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ArribaAbajoCalderón, Cervantes, and Irony in Tristana

David Goldin

The Cervantine ring of the initial sentence in Galdós' Tristana anticipates the importance of parodic irony throughout the novel: «En el populoso barrio de Chamberí, más cerca del depósito de aguas que de Cuatro Caminos, vivía no ha muchos años un hidalgo de buena estampa y nombre peregrino...»139 A similar wealth of literary allusion in the text has led Germán Gullón to underline the «profunda literaturización» of sources, themes, and structures, which in turn creates an ahistorical «mundo de referentes eternos»140. One such source identified by Gullón and others is, of course, Cervantes141, but few readers have realized that Tristana's irony extends to another Golden Age model: the Calderonian code of honor. Because Calderón's plays dramatized a defense of social and political orthodoxies centered on the institution of marriage, a study of the ironic treatment of these models in Tristana clarifies greatly how Galdós questioned the conventions of his own day. In the following pages I will show that he did so by adapting techniques from another satiric target, the Quijote, which itself parodied chivalric formulas. Galdós' Cervantine-inspired parody involves not only a criticism of anachronistic social codes but entails a rethinking of the entire genre of the novel as well. By tracing Galdós' testing of generic conventions, I shall argue that the literariness of Tristana is, in fact, inseparable from its historical moment.

Tristana has generally been approached as a thesis novel whose message is exemplified by its protagonist's fate142. Tristana Reluz, a nineteen-year-old orphan is seduced by her supposed protector, don Lope Garrido, a fifty-seven-year-old friend of the family. A chance meeting with a young man, Horacio Díaz, and the discovery of an artistic aptitude apparently offers Tristana prospects for a happier life, but after losing her leg to a tumor, she ends in an apathetic marriage to the by now senile don Lope. Another interpretive approach might well be biographical, since the publication in 1975 of Concha-Ruth Morell's love letters to Galdós reveals a parallel in their relationship to the plot of the novel143. Galdós, however, transformed biographical detail into a work of art whose social criticism extended beyond the single issue of feminism. In order to grasp the manner by which he raised Tristana above the level of either social polemic or personal anecdote, we need to appreciate Galdós' continued reference to Calderón and Cervantes.

The novel's two principal characters repeatedly define themselves in Calderonian or chivalric terms or are presented in such a light by the narrator144. Thus don Lope is initially described as the embodiment of the man of honor in his exaltation of the code and his apology for its bloody defense:   —98→   «El punto de honor era, pues, para Garrido, la cifra y compendio de toda la ciencia del vivir... Deploraba que en nuestra edad, de más papel que de hierro y de tantas fórmulas huecas, no llevasen los caballeros espada para dar cuenta de tanto gandul impertinente» (p. 351). Tristana is linked to the Calderonian plot not only through her role as the wife-victim but through her heredity as well. Doña Josefina, her mother, was just as obsessed with the old myths as is don Lope, and Tristana's name is emblematic of the imaginative intoxication that they exercised: «Su niña debía el nombre de Tristana a la pasión por aquel arte caballeresco y noble, que creó una sociedad ideal para servir constantemente de norma y ejemplo a nuestras realidades groseras y vulgares» (p. 354).

There are, however, significant deviations in the characters from their stock Calderonian counterparts. Don Lope, for example, displays the requisite bloody-minded paranoia of a jealous husband intent on avenging his stained honor -«Si te sorprendo en algún mal paso, te mato, cree que te mato» (p. 360)- but there is an inversion of role, as he is Tristana's seductor rather than the legitimate defender of her honor. The confusion over role is made manifest in the stuttering confession that she makes to Horacio: «Te estoy engañando... No estoy casada con mi marido... digo, con mi papá... digo, con ese hombre...» (p. 371). Marriage itself served as a dramatic convention in the Calderonian generic model, where its defilement signified a challenge to society. But despite his chivalric pretensions, don Lope rejects any idea of marital respectability. «Conviene advertir que ni por un momento se le ocurrió al caballero desposarse con su víctima, pues aborrecía el matrimonio; teníalo por la más espantosa fórmula de esclavitud que idearon los poderes de la tierra para meter en un puño a la pobrecita Humanidad» (p. 356). Tristana, even as she becomes aware of her victimization, falls prey to don Lope's philosophy and incorporates his ideas as her own. Doña Josefina's demented confusion of her theatrical idols with the landlords and movers who populate her everyday life is emblematic of the ironic deformation of Golden Age models: «ignoraba quién podría ser don Pedro Calderón, y al pronto creyó que era algún casero o el dueño de los carros de mudanza» (p. 354). The honor drama's trajectory of domestic harmony to disruptive transgression is reversed in the novel, which moves from illicit seduction to the final page's travestied portrait of marital respectability: don Lope, with «manías y querencias de pacífico burgués» (p. 419) ecstatically collects the eggs laid by his six hens and tastes the two or three cakes that Tristana bakes for him when she is not in church praying.

Galdós thus uses a grotesque portrait of bourgeois marriage rather than the tragic model of catastrophic death to represent his protagonist's failure to escape her social shackles. It is in this mordant image of domestic tranquillity that the novel most notably deviates from the Calderonian paradigm. The honor dramas are predictably straight-forward in their resolution, and the fixed nature of their plot conventions mirrored the ideology of an unflexable, codified society that believed itself to be structured in accordance with a divine plan. Tristana, on the other hand, finishes with a question and a word signifying indeterminacy («¿Eran felices? Tal vez». [p. 4191]), an ending that according to Julián Marías, «propiamente consiste en no   —99→   serlo...»145 This ironic image of conjugal felicity reverses and burlesques the conventional literary expectations arising from a tragic dilemma by parodying comedy's traditional resolution of conflict through marriage. As Northrop Frye has observed, the extension of tragedy ultimately leads us into a personalized vision of evil, and if «we persevere with the mythos of irony and satire, we shall pass a dead center» so that our perspective shifts radically and we perceive evil as inverted bottom side up146. Tristana offers a strikingly clear illustration of how «in nineteenth-century drama the tragic vision is often identical with the ironic one, hence nineteenth-century tragedies tend to be... studies of the frustrating and smothering of human activity by the combined pressure of a reactionary society without and a disorganized soul within»147. As I shall later demonstrate, this ironic vision constitutes a new rhetoric for social and historical criticism of a world whose guiding principles are no longer fixed nor certain. By ending the novel with an ambiguous question set against ritualized literary formulas (the «happily ever after» of the fairy tale and the violent social reaffirmation of the honor drama), Galdós engages the reader in an inclusive irony that calls into question his own values148.

Several traps are laid for the uncareful reader who takes the literary formulas grounded in the novel at their face value and ignores how fictional conventions are repeatedly subverted. Although don Lope corresponds to the stock role of ogre in a folk tale, he is nevertheless capable of occasionally displaying traits and a capacity for actions that contradict such an identity. When, for example, he confronts the inevitability of the amputation of Tristana's leg, «haciendo de tripas corazón, y procurando tragarse el nudo que en la garganta sentía» (p. 403) and stoically witnesses the operation, we are compelled to feel sympathy for his sorrow and admiration for his courage. Similarly, Tristana deviates from generic model when she assimilates the values of her oppressor, and if we identify too closely with her function as the captive victim within the parodied version of a melodramatic plot, we miss the irony of her tragic complicity in her own fate149. Thus the text maintains a constant tension by repeatedly eliciting an emotional judgment from the reader only to undercut ironically the basis for his sympathy or disapproval several pages later. By luring the reader into taking sides and then subverting the social and literary codes which governed his choices, Galdós implicates the seemingly distanced spectator into the tragic circumstances of honor deformed and virtue crippled150.

This use of an ironic, constantly shifting perspective on literary and social convention in Tristana offers a significant point of contact with the Quijote. Galdós, then, glosses elements from the Quijote even as he parodies it. The initial perceptions of character and place within the novel are from the point of view of a narrator who, like Cervantes's Cide Hamete Benegeli fulfills multiple roles, incarnating both a chronicler and commentator on the plot and a character within it151. Although we never learn the narrator's name or identity, he adds to the naturalizing effect of the initial geographical setting by himself entering into the work as someone who has personally come into contact with don Lope. As both an omniscient voice and a character within the text, he mediates between the reader and the   —100→   fictional domain in a similar fashion to Cervantes' pretense that his narrators sift and judge stories before incorporating them into a reliable narrative. Thus, for example, the narrator catalogues Lope's various names and distinguishes between the one by which he was baptized, another given to him by malicious friends, and the version that he has himself chosen. The reader is both impressed by this ability to sort through conflicting accounts and taken in arm by the jocular tone of good humor and tolerant superiority evident in the patronizing description of don Lope's lodgings, a «plebeyo cuarto de alquiler de los baratitos» (p. 349). From this position of authority, the narrator induces the reader into complicitly sharing his evaluations of the judgment of the other characters, as when he corrects the lack of critical perspective that the doting Tristana and Saturna display towards the latter's child: «Su madre y Tristana le encontraban muy salado; pero hay que confesar que de salado no tenía ni pizca» (p. 361). This tone of bland assurance and reasonable authority establishes an apparently measured point of view in a formulaic morality play: «conviene hacer toda la luz posible en torno a don Lope, para que no se le tenga por mejor ni por más malo de lo que era realmente» (p. 351).

The reader seldom takes conscious note of the narrator, who effaces a blased point of view behind a seemingly neutral third-person voice. Occasionally, however, he enters the text as an opinionated «I», as when he pontificates «[que] si no hubiera infierno, sólo para don Lope habría que crear uno, a fin de que en él eternamente purgase sus burlas de la moral...» (p. 355). An ironic gap is thus created between the fabricated vision presented to us by the bourgeois narrator preoccupied with «cómo andaría la máquina social» (p. 355) and the reader's presumably autonomous stance outside of the text. The narrator's participation as a character gives a greater illusion of truth to his account, but also renders it more problematical than that of an objective point of view. His observations are ultimately as open to question as those of Tristana, Lope, or any of the other characters. The foundation for the reader's original assumptions becomes more and more uncertain as the novel progresses and the narrator, who initially seemed omniscient, becomes increasingly unreliable.

The characters' own acts of self-recreation, inspired by literary and cultural models, offers alternate points of view and multiplies the novel's ironic perspectives. The creation of an identity that follows the form of literary models, of course, echoes Alonso Quijano's self-induced metamorphosis into don Quijote, and Tristana presents two similar instances. The first case is offered by don Lope152, an artifice of Juan López Garrido, who chooses to see himself as a seventeenth-century noble: «composición del caballero como un precioso afeite aplicado a embellecer la personalidad» (p, 349). Resembling don Quijote in his lack of awareness of the contradiction between his heroic pretensions and the shabby reality of his circumstances, don Lope is also made to unconsciously parody Tirso's archetypal seductor through Galdós' revelation that the man «[que] se preciaba de haber asaltado más torres de virtud y rendido más plazas de honestidad que pelos tenía en la cabeza», (p. 349), has «don Juan» as a real name. There is an additional level of irony created here, since the narrator himself calls attention to the theatrical   —101→   artifice involved in don Lope's self-recreation, noting that yet another variant of his name playfully given by friends, don Lope de Sosa, «trasciende al polvo de los teatros o a romance de los que traen los librillos de retórica» (p. 349). Galdós underscores this element o£ theatrical self-dramatization by recording don Lope's affirmation «no quiero hacer el celoso de comedia» immediately after the narrator has described him «adoptando la actitud de nobleza y dignidad que tan bien cuadraba a su figura, y con tanto arte usaba cuando le convenía» (p. 374). The text makes our assessment of don Lope as something of a posturing fraud explicit in the apostrophe, «Lástima que no hablara en verso para ser perfecta imagen del 'padre noble' de antigua comedia» (p. 374).

But it is Tristana herself, in her obliviousness to the gulf between reality and fantasized self-recreation, who comes to resemble most closely Cervantes' protagonist. She has an overactive imagination and is the daughter of a woman possessed by «la pasión por aquel arte caballeresco y noble» (p. 353), who regains lucidity from an obsessive state of delusion just before dying «cual don Quijote moribundo» (p. 354)153. It is from her mother that Tristana clearly inherits «la fácil disposición... para idealizar las cosas, para verlo todo como no es, o como nos conviene o nos gusta que sea» (p. 356, italics mine; it is noteworthy how the narrator unobtrusively implicates the reader in his protagonist's shortcomings by expanding his description from an objective third-person to an inclusive first-person plural), and there are recurrent suggestions that her disposition towards imaginative creation is employed in order to represent the world as conforming to private fantasy. Tristana expresses this tendency in her desire to write dramas and novels. There are sleepless nights, she confides to Saturna, don Lope's servant and her confidante, during which she lies awake «inventando no sé cuántos dramas de los que hacen llorar y piezas de las que hacen reír, y novelas de muchísimo enredo y pasiones tremendas y que sé yo» (p. 358). In fact, she will imagine a script made up of these «ideas» and direct her life according to it154.

In a similar fashion to don Quijote's determination to dictate a heroic epic, Tristana insistently attempts to impose her soaring imagination on the world. Rather than the «novela de caballería», she takes as a literary model the rose-colored prose of the «folletín», whose melodramatic and conventionalized formulas provide the outlines for her own fantasies: «y no quiero, no quiero sino cosas infinitas... todo infinito, infinitísimo o nada...» (p. 387). As Gullón has noted, the narrator ironically burlesques her dime-novel overdramatization, but Tristana is as wholly unaware of the trite conventionality of her own ideas as is José Ido del Sagrario when he melodramatically creates his version of the life of Amparo Sánchez Emperador in Tormento. There is a literary critic, or rather a critic of literature, in the novel. Suzanne Raphaël sees Saturna as a kind of Sancho Panza in her practical view of life155, and the opinion that the down-to-earth servant gives is just as mistrustful of imaginative fiction, noting disapprovingly that «entre los de la pluma todo es hambre y necesidad» (p. 358). The advice, however, goes unheeded.

Tristana composes essentially the same kind of romantic ideal as don Quijote's but instead of employing a language of action, she constructs her scripts out of vocational ambitions and the love affair with Horacio. Significantly,   —102→   all of her career plans center upon communication of one form or another. Although she is determined to achieve the goal of economic and social self-sufficiency, to be «libre y honrada», and is apparently talented at almost everything she tries her hand at, Tristana skips from one lesson or ambition to another -writing, painting, languages, acting, music- always utilizing them to evade reality in favor of an ideal world of her own creation. Ambition is at the service of an active imagination pretending to shape life according to its own designs, and there is no division in her mind between expressing her ideas and their existence in fact: «Sabrás que ya he resuelto el temido problema. La esfinge de mi destino desplegó los marmóreos labios y me dijo que para ser libre y honrada, para gozar de independencia y vivir de mí misma, debo ser actriz. Y yo he dicho que sí; lo apruebo, me siento actriz. Hasta ahora dudé de poseer las facultades del arte escénico; pero ya estoy segura de poseerlas. Me lo dicen ellas mismas gritando dentro de mí. ¡Representar los afectos, las pasiones, fingir la vida! ¡Jesús, qué cosa más fácil!» (p. 393, italics mine). Thus, the make-believe of acting comes to supplant the reality of pragmatic action in her longings. But after her leg has been amputated and the ideal Horacio cedes to the disinterested reality of a prosaic young man who gives up art in order to raise pigeons, Tristana loses all of her previous enthusiasms and gives herself over instead to music, the least representational of the arts. If reality, symbolized by the severed leg, tethers her through its implacable demands, she responds by retreating even more insistently into imagination. Playing the organ, she creates a solipsistic language in which she communicates only to herself. «Cuando la señorita, inflamada por religiosa inspiración se engolfaba en su música, convirtiendo el grave instrumento en lenguaje de su alma, a nadie veía ni se cuidaba de su reducido y fervoroso público... Su alma se desprendía de todo lo terreno para mecerse en el seno pavoroso de una realidad dulcísima» (p. 415).

The pretension to fabricate the world along the lines of her imagination is most obvious in her relationship with Horacio, whom she transforms in just as complete a fashion as does don Quijote with Aldonza Lorenzo. «Mi voz interior se entretiene describiéndome las perfecciones de tu ser... No me niegues que eres como te sueño. Déjame a mí que te fabrique... no, no es esa la palabra: que te componga... tampoco... Déjame que te piense, conforme a mi real gana» (p. 398). Her correspondence with Horacio fixes Tristana's «voz interior» into tangible form on a page and her «ideas» are transmitted directly, without the mediation of the narrator. The world constantly encroaches upon fantasy, however, even within fiction, and Tristana thus complains about the limitations of expression. But instead of adapting her dreams to reality, she looks to expand the possibilities of language to transcend any barriers to her imagination. Thus, she writes to Horacio, who faraway in Villajoyosa has shed his romantic ideals and is content to enjoy an inheritance of a prosperous farm, that «te me vuelves espíritu puro, un ser intangible, un... no sé cómo decirlo. Cuando considero la pobreza de palabras, me dan ganas de inventar muchas, a fin de que todo pueda decirse» (p. 392). For Tristana, to say something is to bring it into existence.


The trajectory of Tristana's own self-recreation and existence in the novel are represented by her silences and speech. At first she is little more than a voiceless object, «como una petaca, un mueble o una prenda de ropa» (p. 350). The narrator initially refers to her namelessly as a «señorita en el nombre» (p. 350). Her identity is indeterminately linked to the relationship with don Lope, possibly being either his niece, wife, or daughter. We do not hear her speak until the fifth chapter; before then all information about her is transmitted through don Lope or the narrator. Her presence in the novel grows, however, as she gradually becomes conscious of the exploitation by don Lope. The narrator begins to quote her speech directly, and when she achieves her maximum degree of independence through the affair with Horacio, the change is reflected through the transcription of her letters. For various chapters, Tristana's voice becomes the narrator of the book; it is, as it were, a concrete affirmation of her identity. At first there is a dialogue of sorts, her letters alternating with those of Horacio, but from the end of chapter eighteen onwards, we are given only Tristana's side of the correspondence. The exaggerated consciousness of individuality expressed in an increasingly extravagant prose carries within the seeds of its own destruction. She writes her own dramatic script that gives an illusion of freedom while isolating her from the world: «nací para delirante crónica, y soy... como la carne de oveja: se me come o se me deja» (p. 398). Don Lope's reappropriation of Tristana's life is dramatically expressed when she declares herself unable to write, and he himself playfully dictates a letter to Horacio. She finally insists on writing it -«yo escribiré... yo sola» (p. 406)- but it is, in fact, the last letter that we see and expresses what he wants her to say. The failure of the attempt to assert her own identity freely is concretely represented by the stilling of her voice: in the last two chapters of the novel, as in the first four, Tristana is silent, with her thoughts expressed only through don Lope or the narrator.

This narrative of individual failure extends itself beyond a particular case to encompass a historically relevant vision of Spain itself. Galdós had become increasingly disenchanted with Restoration society and skeptical over the prospects for any form of national regeneration. His later novels frequently portray the impasse between a decayed aristocratic past and a misguided or corrupted present unable to surmount the obstacles to a just social order. Viewed within this context, Tristana plausibly offers itself to a pessimistic reading of the condition of a society still-born in the attempt to adapt to historical and social change. Don Lope obviously suggests a corrupted version of traditional Spanish values and codes. His strenuous and ultimately futile attempts to stop the hands of the clock and the recurrent ironic references to him as a soldier whose battles are confined to vulgar «lides de amor» (p. 349) make him a parody of other anachronistic nobles such as Federico Viera in Realidad and Rafael del Águila in Torquemada en el purgatorio. By extension, Tristana, the orphaned daughter of impoverished and deluded petty nobility, represents a contemporary Spain corrupted and led astray by seductive myths enduring on from the past. In this light, it is significant to note that Tristana repeats the motif of the devouring parent in several forms. Besides Tristana's exploitation by don Lope, the novel's   —104→   other youthful character, Horacio, is also victimized by an overbearing father figure, an ancient grandfather determined to «reglamentar su existencia hasta la vejez, y la existencia de sus sucesores» (p. 366). This vision of an ordered commercial life and marriage, as it turns out, is not very different from the final bourgeois status of Tristana and don Lope.

It is through this allegorical vision, then, that Galdós incorporates a sense of history and social criticism into Tristana. When critics such as John Sinnigen object that «society is not incorporated into the novel in a sufficiently concrete way»156 as it is, for example, in Tormento and Fortunata y Jacinta, they fail to take into account a changed aesthetic and moral criteria which confronted historical crisis in a different idiom. As was noted by Leopoldo Alas, Tristana did indeed evoke the dilemmas of turn-of-the-century Spanish society157. But instead of chronicling dynasties and revolutions, Galdós substituted in their place literary allusions and social codes which were accepted parts of his audience's repertoire. The model of the Calderonian honor code represented both a stable text, where meaning was bound to convention, and an unambiguous defense of social and political orthodoxy.

By adapting Cervantes' ironic subversion of anachronistic ideologies and literary formulas, Galdós embodied a major generic shift away from convention-fixed aesthetic and political dogmas to a form that tested not only external authority but that of the text and the reader as well. In his study of French realism, Harry Levin makes an observation on the manner in which the nineteenth-century French novel came to confront the past that is equally applicable to Galdós: «the history of culture becomes a succession of unmasked ideologies and lost illusions, obsolete fables and correct hypotheses, of which literature comprises the record and commentary. The novel, viewed against its institutional setting, becomes a satire as well as a parody. It penetrates beyond literary convention to social convention, as Don Quixote penetrates beyond romance to chivalry itself»158. The deformation of traditional ideals and the repeated inversion of formula in Tristana exemplifies what Roland Barthes has diagnosed as the break-up of bourgeois writing in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Reflecting a transition from the self-satisfied assurance of the bourgeoisie in which «we have a view of History which is harsh but coherent and certain of its principles, the triumph of an order», the novel becomes instead «an art which in order to escape its pangs of conscience either exaggerates conventions or frantically attempts to destroy them»159. Thus, by its Cervantine-inspired ironic distortion of Calderonian chivalric formulas and codes, Tristana dramatizes in a new, tragicomic mode the social and political tensions of Restoration Spain.

University of Colorado, Boulder

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