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ArribaAbajoAge, Illusion and Irony in Tristana

Jennifer Lowe

Critical evaluation of Tristana has tended to centre on the important areas of feminism, Tristana's idealisation of Horacio, the use made by Galdós of the letters from Concha Ruth Morell and the links between the novel and Buñuel's film. This type of emphasis, coupled with the frequently expressed belief that Tristana is far from being a successful novel, has meant that insufficient attention has been paid to other features.

It is not in itself surprising that the topic of age should be a significant item in a novel in which the relationship between an old man and his young ward is one of the mainsprings of the plot. However, the way in which the topic is dealt with by Galdós presents various unexpected aspects and twists.

The only reference to a calendar year in the course of the novel is made in connection with the ages of don Lope and his friend, Tristana's father: «Hacia 1880, cuando ambos habían pasado la línea de los cincuenta»160. From this statement Joaquín G. Casalduero deduces that: «Don Lope nace en 1830 y lo que se cuenta tiene lugar después de 1880»161. Although the last fact is indisputable the first deduction is not necessarily correct as there is a noticeable element of vagueness in Galdós' comment. Vagueness is, indeed, a key feature in the portrayal of Lope's age. We are initially informed by the narrator that «la edad del buen hidalgo, según la cuenta que hacía cuando de esto se trataba, era una cifra tan imposible de averiguar como la hora de un reloj descompuesto, cuyas manecillas se obstinaran en no moverse» (1541), for vanity makes him claim he is 49 whereas it is undeniable that he has actually reached the age of 57 years «que no por bien conservados eran menos efectivos» (1541). Since this specific reference to his age is not linked to any calendar year or even, explicitly at least, to Tristana's age, we have to rely on our deductive processes in future assessments and calculations. It appears from this first chapter that Lope has attained the age of 57 by the time Tristana comes to live with him which, we calculate from later information, is when she is 21. He is, apparently, worried at first lest she finds him unattractive simply because of the age-gap «mayor sin duda de lo que el interno canon de amor dispone» (1547). She, however, with a certain amount of arithmetical inexactitude clearly obvious here, «en los primeros tiempos, no dio importancia al hecho monstruoso de que la edad de su tirano casi triplicaba la suya» (1548). This lack of concern is «a causa, sin duda, de las consumadas artes del seductor y de la complicidad pérfida con que la Naturaleza le ayudaba en sus traidoras empresas, concediéndole una conservación casi milagrosa» (1548). When she does eventually become aware of the situation «bruscamente vio en don Lope al viejo, y agrandaba con su fantasía la ridícula presunción del anciano que, contraviniendo la ley de la   —108→   Naturaleza, hace papeles de galán» (1548). It is interesting to note that, although Nature appears to aid and abet Lope, Tristana feels his behaviour is unnatural and, as Roberto G. Sánchez indicates «soon his efforts to safeguard his union with Tristana by appearing and acting youthful only serve to achieve the opposite result»162. Further, Tristana's revulsion is such that she now even seems to imagine Lope is older than he actually is for «no era don Lope aún tan viejo como Tristana lo sentía» (1548). Equally, a little later, Lope can still claim: «No me puedo convencer de que soy viejo, porque Dios parece que me pone en el alma un sentimiento de eterna Juventud» (1567).

It is appropriate that Lope's progressive grief at Tristana's illness is marked by the way in which he ages: «En pocos meses, la vejez había ganado a su persona el terreno que supieron defender la presunción y el animoso espíritu de sus años maduros» (1587)163 and when he is forced to ask a friend for financial aid later: «En pocos días quedose como si le echaran cinco años más encima» (1600). In each of these statements there is a contrast, implicit or explicit, between years and a shorter period of time. Also, the similarity between the opening phrase of each sentence underlines the importance of these references to this accelerated aging process. We notice, too, that if earlier Lope had been able to subtract eight years from his age which allegedly really almost trebled that of Tristana, now half a decade is being added to it. All this ultimately leads to the situation in which Lope, a year after Tristana's operation, «arrastraba los pies como un octogenario, y la cabeza y manos le temblaban» (1610), although we calculate that he is, in reality, only just over 60.

The significant stages in Tristana's early biography are charted by reference to her age. Nineteen when her father dies she evidently goes to live with Lope when she is 21 since we learn that her full realisation of her situation occurs when she is 22, 8 months after her initial dishonour which took place 2 months after she joined Lope's household (1547). The amputation of her leg is carried out when she is 24 since we are told that a year after the operation she has changed so much that «representaba cuarenta años cuando apenas tenía veinticinco» (1610). Ironically, the difference between their apparent ages (80 and 40 respectively) is now greater than the real gap of 36 years which had so worried Lope earlier when they were 57 and 21. And it is, presumably, with the apparent age difference still wider than the actual one that Lope and Tristana eventually marry, four years after her operation (1611). Several critics comment on the way in which Tristana ages164 but often fail to take into account the fact that Lope has aged even more. Hence, Leon Livingstone remarks that: «If their union was initially a violation of nature because of the disparity between them in age and experience, the maturing of Tristana and her physical suffering -which have aged her to the point that although only twenty five she now looks forty- conveniently annul this imbalance»165. Roberto Sánchez comments on the «disparity of ages in a marriage, a stereotyped situation» to be found in this novel and adds: «The basic elements of the formula are all in Tristana although many are altered and even subverted»166. What Sánchez does not mention is the irony of the fact that, although Galdós continues   —109→   to use the terms el viejo and la niña (as, for example, on p. 1609), when the marriage does eventually take place 25 year-old Tristana is no longer really a niña. Moreover, her appearance and behaviour are those of a middle-aged woman. It is Lope himself, looking like an octogenarian, who now feels like a niño (1610).

The question of age occurs also in relation to Saturna and to Horacio. Lope jokingly claims the former must be 50, reduces the figure to 35 when Saturna protests although she then claims she is not a day over 32 (1601). The narrator never tells us which, if any, of the ages is the correct one. An intriguing situation takes place when Tristana first catches sight of Horacio for she initially believes him to be «un señor como de treinta o más años» (1556). However, at their second encounter, she quickly decides she was mistaken: «¡¡Qué tonta!! ¡Si era un muchacho!... Y su edad no pasaría seguramente de los veinticinco» (1556). Horacio's autobiographical account later reveals (to us and to Tristana) that he is indeed 30 (1560). No reaction on the part of Tristana to this definitive statement on his age is recorded. It is, perhaps, significant that her first impression of Horacio was the correct one, although she fails to recognise this. Also, the reader may very easily be persuaded to accept Tristana's assessment rather than the evidence provided later in the text. Kay Engler does not seem to take into account that Horacio's real age is later revealed to us: «In the beginning Tristana even seems minimally aware of the tendency of her own fantasy to distort the real Horacio... But this discriminatory power is soon lost»167.

Galdós' treatment of the topic of age in Tristana is far from being purely statistical. He uses it to illustrate various attitudes and actions. The difficulty in making firm assessments of an individual's age is clearly exemplified and, indeed, is just one aspect of the wider issue of the unreliability of human judgements and the significant effects of delusion demonstrated in this novel, as in so many others by Galdós. Numerous factors influence a person's assessment of his or her or someone else's behaviour. The person making the judgement may clearly be swayed by certain emotions or prejudices which prevent a dispassionate, objective evaluation. An excellent example of this occurs near the beginning of the novel when we learn that both Tristana and Saturna consider young Saturno to be «muy salado» (1553). In the absence of any close acquaintance with the child the reader will doubtless be inclined to accept this view at its face value. However, the narrator intrudes, harshly commenting «pero hay que confesar que de salado no tenía ni pizca» (1553). Our immediate reaction is probably that Tristana and Saturna are biased because of their affection for the boy. Yet there is also the possibility that the narrator, too, is basing his view on an inbuilt prejudice and that his opinion should therefore be equally suspect. This apparently insignificant incident not only tells us something about the unreliability of human judgement but also makes us cautious in our approach to the narrator168.

Another example which clearly illustrates the effects of prejudice relates to Horacio's return to Madrid. Don Lope's opinion of Horacio has been fostered by the letters written by Tristana after her operation. Consequently, following his first encounter with Horacio Lope is obliged to modify his   —110→   opinion: «Creí encontrar un romántico... y me encuentro un mocetón de color sano y espíritu sereno, un hombre sesudo» (1603-4). During their separation Tristana has gradually constructed for herself an idealised version of Horacio with the result that when he visits her «en el primer momento casi le vio como a un extraño» (1604). Only Saturna is free from prejudice and she is therefore able clearly to recognise Horacio when she meets him in the street. She vigorously dismisses Tristana's suggestion that she may have mistaken someone else for Horacio. «¡Señorita, cómo había de confundir...! ¡Qué cosas tiene! El mismo» (1599).

Love itself clearly has a distorting effect on a person's sense of judgement. Prior to Horacio's departure he and Tristana are convinced that they have the strength to withstand the moment of separation and the ensuing weeks apart. However, we learn that: «Tierna fue la despedida: se equivocaron, creyéndose con serenidad bastante para soportarla, y al fin se hallaban como condenados al patíbulo» (1578). The reader will doubtless wonder whether their rather idealised overall view of separation will also be subject to alteration.

Deliberate concealment or conscious deception will equally prevent the correct assessment. When Tristana becomes conscious of her dishonour the way in which she plans to behave with regard to Lope is conditioned by the fact that «en aquellos días... aprendió también a disimular» (1549). But she tells Saturna that when she met Horacio she was so overwhelmed that «yo no podía disimular ni hacer papeles de señorita tímida» (1555), and her different attitudes to the two men are thus vividly pinpointed for us. Similarly, Doctor Miquis who is normally able to «disfrazar ante los enfermos su impresión diagnóstica» is unable to conceal Tristana's serious condition from her for «pudo más la pena que el disimulo» (1594). Engaño or deliberate deception also plays a part. Tristana, aware how easily true emotions can be revealed, pleads with Horacio: «si por cualquier motivo dejas de quererme o de estimarme, me engañarás, ¿verdad?, haciéndome creer que soy la misma para ti» (1556). Later, however, when writing to him just before the operation she states: «aunque sé que me querrás siempre, dímelo... Como no puedes engañarme... lo que me digas será mi Evangelio» (1596). Once again the linguistic link aids our understanding.

Obviously it is also impossible to make a firm judgement when inadequate information is available. We as readers are placed in this position at the start of the novel when we are told that our assessment of Tristana's status in Lope's household would vary according to the particular hour of the day at which we saw her (1542). For similar reasons the neighbours are reduced to «vanas conjeturas» (1542) about the relationship between Lope and Tristana. It is in connection with this last aspect that we can see the basic irony on which the overall structure of the novel rests. When the narrator is listing the various rumours regarding Lope and Tristana one of the theories put forward is that she is «legítima y auténtica señora de Garrido» (1542). At the end of the novel Tristana does, indeed, become «legítima esposa de Garrido» (1611). The initial rumour has become the final reality. The linguistic similarities effectively link the first and the last chapter. The two enemies of the institution of marriage have been wed. Tristana,   —111→   who was once versed in «el ramo... de la ternura» (1574) ends up a cookery expert in the «rama importante de repostería» (1612). We note that Lope «se chupaba los dedos» (1612) over the delicacies produced by his wife, recalling to us Horacio's earlier remark to Tristana that «te chuparías el dedo» (1583) on trying one of the local dishes of his region. We find too that Tristana who once considered the possibility of learning how to «criar gallinas» (1572) but who later seems less happy at the prospect of herself «de villana, criando gallinitas» (1581), though still professing to love Horacio, her «criador de pollos» (1583), ultimately shares Lope's joy when one of his six hens lays an egg (1612)169. Thus, at the end of the novel various threads, linguistic and thematic, are tied together with just one loose end, deliberately left by the narrator: «¿Eran felices uno y otro?... Tal vez» (1612).

University of Edinburgh

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