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ArribaAbajoImagery of light and darkness in La de Bringas

Chad C. Wright

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.

T. S. Eliot, «East Coker»                

«In a time of darkness», wrote Theodore Roethke, «the eye begins to see...»1 One of the most important themes of Galdós' formidable La de Bringas is simply the fact that during one of the darkest and gravest periods of what Latimer has called the great revolution that continued from 1808 until 1873 in Spain,2 no one really sees anything. The theme of blindness in Galdós is very prevalent, as several critics have noted.3 In La de Bringas the idea of sightlessness extends to nearly every character in the work, and even the National Palace itself. Galdós, with his usual fondness for tectonic symbols, uses the Palace as a representational background for the novel, and as a metaphoric extension of several of his characters. The interior of the Palace is bathed in ominous shadows, although the few scenes of the novel which take place outside the building are drenched in sunlight. The antimony of the abundant sunlight outside and the Stygian darkness within serves as a leitmotif of the novel. It is unlikely that Galdós ever concerned himself more with the lighting of any novel than in La de Bringas.4 He not only describes for the reader the degree of darkness or light at each important happening in the novel, but he also describes in some detail the eyes of the principal characters, and even stages many of the important actions of the novel alongside the Palace windows. The windows of an edifice are, as John Ruskin pointed out, its «eyes».5 La de Bringas can be considered Galdós' «dark novel» -or perhaps better expressed, his «crepuscular novel», for twilight becomes a vital symbol within the work.

Among primitive men, the dawn was the most important and the most sacred part of the day: it was then that the sun, the object of their worship, rose in the sky. Ironically, the theme of light in La de Bringas is usually presented in its attenuated, twilight aspect; the sun, in most cases, is setting -never rising. This often repeated symbol of the sunset in the novel emphasizes the principal theme, which is the fall of Rosalía de Bringas, and also Isabel II. The setting sun in the novel is but an auguring of the setting sun of the Spanish Empire, over which, as Galdós wrote with great irony in another context, the sun was never supposed to set.6

The crepuscular ambience of the novel begins with the first page. The famous «trabajo de pelo» on which don Francisco labors obsessively and incessantly, according to Peter G. Earle «representa la Casa Real, que, a su vez, representa la sociedad española tradicional a punto de venirse abajo...»7 The hair-picture is elaborated in shades of black, yellow, and brown -all colors which, when combined, produce a melancholy chiaroscuro, the colors of the sunset. Bringas tells his wife that he is creating «un cenotafio en campo funeral, con sauces, muchas flores... Es de noche». «¿De noche?» asks Rosalía. «Quiero decir», answers Bringas,   —6→   «que para dar melancolía al paisaje del fondo, conviene ponerlo todo en cierta penumbra...»8

After first introducing this ambience of twilight, Galdós then takes the reader into the great darkness of the interior of the Palace before returning to the twilight theme. We follow the narrator and don Manuel Pez through the labyrinthine corridors of the second and third floors of the Palace, in search of the Bringas' rooms. The two men pass through a long hallway, «al cual yo llamaría calle o callejón por su magnitud, por estar alumbrado en algunas partes con mecheros de gas y por los ángulos y vueltas que hace», says the narrator (Bringas, 131). From time to time they come upon pseudo-plazas, where various side-corridors intercross in a maze-like fashion; in these dark intersections there is transient light from the outside which «penetraba a lo largo de los pasadizos, callejones, túneles o como quiera llamárselos, [y] se perdía y se desmayaba en ellos, hasta morir completamente a la vista de los rojizos abanicos del gas, que se agitaban temblando dentro de un ahumado círculo y bajo un doselete de latón» (Bringas, 113). But neither the natural light nor the light of candles or lamps can survive in the lugubrious darkness of the hall-streets. The pilgrimage to the Bringas' apartment becomes so difficult that the two men lose themselves completely in the interior darkness of the Palace; they cannot orient themselves until they happen upon another of the infrequent windows which face the plaza and admit meager light. Pez finally has to confess that «aquí... no se puede vivir sin un plano y aguja de marear» (Bringas, 132).

The inhabitants of the second and third floors of the city-palace have created a small world for themselves. They live and work in what Galdós calls «la corona» of the Queen; ironically, this «crowning glory» of Isabel II is the darkest part of the Palace.9 The idea of royalty has always been related to the sun, light, or with the sacred fire which never burns completely out.10 The Palace walls in Galdós' novel act not only as shelter against the elements of Nature, but also prevent the light from entering, ironically. The dwellers of the second and third floors of the Palace almost never leave the edifice; they not only live there, but they work there, and enjoy there the protection and indulgences of the Queen -of whom the Palace is a tectonic symbol.11

There are few windows actually described in La de Bringas, but those mentioned are important for several reasons. First, they provide the primary source of light for the Palace-dwellers. They serve also as symbols. The window, as we noted earlier, is an architectural rendering of the idea of the eye. Just as one opens and closes his eyes, he also can open and close the windows of his house; just as the most vital of our sensory perceptions come to us through our eyes, so windows also are portals of perception.12 A window which is closed and shuttered is little more than an extension of the wall; but open, it admits light, in a controlled fashion. The window is a thereshold, a divider of space; it allows light to enter from the outside or profane world, while maintaining the privacy and sanctity of the interior world.13 The denizens of the Palace seem to fear light, or in other words, knowledge. Like the citizens of H. G. Wells' fantasy «Valley of the Blind», they almost have no use for the faculty of sight itself, so accustomed they have become to the darkness.

Nevertheless, when don Francisco suddenly becomes blind as he labors over his «trabajo de pelo», the first thing he cries out for is the window:


-¿En dónde está la ventana, la ventana?

-Ahí, ahí, ¿no la ves?... -gritó Rosalía, volviéndole hacia la luz.

-No, no la veo, no te veo, no veo nada... Obscuridad completa, absoluta... Todo negro...

(Bringas, 161).                

From this point onward, the images of light and darkness become intimately associated with the imagery of the window; we have a gallery of window-framed sunsets seen from the Palace. Francisco and Rosalía refer to the act of removing the bandages from the former's eyes as «opening the window». (Bringas, 167)

Taking advantage of the temporary blindness of her husband, Rosalía purchases costly clothing, spending money she does not have. She begins to live her fantasized life as a grande dame. What she has done previously behind the symbolically locked doors of the Camón she now does openly, since Bringas cannot (or will not) see her indiscretions. But one day her husband removes the bandages from his eyes unexpectedly, merely to ascertain whether or not his eyes are improving. He catches his wife in flagrante, wearing proudly a «bata de seda» of a reddish hue, luxurious and newly-purchased. When the surprised and shocked Bringas comments on the costly-appearing frock, Rosalía roundly denies that she is wearing such an extravagant item:14

-¿Pues no dice que llevo bata de seda?... Sí, para batas de seda estamos... Ahí tienes lo que te vale asomarte a la ventanita. Todo lo ves cambiado, todo lo ves equivocado; el tartán se te antoja seda, este color pardo, sucio, te parece grosella...

-Pues yo juraría...

-No jures, hijito, que es pecado... ¡Batas de seda...! Qué más quisiera yo.

(Bringas, 167).                

In this highly important scene, Bringas not only has «opened the window» to his physical sight, but he has opened also the window of his understanding: he now suspects that his wife is lying to him. He has been able to see the world of excesses in which Rosalía has been living without him, but he lets himself be persuaded that perhaps in reality he didn't see his wife dressed in crimson silk after all. On another occasion, Bringas goes to the false-bottomed money-box in which he keeps several large bills as reserve; just as he is about to lift the false bottom to count the bills, he freezes, restrains himself, and closes the box -because he fears that Rosalía has taken the money; ignorance is preferable to certain knowledge, he seems to reason. He may suspect that his wife is deceiving him, but he doesn't wish to know definitely. He prefers to play the role which has earned him the nickname «el ratoncito Pérez» in the Palace; he retires to the crepuscular world behind his bandages. In other words, he assumes a kind of mask.

Many of the most important scenes of La de Bringas are «staged» near a Palace window, with the declining sun in the distance. When the doctor comes for the first time to examine Bringas' eyes, for example, the setting of the sun is parallel to the symbolic loss of vision: «Era ya tarde, y la última luz solar se retiraba lúgubremente de la habitación». (Bringas, 162) That moment marks the begining of the crepuscular life of both Francisco and Rosalía.

On another occasion, Bringas once again impatiently tears off his bandages prematurely, and he manages to discern the setting sun:

La luz crepuscular, con la cual nuestro querido Thiers había tenido el gusto inmenso de probar el restablecimiento de sus funciones ópticas, se desvanecía lentamente. Por fin, la habitación se   —8→   alumbraba sólo con el resplandor que el sol había dejado en el cielo detrás de la Casa de Campo, y aquél era tan fuerte como el llamear de un incendio. Rosalía quiso encender la luz; pero Bringas saltó vivamente con la observación de que la luz no hacía falta para nada...

(Bringas, 179).                

Bringas resignedly observes, «me parece que estamos mejor a obscuras...» (Bringas, 179). He cannot abide the knowledge that Pez is courting his wife while they together watch the ironic sunset; he therefore withdraws prudently once more behind his bandage-mask. On another occasion, once again with the setting sun in the distance, Pez calls Rosalía to his side at the window to «admirar la gala y melancolía del horizonte». With all the finesse of a lifetime of donjuanesque adventures, Pez promises Rosalía then that he will help her financially, if she should need such help. The promise is the greatest proof that Pez can possibly offer to Rosalía of his affection, since she is blinded by the power of money. The narrator notes with a characteristic sense of irony that «Rosalía se retiró de la ventana con la cabeza trastornada. De buena gana se habría estado allí un par de horas más oyendo aquellas retóricas que, a su juicio, eran como atrasadas deudas de homenaje que el mundo tenía que saldar con ella» (Bringas, 186). Thus the sunset becomes associated with seduction and sexual betrayal.15

The last scenes of La de Bringas bring together the various themes of the novel to form a unity. During a lazy afternoon in the Palace, a group of people sit beside the open window as the sun is once again declining, listening to don Manuel Pez drone on. The narrator comments that Pez's words have a narcotic effect on the audience:

Lo mismo era ponerse él a explicar el porqué de su consecuencia con el partido moderado, ya me parecía que un dulce beleño se derramaba en mi cerebro, y el sillón... me convidaba a dormir la siesta. La cortesía, no obstante, obligábame a luchar con el maldito sueño, de lo que resultaba un estado semejante al que los médicos llaman coma vigil, un ver sin ver, transición de imagen a fantasmas, un oír sin oír, mezcla de son y zumbido.

(Bringas, 176-177)                

In this brief scene, the narrator describes the quintessence of Palace life. The asphyxiating ambience, the boring, empty words, and the evanescent light that filters through the window cause everyone to be lulled asleep. The Court dozes, listening to the embroidered words and hollow phrases of men such as Pez and Minio. The Court, which should be, as Galdós says in La Fontana de Oro, a «centro... de la actividad intelectual del país», is instead its own victim of the coma vigil, the «seeing without seeing» which is the theme of the novel. The Palace-dwellers do not wish to see, because seeing makes them face the reality that Isabel II and all her parasitical professional fawners are about to fall from power.

The only stable character in La de Bringas is hardly a character at all: he is the narrator, Galdós' fictional extension of himself. We never get to know him well at all, but he does provide us with insightful views of the other characters. When he dozes during the long, monotonous discourse of Pez in the Palace, doña Cándida awakens him:

-Está usted distraído -me dijo.

-No, no; ¡quiá!, señora... Estaba oyendo a don Manuel, que...

-Si don Manuel ha salido a la terraza. Es Serafinita de Lantigua que cuenta la muerte de su marido. Estoy horripilada...

(Bringas, 177.)                


And the narrator, now half-awake, says quietly, almost to himself, «¡Ah! Yo también... [estoy] horripiladísimo». (Bringas, 177) His statement is doubleedged; it refers on one level, of course, to the death of Lantigua -but more importantly, it also reflects his consciousness of the decay of the Court and its ultimate demise. He is a lucid figure: he alone seems aware of the self-deluding travesty of the refugees from reality who while away their time uselessly in such meaningless afternoons as this one.

At the conclusion of the novel, Bringas has recovered his sight to a degree, but Rosalía is more completely in her own darkness than before. She has «opened the window» to the world of fashion; she has seen the panorama of high society, the frivolous and hypocritical values of such people as the Marquesa de Tellería and others. It is now impossible for her to turn back and «un-blind» herself; she has closed a door on her past life. The theme of twilight which has been such an important symbol throughout the novel continues as such until Rosalía finally relinquishes her honor to Pez; up to that point, the twilight has been an emblem of the transitional state of Rosalía's emotions. She has been undecided; she has not yet committed adultery with Pez, but she has considered it. When Rosalía yields, the sun finally sets. No longer do we have mere crepuscular images -we are now in full darkness. The sun in Galdós' novel, as in «The Aeneid», finally goes down «in wrath at such deceit».

In the final chapters of La de Bringas, Rosalía is nearly always surrounded by shadows or darkness. She consciously avoids the light; she becomes a veritable «lady of the night». It is not by chance that Galdós has made one of Rosalía's great inner conflicts the decision to pawn the candelabra from the mantel-piece in her home; when she finally does sell them, we realize that she has symbolically sold not only one of the sources of light in her apartment, but perhaps more importantly, she has betrayed the sacrosanct nineteenth-century hearth. The pawning of the candelabra (which Galdós seems to under-score) represents a foreshadowing of the sexual betrayal yet to come.16 The prevailing idea of femininity was closely related to the home and hearth -the light, in other words. The hearth-fire of the primitive house was located in the sacred center of the structure, and was the responsibility of the woman -thus the intimate relationship between the wife-mother and the hearth-light.17 The fire, since it was considered sacred, was never to be extinguished -its constancy and changelessness were important; likewise, the fidelity of a good woman was to be eternal and immutable. In La de Bringas, when Rosalía pawns the candlesticks, she pawns the items of furniture which most closely and intimately represent herself and her role in the house. Like Dickens, Galdós often accentuates his human drama by investing props or furniture with symbolic value related integrally to one or more of the characters.18 The darkness which surrounds her and oppresses her after selling the candlesticks is not only the literal darkness, but also the spiritual darkness of which religion teaches. Rosalía feels imprisoned by the walls of the Palace and the darkness (at one point she feels the walls moving in towards her as if to smother her); escaping from the stifling atmosphere, she goes to the Prado, where she sits and catalogues the rich males who stroll by.19 She also waits in the darkness of the streets, contemplating which of the rich men who walk ahead of her could best help her to assume her rightful position as a woman of society.

It is clear by now that Rosalía de Bringas has fallen from the position of a   —10→   «good woman» of whom no reproach is possible (as she is ironically described early in Tormento) to a woman who sells herself for money and social station. Rosalía's history is also that of Spain. In this novel, Galdós leads us to the «line where the world rolls into night, that strange twilight of the virtues...», to borrow a phrase from Ruskin.20 That twilight is the twilight of both the Empire and Rosalía. As Shoemaker has observed, Rosalía's fall -like Isidora's fall at the conclusion of Part One of the earlier La desheredada- «parallels the course of the larger national ambiente, and in the end -in September, 1868- monarchical order and private morality are both overthrown».21

Galdós, as a man of the self-conscious nineteenth century, was indelibly impressed with the many advances and changes of the epoch in which he lived. The century was self-contradictory; it contained both stifling darkness and blinding light. The Monarchy fell because it was an emblem of darkness in a more and more light-filled world. In this sense, the antinomy of light and darkness serves as a political symbol. On another level, in the life of Rosalía de Bringas, the references to the light or the absence of light represent good, evil, and the complex labyrinths of the human mind -the subtleties and complexities yet to be developed fully in such works as Fortunata y Jacinta. In the union of these two seemingly disparate themes and levels in the novel, Galdós has demonstrated his growth as an artist. The art critic Klingender has written that «Spain's modern history is a succession of violent changes, a panorama painted in glaring contrasts of light and shade.»22 Of many of these «violent changes» in that «panorama... of light and shade», Galdós could say, with Goya, «Esto lo vi». Such is the artistry and authority felt in La de Bringas, set in the midst of what Galdós later called «el mayor trastorno político de España en el siglo presente». (Miau, 1021) The novel is, to borrow the title of one of Eugene O'Neill's plays, a «long day's journey into night». La de Bringas is a testament to the forces that plunged Spain into the darkness. By extending Galdós' light and darkness imagery in the novel further, however, we see his implicit hope that the twilight and darkness of the Isabelline reign would give way to a dawning of political glory with the new republic to follow.

The University of Virginia

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