The Tree of Knowledge by Pío Baroja Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

As Andres waits for classes to begin on his first day as a medical student at the Institute of San Isidro, he runs into an old friend, Julio Aracil. They soon realize that they are enrolled in the same course of study, and they attend a lecture together. To Andres’ dismay, the class resembles a sideshow and the professor is like a clown, a situation representative of Andres’ overall experience at San Isidro. His enthusiasm for his studies is soon dampened. Consequently, he fails an important chemistry exam and becomes altogether indifferent toward medicine. In his second year, he attends a dissection class where the students take much pleasure in cutting bodies to pieces or in putting small bows and paper hats on corpses. He looks forward to a third-year physiology class but is disappointed by a stupid text and an inadequate instructor. In his next year, Andres studies under the famous Dr. Letamendi and is momentarily impressed and excited by Letamendi’s application of mathematics to biology. He is, at least, until a friend tells him that the entire concept is a joke, the vulgar rhetorical games of a prestidigitator. Nevertheless, as a result, Andres becomes curious about philosophy, particularly the writings of Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer. He finds the latter especially convincing during his internship in the hospitals of Madrid the following year, where he witnesses unimaginable abuse and misery.

Aracil takes a liking to Andres and decides to introduce him to the sister of the girl he has been seeing (until such time as he is ready to start looking for a wife). Lulu is unattractive and has an almost caustic disposition, but she is intelligent, noble, and progressive in her thinking. Her humor is irreverent, and, like Andres, she sees things for what they are and speaks in a forthright manner. They also share a tendency toward cynicism. Through Aracil and Lulu, Andres comes into contact with a curious assortment of individuals, such as Dona Virginia, a procuress who takes economic advantage of girls in trouble; Rafael Villasus, a mediocre dramatist who lives and dies for the sake of romanticism; Manolo, a coward and parasite; Venancia, a former domestic of the aristocracy who defends them as inherently good and charitable; and Don Cleto, a very clean but very poor man who starves to death. When Andres tries to sort out the disturbing impressions with which they leave him, his uncle offers a biological explanation: By design of Nature, life is a constant battle, a cruel slaughter in which all devour one another, and justice is no more than a human illusion. Man has the same instincts as the tiniest organism that feeds off other organisms in order to survive.

One day, in his final year of training, Andres’ youngest brother, Luisito, spits up blood. Startled, Andres decides that it would be best for the boy to be in the country. He moves Luisito and their sister, Margarita, to a house in Valencia. At the end of the academic year, Andres joins them, and all three grow happy and healthy in their new surroundings. When the father insists that they move in with some elderly, unmarried relatives to save money, Andres loses his positive influence over his brother, and his recommendations go unheeded. Feeling out of place and...

(The entire section is 1331 words.)