In general, Emilia Pardo Bazán’s works reveal a gradual passage from Romanticism to traditional realism to a modified naturalism and finally to a spiritual, symbolic approach. Pascual López is Pardo Bazán’s only novel to bear clearly the sentimental, moralistic (in its condemnation of egotism), and unreal stamp of Romanticism, although a costumbristic atmosphere, also of Romantic origin, anticipates the realistic descriptions of later novels. A Wedding Trip introduces the physiological element and increased detallismo, but still reflects an aristocratic, conservative environment.
Pardo Bazán seems to have experienced a religious crisis in 1882—evident in her nonfiction work San Francisco de Asís (1882)—and this event may have been a factor in her subsequent shift of direction. The five novels that followed (and one in 1891) may be considered her most naturalistic works: La tribuna—“estudio de costumbres tomadas de la realidad”—contains a prologue in which the author renounces the idealism of Antonio de Trueba and Fernán Caballero. Reflecting thorough firsthand documentation, the work paints a naturalistic tranche de vie among tobacco-shop workers and includes detailed psychological descriptions and “crude” dialogue. In The Swan of Vilamorta, realistic elements are mixed with some Romantic sentiments. The Son of the Bondwoman and its sequel, La madre naturaleza, are both set in the author’s native Galicia and are perhaps the most naturalistic of Pardo Bazán’s novels. The second, particularly, demonstrates the force of environmental influence beyond the theoretical limits she had set in her treatises on realism and naturalism. Midsummer Madness is naturalistic in some of its details but seems far from Zola in its happy tone, its aristocratic milieu, and its general lack of detailed descriptions. Morriña contains “interior” symbolic and psychological elements that suggest the author’s future direction. The Angular Stone recounts in naturalistic fashion the determining forces upon its characters, but has an inordinate amount of didactic content.
With A Christian Woman and its continuation, La prueba, Pardo Bazán’s focus changes somewhat. Here and in two subsequent novels—La quimera and La sirena negra—a new spirituality, a stress on transcendent ideas and character introspection, and less exterior and regionalistic detallismo announce a new tendency. Her study of the Russian novel, along with a change in perspective linked with the approach of old age, led her to voice preoccupations that had never really been absent from her writing. In La quimera, modernistic and symbolic elements placed in an elegant, aristocratic social milieu indicate further shifts of viewpoint. Dulce dueño, which was inspired by the life and death of Santa Catalina de Alejandría, is equally alien to the author’s earlier ventures into naturalism.
Pardo Bazán’s native Galicia is the setting of her best novels; this region inspired her to an exact depiction of landscape, racial characters, customs, and local ways of thought. Nevertheless, she was able to give her settings and her plots an almost cosmopolitan breadth. Her regionalism was not the huerto hermoso of Pereda. Her characterizations went deep, generally avoiding rustic picturesqueness and dialectismos in re-creating local speech. Thus, she transcended the confines of strict regionalism.
Pardo Bazán’s realism is a special, Spanish mixture of the real and the “ideal.” Her eclectic variations in choosing points of emphasis, her psychological involvement with her characters, her avoidance of constant, local speech patterns or her use of linguistic extranjerismos and arcaísmos, her conscious attempt to create beauty—all of these elements demonstrate that she, too, found her own realistic approach. Indeed, her work is relatively free of two of the recurrent components of Spanish realistic writing: the middle-class backdrop and the consistent use of common, colloquial language.
Mary Giles has argued that an impressionistic bent for describing fleeting colors and the momentary effects of light, and for sketching changing images without a fixed “reality,” appears in Pardo Bazán’s novels that “represent her modified naturalism”; this impressionism is abandoned entirely in the novels between La madre naturaleza and La quimera and is resumed in her last three novels. An analysis of The Son of the Bondwoman will illustrate how, among other factors, new rich and coloristic linguistic effects are joined with a depth of psychological penetration to produce a realism that is uniquely Pardo Bazán’s even while it remains utterly Spanish.
The Son of the Bondwoman
Critics have long considered The Son of the Bondwoman Pardo Bazán’s masterpiece. It was published in 1886, when the controversy over naturalism still raged in Spain. While some commentators have insisted that the story ultimately contradicts the deterministic philosophy of the naturalists, many have decided it is a truly naturalistic creation, both linguistically and thematically. It does seem to be one of the few major Spanish novels of the century that can in fact be termed naturalistic, even if not in the full sense of Zola’s methodology.
The plot postulates nature as an uncompromising “mistress” who comes to dominate, almost totally, the lives of those human beings caught within her grasp. Julián, a refined and idealistic young priest, comes to live on an estate, Ulloa, situated deep in the interior of Galicia. His mission is to restore order to the household, since its degenerate owner, the “Marquis” Don Pedro Moscoso, has allowed it to deteriorate. Don Pedro himself keeps one of his servants, Sabel, as a concubine, with the blessing of her father, Primitivo, who wants to use the relationship as leverage to maintain control of the property.
In his desire to raise the manor to a level of moral and material respectability, Julián advises Don Pedro to marry not his beautiful, passionate cousin Rita, but rather Rita’s delicate and religious sister Nucha. The priest hopes that this arrangement will rid Pedro of some of his animalistic inclinations. When Nucha gives birth to a girl, leaving her husband without a much-desired heir, Pedro returns to his former ways and becomes indifferent and cruel to his wife. Primitivo’s detection of Julián’s silent love for Nucha leads to the priest’s dismissal from the house. After many years, he returns to the manor to find Nucha’s grave neglected and her daughter in rags, while Primitivo’s tomb is meticulously tended; his grandson, Perucho, the natural son of Pedro and Sabel, wears fine clothing. The essence of the plot, then, is, in Sherman Eoff’s words, “a contest in which refinement and ideals prove to be helpless before their natural opponents,” a struggle in which Julián is shown to be powerless in hostile surroundings.
Pardo Bazán’s characterizations do occasionally probe deeply to produce some genuine impressions of human preoccupations and reactions. The major characters of the novel possess unique and distinguishing traits, despite their stereotyped roles and their “espíritu de clase.” Although it is true that the author often interprets too much for the reader, some characters (such as Julián and Nucha) act out their roles convincingly.
Throughout the novel, human beings are exposed as bestias, blending in with the savagery of their surroundings. The scene in which the boy Perucho is forced to become drunk and the dogs receive more care than the people who are present is an early indication of the brutality to follow. Nevertheless, at least two characters—Julián and Nucha—escape such treatment.
The characterization of Julián is one of Pardo Bazán’s most vivid and penetrating exercises in psychological realism. He is timid, idealistic, basically well-meaning, delicate, prudish, almost feminine in his outlook. Some noticeably unworthy traits also emerge: He suffers from the sin of pride (about his knowledge, his “victory” regarding Pedro’s marriage); despite his active awareness of his Christian duties, he is occasionally cruel or lacking in charity (as in his pleasure in seeing the murder of Primitivo). His irresoluteness and procrastination suggest that Pardo Bazán wanted to convey a message about the need for initiative and fortitude to support good intentions. Finally, he is humanized in his physical attentions to Nucha’s daughter, actions that represent a displacement of frustrated sexual aspirations.
One must note that all of these turns of character are made perfectly believable by the incidents or circumstances of Julián’s background: He was an only child, perhaps of illegitimate birth; he lived under the domineering influence of a household ama of Pedro’s uncle Don Manuel; he was not allowed to play with the daughters of Don Manuel and thus had no opportunity to develop normal social relationships; he had in his childhood no contact with the savagery and animal nature of the rural inhabitants; he was further influenced by Nucha, his substitute mother, with her prudishness and piety. Finally, Pardo Bazán uses the characterization of Julián as a medium for further experiments with literary portraiture: the use of dreams, fantasies, half-wakened states, and interior monologues.
The other figures in the novel do not display as much profundity or individuality as Julián. Nucha is a delicate, sensitive girl, an urban bourgeois given to gradually increasing hysteria and romantic, sentimental fantasies. Her nervous...
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