually in the form of a brief topographical survey devoid of lyric rapture... There are no storms to orchestrate emotional crises, or autumn leaves to fall with the spirit, or «romantic fallacies» to make the irony hit home. In fact, these are the very things Galdós satirizes in Tormento.1

Like all brief general statements this one invites additions and amendments. In Ángel Guerra, for example, we find evocative description of the peaceful countryside surrounding the cigarral and one of Angel's most traumatic periods of temptation and desire occurs at night, in a deep canyon, during a violent storm. Nimetz also gives several examples of metaphors in which references to nature occur, but these concern chiefly the elements and the cosmos. A broader view is taken by Gustavo Correa, who considers Galdós' presentation of the natural world in opposition to society and the various manifestations of human nature found in his novels.2 My intention here is to examine in detail the inclusion of episodes which take place in a natural setting in three novels: La desheredada (1881), Miau (1888) and Torquemada en el purgatorio (1894).

The opening chapters of La desheredada present Isidora's arrival in Madrid and her reactions to the city and her relatives. On the first Sunday she goes for a walk in the Retiro park with Miquis, the young medical student, and as soon as she sees the grass and trees she has an urge to run about barefoot with her hair streaming loose for «aquella naturaleza hermosa, aunque desvirtuada por la corrección, despertaba en su impresionable espíritu instintos de independencia y de candoroso salvajismo» (IV, 993).3 She initially reacts spontaneously and emotionally. But, «bien pronto comprendió que aquello era un campo urbano, una ciudad de árboles y arbustos. Había calles, plazas y hasta manzanas de follaje» and then «comprendió que el hombre que ha domesticado a las bestias ha sabido también civilizar al bosque» (IV, 993). The repetition of comprender indicates to us that rationalization has replaced her emotional reaction and that she has adjusted to the reality of this particular situation. The appearance of the people strolling by also impressed her, for they were ladies and gentlemen dressed as for the streets of Madrid and «no en facha de pastorcillos, no al desgaire, ni en   —8→   trenza y cabello» (IV, 993). It is implied that she did not expect to find real countryfolk instead of citydwellers. However, no doubt as a result of literary influences, she imagined they would be in pastoral garb to harmonize with the natural scene. Isidora decides to conform to the established pattern: «Echando... de su alma aquellos vagos deseos de correr y columpiarse, pensó gravemente de este modo: 'Para otra vez que venga, traeré yo también mis guantes y mi sombrilla'» (IV, 993). The first word indicates a deliberate rejection of one attitude for another; también underlines her desire to adapt to this new, elegant society.

Miquis draws Isidora's attention to the sound of the birds: «¿Oyes los pájaros? -dijo Miquis-. Son ruiseñores» (IV, 994). This introduces a complex and intriguing incident, for Isidora «había oído hablar de los ruiseñores como cifra y resumen de toda la poesía de la Naturaleza; pero no los había oído» (IV, 994). The difference between the two verbal constructions is critical for an understanding of Isidora's situation. Her views are not derived from first-hand experience of reality. Although it is not actually stated that she has read about nightingales, the expression «resumen de toda la poesía» and the ensuing reference to the birds as artistas clearly places them in a cultural context. Isidora listens attentively:

creyendo oír odas y canciones, y su semblante expresaba un éxtasis melancólico, aunque a decir verdad lo que se oía era una conversación de miles de picos, un galimatías parlamentario-forestal, donde el músico más sutil no podría encontrar las endechas amorosas de que tanto se ha abusado en literatura.

(IV, 994)                

The contrast established by Galdós is not between what Isidora expects to hear and what she actually hears but between what she believes she hears and what is heard by other people. Monroe Hafter claims that there is not «a single nightingale to be heard amidst the pleasant trees».4 Since Galdós never states categorically whether Isidora is in fact listening to nightingales whose sound, in Galdós' opinion, is vastly inferior to the claims made in literature or whether the teasing Miquis has deceived Isidora, the reader is left to formulate his own conclusion -though he will doubtless be influenced by Miquis' amused reaction to Isidora's ecstasy. The incident is neatly rounded off when Miquis refers to Isidora as ruiseñora (IV, 994). It is important to notice that Isidora does not deliberately distort the reality -it is an unconscious process. But there is a very definite distortion which is occasioned by her literature-based preconceptions. Nature is basic reality. Thus, by showing us Isidora's reaction to and transformation of the bird-song, Galdós is making very obvious the extent of her delusions which are to play such an important part in the novel.

Soon, forgetting her earlier resolution to behave decorously, Isidora runs with Miquis through the park «donde todo parecía recién criado, como en aquellos días primeros de la fabricación del mundo» (IV, 994). This serves to show us how the plan to conform was a rational decision, not entirely in accord with Isidora's natural desires. Throughout the novel her real self is revealed, as here, most frequently when she is in contact with Miquis. He, too, can present a distorted view of reality, as is evidenced by his elaborate commentary with its literary and scientific influences (IV, 996). But this is deliberate, ironic distortion, far different from Isidora's delusions. Miquis is able to place his feet firmly on the real ground.


Through these nature-based incidents Galdós has stressed characteristics in two of the major figures in La desheredada and has delineated for us some important thematic aspects.

Villaamil, the unfortunate cesante whose situation is analysed in Miau, eventually decides to commit suicide. Having placed his grandson, Luis, in safe-keeping, Villaamil wanders around the outskirts of Madrid, the city in which the latter part of his working life has been spent: «El día era espléndido, raso y bruñido; el cielo de azul, con un sol picón y alegre; de estos días precozmente veraniegos en que el calor importuna más por hallarse aún los árboles despojados de hoja» (V, 698). There follow detailed and graphic references to eight botanical species, mentioning the extent to which new leaves or flowers are showing. Such details are rare in Galdós' novels. Then we read: «Observó Villaamil la diferencia de tiempo con que las especies arbóreas despiertan de la somnolencia invernal» (V, 698). It is apparent that the botanical details are not important in themselves but because they reveal to us Villaamil's new awareness and power of observation. He, too, has awoken after a long sleep. In contrast to this description of the foliage we have a panoramic view of the sky «como mancha de acuarela extendida sobre el papel por la difusión natural de la gota, obra de la casualidad más que de los pinceles del artista» (V, 698). The substance of this simile derives from the world of art but its purpose and effect is to stress the natural rather than the contrived appearance of the scene.

Villaamil is impressed by the beauty which surrounds him and admits: «paréceme que lo veo por primera vez en mi vida, o que en este momento se acaban de crear esta sierra, estos árboles y este cielo» (V, 698). The two alternatives provide an interesting commentary on Villaamil's situation. He has lived completely apart from the world of nature, functioning, until removed, like a cog in the vast Administrative Machine. His failure to notice the natural world was equivalent to its non-existence. His decision to escape through suicide has given him a new awareness of the world around him. It is ironic that as he plans his death the natural world is being re-born.

Particular emphasis is given to two aspects of nature. Villaamil is fascinated watching a flock of sparrows and he feeds them with some crumbs of bread. He equates the birds' situation with his own: «A ver, esos pajarillos tan graciosos que andan por ahí picoteando, ¿se ocupan de lo que comerán mañana? No; por eso son felices; y ahora me encuentro yo como ellos» (V, 700). This, as A. A. Parker reminded us, is the «wisdom of the Gospels» as expressed in Matthew VI, vv. 25 -33.5 Villaamil is able to realize this only now that he has turned his back on his previous slavery. His delight in the behaviour of the birds later turns to complaint when they appear to have abandoned him: «Pillos, granujas, que después de haberos comido mi pan pasáis sin darme tan siquiera las buenas tardes» (V, 702). He even threatens them with the revolver with which he is going to take his own life. Michael Nimetz's brief summary of this incident gives an inaccurate impression: «He joyfully feeds a band of sparrows. But his anger surges forth as the sparrows begin to fly away. He curses them for abandoning him just as everyone else has done.»6 The sparrows do not fly away while Villaamil is in the process of feeding them. Their departure occurs several hours later, for we are informed that it is evening and «los gorriones iban ya en retirada hacia los tejares de abajo o hacia los árboles» (V, 702). Thus their absence is due to the functioning of the   —10→   natural cycle. Villaamil's inability to realize this is representative of his life-long inability to ascertain the real state of affairs. Surely there is also here another implicit reference to the Gospels: «¿No se venden dos gorriones por un cuarto? y ni uno de ellos caerá a tierra sin vuestro Padre. Más aún los cabellos de vuestra cabeza están todos contados. No temáis pues; vosotros valéis más que muchos gorriones» (Matthew 10, vv. 29-31). The sparrows do not fall to the ground within the context of this novel; but Villaamil does. Luis had related to him the vision in which God's advice for Villaamil was «morirte pronto es lo que te conviene, para que descanses y seas feliz» (V, 697). The paradoxical implication is that God's care for Villaamil is shown in suggesting he should die.

We also find him «destrozando impíamente al pasar alguno de los arbolillos que el Ayuntamiento en aquel erial tiene plantados» (V, 702). He considers this not so much as an attack on Nature as on the offspring of the Administration. The saplings are equatable with lampposts. When he kills himself it is neither in the city nor in the midst of nature but on the municipal rubbish dump on the city boundary. The portrayal of nature in these closing chapters of Miau serves two main purposes. Initially it indicates to us how Villaamil's eyes have at last been opened, allowing him to see beyond the limitations of his work. Then, wider issues are introduced through the implicit reference to life, death and God.

In Torquemada en el Purgatorio the reluctant Torquemada is persuaded by his sister-in-law, Cruz, to take the family to Hernani for a summer holiday. Torquemada is completely disoriented:

Su centro era Madrid: fuera de aquel Madrid... no se encontraba el hombre. Echaba de menos su Puerta del Sol, sus calles del Carmen, de Tudescos y callejón del Perro; su agua del Lozoya, su clima variable, días de fuego y noches de hielo. La nostalgia le consumía.

(V, 1085)                

In contrast to this personal and evocative reference to Madrid no clear picture of Hernani emerges. Torquemada strolls with his wife, Fidela, who «procuraba distraerle haciéndole fijar la atención en las bellezas del campo y del paisaje» (V, 1086). Torquemada is touched by his wife's attentiveness but clearly unaffected by the natural scene as they walk «a lo largo de praderas y bosques» (V, 1086) and, on one occasion, sit «al pie de un corpulento castaño» (V, 1088). For Torquemada nature appears merely functional, the furniture of the countryside. Consequently, Galdós gives us no detailed description. We have here the reverse of the situation which occurred with Villaamil's contemplation of nature.

One night Cruz has a lengthy discussion with her brother Rafael, as they sit by his bedroom window «bordeada de madreselvas», from which they can breathe the «aire embalsamado del jardín» and hear the frogs which «en una charca próxima entonaban su gárrulo himno a la tibia noche» (V, 1088). Unable to sleep because of the heat, Torquemada soon arrives in the garden and walks methodically up and down, watched by Cruz and Rafael «desde la ventana... respirando el aire tibio, aromatizado por las madreselvas» (V, 1091). The repetition of motifs is noticeable. There follows a paragraph devoted entirely to evocative and emotive description of this hot summer night:

La noche era toda calma, tibieza y solemne poesía. El aire, inmóvil y como embriagado con la fragancia campesina, dormitaba entre las hojas de los árboles, moviéndolas apenas con su tenue respiración. El cielo profundo, sin luna y sin nubes, se alumbraba con el fulgor plateado de las   —11→   estrellas. En la obscura frondosidad de la tierra, arboledas, prados, huertas y jardines, los grillos rasgaban el apacible silencio con el chirrido metálico de sus alas, y el sapo dejaba oír, con ritmo melancólico, el son aflautado que parece marcar la cadencia grave del péndulo de la eternidad. Ninguna otra voz, fuera de éstas, sonaba en cielo y tierra.

(V, 1091)                

The outstanding feature of this passage is that it consists of a series of clichés as, for example, «aire... como embriagado con la fragancia», «tenue respiración», «fulgor plateado». The crickets make their inevitable sound whilst the toad is almost ludicrously exalted. (The toad, incidentally, seems to have taken over the role of the frog in V, 1088.) Were it not for evidence to the contrary provided by the descriptions of nature in other novels, we might reasonably conclude on the basis of this passage that Galdós was incapable of original presentation of the natural scene. However, we soon realize that the clichés of this passage are deliberate. For the role of this description of nature is equivalent to that of mood music or background music in a present-day film, signalling to us an imminent change, of a sentimental kind. Although Torquernada's plodding footsteps are rhythmically linked with the croaking of the toad, the night scene leaves him unmoved. But Cruz «movida de un estado particularísimo de su ánimo, y por efecto también quizás de la serenidad poética de la noche» feels a pang of sympathy for him (V, 1091). His obvious discomfiture in the country, away from his beloved Madrid is a reflection of his current social unease, «sacado de su natural esfera» (V, 1091). Rafael, as if affected by his sister's mood, also speaks kindly to Torquemada (V, 1092). Retrospectively we can see that we were forewarned of this change in their attitudes by the emphasis on the sweet-smelling honeysuckle encircling the window through which they watched Torquemada.

Their suggestion of animmediate return to Madrid is jubilantly received by Torquemada and, on arrival: «¡Con qué alegría vio el semblante risueño de su cara Villa, sus calles asoleadas, y sus paseos polvorosos...! ¡Y qué hermosura de calor picante!» (V, 1093). The streets may be hot and dry because «aún no había llovido gota» (V, 1093) but Torquemada reacts «como pato sediento que vuelve a la charca» (V, 1093). This image is a more attractive version of Cruz's vision of Torquemada as «reptil en la humedad fangosa» (V, 1091).

The remorse of Cruz and Rafael which began on this summer night in Hernani continues for some time after their return to Madrid. Cruz, indeed, struggles with her conscience, aware that she has caused Torquemada unhappiness (V, 1096). However, she decides there can be no retreat and soon redoubles her efforts to push Torquemada up the social ladder. Thus, the importance of the natural interlude in this novel is that it highlights the behaviour and attitude of Cruz. Under the influence of the summer night she relents in her treatment of Torquemada. Eventually, she reverts to her established course of action. But because of the pause and her own analysis of the situation, we view more seriously her further demands on Torquemada. She is clearly not devoid of all human sensitivity. The ultimate result of the incident which took place on a summer night in Hernani is to increase our sympathy for Torquemada.

In examining extracts from these three novels we have seen three different ways and styles of presenting the world of nature. In none of the episodes have we found redundant description of the natural scene nor mere «topographical surveys» as asserted by Nimetz. The description has always been closely integrated   —12→   with the presentation of character or theme. Thus, although it remains true that it is in his presentation of the urban scene that Galdós shows his excellence as a descriptive writer, we can see that he was very conscious of the significant contribution of description of the world of nature.

University of Edinburgh.

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