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ArribaAbajoGaldós in the light of Georg Lukács' Historical novel

Madeleine de Gogorza Fletcher

The Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács' important work on the historical novel, first published in 1937,118 is primarily a theoretical study. It is an attempt to give some idea of the main lines of the historical development of the genre and to consider the relationship between artistic form and the economic and social background which shaped the author's outlook. Although Lukács did not include Galdós among the authors he discussed, this essay presumes to set forth some of the elements of his critical argument, and to focus them upon Galdós' Episodios nacionales, always conscious that in discussing these novels separately from the rest one makes an artificial distinction for the purposes of convenience. In fact Lukács' discussion of the question of genre in «The General Tendencies of Decadence and the Establishment of the Historical Novel as a Special Genre» goes so far as to support the idea that the historical novel is not essentially separable as a genre from the novel in general.

If then we look at the problem of genre seriously, our question must be: which facts of life underlie the historical novel and how do they differ from those which give rise to the genre of the novel in general? I believe that when the question is put in this way, there can be only one answer -none. An analysis of the work of the important realists will show that there is not a single, fundamental problem of structure, characterization, etc. in their historical novels which is lacking in their other novels, and vice versa.119

Lukács' first chapter on «The Classical Form of the Historical Novel» outlines the development of the historical novel from its classical form exemplified by Scott to the inception of the realistic novel of contemporary society as seen in Tolstoy and Balzac. This development is described as the «extension of the historical novel into an historical picture of the present». Lukács emphasizes that this development is the result of social and historical changes rather than formalistic experimentation.120

Applying Lukács' critical insight to Galdós, the transition from the «Novelas de la primera época» to the «Novelas contemporáneas» springs to mind as a clear example of the pattern established as a norm in Lukács' discussion of Balzac and Tolstoy -that is, a primary period of historical novels of the history of the parents' and grandparents' generation followed by realistic novels of contemporary society.

Lukács: points out that for Balzac «the change from his plan to present French history in the manner of Scott to portraying the history of the present coincides roughly and not accidentally with the July Revolution of 1830».121 For Galdós the pivotal date can be placed between 1874 and 1880 -that is, the failure of the first Spanish Republic and the consolidation of the Bourbon Restoration. While Spanish history has not followed the same path as that of France, there are parallels to be drawn between Spain just before 1868 and France before the July Revolution of 1830. Previous to both these revolutionary periods, there had been a feeling of the artificial suppression of the forces   —102→   of change. In the last years of Isabel II's reign, Narváez was holding the country down with force, La Noche de San Daniel and the uprising of the sergeants of San Gil being two outstanding explosions of protest as well as Prim's presence on the horizon, waiting to catalyze these forces into a pronunciamiento. So that previous to 1868 Galdós is concerned with the historical background of the social forces he sees working towards what he believes will be the political triumph of the middle class, with all the implications this holds for progress and liberalization. This conviction is behind the first impulse towards the historical novel in La Fontana de Oro. The idea of writing a series of historical novels occurs to Galdós as a very natural result of the critical reception of his first novels.122

During the early years before the liberal period of 1868-74 could be seen to be definitely over, Galdós' novels abound in the historical representative characters for which Lukács gives Sir Walter Scott such high praise. «Scott's greatness lies in his capacity to give living human embodiment to historical-social type».123 In the «Novelas de la primera época» and Series I-II of the Episodios the conflict of social forces in history is expressed in terms of characters like Pepe Rey, Martín Muriel, Benigno Cordero, Luis Santorcaz, etc., whose lives are closely identified with the historical fate of the group they represent.

True to the pattern established by Lukács, in Galdós' earliest novels he examines the origins of the present historical development. Martín Muriel and Luis Santorcaz represent the very first generation of liberal radicals, imbued with the ideas of the French Revolution. They are precursors and hence misfits in traditional society, and Galdós makes their personal lives express this condition. Martín Muriel ends a lunatic, symbolizing his total alienation from his environment, while Santorcaz, embittered and defeated, dies asking pardon of the aristocratic Amarinta, mother of his illegitimate child. Thus the tragedy of the first generation in Series I of the Episodios leads into the description of the first liberal period in Series II of the Episodios.124

Series II, written from 1875 to 1879, reflects the defeat of liberalism and the subsequent modification of Galdós' political expectations. The change is felt within the ten novels of the series in the historical representative characters, since the roles assigned to the four characters who begin the series are modified as the story unfolds in accordance with the evolution of a new relationship between present and past.

Salvador Monsalud, the standard-bearer of the liberal revolutionary ideal, declines in importance as the series progresses. Initially, he represents the hope for future progress through political activity. He is even given the gift of foretelling the future. The perfection demanded by his role does not allow him to become involved in past failures, so that he stays on the margin of the historical activity of 1820-23, maintaining a critical attitude toward much of what goes on. The revolutionary liberalism of the 1820-23 period is represented as a semi-comic figure by Pedro Sarmiento, a fanatical schoolteacher who is enthused by the speeches of Romero Alpuente and deceived by Regato.


Monsalud is the most important character but not always the most central to the action. In accordance with the axiom that the most compelling historical elements are those which can be seen to have a future in the present, he is overshadowed in the first novels of the series by the villain, the opportunist Juan Bragas de Pipaon, a fitting historical precursor of those who followed the star of expediency in the vicissitudes of 1868-76. Bragas makes his fortune at the side of Fernando VII and changes his politics in 1820 and again in 1823.

By the middle of the series a new and different liberal hero is introduced who edges Monsalud out of ideological focus. Benigno Cordero the peace loving shopkeeper, a representative of the traditionally liberal commercial middle class is completely devoted to his private affairs. Industry, tranquility and private life are the new ideals. Galdós, having lost faith in the efficacy of the revolutionary change after the spectacle of the disintegration of Spain under the First Republic, now turns to Benigno Cordero to represent the slower and surer social change which Galdós hopes will bring about progress as a result of the strengthening of the middle class. Galdós speaks of this ideal with great fervor:

La formidable clase media, que hoy es el poder omnímodo que todo lo hace y deshace, llamándose política magistratura, administración, ciencia, ejército, nació en Cádiz entre el estruendo de las bombas francesas y las peroratas de un Congreso híbrido, inocente extranjerizado si se quiere, pero que brotado había como un sentimiento o como un instinto ciego, incontrastable, del espíritu nacional. El tercer estado creció, abriéndose paso entre frailes y nobles; y echando a un lado con desprecio estas dos fuerzas atrofiadas y sin savia, llegó a imperar en absoluto, formando, con sus grandezas y sus defectos, una España nueva.125

Salvador Monsalud is the last representative of revolutionary «bourgeois» liberalism in the Episodios. His retirement to private life, following the example of Benigno Cordero, coincides with the end of Galdós' interest in the clearly defined historical representative characters and the end of Series II of the Episodios as well as the last of the «Novelas de la primera época». For European writers, Lukács writes, «the historical orientation towards the necessity of progress, the historical defense of progress against Romantic reaction essentially comes to a close with the July Revolution: for Europe's greatest minds the central problem now becomes the understanding and portrayal of the historical 'problematic' of bourgeois society itself».126 After the close of Spain's belated revolutionary period Galdós also turns to writing novels of contemporary society.

Lukács' discussion of the post-1848 historical novel is no longer relevant to Galdós' novelistic development in his later Episodios written twenty years after the completion of Series II, largely because of the difference between Spanish history and the history of Europe after their respective revolutionary periods. Lukács builds his literary criticism around a core of Marxist sociological observations (European society dominated by the bourgeoisie after 1848, etc.) which are not applicable to Spain where the middle class lost is separate political-economic program and was absorbed by the ruling oligarchy, no longer a pure aristocracy of blood but still subservient to the interests of a modified agrarian economy.127


Lukács shows how the nature of the historical novel changed after the establishment of bourgeois society in Europe (the historical novel no longer investigates the roots of the present, but is used as a means of escape from the drabness of bourgeois existence). Lukács takes Flaubert's Salammbô; as a model but discusses many other authors, including the historian Jacob Burckhardt, making a convincing case for a general change of intellectual taste in history. The literary consequence of this change in historical perspective is an emphasis upon the exotic aspect of the past: high color, drama, cruelty and violence.

While this development may have some parallels in the Generation of '98 (especially in Valle Inclán's Carlist Trilogy), it bears little resemblance to Galdós' development in the later Episodios in which an increasingly bitter and critical realistic description of society is accompanied by a tendency to use symbolic characters.

Unlike France, Spain did not have a successful middle class revolution, nor did 1868-74 mark the conscious separation of interests between the Spanish middle and working classes (as late as 1909 the parties of the left made common cause with the workers).128 The bourgeois revolutionary ideals are still present in Galdós' novels although increasingly abstract in their manner of representation, since restoration society reveals few healthy political or socio-economic movements in terms of which the progressive ideal can be represented realistically. This problematical historical situation causes the proliferation of symbolic and allegorical figures in the last Episodios, from the Ansúrez family in Series IV to Mariclío Muse of History in the fifth and final series. While Lukács explains the escapist style of post-1848 bourgeois writers in terms of a completed revolution and an accompanying reluctance to consider further action, Galdós' style in his later Episodios is the result of an abortive revolution combined with a desire to keep the progressive revolutionary ideal alive in fiction.

Harvard University. Cambridge, Mass.