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ArribaAbajo«Lo que le falta a un enfermo le sobra a otro»: Galdós' Conception of Humanity in La desheredada

M. Gordon

In the by now fairly substantial body of critical literature on Galdós' La desheredada two issues stand out as having particularly engaged the critics' attention: the nature of the segunda manera and the related (and to some virtually identical) problem of the novel's naturalistic content. These are major questions, no doubt, and questions which must be grappled with in any attempt to assess either the novel itself or Galdós' creative evolution as a whole. The fact remains, however, that the result of such deliberations has all too often been an over-compartmentalised vision of Galdós' development52 and a tendency to over-emphasise the Zolaesque elements of the novel. These two weaknesses seem to me to stem from a basic methodological deficiency the fact that, with some exceptions (notably the works of Hafter53, Russell54, Ruiz Salvador55, Montesinos56 and Lowe57), the novel is usually dealt with more in terms of external comparison (with the novels which preceded it or with those of Zola which influenced it) than on its own merits as an independent work of art with its own internal coherence -a procedure which not only does a disservice to the novel but also vitiates many of the conclusions arrived at with regard to the segunda manera and naturalism.

A recent and welcome corrective to the above tendency is F. Durand's «The Reality of Illusion: La desheredada»58. Eschewing the habitual preoccupation with naturalist influences, Durand concentrates on the important theme of illusion and reality, rightly emphasising, in the process, the subtle ambiguities inherent in Galdós' approach to madness which earlier critics have tended to overlook. Cervantes, rather than Zola, is seen as the major influence here. Durand is particularly effective in his analysis of the parallels between Isidora's psychological shortcomings and the mental and moral deficiencies of the Madrid society portrayed by Galdós in the novel. Here Cervantine ambiguity and heredity come together to reinforce, through the medium of irony, Galdós' social critique, for the heredity which unites Rufete and Isidora in a common madness also unites symbolically Leganés and Madrid. Despite the suggestion, made repeatedly in the description of Leganés in chapter 1 and rendered with graphic panache in the Canencia episode, that the bordeline between madness and sanity is not as easy to draw as might be thought, throughout the first part of the novel Leganés and Madrid remain fundamentally antithetical worlds the respective, and largely separate, domains of the manifestly mad Rufete and of Isidora, apparently so normal that she not only shares, but positively embodies, the values and aspirations of the society in which she lives. Not until the «canon's» letter at the end of Part I ends the suspense which has been carefully maintained with regard to the validity or otherwise of Isidora's pretensions   —30→   -and in doing so recalls to mind the half-forgotten spectre of Rufete's madness- is the real underlying similarity between Isidora, the «canon» and Rufete finally and fully grasped. With the arrival of this letter, reality, in the shape of the hereditary bond linking these three in a common, and now manifest, «neurosis», delivers an ironic commentary on previous appearances, puncturing the apparent normality of Isidora and, by extension, that of the whole society with which she is identified. With Isidora thus tarred with the brush of Rufete's madness, the wall separating the apparently antithetical worlds of Leganés (insanity) and Madrid («normality») collapses, leaving their fundamental similarity fully revealed.

This is a good example of the way in which Galdós adapts the naturalistic theory of the degenerative family neurosis59 to suit his own particular purposes. It is surely wrong, therefore, to dismiss such devices, as Durand does, as «mere naturalistic trappings»60. One of the major attractions of the theory for Galdós was clearly its protean character. By its means he is able to group within the three generations of a single family a wide variety of psychologically abnormal types without sinning greatly against verisimilitude (rather as though the major branches of the Rougon-Macquart family tree were condensed within the confines of a single novel). Moreover, if the deterministic implications of the theory fail to excite Galdós' interest, he is by no means averse from exploiting its possibilities for other, essentially moral and symbolic, purposes. A case in point is Riquín, Isidora's son, whose macrocephaly serves as a kind of ironic commentary on the figurative swollen-headedness of his mother. Here, instead of being a blind force of nature, or an impassive scientific law working itself out, heredity operates like an ironically-minded god (or author?), apportioning to Isidora the punishment which her overweening ambition has merited. With its enigmatic suggestion of' certain «misterios» at work in the domain of «la herencia fisiológica» (cf. Miquis' cryptic: comment61) it also constitutes an early, and at this stage basically playful, incursion into the realm of the veta fantástica.62

However, it is in the context of Durand's overwhelmingly social interpretation of the illusion-reality theme that serious objections begin to arise. Durand sees the Cervantine element providing the «ironic framework for his [Galdós'] commentary on Spain»63. Of course there is a great deal of truth in this assertion. As the example discussed above shows, heredity serves as the framework for a subtly ironic extension of Galdós' critique of prevailing social attitudes whereby Madrid comes to be seen as a «manicomio suelto» (p. 190). This irony is in turn dependent on the undoubted similarity between Isidora's attitudes and those of Madrid society as a whole.

In strictly social terms, Isidora, represents but one permutation -though by far the most important- on the basic theme of the quiero y no puedo characteristic of Madrid society as Galdós portrays it. Her obsession with nobility, stemming from the reading of too many cheap novelettes and the deleterious influence of her uncle, determines her attitudes and value judgements and leads her ineluctably down the road to ruin. From the outset Galdós is at pains to underline the deficiencies inherent in his heroine's attitudes, both her cheap snobbery (especially evident in her outing with   —31→   Miquis) and her total impracticality (as evidenced in her first shopping expedition) being pinpointed very early on in the novel. The rest of the novel is very largely concerned with the consequences of these defects. Firstly, Isidora is unfitted to respond to the moral and material needs of Mariano, and part of the blame for his downfall must therefore be laid at her door64. «Secondly, and even more important, her enslavement to false social values corrupts her whole moral being. If, in chapter XIII, she is able to resist the crude advances of Joaquín Pez, because to sell herself in this fashion does not accord with her ideal of aristocratic conduct, later, when her illusions are shattered (albeit temporarily) by her interview with the marquesa, her one and only moral bulwark -pride in her «position»- collapses, albeit temporarily, and her descent into immorality is the inevitable result. In Part II, her illusions partly restored, the realisation of her dream world becomes conditional on the outcome of the seemingly interminable lawsuit, with the result that the gulf between the dream and reality yawns ever wider and her morality also comes to be governed by the same conditional mode of thought. Aristocratic pride, thus weakened, proves an insufficient guardian against moral laxity at a time when her continuing impracticality and inability to trim her financial sails against the wind of hard times forces her into a series of progressively more degrading relationships, culminating, when her illusions are finally dashed by the revelations of Muñoz y Nones, in the destruction of the last vestiges of her moral and spiritual being. The way is therefore prepared for her acceptance of the overtures of the repulsive Gaitica and, finally, her descent into common prostitution.

Isidora's decline is thus an object lesson in the perils of imaginación, with Galdós frequently at pains to emphasise the connection between her social illusions, her financial irresponsibility and the moral collapse which results from both. Nor does he scruple to employ the weapons of explicit didacticism against his heroine, to the extent even of preaching a sermon (chapter 12) to her in his own voice (to say nothing of the moraleja at the end). Yet for all his remorseless cataloguing of Isidora's defects, it is clear that Galdós' attitude to her is neither unremittingly didactic nor totally unsympathetic. If there are times when Isidora is snobbish, it is equally true that she possesses a genuine refinement of sensibility which contrasts favourably with the cruder attitudes of those around her. It is hard, for example, not to feel some sympathy for her, her snobbery notwithstanding, when she receives what is surely an excessively cruel beating at the hands of her distinctly unrefined aunt, the redoubtable Sanguijuelera, in chapter III. Her horror at the nature of Mariano's employment, which she regards, rightly, as «trabajo para mulas», also contrasts favourably with the money-grubbing insensitivity of Encarnación -an insensitivity which is part and parcel of the latter's «gran sentido para apreciar la realidad de las cosas» (p. 55)65. Similarly, whatever qualities Juan Bou may possess, the oafishness of his conduct during the visit to the Aransis palace in chapter XXVII (aptly entitled «La caricia del oso») not only engenders sympathy for the very real sufferings of Isidora, but also makes clear, by highlighting the gulf between their respective sensibilities, the sheer incongruity of Miquis' suggested marriage between these two very disparate beings.


Nor does Isidora fit entirely comfortably into the category of simple social archetype. To begin with, it is probably true to say that there is a lack of sufficient points of comparison with Madrid society as a whole -similarities there undoubtedly are, but Isidora is not as wholly identified with her milieu as Rosalía Bringas is with hers. Moreover, if there is a basic resemblance between her imaginative excesses and the quiero y no puedo characteristic of the inhabitants of Madrid as a whole, there is also an important qualitative difference. In a world peopled by the likes of Melchor, Gaitica et al., cheap hucksters and frauds pursuing ignoble and material ends under a transparent veil of hypocrisy- Isidora is marked out as a creature apart, not only by her greater sensibility, but also by the genuineness of her belief in her own nobility. If her ideals are false, they are at least a cut above those of most of her fellows. Moreover, there is a genuine nobility about Isidora -an ability to make others seem small and mean by comparison- which survives every degradation (indeed, it seems to grow greater the lower she falls). Thus the triumph of the «practical» Sánchez Botín is rendered abject by Isidora's aristocratic self-assertion and even in the very act of self-abasement -her attempt to sell herself to Miquis- she triumphs by a kind of paradoxical grandeur over the latter's bourgeois conventionalism (though this scene is perhaps a trifle too theatrical). The very power she has to hold men in thrall -Miquis himself, Bou, Don José- testifies to the existence of something out of the ordinary in her character. Above all, however, Isidora is redeemed by her own ennobling passion for Joaquín Pez, a creature whose very worthlessness only serves to tender her own unwavering and self-sacrificing love seem the greater.66

As a result there is, pace Rodgers67, a genuine and by no means insignificant vein of tragedy in Galdós' treatment of Isidora's downfall. When Muñoz y Nones administers the coup de grâce to her illusions we do not feel the satisfaction attendant upon a comeuppance long overdue and now duly administered, but rather the sense of tragedy arising from the contemplation of a not ignoble or unsympathetic being the very roots of whose existence have been destroyed. There is even a tragic scale to her reaction -the «all or nothing» attitude which leads her to fling herself into the world of the prostitute. The apparent conflict between this tragic vein and the aforementioned didacticism, and the negative attitude to Isidora which it reflects, is not a question of the novel lacking unity or purpose or of Isidora having succeeded in transcending the limitations of Galdós' original intentions: rather it is a reflection of the Cervantine dualism underlying Galdós' whole approach to the conflict between illusion and reality. As in the case of D. Quixote, Isidora's virtues are one with, and inseparable from, her major failing -her inability to content herself with reality as she finds it. Galdós' Cervantine concept of imagination is the key to his tragic vision: not to possess this quality is to be deprived of one's full humanity, while to those gifted (or afflicted) with it imparts an inherent dissatisfaction with reality, and a craving to transcend its limitations which is almost invariably doomed to frustration precisely because of its unreality.

In this context it is important to take into account Galdós' deliberate technique of contrasting characters drawn from opposite ends of the spectrum   —33→   of illusion and reality. The most obvious example is the polarity of attitudes embodied in Isidora and Mariano. For while Isidora's overheated imagination leads her to shun reality in favour of absurd flights of fancy, Mariano, on the other hand, is just the reverse: his is a wholly materialistic existence confined within the narrow horizons of sensual gratification. Galdós deliberately underlines the contrast:

Diríase que la Naturaleza quiso hacer en aquella pareja sin ventura dos ejemplares contrapuestos de moral desvarío; pues si ella vivía en una aspiración insensata a las cosas altas, poniendo, como dice San Agustín, su nido en las estrellas, él se inclinaba por instinto a las cosas groseras y bajas.

(p. 279)                

The same direct contrast is apparent in their mental processes:

Así como su hermana, invadiendo con atrevido vuelo las esferas de lo futuro, se representaba siempre las cosas probables y no acontecidas aún, Pecado, cuando se sentía dispuesto a la meditación, resucitaba lo próximamente pasado, y se recreaba con un dejo de las impresiones ya recibidas.

(p. 447)                

These differences notwithstanding, the ultimate fate of both is strikingly similar. Isidora in her decline comes increasingly to resemble her brother, a similarity commented upon by Miquis:

Su hermano y ella han corrido a la perdición: él ha llegado, ella llegará. Distintos medios ha empleado cada uno: él ha ido con trote de bestia, ella con vuelo de pájaro; pero de todos modos y por todas partes se puede ir a la perdición, lo mismo por el suelo polvoroso que por el firmamento azul.

(p. 463)                

This contrapuntal technique, however, extends even further. Both Encarnación Guillén and Juan Bou, for example, may in this respect be seen as «contrafiguras» to Isidora. If she is an example of the perils which lie in wait for those who choose to evade reality, or to try and mould it in the light of their own aspirations, the limited sensibilities of the likes of Encarnación and Bou are likewise a warning of the dangers of too close and unquestioning an adherence to the narrower sort of «realism». As much is suggested even by their physical appearance. Galdós' description of Encarnación, for example, readily conveys a sense of her immense physical vitality (p. 42). Yet the description is also laced with abundant images of death and decay: her face is «pergaminosa», the sparkle in her eyes like «el fuego fatuo bailando sobre el osario», her hands are like those of a skeleton and her thinning hair is formed into «el más gracioso peinado de esterilla que llevaron momias en el mundo». These images reflect symbolically Encarnación's combination of physical vivacity and spiritual mummification. Similarly, Juan Bou's cyclopic appearance, with his grotesque revolving eye, is the physical expression of his lop-sided inner nature.

Obviously what is conspicuously missing in all this is anybody who seems able to achieve the happy medium -an adequate balance between the claims of imagination and reality. The nearest approach to such a balance would seem to be Miquis, who seems able, if somewhat erratically, to balance the two, represented in his case by science and music. However,   —34→   Galdós handles Miquis' fundamentally adolescent exuberance too lightheartedly for him to be taken seriously as a model. Ultimately, moreover, his idealism retreats into the conventional world through what is clearly a rather unpassionate bourgeois marriage. In default of this middle way, the impression of human existence conveyed by the novel is one of inherent instability -the seemingly congenital inability of people to be at one with either themselves or the reality of their existence. A remark made by Miquis -throwaway and lighthearted in tone but clearly significant for all that- provides the key to this tragic sense of life:

-En los hospitales -decía-, en esos libros dolientes es donde se aprende. Allí está la teoría unida a la experiencia por el lazo del dolor. El hospital es un museo de síntomas, un riquísimo atlas de casos, todo palpitante, todo vivo. Lo que le falta a un enfermo le sobra a otro, y entre todos forman un cuerpo de doctrina.

(p. 73, my italics)                

Clearly this lack of wholeness is not confined to the inmates of hospitals. It is precisely this sense of incompleteness, the fact that individual human existence is limited and partial, that underlies Galdós' tragic conception of the human condition and is reflected in the radical polarity one finds in so many of the novels (Isidora having to excess what Mariano conspicuously lacks and viceversa).68

Immunity from the tragic contradictions of life, the unalloyed and uncomplicated serenity which comes from a sense of oneness with the self and with reality round about, is usually bought at a price and often found to be precarious to boot. Encarnación and Juan Bou once again provide good examples, Both of these characters undergo development in the course of the novel and in each case this development is such as to emphasise the inadequacy of their earlier simplistic certitudes. Yet if theirs is a growth towards a fuller humanity, it is also an awakening to the tragedy of life, for while the nature of the development is essentially positive -in both it takes the form of an emotional involvement with another human being which softens and humanises their characters- at the same time the humanity thus acquired makes them more vulnerable: as they are drawn into the complexities of human involvement, so they are made painfully aware of life's suffering. Encarnación's hardened exterior is gradually melted by her attachment to Riquín and through this attachment she becomes more and more involved in the fortunes and misfortunes of Isidora and Mariano. Juan Bou becomes romantically attached to Isidora, the arch-sanguijuela del pueblo, and this new emotional reality subverts all his former crude values. Encarnación, because of her emotional involvement with Isidora and Mariano, is overwhelmed by the disaster which befalls the latter -a disaster which, moreover, pitifully exposes her helplessness. The Encarnación who, in her desperation, tosses her simple and ineffective plea for mercy into the royal carriage -a masterpiece of controlled pathos by Galdós- is a far cry from the hard-boiled woman who earlier sought to dispel Isidora's aristocratic illusions at the end of a broomhandle. Juan Bou's tragedy, of course, lies in the permanent and inevitable frustration to which his new-found love is condemned. Given the manifest disparity of their natures, Isidora must remain for him an unattainable ideal, though this, of course, does nothing   —35→   to diminish her attractiveness in his eyes. It is rather like the old story of the mortal who falls in love with a goddess. Bou emerges from the experience a chastened and more humble man, with an entirely new awareness of the inadequacy and incompleteness of his existence. The crowning irony of his subsequent lottery win only serves to heighten this awareness:

Diríase que la Providencia cristiana, no menos caprichosa a veces que la pagana Fortuna, se había propuesto abrumarle de bienes positivos, negándole los que su corazón apetecía, y le colmaba de frutos riquísimos sin dejarle ver y gozar la flor hermosa del amor.

(p. 379)69                

Often the impact of this tragic vision is veiled behind Galdós' humour. As Nimetz has pointed out, however, Galdós' humour is often inextricably linked with his tragic vision, the one acting as a kind of insulation against the other70. A case in point is Galdós' treatment of Don José Relimpio. Rodgers has said that Galdós seems to want to draw the reader's attention away from Don José's positive qualities, and to arouse mockery at his lack of manliness, in order (a) to avoid developing the «idyllic» potential of his relationship with Isidora, and (b) to satirise Don José's tendency to idealise his own position71. There is certainly a good deal of truth in the latter part of the statement. Don José's Tenorio fantasies and his obsession with book-keeping illustrate yet again the gap between illusion and reality which looms so large in La desheredada, for Don José is an aging gallant whose amorous adventures are confined to the realm of the purely platonic and whose financial irresponsibility and utter impracticality make a mockery of his prowess in accountancy. It is less easy to see, however, why Galdós should want to «attack Don José's dignity as a person» and to make his relationship with Isidora appear grotesque in order to avoid developing its idyllic potential, for it is hard to see what idyllic potential there could be in such a relationship anyway. The idyllic and the ludicrous are difficult to reconcile and the imbalance in terms of age and personality between Isidora and Don José place their relationship in the context of the latter rather than the former. If Galdós is trying to avoid anything, therefore, it is surely an overdose of pathos. Moreover, is it entirely true to say that Galdós attacks Don José's dignity as a person? The hostile, dehumanising stance implicit in such a procedure is surely contradicted, to take but one example, by the manifest sympathy and compassion which Galdós shows towards his character at the latter's death. The reality is that Galdós' portrait of Don José is much more finely balanced than this criticism would tend to suggest.

Galdós portrays Don José, as he portrays Isidora, in a fundamentally dualistic manner -a dualism neatly expressed in the initial description of Don José, when Galdós tells

Era el hombre mejor del mundo. Era un hombre que no servía para nada.

(p. 123)                

Don José's character is made up of two conflicting strands: on the one hand, his uselessness, ridiculousness and inadequacy, and, on the other, certain more positive qualities, among which inoffensiveness and selflessness occupy a prominent position. The same dualism characterises his relationship with Isidora. If his vision of himself as a kind of romantic paladin is incongruous,   —36→   and therefore ludicrous, the fact remains that Don José acts out his self-imposed role with a selflessness and nobility which makes his dog-like devotion touching in spite of everything. There are two obvious ways in which such a character could develop. By emphasising Don José's inadequacy -in other words by effectively ridiculing or vilifying his character- Galdós could underscore the ludicrousness of his illusions. Alternatively, by stressing the nobility of Don José's conduct, he could play up the pathos inherent in his personal inadequacy. Galdós, however, eschews both of these obvious scenarios and manages instead to strike a balance between them, pointing out the unreality of Don José's illusions without denigrating him as a character and arousing sympathy for his positive qualities without provoking an excess of pathos. Here Galdós' use of humour and irony is at its most effective, the warmth and indulgence of the humour retains our sympathy for the character, while the insulating effect of irony guards against the obvious pitfall of sentimentality, this restraint making possible the controlled pathos of his death scene.

Don José's insanity, ostensibly a mixture of senile dementia and alcoholism, is brought on by the burden of his frustrations, disappointments and humiliation. This much clearly recalls many of the victims of psychological frustration in the primera época (e. g. Daniel Morton in Gloria or Martín Muriel in El Audaz). There is, however, a fundamental difference in the case of Don José. Characters like Morton and Muriel are essentially social casualties whose aspirations or natural psychic drives are thwarted by the prevailing social system or ideology and whose tragic fate, therefore, implicitly stresses the need for a new and more fulfilling social order. The tragedy of Don José, on the other hand, is inherent in his character and personality. In this sense he may be regarded as a precursor of later characters such as Maxi Rubín in Fortunata y Jacinta -characters who are doomed to suffer, not so much because of their own or society's vices, but because of their own essential natures. The sympathy and humour with which Don José is treated reflects Galdós' compassion for life's born misfits.

La desheredada is thus a complex novel made up of many different strands. If what I have argued in this essay is correct, then certain conclusions logically follow. The first and most obvious is that in any discussion of naturalism in La desheredada, or indeed in Galdós' work as a whole, a definition of terms is imperative. Clearly, Galdós did learn much from his reading of Zola, and La desheredada is perhaps the best example of those lessons being put into practice. Yet for all that, Galdós' underlying vision remains far removed from that of Zola. His «naturalistic» borrowings are grafted onto this underlying vision: they do not subvert it. Indeed, there is much in La desheredada which recalls the earlier novels -the clash between ideals and reality, the theme of psychological frustration and, above all, the novel's marked social didacticism. There is, however, a noticeable evolution, for in the last analysis La desheredada transcends the limits of a didactic critique of society. Isidora's fate is neither a tale of naturalistic decline nor a straightforward comeuppance meted out by a didactically-minded author, but a true human tragedy. Nor does one need to have recourse to an explanation of the-character-grew-in-the-author's-hands variety in order to square this tragic   —37→   vein with the didacticism. Both have their origins in the Cervantine complexities with which Galdós surrounds the treatment of the conflict between reality and illusion. While this theme in itself is nothing new in the work of Galdós, in La desheredada it is handled in a more subtle and mature way than in any of the earlier novels. lt is this maturing of Galdós' tragic vision which, as much as naturalistic innovations of technique, makes La desheredada, as well as an intrinsically fine novel, a significant landmark in Galdós' creative evolution.72

The Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland

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