The Santa Cruz dry-goods store in Madrid, established in the eighteenth century, provides an income for Juanito Santa Cruz. Graduating from the university at the age of twenty-four, he is not yet ready to take his place in the family business. He wants to enjoy life, and Barbara Santa Cruz, his mother, spoils him. Her chief adviser is a former clerk, Placido Estupiñá, who smuggles goods into the city in his spare time.
At the home of a fellow student, Juanito meets the attractive Fortunata and takes her as his mistress. Shortly afterward, Estupiñá finds out about the affair, and Juanito’s mother contracts for him a marriage with his beautiful but passive cousin, Jacinta. They are married in May, 1871. When they return from their honeymoon, Fortunata leaves Madrid.
Jacinta discovers in the passing years that she cannot have children. Learning some details of her husband’s earlier affair with Fortunata, including the fact that his mistress bore him a son nicknamed Petusin, she wonders whether it is her duty to take care of the child. In the meantime, Juanito is told that Fortunata is back in Madrid. He immediately begins to look for her, but his search ends when a lung infection disables him for a long time.
Among Fortunata’s admirers is the ill-favored and schizophrenic Maximiliano Rubín, the orphan of a goldsmith, who, like his two brothers, is subject to violent headaches. Thin and weak, he was reared by his Aunt Lupe, who allowed him to live in a world of his own imagination. While studying to become a pharmacist, he meets Fortunata at a friend’s house. Her poverty affords her the opportunity to overlook his ugliness and to date him. When she confesses her past, he proposes marriage in order to redeem her.
Hearing of his plan, Aunt Lupe sends one of his brothers, a priest, to talk to Fortunata. The woman says frankly that Maximiliano is the only one of her lovers—except one now married—for whom she ever cared. The priest proposes that she spend some time in a home for wayward girls; if she benefits by the experience, he will agree to the marriage. After a term in the institution, Fortunata marries Maximiliano on a day when he is suffering from one of his worst headaches.
Knowing beforehand of the proposed marriage, Juanito takes a room in the boardinghouse that Fortunata and her husband are to occupy. At first he intendeds only to see Fortunata again, but on the night of the wedding her husband is ill, and Fortunata and Juanito resume their old intimacy. Maximiliano, finding out about the affair, quarrels with Juanito, who overpowers the puny pharmacist and sends him to the hospital with an injured larynx. Then Fortunata packs her belongings and leaves her husband.
Juan Pablo, the second of Maximiliano’s brothers, spends his afternoons in one café or...
(The entire section is 1161 words.)