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ArribaAbajoThe problem of ambiguity in Galdós' Doña Perfecta129

Arnold M. Penuel

In the present study I propose to analyze the roles which ambiguity, or the lack thereof, plays in Galdós' Doña Perfecta (1876).130 Modifying Empson's definition somewhat to make it more applicable to narrative fiction, I propose to use the word ambiguity to refer to any passage, or group of passages forming patterns, susceptible to alternative reactions.131 Admittedly a definition of ambiguity to be applied to the study of a novel must be so broad as to be of limited value. A passage which appears to one reader to have an alternative meaning may appear to another to have a single clear-cut meaning. While ambiguity involves the possibility of alternative reactions, the content of these reactions can fall anywhere within the spectrum of human experience. Thus within the framework of the larger definition each ambiguity must be carefully defined in its own terms.

The question may arise as to why anyone would choose to study ambiguity in Doña Perfecta, a novel which may seem to be the least ambiguous of Galdós' works. In some respects, the ideological for example, it is relatively unambiguous; in others it is more ambiguous. Critics have often made ambivalent judgments as to the artistic worth of Doña Perfecta and its place in Galdós' novelistic creation. Also, they have often differed among themselves with respect to the artistic value of the novel. Some have regarded it as thinly disguised propaganda, while others have affirmed its artistic value. César Barja's criticism is typical of those who view the novel as more propaganda than art.: «Hay demasiada vehemencia pasional en la obra, demasiado espíritu de ataque y de propaganda. Fue escrita para la Prensa, y eso es: una serie de artículos de Prensa anticlerical y anticatólica. ¿Qué novela puede ser la obra en que bien y mal se reparten en cantidades absolutas? Pepe Rey está más que idealizado. Doña Perfecta y compañeros, en cambio, más que pintados están caricaturizados».132

In a recent article Richard A. Cardwell, basing his arguments on a close textual analysis, has protested against the tendency to read Doña Perfecta as mere propaganda.133 Although Cardwell tends to disregard the critics who -often without sufficient documentation- have affirmed the humanity of the characters, his insistence on Doña Perfecta's human and aesthetic values advances our understanding of the novel.134 Cardwell's comment on Galdós' presentation of Pepe Rey reveals the thrust of his efforts: «The point of this ambigous presentation of the hero would seem to indicate that Galdós is not offering a 'point of view' but attempting, however clumsily, to convey something of the complex nature of a human being placed in a situation of considerable   —72→   stress».135 Cardwell feels that his analysis shows that the two épocas theory of Galdós' novelistic art needs serious revision.136

While I agree with Cardwell with respect to Galdós' efforts to humanize his characters in Doña Perfecta, I differ with him in my judgment of the success of those efforts. Despite evidence here and there in the novel that Galdós has made some efforts to create «round» characters, there are elements in the novel -or perhaps missing therefrom- which cause the reader to recollect its events and characters in strong Gestalts which tend to become abstractions. It is a novel whose meaning seems to be easy to abstract; the role which any given character plays in the entire scheme of events appears to be readly discernible. The novel encourages quick closure. This naturally brings up the questions of what precedes the closure and the nature of the Gestalt produced by the closure. To what extent is the closure preceded by an aesthetic experience? Is the closure simultaneous with the reading of the work? Immediate closure is more characteristic of discursive writing rather than creative literature. The writer of a scientific treatise, for example, leads his reader step by step in a logical fashion from one proposition to another, and at any given point in his exposition the reader should understand everything up to that point. This is palpably not the case in the reading of a literary work. The parts are fully appreciated only after having perceived the whole. The reasons for this are many, of course, but this is not the place to deal with them systematically. However, one of the most important differences in literary and discursive writing is the omnipresence of ambiguity in the former. It may be a conscious technique. But it is more than just a technique; it is present because reality, as captured by man's mind, is pervasively ambiguous: and a novelist, for example, who aspires to depict reality convincingly will take this fact into account in the presentation of his characters. The vision of reality is reflected in the techniques used by the writer.

Being a nineteenth-century literary realist, Galdós developed what Peter B. Goldman has aptly termed an «aesthetic of ambiguity».137 One of my assumptions here is that this «aesthetic of ambiguity», though present from the time Galdós wrote his first novel, is comparatively immature in the Novelas de la primera época, attaining its fullest development when the novelist reaches the height of his novelistic powers well into the writing of the Novelas españolas contemporáneas. Many of the problems presented by Doña Perfecta are the result of the immaturity of this «aesthetic of ambiguity». The immaturity of the aesthetic presupposes imperfections in the vision of reality as well as in the techniques used to depict that reality.

The generalization which Wilhelm Worringer makes about the development of art in a culture seems to be roughly analogous to Galdós' novelistic development: «The tendency to abstraction is thus dominant in the initial stage of all art, and remains so with certain peoples at higher levels of culture, while, for example, among the Greeks and other Occidentals it gradually expires to make way for the tendency to empathy».138 What often shows through in Doña Perfecta is a tendency to view life in terms of black and white. Galdós' mentality, like that of the student radicals of the 1960's, seems to preclude the possibility of compromise. While there may be several   —73→   explications of Galdós' polarized view of human affairs evident in Doña Perfecta, I suspect that the most important one is the novelist's youth and inexperience. The tendency to think in rigid categories and selective perception, so characteristic of immaturity, was at work in the creation of Doña Perfecta. Galdós handled these characters with relatively less sensitivity than he did the characters in his later novels because they were the product of imagination and ideological concerns rather than observation and experience.

The tendency to abstraction, which so often has given rise to ambivalent judgments about Doña Perfecta, is related to the principle of «psychical distance»139 or aesthetic distance, as it is often termed. The elements in the novel designed to create «psychical distance» in the reader are sometimes used skill-fully, sometimes not. The temptation of the reader to view the events of the novel in conceptual terms at the expense of the aesthetic experience is in large measure a function of excessive distance. A variety of factors combine to increase aesthetic distance in the novel. Paradoxically Galdós' being underdistanced from his subject in Doña Perfecta results in the reader's being overdistanced. Galdós had not yet mastered the interplay between empathy, at one polar extreme of distance, and complete detachment at the other end. The following comment by Bullough is relevant to this problem in Doña Perfecta:

The difference between «idealistic» and «realistic» Art is not a clear-cut dividing line between the art practices described by these terms, but is a difference of degree in the Distance-limit which they presuppose on the part of both the artist and of the public. A similar reconciliation seems to me possible between the opposites «sensual» and «spiritual», «individual» and «typical»... It is Distance which on one side prevents the emptying of Art of its concreteness and the development of the typical into abstractness; which on the other, suppresses the directly personal element of its individualism; thus reducing the antithesis to the peaceful interplay of these two factors. It is just this interplay which constitutes the «antinomy of Distance».140

Although sensual, individual, and concrete elements, productive of positive and negative empathy, indispensable for the aesthetic experience, are present in Doña Perfecta, they are overshadowed by their opposites which tend to overdistance the reader from the novel.

The opening pages of the novel are clearly designed to elicit our sympathy for Pepe Rey and dispose us against Orbajosa. This is done with varying degrees of subtlety. In the first place Pepe's arrival at the deserted station in Villahorrenda in the cold, dark, early hours of the morning where he is treated dryly by an ill-tempered station employee, and where he learns that he must continue his trip by horseback because there are no hotels in the town, causes us to identify with him instinctively. Galdós' choice of this hour for Pepe's arrival is well done; several goals are achieved: the reader identifies with the young engineer; the pre-dawn arrival ensures that Rey's vitality will be at its lowest ebb, a condition which would naturally augment in his eyes the ugliness of the countryside between Villahorrenda and Orbajosa; and subsequently it becomes apparent that the darkness in which he arrives is symbolic as well as literal.

The description which the narrator gives of Rey is designed to strengthen the reader's initial identification with the young man:


Frisaba la edad de este excelente joven en los treinta y cuatro años. Era de complexión fuerte y un tanto hercúlea, con rara perfección formado, y tan arrogante, que si llevara uniforme militar ofrecería el más guerrero aspecto y talle que puede imaginarse. Rubios el cabello y la barba, no tenía en su rostro la flemática imperturbabilidad de los sajones, sino por el contrario, una viveza tal que sus ojos parecían negros sin serlo. Su persona bien podía pasar por un hermoso y acabado símbolo, y si fuera estatua, el escultor habría grabado en el pedestal estas palabras: inteligencia, fuerza. Si no en caracteres visibles, llevábalas él expresadas vagamente en la luz de su mirar, en el poderoso atractivo que eran don propio de su persona y en las simpatías a que su trato cariñosamente convidaba.


A few lines later the narrator speaks of Rey's «profundo sentido moral». Clearly there is little distance between the «implicit author» and Rey in three important human qualities: physical attractiveness, intellectual ability, and moral probity. The reader knows immediately that the author intends for his sympathies to lie with the engineer. The description of the experience of empathy given by Theodore Lipps is applicable to what the reader probably feels about Rey here:

A certain person is «beautiful». That means that the life which resides in sensuous appearance, enters into me, is taken by me sympathetically. It is experienced as the fulfillment of a unique vital drive or vital yearning. Or again, the sensuous appearance of some person is «ugly». That means the life which resides in it is taken up by me but contradicts my own inner drive to live, feel, and act. I experience it as a negation of this drive.142

Lipps goes on to distinguish between empathizing and knowing, an important distinction for a literary work: «Epathizing is experiencing. It is not just simply knowing that somewhere in the outer world there is something mental or inward, some joy, sorrow, woe, or despair, nor is it merely imagining such things».143

Galdós causes the reader to identify with Rey from the beginning in order to predispose him to be generally sympathetic with the engineer's values and reject those of the Orbajosa. The reader feels that Rey's perceptions are trustworthy. When he is disheartened by the ugliness of the region, appalled by the application of «la ley de fuga», and irritated by Caballuco's arrogance, so is the reader. The engineer's negative first impressions of Orbajosa and the surrounding area become fixed in the reader's mind. Logically the reader expects a continuation of the qualities present at the beginning of the novel, including the irony and the denial of vitality. While the reader expects little good from a land so ungenerous to the senses, it is only in retrospect that he realizes that the almost uniform irony of the place names and the unmitigated ugliness of the region presage and parallel the Orbajosa almost uniform hypocrisy and moral deficiencies.

The reader is also led to expect to be able to continue sympathizing with Rey because of the engineer's excellent qualities. However, subsequently there are aspects of his portrayal which are inconsistent and result in an ambiguous characterization (or a feeling of ambivalence toward him on the reader's part which, by the way, reflect the same feelings of the narrator. Despite his supposed intelligence, articulateness, and frankness, Rey allows to go unchallenged Inocencio's repeatedly gratuitous assumptions that he is an atheist.   —75→   In his first encounter with Inocencio, the priest makes the following aggressive statement implying that Rey is an atheist: «Cuando estuve en Madrid y me llevaron al Ateneo confieso que quedé absorto al ver el asombroso ingenio que Dios ha dado a los ateos y protestantes» (423-424). The engineer fails to contradict the priest's imputation of guilt of atheism by association. Instead, Perfecta replies indicating by what she says her acceptance of Inocencio's characterization of her nephew and her hope that Rey will desire nothing more than that the priest «le saque del infierno de sus falsas doctrinas» (424). When Pepe finally does respond, incredibly his response reinforces the priest and his aunt's erroneous assumption: «Justamente, no deseo otra cosa sino que el señor penitenciario me saque...» (424). Galdós is not unaware that the reader might think it improbable that Rey would not counter such a serious and false charge, and he attempts -ineffectually in my opinion- to justify the engineer's silence with the following statement: «Rey creyó prudente poner punto en tan peligroso tratado, y con este fin dirigió una pregunta al señor don Cayetano...» (424). Both his frankness and intelligence seem to have abandoned him when he needed them most. Is it probable that a highly intelligent man, thirty-four years old, cannot sense the danger of allowing his prospective mother-in- law in nineteenth-century provincial Spain to persit in the false belief that he is an atheist?

There can be little doubt that the inability of Rey to communicate effectively with Inocencio and Perfecta is the consequence, at least partially, of sharply divergent frames of reference which eventually lead to a complete polarization of viewpoints. Eventually the polarization exacerbates the conflict to the point of no return. Rey's inner reaction to a series of unflattering gratuitous assumptions made by Inocencio and Perfecta illustrates this point: «Pepe Rey se hallaba en esa situación de ánimo en que el hombre más prudente siente dentro de sí violentos ardores y una fuerza ciega y brutal que tiende a estrangular, abofetear, romper cráneos y machacar huesos» (449). Although enraged on this occasion, Rey decides to refrain from expressing his anger fully. Instead, he decides to wait until he will definitively leave his aunt's house (450). Is such prudence in character with his alleged frankness and «viveza» and consonant with his feeling of rage at the moment?

The conflict which occurs in Orbajosa, at least initially, within the bosom of the family, suggests what happens in the nation as a whole when positions become polarized. Conflict feeds upon conflict, hatred upon hatred, until the will to understand and communicate ceases to exist and mutual hostility makes open warfare inevitable. The title of the chapter in which Rey contains his rage leads the reader to perceive the conflict on the national level: «Sigue creciendo. Hasta que se declara la guerra» (450).

The fact that Galdós proceeds from the specific to the general here is a well-conceived artistic technique. The process of polarization which begins in individuals, spreads to a region, and finally involves a whole nation symbolically, if not literally, is good psychology and good art. The flaw is in tendering Rey's characterization improbable and inconsistent in order to make his point on the psychological causes of war.

If Galdós had eliminated the hyperbolic: praise of Rey's intelligence at the beginning of the novel, he would still have gained the reader's sympathy   —76→   for his hero without giving rise to undesirable ambiguity in his characterization. The reader's identification with Rey from the first lines of the novel, the engineer's generally attractive personality, and his victimization at the hands of the intolerant and fanatical Orbajosans, suffice to make the reader sympathize with him and his values and become immunized against adopting their values.

Rodolfo Cardona has convincingly argued that Rey is a tragic hero whose tragic flaw is «his pride (hubris) in his integrity, in his complete sincerity, which manifests itself in the lack of sensibility that he displays when he tells the truth».144 Rey's moment of recognition comes in chapter twenty-eight when he confesses in a letter to his father that he has the weakness to let himself be dragged down to the level of his opponents.145

Against the perspective of the tragic structure of the novel, Cardona then raises the issue of the «conflict between plot -in which Pepe emerges as the obvious hero- and characterization -in which doña Perfecta and her associates emerge as heroes».146 Although Rey is the «first actor» in the novel and the one whose fortunes engage the sympathies of the reader, Perfecta is the titular protagonist of the novel and is much more vividly drawn than the tragic hero. Despite the conflict between plot and characterization and the ambiguity with regard to who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist -given the tragic structure of the novel- it is by no means clear that this formal deviation constitutes a weakness in the novel, especially when measured against what Galdós achieves thereby.

Rey's characterization is «blurred» not only by the inconsistencies and contradictions pointed out above, but also -as Cardona has indicated- because the reader finds it hard «to determine exactly what are his true beliefs and ideas».147 Rey always seems to be reacting to what Orbajosans wish to think he believes. But a distinction must be made between the blurring resulting from unintentional inconsistencies and a blurring which contributes substantially to the novel's meaning. If the reader himself, who is privy to many more of Rey's thoughts and acts than are Perfecta and her allies -and sympathizes with him- cannot be sure of the engineer's beliefs and ideas, then the question arises of how they can condemn him and take his life without giving him «the opportunity of a real hearing».148 The obvious answer is that in this instance Rey's weak characterization is a function of the characterization of the Orbajosans which, on the face of the matter, seems to compound the formal problem. Yet, if we put aside Galdós' violation of what is largely an external formal consideration, we will begin to see that the creation of this ambiguity corresponds to a legitimate -perhaps not altogether successful- attempt to create a more flexible formal framework within which to depict a reality not entirely suitable for presentation within the classical tragic mold.

Casalduero affirms that Galdós was not aware of the imbalance in his presentation of Perfecta and Rey: «La figura de Doña Perfecta es colosal, con una monumentalidad conseguida por un procedimiento muy de época: el agrandamiento de las líneas. Pepe Rey es de un canon completamente humano. Esta diversidad de proporciones produce un efecto extraño. Galdós, poseído como estaba por el tema y la figura de Doña Perfecta, no se dio cuenta   —77→   de este desequilibrio, en el cual Pepe Rey pierde todo relieve».149 What Perfecta represents in human, as well as in abstract terms, must inevitably -and desirably so- leave a strong imprint on the reader's mind. On the human level, Rey's tactlessness is venial while Perfecta's will to dominante at any cost is cardinal and symptomatic of a fundamental character flaw. A character so confident of being right, so vehement, and of such rock-like intransigence is bound to make an indelible impression on the reader. Moreover, Perfecta is basically a static character, if we consider her presentation strictly within the framework of the action-time of the novel. Unlike Rey, who develops new behavioral traits in his vengefulness and willingness to resort to violence -traits of which he soon repents- Perfecta does not develop in a new direction but rather undergoes a process of intensification of the traits she already possesses. Her character is formed, hard as a rock, from the beginning; but its hardness is only revealed to us -and to Rey- gradually. Once revealed, its nature is clear and unmistakable, enabling the reader to form a strong Gestalt. A moving figure is usually harder to capture as a single Gestalt than is a motionless one. The dynamism Rey exhibits is not sufficient to impress the reader because the changes which occur in his personality are reactive and his acts ineffectual.

More important, however, is what Perfecta represents on the abstract level, because this level of meaning is so thinly disguised in the novel. Perfecta embodies the monolithic force of reactionary Spain, beside which the progressive, scientific force represented by Rey pales into insignificance. Liberalism has never obtained a strong foothold in Spain, has never presented a strong unified image, and has never been effectual for any significant length of time. In contrast Spanish reactionaries have nearly always presented a strong clear-cut image the principal ingredient of which has been the ideal of maintaining the status quo, as a minimal goal, and re-establishing the values of the past at the maximum. What liberalism threatened, in conservative eyes -which have always been in the vast majority in Spain- was the destruction of those cherished values of the past. Faced with a threat to their values -which often had evolved to protect their interests- reactionary forces paid scant heed to the positive aspects of liberalism. Instead, they united their forces -as do the Orbajosans- and dealt with the threat.

This enormous disproportion in numbers, strength, and unity between conservative and liberal forces in Spain is the chief justification for the disproportion between the characterization of Perfecta and that of Rey. Galdós is depicting reality here as it is, not as he would like it to be, notwithstanding his obvious sympathy for what Rey basically represents. Galdós might have characterized Rey in such a way as to leave the reader with a strong impression with regard to the engineer's idea and beliefs, but in so doing he would have sacrificed the accuracy of the larger reality which he wished to present on the abstract level of the novel. In making Perfecta the protagonist, by title and strength of characterization, and Rey the protagonist of the plot, Galdós, notwithstanding his deviation from classical tragic structure, is able to depict that larger reality with accuracy and vividness at the same time that he engages the reader's sympathies -albeit with some serious lapses- in the precursor of a superior reality.


The subtlety with which Galdós uses ambiguity here to strengthen his presentation of what is primarily, but not altogether, the secondary level of meaning in the novel is worthy of his best efforts in this respect in his later novels. However, other aspects of the novel indicate that don Benito still has a way to go at this stage of his career before achieving the almost uniform mastery of the techniques of ambiguity evident in his later novels.

The reader of Doña Perfecta is constantly reminded that the characters and events of the novel fit into a larger pattern which serves to illuminate the clash of opposing forces in Spain.150 The desire to create multiple levels of meaning is a legitimate artistic goal and the realization of this goal has always been a characteristic of great novels. For a variety of reasons, which will be made clear as the analysis progresses, the reader is often made aware of the abstract meaning of the novel on the first level of consciousness. So pervasive are the details contributing to the abstract meaning of the novel that the reader scarcely lingers on the literal events, but passes on rather too quickly to fit these events into the larger abstract patterns. Galdós is more obtrusive here than in his later novels where the clues to secondary meanings are presented naturally, but more ambiguously. The tendency of the characters to be perceived as embodiments of abstractions has probably contributed more than any other factor to the ambivalence on the part of many readers with regard to whether the novel is «art» or «argument».

The abstract tendency of the novel is present from the beginning, where Galdós entitles the first chapter «¡Villahorrenda... Cinco minutos!», suggesting that place names are symbolic rather than realistic; and Chapter II bears the title «Un viaje por el corazón de España», implying that the events taking place in Orbajosa may be regarded as representative in some sense of events in Spain as a whole. Chapters V-XV bears titles which suggest a growing discord between nations which finally erupts into war. Chapter XV bears the title «Sigue creciendo. Hasta que se declara la guerra». Chapter XVIII is entitled «Tropa», and Chapter XIX, «Combate terrible. Estrategia». Thus the chapter titles alone encourage the reader to interpret the events in national rather than merely individual or local terms.151

It is important to distinguish between the false abstractions in the form of stereotypes and caricatures which the Orbajosans create in order to justify, protect, and enhance their interests and maintain their narrow view of the world and the abstract elements in the novel resulting from conscious techniques used by the novelist to create multiple levels of meaning. This is difficult and the source of no little ambiguity. For example, Rey does possess many of the ideas associated with scientists and liberals; and real conflicts do exist between Orbajosa and Madrid. Yet Rey, though a scientist and a liberal, is far from being the caricature into which the Orbajosans' pathological imagination has transformed him. It is ironic that Orbajosans view Madrid as the center of vice and corruption in Spain when they themselves engage in the most nefarious activities, including murder.


That the Orbajosans see the conflict in terms of Christians versus Moors (474, 481-482, 492-493) serves to characterize them as religious fanatics.152 Through the action of the novel the reader is made to realize dramatically that the same Reconquest mentality still exists in Spain in a virulent form which leads to internal strife. By associating the Orbajosans with the Reconquest Galdós provides us with a time machine which takes us into the past and allows us to view present events with the perspective of distance.

The conflict between individuals possessing a liberal, scientific frame of reference and those with a reactionary point of view is real in Doña Perfecta. Madrid represents the enlightened, progressive viewpoint, while Orbajosa exemplifies the reactionary forces of the nation, notwithstanding the fact that the reactionary position masks the machination, of self-interest. Galdós intends that the reader's experience parallel that of Rey who, before coming to Orbajosa, scoffed at the possibility of civil war. After experiencing the Orbajosans' intolerance, the engineer makes the following statement: «Es preciso engolfarse en estos países encantadores, ver de cerca esta gente y oírle dos palabras, para saber de qué pie cojean» (461).

The characterization of the minor characters is an aspect of the novel which further contributes to the reader's constant temptation to focus his attention on the abstract level of meaning rather than on the literal level. Rey's mistakenly calling Pedro Lucas Solón instead of by his true nickname Licurgo may very well be, as Cardwell has indicated, an illustration of the engineer's tactlessness,153 but another important function is to remind the reader, lest he overlook the significance of the name, that the original Licurgo, unlike the present opportunistic bearer of the name, was a distinguished legislator (408). Galdós continued references to Lucas as Licurgo, «el legislador espartano», or «el legislador lacedemonio» prepare the reader for what proves later to be the irony of the name.

The images such as «rostro astuto», «sagaces ojos», and «ojuelos sagaces», which are used to describe Lucas, make the reader aware of the primitive level of his consciousness and behavior. Lucas sees life as struggle in which only the fittest survive. The presentation of Lucas reveals obliquely what his social superiors in Orbajosa are really like underneath the veneer of civilized forms. By virtue of his frequent use of proverbs and traditional sayings, and his accompanying Pepe at the beginning of the novel, Lucas is associated with Sancho Panza and the Spanish peasant tradition. It is an ironic association, however; for while Lucas shares Sancho's materialism, he possesses none of the squire's saving graces.

Another case in which abstraction extends to the periphery of our focus is the characterization of Cristóbal Ramos. Ramos, a local tough and henchman of doña Perfecta, bears the nickname Caballuco and is often referred to by the narrator as «el Centauro», because of his equestrian abilities. Ramos represents a tradition; his factious way of life represents an obtrusion of the past into the present. He descends from a long line of factious forbears, as Lucas explains to Rey:

No sé cómo no le ha oído usted nombrar en Madrid, porque es hijo de un famoso Caballuco que estuvo en la facción, el cual Caballuco padre era hijo de otro Caballuco abuelo,   —80→   que también estuvo en facción de más allá... Y como ahora andan diciendo que vuelve a haber facción, porque todo está torcido y revuelto, tememos que Caballuco se nos vaya también a ella poniendo fin de esta manera a las hazañas de su padre y abuelo, que por gloria nuestra nacieron en esta ciudad.


Through Ramos the rebellious word is made deed: suspicious of and hostile to the central government, Ramos is a willing tool of more subtle reactionaries such as Perfecta and Inocencio.

The characterization of Cayetano also contributes to the novel's abstract level of meaning. Although in some respects Cayetano is more tolerant than other Orbajosans, e. g., his tolerance of Pepe's visit to the Troya sister's house (452), his antiquarian interests are consistent with and contribute to the Orbajosans' habit of inflating the importance of their past and present acts. His activities provide the respectability of a certain intellectual and historical foundation -however shaky it may be- which encourages the self-aggrandizement of his fellow citizens and ultimately justifies, in their eyes, rebellion. Galdós does not lead the reader to feel hostility toward Cayetano as he does with Perfecta and Inocencio. What the reader may feel is annoyance or amusement at the antiquarian's efforts to drag his petty projects into the conversation at every opportunity.

Jacinto is a pedant whose pedantry is the result of taking too seriously a doctorate received at a tender age and being spoiled by having his sophomoric pronouncements received with «imprudentes aplausos» (429). The young lawyer is presented as such a ridiculous figure that he seldom causes any emotion stronger than momentary irritation. Having been spoiled all of his life, Jacinto continues to be spoiled by his mother and uncle. The attempt to secure for him what he cannot secure through his own efforts and merit is the original source of the principal action of the novel. The habit of self-aggrandizement which Jacinto exhibits as an individual is typical of a tendency which Orbajosans exhibit in general, that is, the habit of thinking and acting on the basis of inflated self-importance. The ultimate consequences of acting on this unrealistic view of themselves are tragic for Rey and the nation.

An immediate effect of the elements in Doña Perfecta which lead the reader to perceive the characters and events of the novel in abstract terms is to increase aesthetic distance. The numerous aspects of the portrayal of the characters which cause the reader to view the characters as abstractions diminish the reader's perception of them as individuals and thereby lessen his identification with them on the human level. The reader's intellect becomes more heavily involved than his emotions; clarity as to the nature and causes of the central conflict are given priority over emotional involvement with the characters. My point is, of course, that the reduction of emotional involvement brought about by the obviousness of what the characters and events represent gives free rein to the intellect to the detriment of the aesthetic experience. Art appears to have become discourse.

Galdós unnecessarily misleads the reader with respect to several characters with numerous resultant ambiguities. These ambiguities result from clumsy characterization, overdistancing, and the point of view assumed by the narrator.


The reader cannot be sure at what point Perfecta begins to act to discourage Rey from persisting in his goal to marry Rosario. Although Perfecta admits in Chapter XIX to having resorted to using underhandedly a series of stratagems to incite her nephew to leave Orbajosa, not until Chapter XXXI does the narrator offer us an extended «inside view» of Perfecta's personality and acts. From the beginning of the novel, and until Chapter XXXI, the narrator assumes the point of view of appearances. The reputation for goodness which she has, not only among the Orbajosans, but even among outsiders such as Lieutenant Pinzón, is reinforced by the narrator's description of her. Phrases such as «la señora se sonreía con bondad maternal» (427); «aquella risueña expresión de bondad que emanaba de su alma» (430); «su bondadosa tía» (431); «sonrió con dulzura» (440); and «su sonrisa bondadosa» (447), seem to confirm that she deserves her reputation. When the narrator speaks of «aquella expresión de bondad que emanaba de su alma» he is telling us that he is describing the soul as well as the surface of his character. Once he has admitted knowing the reality as well as the appearances, the continued deceptive presentation of appearances is unnatural and inconsistent. The fact that the reader is forewarned in the opening pages to expect irony is not sufficient to apprise him fully of the irony of the comments on Perfecta's goodness, except in retrospect. Supposedly Galdós conceals Perfecta's true nature so long in order that the reader, like the other characters, will be taken in by her apparent goodness. The irony makes the illumination of her real character more dramatic. The flaw is in unnecessarily falsifying her characterization to achieve these effects.

Although there is less ambiguity in the characterization of Inocencio, certain phrases referring to the priest, such as «santo varón» (417), «venerable canónigo» (419), and «venerable penitenciario» (431), which are used frequently are the result of the narrator assuming the point of view of appearances. At the same time, Galdós gives the reader more clues about Inocencio's true feelings than is the case with Perfecta when he speaks of the priest «afectando humildad» (425) upon learning of Rey's supposed lack of decorum in the cathedral.

Even after the reader is fully aware of Inocencio's role in the events of the novel, Galdós refers to him as the «buen clérigo» (486) when María Remedios so insistently argues that Rey should be given a beating. The use of the phrase «buen clérigo» in these circumstances is warranted however, since momentarily the reader sympathizes with the priest, seeing him as comparatively reasonable and a victim of Remedios' inordinate ambition. His weakness elicits our sympathy: «[...] el penitenciario temblaba y sudaba. ¡Pobre pollo en las garras del buitre!» (488).

The same pattern of misleading by adopting the perspective of appearances is present in the characterization of secondary characters. Before we are aware of Licurgo's true nature, the narrator speaks of Rey being delivered «a los amorosos brazos del tío Licurgo» (416). Licurgo later states that he disliked Rey from the time he met him (471). Similarly, the description of Cayetano before the reader really knows him is misleading: «Respecto de su vasto saber, ¿qué puede decirse sino que era un verdadero prodigio?» (421).


The presentation of the relationship of Perfecta with María Remedios is ambiguous because what we are told about the relationship contradicts what we are shown. After informing us that Remedios had been a charwoman at one time in Perfecta's house, the narrator explains that this does not affect their present relationship: «Y no crea por esto que doña Perfecta la miraba con altanería; nada de eso. Tratábala sin orgullo; hacia ella sentía cariño fraternal» (484). Yet a few moments before, when Remedios had suggested to her friend that a beating would have an edifying effect on Rey, Perfecta had replied in this insulting manner: «[...] tú no eres capaz de una idea elevada, de una resolución grande y salvadora. Eso que me aconsejas es una indignidad cobarde» (480-481). Then Perfecta adds this insult to injury: «Tú no tienes dos dedos de frente, Remedios; cuando quieres resolver un problema grave, sales con tales patochadas. Yo imagino un recurso más digno de personas nobles y bien nacidas. ¡Apalear! ¡Qué estupidez!» (481). There is heavy irony in Perfecta's self-attributed nobility, and we can see how she earned her reputation for goodness, but this is not sufficient to draw our attention away from the inconsistent presentation of the relationship

What appears to be maternal love in Remedios' attitude toward Jacinto is really nothing so natural, but rather an effort to overcome her sense of insignificance and insecurity. She seems convinced that the real motive of her burning ambition to have her son marry Rosario is maternal love: «¡Ah! Sólo el corazón de una madre siente estas cosas... Sólo las madres son capaces de sufrir tantas penas por el bienestar de un hijo» (487). The following comment made by the narrator reveals the feelings of insecurity which Remedios is compensating for with her «maternal love»: «Conviene indicar que María Remedios se deseñoraba bastante -pase la palabra- junto a doña Perfecta, y esto le era desagradable, porque también en aquel espíritu suspirón había, como en todo lo que vive, un poco de orgullo... ¡Verle a su hijo casado con Rosarito; verle rico y poderoso; verle emparentado con doña Perfecta, con la señora!... ¡Ay!, esto era para María Remedios la tierra y el cielo, esta vida y la otra, el presente y el más allá, la totalidad suprema de la existencia» (485).

The attitude of Rey's father toward Orbajosa is another example of the reader being thrown off the track. After extolling Juan Rey's virtues and leading us to trust his judgment, the narrator presents us the letter in which don Juan makes the idyllic description of Orbajosa which begins as follows: «Allí todo es bondad, honradez...» (415). The passage is well known and needs no repeating, Don Juan's description of Orbajosa is later paralleled by an equally idylic one by Cayetano: «La caridad se practica aquí como en los tiempos evangélicos...» (453). The almost identical content of the two passages leads the reader to associate them. Since by the time he reads the second one he is fully aware of its ironic significance, he also recognizes in retrospect the irony of the first. Galdós is inconsistent in making don Juan, who otherwise seems to be an admirable, intelligent, and mature man, naively utopian. The characterization of don Juan is falsified in order to throw the reader off the track temporarily with regard to the Orbajosans' real nature and to create an ironic effect. Both don Juan's and Cayetano's comments contribute to the important theme of appearances versus reality, but they   —83→   also make another contribution to the meaning of the novel. After observing the irony of the place names between Villahorrenda and Orbajosa, Rey makes the following observation: «¡Qué demonio! La gente de este país vive con la imaginación» (409). Don Juan, Cayetano, the Orbajosans, and, by symbolic extension, Spaniards in general perceive reality too exclusively through the imagination, too subjectively.

One of the principal effects of the presence in the novel of inconsistencies in characterization is to focus the reader's attention on novelistic techniques. The result is an unintentional and undesirable increase in the reader's cognitive awareness at the expense of aesthetic experience. The process of intellectual analysis, once begun, easily becomes a habit, making the meaning of the novel difficult to perceive except in conceptual terms. This partially explains the numerous abstract interpretations of the novel and the inclination of some critics to see the novel as «argument» rather than «art».

One of the novel's most meaningfully ambiguous aspects has to do with the motivation of Inocencio and Perfecta. Understanding the roles which character, ideological considerations, and interest play in determining their conduct is no easy task. Because of the ideological content of Inocencio's verbal attacks on Rey, it is natural at first glance to assume that the cleric's antagonism is based on ideological differences. Yet there are hints which suggest early that the priest may be attempting to manipulate his listeners. When Inocencio observes that Perfecta is appalled at Rey's speech on the advances made by science, a little smile of triumph plays on his lips (423). And when Perfecta scolds her nephew for his lack of decorum in the cathedral, Inocencio maintains «el semblante afectadamente serio e inmutable» (431). The smile and the necessity to affect a reproachful attitude indicate a certain emotional detachment which suggests in turn a certain disingenuousness and the possibility of a concealed motive.

Concealing until the final pages of the novel that the motive of interest underlies the apparent ideological antagonism is designed to reinforce dramatically the reader's condemnation of the priest's conduct. While a certain detachment discernible in Inocencio's manipulation of Rey and Perfecta suggests the presence of a motive deeper than ideological hostility, it does not necessarily mean that Inocencio disbelieves his insinuations about Rey. The priest seems convinced of Rey's atheism when he explains his conduct to María Remedios: «Desemascaré sus vicios; descubrí su ateísmo; puse a la vista de todo el mundo la podredumbre de aquel corazón materializado...» (486). The prime and deepest motive of Inocencio's behavior is the desire that Jacinto marry Rosario; the priest's xenophobia and religious intolerance permit him to assume Rey's atheism a priori. Once Rey is assumed to be an atheist the cleric sincerely feels justified in using any means, however unfair, to expose that supposed atheism.

The narrator is never explicit as to how Perfecta's character was formed.154

In Chapter XXXI he makes the following statement about her character and her religious fanaticism:

Tal es el resultado producido en un carácter duro y sin bondad nativa por la exaltación religiosa, cuando ésta, en vez de nutrirse de la conciencia y de la verdad revelada en principios   —84→   tan sencillos como hermosos, busca su savia en fórmulas estrechas que sólo obedecen a intereses eclesiásticos. Para que la mojigatería sea inofensiva, es preciso que exista en corazones muy puros.


Thus it is Perfecta's character which causes her to seek to justify her acts on the basis of ill-conceived religious principles. Conceivably, if such religious formulas had not been in the air, it would have been more difficult for her to justify her acts, but she would have sought some other spurious justification for them. Here, Galdós is critical of religious ideas and prejudices which make such convenient and destructive tools for those who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to love.

At the same time he is attacking a national pathological character trait which is exemplified in its individual form in doña Perfecta's character. What really enrages Perfecta more than anything else is a direct challenge to her will and authority. When Rey tells Perfecta that her opposition to his marrying Rosario will not deter him, she reacts with fury:

Doña Perfecta se levantó indignada, majestuosa, terrible. Su actitud era la del anatema hecho mujer.

Eres un loco. ¡Casarte tú con mi hija, casarte tú con ella no queriendo yo...!

Los labios trémulos de la señora articularon estas palabras con verdadero acento trágico.

Y mi autoridad, y mi voluntad, yo... ¿Yo no soy nada?


Later when Remedios suggests that Perfecta may lose her daughter, she reacts angrily: «¡Mi hija!... ¡Perder a mi hija! -exclamó la señora con súbito arrebato de ira- Sólo oírlo me vuelve loca. No, no me la quitarán. Si Rosario no aborrece a ese perdido, como yo deseo, le aborrecerá. De algo sirve la autoridad de una madre... Le arrancaremos su pasión...; mejor dicho, su capricho...» (481).

It is evident here that what infuriates Perfecta is not a threat to her daughter's welfare, whom she considers a possession, but rather the threat to her authority. Perfecta's indifference to any concern other than that of having her way is manifest when she leaves Rosario unconscious in her room and gives Ramos the order to kill the man who challenged her authority.

What Perfecta embodies as an individual is typical of Orbajosans as a group. Her self-complacency (and theirs) leads her (and them) to a xenophobic fear of Madrid and the central government, hostility toward liberals and the scientific attitude, and an insistence on having her (their) way regardless of the consequences. When the psychology of Perfecta and her associates is extended to the national level the most suitable term for it is chauvinism. Orbajosa is a microcosm of Spanish chauvinism. Cayetano's myopic concern with the minute details of what he considers to be Orbajosa's heroic past also fits into this pattern. The most explicit indication of Orbajosan self-aggrandizement is the description of the Casino:

El resumen de todos los debates era siempre la supremacía de Orbajosa y de sus habitantes sobre los demás pueblos y gentes de la tierra.


Lo que principalmente distinguía a los orbajosenses del Casino era un sentimiento de viva hostilidad hacia todo lo que de fuera viniese.


The most dramatic examples of Orbajosan xenophobia occur when Perfecta and Inocencio incite Ramos to rebellion and the good woman gives the order to kill her nephew. Since we are led to extend the meaning of what transpires in Orbajosa to the national level there is bitter irony from the standpoint of the «implicit author» in Cayetano's eulogy of his city: «Aquí verá usted el carácter nacional en toda su pureza, recto, hidalgo, incorruptible, puro, sencillo, patriarcal, hospitalario, generoso...» (453).

Several ambiguities are present in the portrayal of Rosario. Like a romantic heroine, Rosario is rarely observed in a state of equilibrium. In her first appearance in the novel (414) -and repeatedly thereafter- she is described as blushing. Also, like her romantic forbears, she tends to faint when excited (427, 457). The frequent blushing, the fainting, her purity and goodness, her constant state of agitation (see Chapters VIII, XVII, XXIV, and XXXI), the impossibility of her love, and finally, her «retreat» from the world, all contribute to make Rosario's characterization conform more to a romantic than a realistic mold.

The romanticism is attenuated, however, by Galdós' care for the psychological details. The following passage demonstrates how don Benito combined romanticism and psychological realism in his depiction of Rosario:

Era Rosario una muchacha de apariencia delicada y débil, que anunciaba inclinaciones a lo que los portugueses llaman saudades. En su rostro, fino y puro, se observaba la pastosidad nacarada que la mayor parte de los poetas atribuyen a sus heroínas, y sin cuyo barniz sentimental parece que ninguna Enriqueta y ninguna Julia pueden ser interesantes. [...] Pero allí faltaba materia para que la persona fuese completa: faltaba cauce, faltaban orillas. El vasto caudal de su espíritu se desbordaba, amenazando devorar las estrechas riberas. Al ser saludada por su primo se puso como la grana, y sólo pronunció algunas palabras torpes.


It is not difficult to understand why Rosario is not fully formed. Perfecta has been too dominating a mother -for reasons explained above- to permit the independence and self-reliance in her daughter which foster the growth of self-confidence and a firm identity.

Galdós does not define with any precision the respective roles played by heredity and environment in bringing on Rosario's insanity, but rather leaves the reader himself to determine from events the dynamics of her psychosis. Her instability, Cayetano's references to the many victims of insanity in the family, and the severe environmental stress to which Rosario is subjected prepare the reader for her insanity at the end of the novel. Notwithstanding the history of insanity in the family, there can be little doubt that the environment has played a key role in precipitating Rosario's psychosis. Rey, in reaction to Cayetano's observation that the air of Orbajosa has preserved him from falling heir to the family illness, makes the following comment, which suggests the most important reason for Rosario's subsequent insanity: «Celebro que los aires de Orbajosa le hayan preservado a usted -dijo Rey, no pudiendo reprimir un sentimiento de burla que por ley extraña nació en   —86→   medio de su tristeza-. A mí me han probado tan mal, que creo he de ser maniático dentro de poco tiempo si sigo aquí» (453).

The romantic elements -and these are generally more vivid in my opinion- in the portrayal of Rosario prevent the modern reader from identifying very closely with her, while other factors, including a certain psychological realism, decrease the distance. The reader knows that his sympathies should lie with Rosario; however, the resultant involvement is more along the dimension of intellectual understanding than emotional identification.

The ambiguous presentation of Rey's enemies through Rosario's dream (478-479) has been commented on frequently, and I agree with Cardwell that the dream goes beyond appearances and presents the reality of the nature of the characters involved.155

Despite the presence of many ambiguities in Doña Perfecta, these are relatively few and less complex in comparison with the ambiguities of the best Novelas españolas contemporáneas. Moreover, several of the ambiguities in Doña Perfecta, as has been pointed out above, are due to immature novelistic techniques and are confusing rather than meaningful. Thus, a relative lack of meaningful ambiguity is more characteristic of Doña Perfecta, than of Galdós' mature novels. Although the novel's multiple levels of meaning may properly fall under the rubric of meaningful ambiguities, in the sense that a given event may evoke alternative reactions, the frequent obviousness of the alternative meanings reveals that the ambiguities are of a relatively simple nature. The role played by Galdós' immature vision of human affairs and the consequences of this immaturity with respect to his novelistic: techniques in producing this lack of ambiguity have been discussed above at length. Galdós' tendency to make his characters embody facile abstractions, to overdistance them, and the general lack of gradations all contribute to the lack of ambiguity in the novel and damage it artistically.

Galdós' «aesthetic of ambiguity» is present in Doña Perfecta and occasionally is notably comparable -as in the case of the apparent conflict between plot and character- to his best efforts in his later novels, but often it is revealed in an immature form. His «aesthetic of ambiguity» develops and becomes more complex and omnipresent as his vision of man deepens and increases in complexity. The aesthetic is a function of the nature of the reality to be depicted. Complex ambiguities such as the question of the nature of Manso's existence in El amigo Manso, the question of Villaamil's responsibility in Miau156, the matter of Orozco's virtue in La incógnita and Realidad,157 the paradox of self-realization through self-sacrifice exemplified by Victoria in La loca de la casa158 and by Benina in Misericordia -to mention a few- are all products of Galdós' novelistic maturity. Doña Perfecta is art, of course. It is art of an uneven and often immature quality, but nevertheless art. It is art which for reasons pointed out in the analysis above too often involves the reader's conceptual powers. For while involvement of the reader's intellect is one of many effects which a novelist may legitimately seek to achieve, such involvement should not be so absorbing as to diminish seriously the achievement of other effects indispensable to the aesthetic experience.

Centenary College

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