Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The central mystery in Abel Sanchez is the mystery of the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis: why God looked with favor on the offerings of Abel and not with favor on the offerings of Cain. It is with this inexplicable distinction that hatred and murder are born into the world. Unamuno offers no answer to this basic enigma, except to suggest that with God’s inexplicable choice, separation of one self from the other is emphasized as a result of the Fall. Cain, not Abel, is seen by Unamuno as the heroic and tragic figure in this archetypal tale, much as Milton presents Satan as his tragic figure, and much as Byron presents his version of Cain as the alienated and lonely outcast, the primal symbol of isolated man. Unamuno has said, in the preface to the second edition of his novel, that Joaquin is morally superior to Abel, for his passion is great compared to Abel’s ordinariness.

In addition to this theological mystery, Unamuno is interested in the existential dilemma of the loss of selfhood. Instead of having an individual self, Joaquin is merely the sum of his hatred for Abel; thus, even though he hates Abel, he needs him to survive, for without his hatred, Joaquin is nothing. Throughout the novel, Joaquin moves back and forth between his hate and his desire to be freed of it, yet his need of his hatred is more powerful than his desire to be released. In fact, hatred in the novel is a pure existential state that Joaquin realizes to be immortal, existing as an essential part of the one who hates.

The most basic source of Joaquin’s hatred is his lack of love for himself, a fact that he discovers when he realizes that he cannot obey the commandment to love his neighbor as himself because he does not love himself. At the time of his death, Joaquin has a final epiphany about the nature of his existence. Thus, when he dies, he is, if not redeemed, at least freed of the mysterious iniquity which has dominated his life. Too late, he realizes that he could have and should have loved Antonia, that to have done so would have been his salvation.