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ArribaAbajoLos años 1876-1879


ArribaAbajoGaldós' Episodios Nacionales, series I and II: on the intrinsic-extrinsic nature of the historical genre164

Madeleine de Gogorza Fletcher

The critic trying to formulate ideas about the novel immediately faces a perflexing question involving the relationship of form and content: how much of the aesthetic effect of a novel can be ascribed to the intrinsic interest of the subject matter, how much to the novelist's technical skill? The novel as we know it today is protean in form and omnivorous in content. Nevertheless if we return to the novels of the nineteenth century, we can isolate certain elements which, appearing at a specific point in time, opened up the novel to a closer relationship with the society in which it developed and added specific techniques to the novelist's arsenal. In this process the historical novel had a decisive role.

The historical novel began in Britain in the hands of Sir Walter Scott in response to a real curiosity about the history of the development of British society. Scott's literary use of the historical situation is basic and innovative. The essential element of his style has been described by Georg Lukács as «the derivation of the individuality of characters from the historical peculiarity of their age».165 Scott's novels were widely translated, and the Spanish versions of Scott that were available from the beginnings of the century might have been expected to provoke an immediate Spanish following, In fact this did not happen, because what imitations there were took the older form of historical romance in which the historical content is not basic and integrative but merely decorative. In reading the famous historical novels of the Spanish Romantics, El señor de Bembibre, Sancho Saldaña, El Doncel de Don Enrique el doliente, we are struck by how little they resemble the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and to what extent they follow the French pattern (Scudéry, Calpranède) of the historical romance rather than the richly informative pattern of Scott. In the Spanish Romantic historical novel, the historical content is still only decor. It is not until the 1870's in Spain that we find novels comparable to Scott's in the episodios nacionales of Benito Pérez Galdós.166

Why did the historical novel on the pattern of Scott wait so long to develop in Spain? It was not that the Spaniards lacked acquaintance with the generic model, for Scott's novels were widely diffused in the peninsula after 1830. Nor was it that they lacked suitable historical material, because the struggle with the Moors, the American conquest, the War of Independence, present conflicts whose resolution ushers in a new historical situation in much the same way as the Norman conquest, etc., depicted by Scott. It appears that the important differentiating factor here is something which has been erroneously defined as extrinsic167 to the literary process by New   —104→   Critics, structuralists and the like, because, for reasons which we will try to suggest, the major factor in the development of a Spanish Scott seems to have been the development of a historically self-conscious Spanish middle class capable of appreciating the new features of the genre. It was the bourgeoisie who conceived of history as a dynamic process essentially because of their own surprising genesis as a class. In Britain the immense social transformations produced by urbanization and industrialization stimulated interest in history and helped create the demand for the historical novel. This transformational process is the key to the understanding of Scott's novels and the historical intuition they express, namely that personality and character conform to societal circumstances which are subject to historical change. This perception makes an addition to the resources of the novel which is of paramount importance for its later development.

As to establishing the sociology of this literary phenomenon, we know that the Spanish bourgeoisie came into being at least half a century after the establishment of that class in Britain and, moreover, that it never really equaled the British bourgeoisie in strength of numbers or influence over the daily life of the country, which in many regions of Spain remained in a traditional rural framework until the twentieth century. Historians have generally accepted that the Spanish counterpart of the European revolution of 1848 would have to be placed well after Spain's revolution of 1868. It is clear then, that a self-conscious bourgeoisie was not developed in Spain until well into the second half of the nineteenth century and with it came, simultaneously, a readership which could relate to history as a dynamic transformational process.

We may perhaps have an indication of how Scott's literary idea corresponds to the development of a self-conscious bourgeoisie in the fact that Barcelona, where the growth of the Spanish bourgeoisie was earliest and strongest, was also the focus of Scott's most devoted Spanish following. The observations of a contemporary, Manuel Milá y Fontanals' writing in 1839 emphasize this noteworthy phenomenon:168

Excusado es hablar del (mérito) de Walter Scott en una ciudad (Barcelona) donde son sus novelas leídas y, por consiguiente, admiradas, la de España, en que mayor número de buenas traducciones se han impreso y en donde ha prendido tanto su lectura.

The same observation about the importance of Scott in Barcelona is amplified by Menéndez Pelayo, for whom Milá y Fontanals was a revered master. Menéndez Pelayo describes the maturation of Milá's own taste for Scott which evolved from a youthful enthusiasm for the legends to a mature preference for «aquellas novelas más modestas en que el ingenioso maestro escocés pinta con minuciosidad flamenca escenas y tipos de una vida más próxima a su tiempo».169 The parallel to notice here is between Milá's evolving taste and the literary evolution of the Spanish historical novel itself -from the extravagant and picturesque medieval scenes in the historical romances of the Spanish Romantics to the more sober realism characteristic of the episodios nacionales. Typical features of Scott's novels such as the pervading patriotic nationalism, interest in history, and attention to the accuracy of   —105→   historical detail are also typical of the ideology of the bourgeoisie. Patriotism cemented their strong national states while their interest in history reflected their consciousness of their own historical genesis as a class.

With the interest in history as a transformational process (i. e., one in which classes come into being and disappear) comes the related concern to get an accurate general picture of society in both stages: before and after the transformational crisis, i. e., society as it was and as it is. The interest in a detailed and correct picture of the present developed from this implicit comparison of past and present into the realistic novel of contemporary society. Thus we see that the historical novel is prior to the realistic contemporary novel in theory as well as in fact, since we know that the historical novels of Walter Scott preceded the great realistic novels of contemporary society and that the great realists, Balzac and Galdós, wrote historical novels before turning to novels of contemporary society. Balzac speaks of this important preliminary period of historical study in the introduction to his unfinished manuscript of a historical novel entitled Catherine de Médicis:170

Avant d'entreprendre d'écrire l'histoire des moeurs en action (that is, before starting the Comédie humaine) l'auteur de cette étude avait patiemment et minutieusement étudié les principaux règnes de l'histoire de France, la querelle des Bourguignons et des Armagnacs, celle des Guise et des Valois, qui tiennent, chacune, en un siècle. Son intention fut d'écrire une histoire de France pittoresque.

Balzac's original intention was to write far more historical novels than he finally produced. He imagined several cycles of interconnected novels. This preliminary apprenticeship to the historical novel is very important for Balzac's contemporary novels in which he looks at present-day society with the eyes of a historian, seeking like Walter Scott to delineate sociological types which would be characteristic of their historical moment,

Comparing the nineteenth century realistic novel with what preceded it, we see that the experience of history as dynamism and change enters the novel and transforms the content and the style. What has been called «nineteenth-century realism» stems from the awareness of new socio-economic features in society and a desire to describe them as reflected in changed and changing human personality types. These new socio-economic features of society are associated with the development of the middle class in the minds of the realist authors who have expressed this insight in so many words. That realism lost its compelling interest towards the end of the nineteenth century is understandable since by then bourgeoisie society had become stabilized and was a less fascinating spectacle.

Within this literary process of observing and describing the development of the middle class, there is a distinction provided by the ideological standpoint of the author. For example, Galdós, unlike Balzac, is a liberal writer for whom the political expression of this socio-economic transformation cannot be morally indifferent, and as a result Galdós' approach to history at the beginning of his career includes a positive evaluation of the bourgeoisie as he looks backward over its past development and forward in anticipation of a future transformation of Spain on the model of the more advanced bourgeois societies of Europe. Galdós' purpose differs greatly   —106→   from Balzac's in this. The Spaniard is motivated to point out the positive effects of this transformation of society and to stimulate further advancement on the path provided by the example of England and France. Also, in contradistinction to Scott, who was describing a historical process that had seen its satisfactory conclusion in the Britain of his own day, Galdós was consciously acting as midwife to a social situation that was not yet stabilized (the revolutionary period of the First Republic, and the early Restoration).

There is no doubt that Galdós' novel has been affected by the fact of its being an epigonal development; coming half a century after its European counterpart. This is not so much in the literary sense of his following a previous generic model, as in the intellectual sense of his possessing a historical model in the socio-economic development of England and France which makes him confident of his ability to predict the future development of Spain. This has caused his realism to be in some sense a wishful anticipation of social developments rather than a direct and energetic searching out of impressions from reality. In spite of what he claims, Galdós is not so much describing the bourgeois revolution as encouraging it. This intellectual circumstance affects his literary style and particularly his creation of character. Galdós' characters in Series I and II of the Episodios are not sample representatives of a given socio-historical group like those of Scott and Balzac, but are rather symbols of that group who are called upon to represent the imagined future as much as the present or the past. Because their future roles are projected onto them they are ideas as well as human types. They derive as much from the allegorical imagination of their author as from his observation of reality, and Galdós presents them with a kind of caricature symbolism. This tendency toward symbolic characters remains constant in the Episodios.171

Unlike Scott or Balzac, Galdós makes his sociological points before giving the reader his idea clothed in plot or character and allows the reader to be aware that he is illustrating a thesis. An example is his description of Benigno Cordero, a character from the second series of episodios. We see that Galdós is using Cordero to exemplify the virtues of political moderation and handworking thrift, which he prescribes as a cure for the ills of the Spanish revolutionary period of 1868-1875. In this entire passage, which is more extensive than the part quoted here, we can see with what a didactic spirit Galdós yearns towards the future.

[Benigno Cordero.]

[...] era acabado tipo del burgués español, que se formaba del antiguo pechero fundido en el hijodalgo y que más tarde había de tomar gran vuelo con las compras de bienes nacionales y la creación de las carreras facultativas, hasta llegar al punto culminante en que ahora se encuentra.

La formidable clase media, que hoy es el poder omnímodo que todo lo hace y deshace, llamándose política, magistratura, administración, ciencia, ejército, nació en Cádiz entre el estruendo de las bombas francesas y las peroratas de un Congreso híbrido, inocente, extranjerizado si se quiere, pero que brotado había como un sentimiento, o como un instinto ciego, incontrastable, del espíritu nacional. El tercer estado creció, abriéndose paso entre frailes y nobles; y echando a un lado con desprecio estas dos fuerzas atrofiadas y sin savia, llegó a   —107→   imperar en absoluto, formando, con sus grandezas y sus defectos, una España nueva.

(Obras completas, II, 111)                

The future-oriented politico-didactic purpose affects Galdós' literary style in the episodios principally because the anticipation of reality rather than its direct description promotes a symbolic and allegorical element of style. Galdós' interest in an accurate description of the social context of the past is somewhat subordinated to his effort to incorporate a lesson and an exhortation about present courses of action. This changes the character of the literary picture in several ways. Firstly, the interest in a scientifically accurate picture gives way before interest in a politically relevant picture. The political message is never far off in names (Salvador Monsalud, Benigno Cordero) or in ironic attributions of public labels to private actions and events («la casa del absolutismo» collapses on don Felicísimo Carnicero in 1833). Secondly, the impersonal tone of the style indirect libre sort of realism is not appropriate to this open advocacy of a political point of view. Instead, a humorous ironic tone takes over, and a Swiftean malice and wit enters the texture of the writing through the door of a political point of view. In this intellectual perspective, with its concomitant stylistic features, we must see the influence of Spain's relative historical or chronological position in Europe, since Galdós is only able to feel confident in his program because of his optimistic anticipation of the liberal, social, political, and cultural developments which he has already seen realized in England and France, The episodios nacionales can be seen to reflect nationality as well as social development since the literary style of the episodios is affected not only by a sociological circumstance, i. e., the development of a social class within Spain, but also, and importantly, by the particular chronological position of Spain in a world development.

We have sketched out some of the effects of the relationship of literary style to a historical context. We are conscious that the majority of critics in the prevailing literary fashions would make a firm distinction between the novel's reflection of social conditions and ideology on the one hand and, on the other, those features which concern the internal aesthetic structure of literary works. But a close look at the historical novel reveals no distinction which can truly separate inside from outside or aesthetic structure from ideological content in a cut-and-dried fashion. On the contrary, much of the material demands that we consider the action of the content on the style and see the development of society reflected in the development of the genre.

Columbia University

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