Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Two major themes emerge in the story. One is the Spanish obsession with the preservation of noble titles and estates by primogeniture. The countess’s slavish adherence to the custom leads to the extinction of the family name. The pretensions of this custom are further debunked through two actions of the young count: First, he destroys a book of heraldry, the symbol of the importance of noble families; second, his demand, which ultimately leads to the tragic outcome for his aunt, is associated with the sculptor, whose action was that of restoring the family’s coat of arms. Ironically, the heritage is not preserved or restored; instead, with the count’s death, it is forever destroyed.

A second theme is that of the misuse of both power and love. Sister Isabel’s mother withheld maternal affection as well as half of the family fortune, for her daughter was sent to a convent when she was only eight years old. The life of a nun was the only one available to Isabel. The vows that should have been made by free choice were, instead, perceived to be inevitable. Pedro Antonio de Alarcón’s story should not be construed as antireligious; rather, it criticizes the manipulative use of religion for selfish ends.

Count Carlos embodies abuse of power, for he knows that the two women will deny him nothing. The narrator implicitly associates the child with the Devil, for he mentions that the child “writhed like a snake on the floor” and “shook like one possessed.” Nevertheless, the coercive and coerced grandmother refuses to recognize any fault in the child, calling him an angel and equating Carlos’s wishes with God’s will.