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ArribaAbajoGaldós' Doña Perfecta: fiction, history and ideology38 39

Anthony N. Zahareas

«[...] myths become 'ideological' when they gain social currency in formal expression...»

(Kenneth Burke)                

A reappraisal of Doña Perfecta involves, necessarily, questions about past critical appraisals of the novel's narrative art, mythical patterns, borderline between tragedy and melodrama, and its dogmatic pressure. Such questions often turn into polemics because, more than the form, content or meaning of Galdós' novel, they involve the various bases from which modern criticism explores methods for approaching, analyzing and evaluating nineteenth century novels.40 Yet any effective reconsideration of the structure or thesis of Doña Perfecta, no matter what approach is taken, must consider the novel's historical context because a concentration on Galdós' range as novelist in 1875-1876 helps explain many of the supposed puzzles in the novel. What this study proposes to do is identify some major historical correspondences among the many fictional possibilities in Doña Perfecta, especially the liberal failures and frustrations of 1874-76. The method of analysis is clearly «formalist» but with the critical position that, in fiction or history, social being determines consciousness.41 I have applied this position to the Galdós of 1876, to his fictional situations, characters or setting of Doña Perfecta, and to his critics.42

The Scope of the Conflict and Catastrophe

In order to avoid possible misunderstandigs, I am first of all risking a repeition of the obvious: Doña Perfecta is well-constructed fiction to be analyzed in its own terms of nineteenth century narrative art and surely not in terms foreign to Galdós' art of fiction in 1876;43 the characters (Pepe, Licurgo, Caballuco, Rosario, don Inocencio, doña Perfecta, Cayetano, Jacinto, María Remedios and others) are not to be treated as if they were living persons or historical characters, instead of being central or secondary figures in a narrative composition; the countryside of Orbajosa is pure invention and apart from the novel, apart from the described settings, there   —30→   is no Orbajosa. Now one can ascertain objectively what happens in Doña Perfecta, especially since, despite some provisos here and there, it is considered by all modern critics as a well-constructed (or carefully-structured) narrative.44 What is really involved when we describe what the fictional antagonists are doing and why they are doing it? A clear view of what happens is indispensable to any interpretation of this controversial novel.

A murder was committed in a backward, rural, provincial city during the early stages of the «Restoration», at a time when tensions were mounting between government army units quartered in the city and local, restless Carlist sympathisers. The killing occurred at night in the garden of the area's distinguished house of Polentinos: the victim, Pepe Rey, was a thirty-four year old civil engineer living in Madrid who made the journey to the countryside in order to meet his cousin, Rosario, and with a Government commission to examine the valley of Orbajosa for mining possibilities; the perpetrator was the little town's most prominent lady, owner of vast lands, widow, mother of young Rosario and aunt of Pepe Rey. Taking advantage of the dark, Pepe had entered the garden through a walled-up little door, illegally, in order to elope with her only daughter who, though loyal to her mother, was in love with him; seeing a shape move, Perfecta ordered a henchman, the local Carlist hero, to shoot her nephew.45

An answer to the dual question, why did doña Perfecta have her nephew shot?, or, why was her daughter's lover killed?, is the subject of the novel. Both the local landowner and the liberal outsider persisted in accomplishing what they wished at all cost: Pepe planned to run away with Rosario and get married, that is, take Perfecta's only daughter away from Orbajosa; Perfecta did all to keep her in Orbajosa and prevent elopement. For both, good ends justified devious means: to free an innocent girl from the clutches of an oppressive, intransigent, reactionary mother; to free an innocent girl from the spell of a modern, intrusive libertine. It was morally imperative for the Madrilenian engineer to take Rosario away; it was morally imperative for the rural landowner to stop the intruder from ruining her daughter.

The above schematized conflict has been regarded as a «narrative tragedy».46 The clash between two powerful wills does resemble somewhat the inevitable conflicts of Greek tragedies, but I only see authentic similarities with that of Sophocles' Antigone. Creon defended, from a conservative viewpoint, traditional law with the full force of state authority; while Antigone opposed him in the name of a higher law. Creon's son Haemon joined Antigone against his father and inevitably both lovers died. In both Antigone and Doña Perfecta the conflict is between those who hold two opposed and conflicting interpretations of the law. Such similarities, however, only highlight crucial differences: while, on the one hand, Creon and Perfecta, as authoritative parents, are insensitive to sentiment or to their children's love, on the other, they react differently to their offspring's destruction. Following the catastrophe, Creon breaks down completely while doña Perfecta manages to hold on. Lest we forget the titles, Doña Perfecta is not simply the story of the liberal victim who, like «outsiders» or «tragic heroes», helps bring about his own destruction; the story focuses on the local traditionalists who destroyed Pepe and Rosario. The focus is placed   —31→   heavily on the conservative perpetrators of the crime -their acts, ambience, character, means, motives and ideology.

It is time to take a new look at the scope of the novel's plot:

-¡Un miserable! Acabemos: yo te niego a mi hija; yo te la niego.

-¡Pues yo la tomaré! No tomo más que lo que es mío.

[XIX, 211]47                

Here Pepe answers Perfecta with confidence. Until the end the liberal nephew maintained the defiant expectation of eloping with his cousin; he was sure that his religious aunt's stubborn opposition would be subdued and her authority undermined. His plan of intriguing with the army officer was difficult, perhaps a little risky but, as he said, not impossible. He was convinced that his beloved Rosario would obey him blindly, even against her charismatic mother.48 He was not afraid of his personal safety. He was wrong. And he was presumptuous: he went to his death unprepared because he completely misjudged the situation. It was Rosario, full of doubts and vacillations, whose will and resolve were broken and ended up insane; it was doña Perfecta who, unlike Pepe, took no chances;49 it was Pepe who miscalculated and was killed. The total collapse of the lovers underscores sharply the persistence of doña Perfecta who, in the face of her daughter's rebellion and her nephew's opposition, stands her ground. Unlike her literary counterpart, Creon, doña Perfecta faced the catastrophe -the ruin of two families or two houses- without breaking down;50 she continued more energetically than ever to spend money «en espléndidas funciones, en novenas y manifiestos brillantísimos» (XXXII, 309). As for the countryside setting of the catastrophe, in the words of the local historian Cayetano who lived with doña Perfecta:

-Gracias a ella [DP] el culto ha recobrado en Orbajosa su esplendor de otros días. Esto no deja de ser un consuelo en medio de la decadencia y acabamiento de nuestra nacionalidad...

[XXXII, 309]51                

Fictional Sources and History

The conflict and catastrophe in Orbajosa are pure artifice. They are held together by a narrative potpourri made up of bits from various literary sources. The pattern of the central action, for example, was drawn by Galdós from the well-known legend of «doomed» or «star-crossed» lovers, many times represented in poetry, romance, drama or novel:52 the «fall from bliss» is due to fate and family. Details about passion, parents, secrecy, obstacles, vacilations, coincidences vary from one version to the next.53

Nevertheless, the so-called «rights of the story-pattern» are constant in Galdós' novel, giving a coherence to all details, a sense of necessity, what R. Lattimore called in such tales a sense of must-be so: one could almost call it fate.

The physical background used for this story-pattern is even an older commonplace: it is the gap between «town» and «countryside», stressing   —32→   the theme of beauty, peace and order found in rural societies, usually located in an imaginary past.54 Doña Perfecta's narrative structure follows certain patterns of Greek tragedy (for example, «victimization», «blindness», «flaw» or «downfall») but the conflict itself is interspersed with techniques taken from contemporary melodrama: entanglements and anticipation of outcomes; delays of unravelling the knots; sensational revelations or dropped hints; movements in the dark and, finally, the last minute coincidences; the suspense and postponed solution.55

Metaphors and other forms of figurative language add to the artifice and convert the love story and its provincial setting into an enormously articulated symbolism of the Spanish political dilemma.56 Everything in this 1876 novel has historical correspondences, especially those related to the mission of XIXth century liberalism to reconcile progress and order. The task of modernizing a resistant traditional society turned out not only difficult but an impossible task. The historical counterparts of liberals like Pepe were tested to the utmost limit, from without and from within. Confronted by stubborn upholders of Spanish tradition and trapped by his own liberal ideology, Pepe in Orbajosa, like Spanish liberals in rural Spain, faced from the start a difficult task and had small chance of success. The connections between pure story-telling and contemporary history, especially the conflict of liberals and conservatives, in an example of dense narrative synthesis, a synthesis, as we shall see, full of codes.57

The scholarship of Doña Perfecta is plentiful and diverse as it is usually evaluative or polemical. Almost always critics have had to concentrate on and to face the task of reconciling three aspects: a tragic vision which is however, often narrated as melodrama; Galdós' concern for the art of his novel supposedly undermined by an obvious thesis or a tendentious tone; and the artistic quality of an early novel like Doña Perfecta when contrasted to the later, better regarded works of Galdós. In all three instances there are in my view certain presumptions about the study of literature or the appraisal of authors, presumptions which have led to serious misconceptions about Doña Perfecta and even to some key misreadings of the text or misunderstandings of Galdós' purpose.58 It happens that in each one of the debated aspects the confusions are cleared up if we, as Galdós wanted, make the proper connections between fiction and history.

First, there is nowadays a preference for tragedy and a distrust of melodrama; here modern critics often deal with literary genres as if they were mere aesthetic categories unrelated to their age. In Doña Perfecta, for example, the «tragic» or «melodramatic» are often divorced from the idea-content of the failures of liberalism. Yet in the case of Galdós in 1875-76, the elaboration of aesthetic categories is inseparable from the contemporary socioeconomic structure of Spain. Second, in stressing the art of narrative and rejecting thesis novels, Galdosian critics usually assume and even propagate «ambiguity», «incompleteness», «irony», «neutrality», as being more worthy in novels like Doña Perfecta than transparency, commitment, tendentiousness or persuasion. In 1876-77, however, Galdós reconciled effectively thesis and symbolic realism; because of the thesis, not in spite of it, he wrote a meaningful novel, not a tract.59 Third, in praising the later Galdós for his   —33→   fully developed characters and somewhat apologizing for the younger novelist who created types, critics, consciously or not, have been influenced by the evolutionary concept of «continuity» in a writer's production.60 Doña Perfecta thus has been reduced to one more link in a chain of form, action, or vision called the «Galdosian» novel. With such a priori formulations, critics often come to Galdós in 1876 with predispositions too formidable for a novel like Doña Perfecta to overcome.61 Yet the content alone of the conflict and the failure of liberals demands that we treat it and its author in their age, 1873-76.62

Tragedy and the Function of Melodrama

Doña Perfecta is a hybrid: it mingles tragic commonplaces and melodramatic patterns. The ground plan of the disaster is a common tragic situation but the characters, as in most successful melodramas, are unwary people involved in snares; they are finally bound hand and foot because of outrageous coincidences. What seems striking in the novel is the fate above Pepe and Perfecta, not the fate working through them. Thus what functions in them is not a tragic flaw but outside forces related to historical causes. A melodramatic penchant is not «bad art».63 We need first break down some of our ingrained prejudices against melodrama and then attempt to understand what were Galdós' purposes in «melodramatizing» the tragic situation, before we even begin to explore effectively how Doña Perfecta came to be a hybrid.64

Some of the effects are obvious: there is pity for Pepe (even «self-pity» in his letters); a fear of doña Perfecta; pity for the failure of liberals; fear and worry for the victory of reactionaries. We are made to feel sorry for Pepe because he is in a fearsome situation; a hero exaggerately beset by a closed, monstrously traditional society. Here Galdós abandons pure tragedy: «pity represents the weaker side of melodrama, fear the stronger».65 Galdós clearly feels and projects fear of intransigence, wickedness, fanaticism, closed mentality. Galdós made doña Perfecta, in the words of J. Casalduero, «colosal, con una monumentalidad conseguida por un procedimiento muy de época: el agrandamiento de líneas»;66 that is, she seems disproportionate superhuman, diabolical. Such characterization may explain Pepe's paranoia: he feels harrassed (while he plans elopement no less), and claims that all things in Orbajosa are combining to persecute him. A «melodramatic» vision is what today we call «paranoia».67 The liberal Pepe enlists circumstances in the enemy's ranks. The facts seem exaggerated precisely because they are seen by a sophisticated, scientific, adult mind. Fear of persecution here elicits a strong emotion among liberals. The miniature world of a backward, conservative stronghold is suddenly seen in glimpses of the lurid and the gigantic.

This melodramatic vision of the liberal hero was probably the result of Galdós' reawakened vision about the plight of Spain and, in particular, the helpless presumptuousness or naiveté of liberals face to face with hard, decisive resistant traditionalists. The conflict is historically rooted; that is,   —34→   pessimism in this melodrama is more secular or historical than psychological or metaphysical. Under the particulars of a tragedy there usually lies the universal principle that soul-searching catastrophes are a part of the human situation in a universe not committed to indulging the individual will. There is no such orientation here. On the contrary, nothing happens in Doña Perfecta which is not concrete, identifiable affects and results -intrigues, harassments, misunderstandings, love, hypocricies, trysts, killings, insanity. No mystification and no ambiguity. The ceaseless emphasis is on causality, especially when it comes to explaining the catastrophe of the lovers and the downfall of the liberals. Such historical causality, whereby acts have social equivalents, excludes the consequent catharsis; historical awareness permeates the catastrophe in Doña Perfecta and effectively precludes any hope of the reconciliation which we associate with traditional tragedy.68 Historical realities intrude and block the reduction of fear. It was Galdós' lucid view about national failures that made him avoid any tragic grandeur for Pepe.

The structure of the novel makes this clear: the narrator intrudes in the last chapter (XXXIII) to warn his readers in 1876 that the people of Orbajosa and especially the most prominent personage are not what they appear;69 «on the contrary, as opposed to Cayetano's muddled report, the narrator implies that they murdered Pepe and drove Rosario stark mad. This crucial distinction by the narrator between appearance and reality (somewhat analogous to the ancient Greek choruses which didactically explained catastrophes) could purge, at least within the novel, liberals and conservatives, victims and offenders. But the crucial distinction between facts and pretenses as well as the catastrophe itself are completely misunderstood and, inevitably, misinterpreted: in the incidental references to the murders in his letters, Cayetano, the self-appointed chronicler of Orbajosa, praises doña Perfecta and is puzzled by Pepe and his death.70 Murder is not suspected. Yet in letters to his father, Pepe also had distorted the situation by blaming everything on the monstrosity of his aunt.71 He counts on his cousin's love but obviously he did not realize that pitting Rosario against her mother would inevitably bring a crisis and drive her crazy. This is not so much a moral failing as an error of judgment.

Cayetano and Pepe, each from his vantage point, have a false consciousness of the situation; conservative and liberal ideologies keep them away from the truth. Now catastrophe without the proper awareness of its dimension and without consolidation, at least in Western Literature, has not been tragic; the disaster in Doña Perfecta becomes, for lack of a better term, «tragimelodramatic». A false consciousness of history within the novel undercuts tragedy and enhances melodrama. Errors are more important than virtues. Blunders cause the fall, not tragic flaws. Melodrama plays a key role in the structure of the novel by focusing on the false consciousness of nostalgic people (Cayetano), progressives (Pepe) or innocents (Rosario). Death and insanity are accepted rationally; they are not attributed to any moral flaw but, thanks to the narrator's intruding explanation, to the stubbornness and alertness of the conservatives.

There is no reconciliation of opposing sides as, say, with Romeo and Juliet or through Pleberio's lament in La Celestina.72 On the contrary,   —35→   civil war is spreading and the gap between town and country is wider. There is no redemption as in tragedies; doña Perfecta confesses no wrong and makes no amends as did her counterpart Creon. She is not crushed and thus delivered, «purged» of her pride and religious fanaticism. The meaning, thanks to the effective use of melodrama, is clear: what is lacking in Spain, suggests Galdós, even in view of a stark catastrophe, even in view, of the waste of excellence, is an active awareness of the painful aspects of historical change. Spain lacks a clear conscience of its past and present. Melodrama, at least on the basis of Galdós' text, was most effective in representing this pessimistic view: the virtues of liberalism are not celebrated (as they would probably have been in a tragedy); what stand out, especially in view of conservative will and power, are the liberals' presumptuousness and failure.

Art and Thesis

It has been argued, with good reason, that Galdós channelled the contradictoriness of Spanish political life into a predetermined, dogmatic pattern: the wicked conservatives win and the good liberals lose. What is questionable is to make assumptions, because of the presence of a thesis in the art of the novel, about the literary value of Doña Perfecta. José Montesinos' well-known negative views of the didactic aspect of Doña Perfecta are, unfortunately, representative: «esas novelas [like DP] como tales novelas, cuentan de las más defectuosas de su autor, y que tesis y tendencias no son ajenas a ello»73 (ital. mine). Evaluation here presupposes that certain novels possess or do not possess certain properties that make them good or defective narratives.74 Critics must, under preconceived terms, mediate between Galdós' urge for truthfulness with his urge for narrative composition. The argument usually goes that the literary excellence of Galdós', novels, especially the later ones, is not determined by Galdós' ideas or politics. The «range» or «humanity» of Doña Perfecta, for example, are restricted by the pressure of dogmatism; because Galdós, say, favored liberalism and disliked conservatism, he shaped characters and actions in a special way of obvious, predictable opposites of «good» and «Wicked», of «victims» and «villains».

This dogmatic opposition, however, had a clear function in the art with which Galdós narrated the conflicts: it highlighted the utter failure of what was good and favored, and stressed the waste of excellence. Galdós gave substance, within his narrative, not only to the individuality of characters but also to moral and historical categories. Typification can be as valid a narrative method as the portrayal of the psychology of characters. Especially if the novelist wishes to represent antithetical aspects of a socio-political conflict. Now if we stress the neutral, descriptive sense of «dogmatism», «thesis», or «politics», and not merely their pejorative connotations, we find startling complexities in the text.75 By organizing the tragic love story within a country setting that pits landownership to budding urbanization, Galdós gave a historical significance to everything that took place. Thesis and art, like history and fiction, act here as separate but intertwining threads; necessarily, then, the interpretation of the political, religious, economic and   —36→   cultural forces at work in the text help illuminate the text of Doña Perfecta and perhaps evaluate it more objectively. Much of the explanation of Pepe's failure in Orbajosa, as we will see, lies in the economic implications of the conflict between town and country.

In short: Galdós loads the dice, as all good thesis writers do, by intrusions, snide remarks, ironic adjectives;76 yet such known tactics are scarcely even a distortion, according to the terms of Galdós in this particular novel. For Galdós' attempts to tell the historical truth in fiction need not be invariably different from telling the truth in life. Galdós' dogmatic pressure forced readers to respond to doña Perfecta's victory by comparing the novel to the world they lived in. Doña Perfecta is one of the clearest narratives ever composed. 1876 was a time to be clear about identifying the opposing forces that made up the conflicting interest; and especially in distinguishing between appearances of reconciliation and realities of deadly struggles. What emerges is that, within her threatened world, the landowner doña Perfecta was correct. Thesis here only helps stress the novelist's grasp of historical truth over his sentimental attachments. The thesis of opposing forces helped Galdós overcome, at least within the art of Doña Perfecta, his liberal ideology.77 Art of melodrama and thesis based on history are inseparable. Thesis can spring forth from tragic situations and melodramatic action itself, as well as being displayed by the novelist.

Doña Perfecta and the «Galdosian» Aspect of Novels

«Galdosian» is a term propagated by historians of literature; it serves to show that Galdós developed a «technique», «manner», «vision» and line of «thought» in all the novels and plays that, covering some 50 years and despite historical changes, were somewhat coherent.78 Tracing patterns in the overall evolution of Galdós' novels is valid; there are changes into more complex forms. Doña Perfecta is of course an important precursor to Galdós' famed realism but, on the whole, the 1876 novel has suffered, even if indirectly, by being compared to the later novels.

The reason is usually that the later Galdós abandoned thesis and melodrama. By contrast, Doña Perfecta's plot is considered a «facile scheme»: characters are «controlled», hence distorted, not «convincing» human beings or recognizable types like Villaamil, Jacinta, Torquemada, etc. Accordingly, Doña Perfecta lacks what has been called a «self-subsistent reality» which may be found in works like Miau, Fortunata y Jacinta, the Torquemada series. In short, by contrast, Doña Perfecta lacks complexity, subtley, ambiguity, mystery.79 They either restrict the literary importance of Doña Perfecta or, following totalizing approaches, tend to be «a-historical». There is much that changed in Galdós, but the later changes do not easily account for Doña Perfecta's structure and meaning. What Pierre Vilar said in his analysis of the age of Don Quijote is true also of Doña Perfecta: the story of the liberal's murder by conservatives has a date, it participated in its age, and cannot be fully understood unless it is examined «en el corazón de la historia», that is, 1866-76.80 In 1876 Spaniards read a fiction about how   —37→   the rural conservative alliance treated and then destroyed the liberal; a liberal who was sensitive and educated but who, nonetheless, misunderstood what the real conflict was all about. He failed to comprehend the opposition.

Now one thing that genuine novels have accomplished in the past was to concentrate on intensive questions and not necessarily on direct answers. Doña Perfecta abounds in questions of moral depth and political significance; and the aesthetic: (narrative manner) to them is what determines the literary stature of Doña Perfecta. The novel «favors», implicitly, a harmonious solution to conflicts and an end to the clash between the liberal anglophile and agrarian conservatives. This is not a plea, however, by the novelist. At least in 1875-76, Galdós was truly realist: he understood the claims, predicaments and strengths of conservatives like doña Perfecta; as narrator he felt in his bones the inevitable collapse of Rosario (symbolically, the prize of liberals), the impotence of Pepe's liberalism and the inevitability of the catastrophe. Within the limits of fiction, this necessity is represented in historical not metaphysical terms. Galdós is in Doña Perfecta lucid, historically and aesthetically. What was attractive in liberals comes out also as presumptuous. And Pepe is something of a nincompoop; it is doña Perfecta and others in Orbajosa who bring out his defects. Galdós may like those who lose but, beyond personal choices or sentiments, he recognizes those who win. Because, as opposed to Pepe and Rosario, Perfecta is clear about the situation. This may explain why, as we saw, Galdós went out of his way to remind the 1876 readers at the end of the novel that doña Perfecta is not as good to us as she appears to her own people.

Doña Perfecta cannot be understood in so-called «Galdosian» terms. Galdós had at the age of thirty-three been conditioned by liberal failures, especially since his positivistic inclinations allowed him to reject introspective or intuitional attempts of interpreting history. Positivism, especially during an early apprenticeship, can be a seductive approach to experience; it had probably created in young Galdós the urge for analyzing national problems and contemporary ideologies with efficient tools and methods.81 Doña Perfecta is evidence that by 1876 Galdós could investigate the tangible political and socio-economic conflicts that lay underneath the rhetoric of «coexistence» uttered by liberal and conservative defenders of the Restoration. Because he saw historical realities clearly he did not allow catharsis, hope or consolation in the dénouement of his fiction.

Liberals were either confused about rural difficulties or else their talk of moral regeneration and cultural improvement were a coverup of tangible, socio-economic interests. The decade 1866-76 saw the highest degree of liberal expectations and also liberal failures: liberal expectations led to an attractive ideology («based on human liberties», «rule of law», «pursuit of happiness», «tolerance»); liberal failures were due to the inability or unwillingness to admit the hard economic realities lying behind the literary, motif of town vs. countryside. Doña Perfecta is thus a narrative representation and, at the same time, savage critique of liberal unrealism; it is an attestation, on the level of fiction, of the 1868-1876 historical melodrama of Spanish   —38→   conflicts. Hence the need to examine Doña Perfecta as part of the ideological battleground of 1876.

We possess few personal facts about Galdós' life when he was writing what he later called his first «novela contemporánea»;82 yet we cannot eliminate his biography as a relevant fact about the narrative organization of Doña Perfecta. Otherwise we would be analyzing the fictional structure of a novel as if it were written neither by the Galdós who had participated in politics nor for the Spaniards of 1876; in K. Burke's words, «involving neither inducements nor resistances».83 There are important breaks between one novel of Galdós and another; each novel belongs to a particular age; it represents some sort of a rupture; and it carries with it a timely historical consciousness. We need to ask then what was it that shaped Galdós' consciousness as a novelist at the particular time he was writing and publishing Doña Perfecta because, despite the complex rhetoric of its fiction (usually analyzed well by several critics),84 it is Galdós' least ambiguous novel. The novelist was clear about conflicting positions and claimed ideologies. He saw that the Perfectas, more than wicked people, were very much aware of the forces that were threatening them, that is, they were more realistic and decisive than the liberals; while he understood that the Pepes, not only because of reactionary resistance to them but also because of their exalted liberal ideology itself, they were, more than good people, presumptuous, unrealistic, opportunistic and indecisive.85 The bizarre tensions of Spanish regions, in histories like that of R. Carr or in fictions like Galdós' Doña Perfecta, are represented not as delights but as despairs.

The Age of «Doña Perfecta»

I shall only sketch briefly some socio-economic correspondences between fiction and history which might clarify the narrative perspectives in Doña Perfecta.86 It is not easy to determine whether Galdós' response to the crisis and ideology of liberalism in the Spain of 1873-76 was also evolved fully into the fictional narrative of Doña Perfecta. Yet discriminating between Galdós' ideological response and his finished novel is, in David Craig's discreet words about novelists, «the duty of the critic, and one that crops up time and again». The dangers are that «[...] the historical approach is liable to get distorted results unless the critic also remains fully a critic».87

The fictional conflict in Orbajosa has already been examined against the national dilemma of the times: the precarious coexistence of the need for change and the will of resistance: a coexistence surrounded by limitations such as geographic disadvantages, economic backwardness, traditionalist backslidings, vested interests, and political blunders. Obviously Galdós saw no easy solutions to the town-countryside dilemma. Conservatives were slow or reactionary; liberals were intolerant of or patronizing to rural backwardness. On the symbolic level, the results were bleak: natural products (Rosario) are mishandled and eventually destroyed (go insane); spiritual leaders (Inocencio) were weak, used their charisma to deceive and refused to take responsibility (wash their hands like Pilate); the poor had no help other   —39→   than charity and were not considered a work force («hombres sanos» became an «ejército lastimoso» of «mendigos», V, 84); there was no education for the ignorant and few opportunities to advance for those educated among the peasantry (Jacinto); finally, historians did not raise people's sensibility to the socio-economic dangers for, trapped by the ideology of a supposed great past, indulged in nostalgia (Cayetano's longing for a past period rather than a confrontation with the present).

The above details only show that certain problems of the time were reflected in the novel. But Doña Perfecta is more complex: Galdós obviously, understood that, in the very fictional world he was inventing, the political, religious and legal institutions of rural Spain (and, implicitly, in contrast to those of urban centers), as well as the ideologies by means of which liberals or conservatives explained the world in which they lived, their place in it, and themselves -all these were not independent from but integral parts of the political structure and economic basis of Spanish society. This is why the characters of the novel are typical representatives of their socio-economic classes: conservative landowner, liberal bourgeois, influential cleric, frustrated rural peasant, hampered rural youth, nostalgic historian, military officer, local Carlist, etc. Each one's personality is shared by other members of Spanish society. Galdós deliberately does not stress the complex psychology of his types in order to emphasize the values or attitudes that their class represents.

Pieced together this is the background sketched by Galdós: a retarded agriculture with a rural population steeped in folkways and religious obscurantism, dependent, but resistant to changes and yet vulnerable to or fearful of manipulation; there was little purchasing power to support the budding capitalism of the urban centers.88 The competition and distrust between urban and rural was proverbial: In Carr's words «[peasant] degraded merchants and lawyers into second-class citizens: seen from towns, rustic democracy appeared an oligarchy rigged by rural notables».89 Centralism, represented by Pepe, associated with grouping government, politics in big urban centers like Madrid, was a way to export systematically and in an organized way all the products gathered from the provinces. Now such a plan would break up rural aristocracy, especially their influence and advantage. An aristocrat like doña Perfecta is against all types of centralization -the army, the banks, lawyers, creditors, government, foreign influences, etc. The clash between the liberal utopia of modernization and the feudal utopia of latifundismo (patronage) was as inevitable as the discord between Pepe and Inocencio was unavoidable.90

Liberals were concentrated in cities; they stood for modernity, technology, civility, urbanization and, above all, mercantilism. Liberal bourgeois were the capitalists of the day. They sought practical solutions, especially by «difusion», that is, by spreading their economic knowhow to the less developed agrarian, rural areas where people were, in contrast to liberals, old fashioned, backward, traditional, religious. Doña Perfecta represents, then, the historical duality between developing urban centers and stagnant, inner areas. The liberal plans called for raising old-fashioned provinces to the level of modern cities. Since the big city was in contact with England,   —40→   Germany or France, liberals were importing ideas and knowhow. In a Spain split into two demographic camps, the modern one wished to spread into the archaic one and help modernize the interior economically and culturally.91

Galdós embodied the conflict between liberals and conservatives in the traditional motif of town vs. countryside but, simultaneously, he made sure that the organizing center of this commonplace is economic and contemporary. And the economic reality revolves around the contemporary relations of Spanish urban and rural regions, one to the other in terms of dominance versus dependence. The oft-discussed dissension between the liberal Pepe and the conservative Orbajosans (Chapters V-VII) starts with the first clash between the liberal newcomer and the traditionalist cleric. The beginning of the discord is a key moment of the novel and focuses on an appraisal of Orbajosa in such a way that economics and ideology are highlighted: the participants are a city liberal, a conservative clergyman and a powerful landowner; the outsider is asked offhandedly his opinion of Orbajosa but, in fact, it is a question about the «beloved» rural beauties of the area; he answers strictly in practical, economic terms, that is, an outsider's opinion about the countryside's apparent poverty is that it needs improvement through outside investments, planning, renovation and an active labor force; the clergyman reacts with a Christian interpretation of poverty, while the landowner explains economical difficultes with the commonplace references to drought, granaries and marketplaces; finally, the discord is spelled out clearly in the identifiable terms of 1876: the refusal of the underdeveloped countryside to become dependent upon the more developed, investment oriented and modernized urban centers.

The entire passage is reproduced because it is central to Galdós' fictional conflict which leads to the catastrophe; to the socio-economic basis of the conflict; to the relationship between the structure of the conflict and the structure of contemporary Spanish society where it was read: finally, to my reappraisal of the novel and my argument regarding Galdosian criticism. (Italized key words illustrate both the particular care with which the crisis is introduced and the socio-economic basis of the so-called religious question.)

-¿Y qué le parece al señor don José nuestra querida ciudad de Orbajosa? -preguntó el canónigo, cerrando fuertemente el ojo izquierdo, según su costumbre mientras fumaba.

-Todavía no he podido formar idea de este pueblo -dijo Pepe-. Por lo poco que he visto, me parece que no le vendrían mal a Orbajosa media docena de grandes capitales dispuestos a emplearse aquí, un par de cabezas inteligentes que dirigieran la renovación de este país y algunos miles de manos activas. Desde la entrada del pueblo hasta la puerta de esta casa he visto más de cien mendigos. La mayor parte son hombres sanos y aún robustos. Es un ejército lastimoso, cuya vista oprime el corazón.

-Para eso está la caridad -afirmó don Inocencio- Por lo demás, Orbajosa no es un pueblo miserable. Ya sabe usted que aquí se producen los primeros ajos de toda España. Pasan de veinte las familias ricas que viven entre nosotros.

-Verdad es -indicó doña Perfecta- que los últimos años han sido detestables a causa de la seca; pero aun así las paneras no están vacías, y se han llevado últimamente al mercado muchos miles de ristras de ajos.

-En tantos años que llevo de residencia en Orbajosa -dijo el clérigo, frunciendo el ceño- he visto llegar aquí innumerables personajes de la Corte, traídos unos por la gresca   —41→   electoral, otros por visitar algún abandonado terruño o ver las antigüedades de la catedral, y todos entran hablándonos de arados ingleses, de trilladoras mecánicas, de saltos de aguas, de bancos y qué sé yo cuántas majaderías. El estribillo es que esto es muy malo y que podía ser mejor. Váyanse con mil demonios, que aquí estamos muy bien sin que los señores de la Corte nos visiten, mucho mejor sin oír ese continuo clamoreo de nuestra pobreza y de las grandezas y maravillas de otras partes... Ya sé que tenemos delante a uno de los jóvenes más eminentes de la España moderna, a un hombre que sería capaz de transformar en riquísimas comarcas nuestras áridas estepas...

[V, 84-85]                

Pepe's wording of capital, investment, intelligent planning, renovation and conversion of beggars into useful labor hands, represented in 1876 the arguments of liberal capitalists that the development of backward, rural areas like Orbajosa could come about through outside influence, direction and assistance. Inocencio understands clearly Pepe's proposition and carries it further (even though sarcastically) by detailing the nascent industrial claims to more rapid production through modernization of means; but he rejects the plans with a likewise identifiable argument: the rural, conservative view that foreign or urban penetration was the cause of discomfort and excessive dependency. Perfecta refers to the traditional difficulties of agricultural production about dry spells or the marketing of local products strictly from the privileged stand of a well-to-do landowner: droughts bring losses but there are reserves. Thus in the first exchange of discord, each of the three participants is true to the social and economic position each one represents.

The implications are crucial for a detailed critical reading of Doña Perfecta: first, to the liberal formulations of Pepe and to the Christian superstructure of Inocencio's (and later Perfecta's) apologies correspond definite forms of social and economic consciousness; second, it is not only the religious arguments of tolerance or intolerance that determine the beings of Pepe and Perfecta as liberal and reactionary (the only position hitherto stressed by critics) but also, and above all, the antagonists' social being as urban engineer and rural landowner (with all the socio-economic implications of these two important positions) that determines their consciousness about Spain, progress, the past, economic development, morality, etc.

Pepe represents here the adaptive, aggressive spirit of desired change, of risk and imagination: increase productivity in Orbajosa by investment of outside money, that is, renovate the rural economy by changing the concept of manpower and the means of a domestic production that relies on dry farming. Garlic is an ironic metaphor of pretentiousness but also the reality of agricultural dryness.92 Progress of agricultural productivity relied on the attempt of urban capital to exploit the opportunities of rural backwardness. That is, the city, collaborating with foreign capital, was the dynamic principle of progress. The countryside was inert and passive; Orbajosa needed an external stimulus, the so-called investment of capital proposed by Madrilenian financiers. This combination of civilization and investment was the underpining for the ideology of the liberals in Spain. Galdós was obviously clear, at least in this central passage, on the dual notions of ideology: ideology is represented as a general system of ideas and also as a way of examining moral positions whose dimensions are related to a specific social base.93


Here is how it works in the cited, concrete example: Inocencio's demagogic explanation that beggars were proof of charity was clearly the religious ideology of the landowners. He does not deny Pepe's contention that they are potential workers; he simply defends their existence as beggars. The text is clear: «caridad» in the mouth of a clergyman usually refers mainly to the Christian virtue of disinterested love but, in this fictional context, Inocencio clearly refers to the help (money, food, etc.) given to the poor (Pepe's allusion to army of beggars) by the rich (the twenty or so wealthy families, obviously landowners, alluded to by Inocencio). The reality of Orbajosa is not only cultural backwardness but economic underdevelopment which leads to poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunity, beggary. The Christian ideology of Church and charity is an inverted, truncated, distorted reflection of a miserable reality;94 while the liberal ideology of renovation, progress and capitalism is a transposition of the need for relief to the opportunism represented by investment. Everything that henceforth develops in the conflict between Pepe and Perfecta, including the religious and moral arguments, must be judged, at least according to the rules here set by Galdós, in terms of this initial clash. The antagonists, whose words are here true to their social position, refer to concrete historical situations as well as to their «ideology», that is, an illusory representation of them.

The liberal thesis of modernization and of projecting urban development into the rural agricultural economies was recognizable for 1876 readers; especially Pepe's cultural, middle-class background, his journey into the interior, his government commission, the railroad, the comment on underdevelopment, the plans for investment, the improvement of production and transportation. It was the thesis that lost in Spain. Pepe loses the argument to the well-prepared, devious Inocencio. Apart from the intrigue imposed on the clergyman by Remedios, however, Inocencio brought out the real Pepe -a progressive liberal bourgeois.95 Inocencio is not less capable than Pepe and seems as sure of his traditionalist ideas as Pepe is of his liberal humanistic credos. Inocencio's «don't come preaching to us about our backwardness» indicates sharp, conservatism; the ruling class of rural areas allied with the church, knew that progress advanced by liberals was not to their advantage. Improvement of production would increase centralized initiative or influence and reduce many agrarian areas to dependency. In such a realignment of forces the urban center stood to gain more than the countryside. In the fictional world of Galdós or in history «what seemed an advantage for the liberals was not always an advantage for agrarians...».96 Doña Perfecta then is a coherent narrative whose organization is also a synthesis of the Spanish irreconcilable conflicts of the attempts to expand the Spanish economy.

Orbajosa as metaphor and as reality97

The structure of the fictional countryside is arranged to integrate clearly the above socio-economic problems and clashes. Orbajosans have for   —43→   a long time followed certain rules and habits, and expect that these are respected and obeyed. Traditional customs define situations and the kinds of behavior appropriate to them, specifying some actions as «right» and forbidding others as «wrong». When a rule is traditional the person who is supposed to have broken it may be seen as a special kind of person, one who cannot be trusted to respect the group. Pepe becomes an outsider, in fact, by flaunting all traditional rules followed by the citizenry of Orbajosa; he has an arrogant view of his and their behavior. He cannot accept the traditions and rules by which he is being judged and refuses to regard the Orbajosans who judge him as either capable or entitled to criticize him. He criticizes them for being out of step with the times.

Ironically, Pepe plays the part of what he really is while visiting rural Orbajosa: a city, liberal outsider. He has no sympathy for the social and political conservatism of a rural, stable community -a stability reflected in the uniform, stern customs. It was precisely in areas of dry farming (ajos) such as Orbajosa, where, without massive investments, change and modernization proved so difficult in the XIX century. Impatient liberals like Pepe did not help improve an already touchy situation. Pepe's visit and his discord with the local people is patterned by Galdós on the tensions and divisions between the liberalism of commercial towns and the fierce catholic conservatism of the countryside.

Galdós developed in Doña Perfecta three distinct angles of observing and judging a rural province like Orbajosa. Orbajosa is viewed from an exalted viewpoint by most of its own people who attribute to it an archaic concept of nobility and a condition of beauty, fertility and history that are too idealized and appear superior to the reality of a dry farming area. Cayetano, for example, empowers his province with a history and genealogy that the area cannot possibly possess; facts work loose as Orbajosa's past and present are molded and remolded by imagination and nostalgia -both false representations of backwardness. Orbajosa has become a legend in the midst of its history; its citizens stress myths despite the visible facts; and utter absurdly beautiful names for underdeveloped places.98

Falsification is important for the development of the novel's conflict: it is in the name of this admiring version of the «bucolic» countryside (the locus amenus image; Arcadia, Golden Age, etc.) that Orbajosans attack modern commercialism, government interference and urban degeneracy.99 Arcadian countryside, like the ideology of Christian charity, is here another way of defending the existing state of affairs.

Pepe may love Rosario and respect his father's admiration of the traditional countryside but he detests the social order by which Orbajosa is being maintained. He reacts mockingly to the people's habits of idealizing and hence deforming reality; he slowly becomes sneeringly offensive to all rural ideals, values and pretensions.100 He also deforms reality by going to the other extreme of Cayetano and, without his first concerns for the plight of the poor and the ignorant, makes a caricature of Orbajosa. He looks at the land with its people from a superior vantage point, ironically, just as Inocencio said he would: everything and every one (excepting the Troyas) converted into hicks, ignoramuses, backward, ignorant, in short, peasant   —44→   garlic growers. Pepe's view is an exaggerated, grotesque version of Cayetano's Orbajosa. One is attached to Orbajosa and elevates it; the other disdains it and debunks it. The two versions clash on the aesthetic level because they are ideologically opposed. Their style represents the essence of liberal reactions to a traditional defense of rural areas. Pepe's indignation is due to the fact that country hicks have grotesque illusions. Galdós may sympathize with Pepe and his «liberalism» but, nevertheless, undercuts them by mocking somewhat his indignation. He often portrays Pepe's reactions as those of a typical snobbish liberal upon discovering that victims are not angels, that is, that the peasants he meets are not the idyllic shepherds as described by his father; that beggars do not work; that dry lands are not gardens; that religious art is often vulgar; that local clerics do not accept the progressive ideas of liberals, etc.101

There is, however, a third version of Orbajosa: the narrator's sober picture. Throughout the narrative, the narrator deliberately counters both the idealistic apologia of Cayetano and the grotesque distortion of Pepe. Orbajosa emerges for what it is: a province in the dry part of Spain with a hierarchical system of social relations; a strong church influence; a type of agriculture known as «dry farming»; spaced out harvests and minimum returns; a preserved, old-fashioned agrarian system; old habits which still persisted; an inadequate transportation system; a low level of technology; with rather small landed estates which provided minimal employment; with many poor and beggars; finally, a lack of social mobility. Such areas needed technology and a renovation of their economic structure, but people were distrustful. Since capital could come only from outside it interfered with a society that was highly structured. As represented by Galdós, the peasants' distrust of outsiders is not all that unreasonable, especially if we consider Pepe's sarcasm about their condition. A peasant's life was simple, fixed, predictable. Pepe was unsympathetic to the disadvantaged; he mocked rather than helped. Loyalty to doña Perfecta was absolute and voluntary because in an agricultural society like Orbajosa relationships between landowner and peasant were direct and personalized. As the señora, Perfecta was clearly the superior in all her relationships but, as with the lords of feudal times, the landowner had responsibilities for the care or welfare of her people.

Obviously part of the difficulty which we have in appraising the Galdós of Doña Perfecta has to do with the contradiction involved in disassociation: how could he work out his own progressive perspectives and thesis within Doña Perfecta while at the same time dramatizing the liberal urban bias about the countryside. Liberals despised or mocked rural peasants; rural people resisted the onslaught and reacted in their turn against the degeneracy of cities. That is, when Doña Perfecta was published the town-countryside split was, more than a literary motif, a daily subject. If the motto of Cayetano is «the beauty and heroism of a rural Imperial City» that of Pepe is «the imbecility and monstrosity of a garlic heap».

We can venture a brief, schematic description of the fictional situation in historical terms. Pepe comes to marry Rosario and, unsuspecting any snares, becomes irritated, then insulting and offensive, at least in the   —45→   eyes of rural Orbajosans. The liberal is somewhat naive or arrogant. His liberalism as described by the narrator in Ch. III may be open, broad, flexible but in his acts he often seems single, narrow, and inflexible. He is not always capable of understanding what really goes on around him. He cannot look sympathetically at Orbajosa. The clash could not be avoided because the oppositions were real: two vested interests vie against each other. The rural, agrarian, theological world first makes Pepe paranoic and, next, when he persists in having his way destroys him.102 He did not understand the local rules of the game; he too imposed his urbanity on rural people. He made an incorrect analysis of the rural situation because, ironically, at least within the game of fiction, Galdós made a correct analysis of the reasons for the liberal failures.

The obvious comparison and contrast between the narrator's and Pepe's version of reality is the one clear narrative accomplishment of the novel. Liberals and conservatives had their priorities: Cayetano's nostalgia for past glories is the rural answer to the urban liberals' mockery. Country gentry, landowners, clergymen, peasants resisted successfully liberal attempts to modernize their economy. Galdós was somehow able to disassociate himself from his own liberal perspective and give a fierce, clinical diagnosis of the problem. He understood the reactionary archetype and her ideology of purity and perfection. Galdós saw clearly Perfecta's strength. Pepe has no tragic flaw (as he would in a tragedy); but he does have a liberal ideology, an ideology that often blinds him to the errors of urbanity. Perfecta's clearheadedness, on the one hand, and his own false consciousness, on the other, are the two factors that caused his destruction.103 Rarely has a liberal author seen so clinically and with so much lucidity the disastrous weaknesses of his own liberalism, as Galdós in 1875-1876.

An Interpretation of the Conflict

By 1876 liberals had failed to reconcile liberty with order -at least within the novel; outside the novel, the claims of early Restoration appeared an illusion. The results were depressing in fiction or history: the failure of liberals to effect changes in an economically backward country, not ripe for capitalism and haunted and pulled back by memories of its past «legendary» greatness and its dedication to a religious idea. Modern historians suggest that perhaps there was no solution at all. At least Galdós would have agreed for there is no hope in Doña Perfecta. A novel need not answer all questions it poses but this particular novel had in 1876 the power to suggest patterns that lay just below the surface even in the commonest actions of a liberal in rural surroundings.

This theme of failure is developed suggestively in Doña Perfecta by spelling out not only the moral or religious position of each antagonist -as most critics have shown- but in relating this position to a particular ideology and in showing how this ideology controlled the person's awareness of particular historical moments. The «liberal» ideology can prevent a liberal from distinguishing clearly between appearances and realities. Pepe is the   —46→   liberal: a member of an educated, cultured minority, who has travelled abroad, usually anglophile, with the mission to modernize Spain. The liberal failed, especially in underdeveloped, agrarian provinces. Rural Spain was not only the moral or religious abstraction forged by liberals; rural Spain was real and, knowingly, actively resisted the liberal's efforts as an intrusion.

The conflict between Pepe and Perfecta is not merely over Rosario: it is a sharp disagreement, a necessary collision in interests, ideas, positions. Each antagonist interprets the collision according to his or her ideology. Pepe treats the conflict as if it were a moral and ethical problem when, in fact, it was a social and political problem: «En casa de Doña Perfecta es cosa corriente que la tropa y yo formamos una coalición diabólica y antireligiosa...» (XXVIII, 287). Yet the evidence was there that the old-fashioned, agrarian basis of Orbajosan society was what determined its social structure as a whole, as well as the psychology or superstition of the people within it.104 Thus the liberal was a generous, broad-minded and progressive person but, perhaps because of these «progressive» qualities, had a false consciousness of what was going on in the rural areas. The very ideology of liberalism, ironically, led Pepe to a fragmentary view of the Spanish crisis. In the novel it is suggested that the need was not so much for moral or religious changes as for social, political and economic reforms. Pepe then misread the resistance of Orbajosa; not realizing that they too were rightly wary of urban and commercial exploitation.

My reading of the novel is not different from the way modern historians (who, incidentally, have read Doña Perfecta and related works) interpret liberal problems of XIX:105 converting political problems or economic difficulties into moral issues was part of the story of Spanish liberalism. The fictional correspondence of historical problems is evident in the way Orbajosa is portrayed by Galdós from various perspectives: religious fanaticism, traditional morality and reactionary activity in Orbajosa; its legal or educational institutions, the Casino, as well as the ideas, the images, the ideologies by means of which the inhabitants of Orbajosa understood the world in which they lived, their place within it, and themselves -all these were reflections of the political or economic basis of Spanish society: urban capital vs. rural feudalism. The town-countryside gap was reinforced by the interaction of self-interests.

Pepe's «false consciousness» of the situation is contrasted with Perfecta's clarity and persistence. Intolerant of opposition, authoritarian, stern, traditionalist, reactionary, the liberal's adversary is in Galdós's novel lucid about the collision between them. According to the poor mother Remedios, for example, the liberal intruder Pepe (threatening her son's future) is a temporary threat; that is, an obstacle that should be «scared off»:


-Si ella y usted me hubieran dejado, resuelta estaría ya.

-¿Con los palos?

-No asustarse ni abrir tanto los ojos, porque no se trata de matar a nadie..., ¡vaya!

-Eso de los palos -dijo el canónigo sonriendo- es como rascar... ya sabes.

-¡Bah!... Diga usted también que soy cruel y sanguinaria...; me falta valor para matar un gusanito, bien lo sabe usted... Ya se comprende que no había yo de querer la muerte de un hombre.

[XXVII, 269]                


These are a devoted mother's reactions to an irritant that lies in the path of her ambitions. Her concern is not with the outsider Pepe as with the welfare of her son. Her defense is personal, not ideological.

But the other mother's reaction is the opposite: Perfecta explains with ideological clarity that the danger represented by the outsider is not what Remedios thinks but instead a menace that is identifiable and constant. It is not then a temporary difficulty, surely not a matter for Remedios' «vulgaridad tonta de la paliza y del susto [que] se le ocurre a cualquiera» (XXV, 257). Pepe is not simply a liberal intruder: he is demagoguery, the centralized army, the government's authority; that is, Pepe stands for the officialdom of the nation, for the attempt to centralize the economy and undercut the independence of the rural countryside. What is for the confused liberal a moral question («el terreno común de lo injusto y de lo malo», XXVIII, 285) is for the threatened and wary conservative a political issue; it is not only a gap: it is the city against the countryside; the urban, atheistic scientist is out to corrupt her daughter and pit her against her mother.106 The reactionary is clear about the difficulties facing her and her rural society. Her words should be contrasted to those of Remedios and Pepe:

María Remedios, es preciso en estos asuntos ir directamente a las causas de las cosas... Es preciso ir al fondo, al fondo, Remedios.

[XXV, 258]                

The powerful landowner, aware of her position and the dangers to it, is lecturing, as if within a feudal relationship, to her inferior. Her words are a counsel against a superficial understanding of the enemy. A real enemy should not be underestimated. Going to the bottom of things means that the asunto of her liberal nephew is not an insolated case, as Remedios thinks, but linked, in terms of cause and effect, to an ideology that is pervasive enough to subvert her daughter and threaten her very household, or way of traditional, rural life:

Entiéndelo bien: hay que defenderse de todos ellos, porque todos son uno, y uno es todos; hay que atacarles en común, y no con palizas al volver de una esquina, sino como atacaban nuestros abuelos a los moros. (Ital. mine.)

[XXV, 259]                

Doña Perfecta's words are utterly true to the character of rural conservatives menaced by liberal capitalism. A scrutiny of Perfecta's appraisal of her situation (and especially a stylistic analysis of her demagogic counsel to Remedios) would offer a rare document of XIXth century conservative and reactionary rhetoric. The opposition to progress or liberalism is enhanced by appeals to prejudices and emotions.107 For the best defense of one's interests against a collective enemy was an attack, a real, massive, one:

Mi sobrino no es mi sobrino: es la nación oficial, Remedios; es esa segunda nación, compuesta de los perdidos que gobiernan en Madrid, y que se ha hecho dueña de la fuerza material. (Ital. mine.)

[XXV, 258]                

Liberals have the upper hand says the landowner to her serf, because they control the means of production, because they have power. We should   —48→   appreciate Galdó's art of historical symbolism here: he portrays the peasant, Remedios, as politically ignorant and ineffective yet attached (as Carlist peasants) to ultra-reactionary Patrons and hostile on principle to the towns. Galdós made the rural aristocratic lady not worry only about Pepe's libertinage but gives her instead a clearly articulated view of the deadly political struggle for dominance: «we» says Doña Perfecta and «they». It is an unmistakably partisan interpretation of the liberal menace at large. The mother's personalism or subjectivity are here absorbed by the clear political awareness of a resistant Spanish conservative. The implied «crusades» of Christians against Moors is not simply an anachronism but also, and above all, a zealous preparation to recover, at least in Orbajosa, the power which she has lost temporarily to Pepe and his captain friend. It is the ideology of «conserving» privileges such as authority and of reacting to change.

On the above grounds doña Perfecta, as she readily admitted earlier to Pepe, is free to intrigue, to use any means in the cause of her ends. Conservative ends, suggests Galdós, are not moral or abstract but concrete objectives. Doña Perfecta is out not to lose what she has; not to give in to the dangerous liberal thrust in her home and in Orbajosa. This explains why she goes as far as to openly admit that she would rather see her daughter dead than allow her to elope with Pepe: «Antes de verla esposa de mi sobrino, acepto cuanto de malo pueda pasarle, incluso la muerte» (XXV, 256).108 In the conflict then Perfecta appears in control of the situation where Pepe is not; just as by 1876, at least for Galdós, conservatives were more alert than liberals. Perfecta smashes Pepe and wins. Despite her daughter's insanity, it is a clear-cut victory for Perfecta's authority; and a disaster for the lovers with no consolation. The town's first lady's pious acts at the end must be judged in their proper situational context, that is, in terms of the blunt admission that she would rather see her daughter dead than become Pepe's wife. Doña Perfecta defends continuity, stability, authority and venerability -all four embodied in Spanish tradition; confused liberals are not a match for her ruthless, clear view of things.

In short, «ideology» takes two aspects in Doña Perfecta: on the one hand, Pepe's liberal ideology is general, speculative, abstract, moral and leads him to misunderstand the immediate problem of Orbajosa by constructing an idealistic theory of morality and tolerance; on the other, Doña Perfecta's conservative ideology appears general, religious or abstract but is in fact a coverup for her narrow, limited, special interests which never allow her to misunderstand or miscalculate. The «good liberal» is not as practical as the «bad conservative». This disturbing realization is what controls the aesthetic dimension of Doña Perfecta. And, as we saw, there is no catharsis to temper somewhat the conflict or struggle between opposites, between the old and the new, the opposition between two sides of political power.

1876 was a special year: after the efforts of Cánovas, liberals and conservatives had reconciled and agreed to share power. The Carlist wars had ended, that is, Spaniards were in the midst not of a conflict but of a compromise, of a political solution. There should have been relief, hope, optimism in Spain.109 A sense of unity and purpose was propagated. Galdós, however, at least on the fictional level of Doña Perfecta, did not seem to share this   —49→   optimism of coexistence: reconciliation and compromise are in fact two of the illusions represented in the novel. Pepe's illusion («engaño») is Galdós' disillusion («desengaño»), that is, if Pepe has a false consciousness of the conflict, Doña Perfecta and Galdós have a clear awareness of the way things were below the surface even in the simple case of love or in the typical chasm between town and countryside. For, the fictional structure of the traditional «town-country» relation stands, both in Galdós' novel and in the society where it was read, for an explosive situation whereby the self-sufficiency of Spain's rural economy was undermined by urban commercial (capitalist) patterns, threatening the static order of patriarchal authority based on landownership.

Galdós' novel clearly dramatizes a discord, a deadly one, while his readers were bombarded by the propaganda of harmony; to the English system of turno pacífico (i. e., a non-violent change of rule) Galdós opposes the Spanish reality of status quo. The vision of Doña Perfecta that has bothered some liberal critics was, at least in its time, prophetic. Unity was, as with all compromises, apparent, illusory; disunity, as with all realities based on material interests, was there, evident. Pepe's failure and death were perhaps symbolic for contemporary readers: Liberalism had persistently failed in Spain and so had Capitalism and social revolution, in spite of their constant imminence and occasional successes. Galdós understood the power of conservatives as well as the internal weaknesses of liberalism. The pity was that Spaniards never understood their country's problems even when they led to catastrophic: results. This serious problem without solution is obvious in Cayetano's feeble account of what really happened to Pepe, Rosario and Doña Perfecta.

Doña Perfecta and its Critics

The use of historical information in the criticism of the XIXth century novel is a common practice, especially since the appearance of Georg Lukács' Studies in European Realism and The Historical Novel. In relating the conflict of Doña Perfecta to its age and reading public, and in sketching some socio-economic correspondences I had in mind three purposes. First, I had noticed a trend in detaching the fictional situation of discord from Spanish history of the early Restoration, even where the connections were most plainly integral as, for example, in the linkage of the novel's town-countryside motif to the liberal's exaltation of the capitalist development of the countryside. In layers above and below my sketch there is a need for a concrete study of history and an investigation of social and political relationships. In no way has my sketch pretended to touch many of these matters. At most suggest them, hoping to provide a framework within which the art of Doña Perfecta could be elaborated further and effectively reappraised. Now many modern critics have proclaimed useless the «extra-literary» attempts at historical integration of studies of fiction. There is of course a danger of studying the structure of Doña Perfecta in its own right and then vaguely relating it to an approximate history. Yet to carry this justified fear   —50→   of superficiality or dilettantism too, far has meant leaving the concrete, textual case of Doña Perfecta incompletely understood.

Second, in my historical approach to Doña Perfecta I focused on the triangle of author, fictional work and reading public also in order to elucidate the novel aesthetically. The ideological issues lurking behind the catastrophe at Orbajosa as explained (symbolically, stylistically, dramatically) by critics has turned out to be too reductive or too abstract for the fictional data provided by Galdós' dense 1876 text; that is, what happens in Galdós' novel covers much more ground than what is offered by the various interpretations of imagery, tragedy, intransigence, humor, rhetoric, characters or patterns. Ironically, Doña Perfecta is richer in tensions, subtler in structure, more profound in meaning, and sharper in ideological appraisals than criticism has shown. I therefore overlooked most evaluations (pro, contra or neutral) of the «art» of Doña Perfecta either as not necessary for an elucidation of the novel or as having biased and arbitrary premises of what constitutes a good or bad Galdosian novel. I especially rejected as unfounded or irrelevant (for literary criticism) the pejorative connotations that sometimes accompany melodrama, thesis novel and the earlier Galdós period of 1876-79. Instead I tried to exploit the neutral descriptive sense of these terms and set forth the forms they take in Doña Perfecta;110 I was concerned with what, for example, was it that Galdós tried to do in 1876 with melodrama and thesis, how he did it, and whether he succeeded in what he tried to do.

Finally, I have tried to be objective while working by the analytical standards derived from within our own scholarly medium. But I do not claim to be detached. No literary critic who appraises Doña Perfecta can be detached. And my final point, about the critics of Doña Perfecta, is a difficult point to make because it could give rise to misunderstandings however cautiously I put it. But ft is simply this: an ideological interpretation of fiction like Doña Perfecta, implies, simultaneously, an examination of the ideology in Galdosian literary criticism. That is, why is it that critics, trained professionally to analyze a novel from within, in terms of its own internal structures, nevertheless misinterpret but, even more striking, misread what happens in key moments of the novel. I am not referring to different interpretations but to distinct readings of the text. Since Doña Perfecta is not, linguistically or structurally, a very complex novel I have not accepted as very valid the usual explanations that texts are pretexts for plural findings, that critics commit errors or that some critics are simply sharper or more careful than others. Such arguments only beg the question. For I am referring to scholars who, fortified with linguistic training and other techniques, can scrutinize a text thoroughly. What matters then is not so much the methods, formulas or notions critics have forged about Doña Perfecta, or any formula about the novel, as it is the attitude to which a particular analysis of Doña Perfecta gives substance. And almost always this attitude is concerned with the nature of the relation of Doña Perfecta's fiction, as verbal imaginative creation, to history.

I need limit my argument only to the case of José F. Montesinos because in editions, articles, books and his volumes on XIX century and Galdós, he   —51→   has produced a combination of scholarship, editorship, and literary interpretation which, because of its power, elegance, audacity, and illumination, makes him as worthy of consideration as any critic in the corpus of Galdós' criticism. In his long, detailed study, Montesinos openly (and daringly) criticized Doña Perfecta for its one-sided, predictable thesis, for uncertain patterns, for defective development of character, for melodrama, for a lack of focus. Galdós' predictable thesis need not be, as we have seen, terribly defective but this is not the issue here; I am more concerned about Montesinos' arguments and, what is I suspect, the liberal ideology behind them: first, he imposed an interpretation of the novel's outcome:

Perdida su ilusión, perdida su vida, el fin de Doña Perfecta sólo podía ser un lento declinar hacia la muerte.

[p. 178]                

There is no correlative between this clearly wrong reading of what happens at the novel's end and the textual evidence which shows a Perfecta working, as always only more so, within her own mold. This is why, according to Cayetano who, is concerned about her state, more than ever she is loved, admired and respected by the people at Orbajosa. Perfecta does not feel she did wrong; it was Pepe who ruined her daughter.

The question is why did Montesinos read Doña Perfecta in this particular way. This question is important because his reading of Galdós' ending is the basis for evaluating the novel and distinguishing the early from the later Galdós. His argument provides the answer:

Los mayores defectos de la novela y el hastío que produce no se deben a falseamiento alguno deliberado, sino a que el lector ha de pensar por fuerza que en Orbajosa existirían otros seres y cosas, además de los que el autor exhibe, y de este modo lo que daña notablemente el libro es el ser «parcial» en todos sentidos. Desde el título mismo, Doña Perfecta, indica contener, bajo sus apariencias de relato atenido a una determinada realidad, no poco de simbólico.

[p. 178]                

It is Galdós' «partiality» within the thesis that bothers Montesinos here, not simply a thesis novel. Again in the name of the later Galdosian novels Montesinos questioned and attacked the earlier Doña Perfecta. He admits as much in his «Nota preliminar». If I am even partially correct in my reading and analysis of Doña Perfecta then Montesinos did not simply misinterpret Doña Perfecta; rather he did not like the basis of Galdós' thesis: the failure of liberals without atonement. Montesinos probably rejected the art of Doña Perfecta because, as he hints, the novel took in 1876 the untragic view of the Spanish liberals; because Galdós melodramatized their efforts and failures.111

University of Minnesota

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