Hatred resulting from envy is the consuming passion of which Abel Sanchez is the history. Indeed, because the novel is so dominated by Joaquin Monegro’s envy and hatred of his lifelong acquaintance, Abel, it has often been suggested that hatred is the central character in the work. Moreover, although the novel focuses primarily on Joaquin, it is entitled Abel Sanchez because Joaquin’s identity comes solely from his envy of Abel, thus making Abel the work’s focus.
The narrative is told primarily in the third person, but it is interspersed with sections from Joaquin’s memoirs (or Confession), which serve as his own commentary on what Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo calls Joaquin’s psychological disease or affliction. Since their infancy, Joaquin records, it was always Abel who was the congenial one, while he himself was antipathetic; thus, from the beginning, Joaquin envied him. The bare and understated tone of the novel, as well as its simple and straightforward narrative line, suggests that Unamuno is working with the parable form here, in particular the biblical story of Cain (Jo-Cain) and Abel; thus, because the biblical myth demands it, the story moves relentlessly to an inevitably tragic conclusion.
The difference between the two boyhood friends is made clear when Abel becomes an artist of some repute and Joaquin decides to become a physician in order to rival him in fame. The rift between them becomes most pronounced when Abel marries Joaquin’s cousin, Helena, the woman whom Joaquin desires to wed. Joaquin records that on the night he realized that he could not have Helena, he was born into his life’s hell. From this point on, he is nothing beyond his hatred for Abel. First, he decides to crush Abel’s artistic fame with that of his own as a maker of scientific discoveries, a creator of works of scientific art. He also vows to find a woman of his own with whom he might take refuge from his hatred. Thus he marries Antonia not out of love but out of a need to find a motherly figure to succor him. Antonia marries him because she understands the nature of his obsession and hopes to cure him of it.
The crucial distinction between the two men is ironically emphasized by Abel’s artistic ability, which most see as predominantly technical, even scientific in its approach, and Joaquin’s scientific abilities, which Joaquin sees as basically intuitive, even poetic. Yet Joaquin becomes so involved in his daily medical practice that he neglects his aspirations to make great scientific discoveries. His hatred for Abel is increased when a woman for whom he has been caring dies and he discovers that Abel’s painting of her allows her to live forever. The next stimulus to Joaquin’s engulfing hatred is the birth of Abel and Helena’s child, a boy whom the parents name Abelin, after the father. Joaquin vows that he will have an even more beautiful child.
When Abel proposes to paint the biblical story of the death of Abel at the hands of Cain, Joaquin is compelled to read Lord Byron’s poetic version of the story, Cain, which he says penetrates him to the core. Joaquin realizes that his immortal hatred of Abel constitutes his very soul, and that he is doomed to live in this literal hell forever. When his daughter Joaquina is born, Joaquin vows that she will be his avenger against Abel.
In spite of his hatred, however, Joaquin is the chief eulogizer of Abel at a banquet given to honor the artist’s painting of Cain’s murder of his brother. The speech is so brilliant that...
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those who hear it claim that it is greater than the painting, a work of art in itself, and that it is the speech that makes the painting. Unfortunately, because the speech is about Abel, the praise it receives only increases Joaquin’s hatred.
While the son of Abel studies medicine, Joaquin lavishes all of his attention upon his daughter, who, like her mother before her, realizes that her father is more of a patient than a doctor. When Abelin’s medical studies end, he become Joaquin’s assistant; as Joaquin begins to try to use him to get revenge on Abel, his daughter decides to enter a convent as a way to save her father spiritually. Joaquin, however, convinces her to marry Abelin, for he says he will be redeemed if she will make Abelin his son.
After the marriage, Joaquin turns more and more of his practice over to Abelin, who begins to collect Joaquin’s research notes in order to compile them into a book. At this same time, Joaquin begins to write his Confession, a diary which he addresses to his daughter. He also plans a literary fiction in which he says that he will portray the soul of Abel, whom he is convinced is dominated by the same intense envy from which he suffers. He takes solace in the hope that Abel will be remembered only as a creation of Joaquin; ironically, Joaquin is unaware that he is only a creation of his hatred of Abel.
When Joaquinito, the grandson of both Abel and Joaquin, is born, Joaquin tries to make Abel leave, for he believes that the child loves Abel most. When Abel tells Joaquin that the boy fears the contagion of Joaquin’s bad blood, Joaquin grabs him by the throat and Abel suffers a fatal heart attack. For the next year, Joaquin lives in lonely melancholy, until he becomes ill; without Abel to hate, he no longer has an identity of his own. On his deathbed, he tells his family that his life has been like a nightmare, a living hell. His final recognition is that if he had loved Antonia, he might have been saved.