Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Both Perfecta Polentinos and José Rey may be considered the protagonists, as the novel is largely a contest of wills between the two characters, which represents the old, conservative, religious society versus the new, progressive, scientific society.
One of the wealthiest residents of Orbajosa, a town in southern Spain, Perfecta is famed for her deep devotion; Pérez Galdós exposes her true hypocrisy, which results in a murder. Although Perfecta initially supports the marriage between her daughter, Rosario, and her nephew, José Rey, she turns against the young man because of his sacrilegious rhetoric. Plotting with the church official against him, she ultimately causes his death and Rosario’s mental incapacitation.
José Rey, known as Pepe, is an urbane young man who is Rosario’s primary suitor. An engineer who has traveled widely through Spain, he was raised in Madrid. At his father’s urging, he comes south to court his cousin. Pepe’s rash behavior and lack of understanding of conservative traditions is his undoing. He and Rosario fall deeply in love, but during their escape attempt, her mother has him killed.
Rosario, Perfecta’s daughter, is beautiful but docile. As her love for Pepe grows, she gains the strength to commit to him and deceive her mother. Pepe’s death drives her to mental collapse, which seems permanent, as she is committed to a sanatorium.
Inocencio, the Catholic cathedral’s canon, uses religion as a pretext to alienate Perfecta from Pepe. His true motive is his support for his niece’s son in marrying Rosario, both for personal enrichment and to see Perfecta’s money continue to support the church. He goads Pepe into speaking against the church, knowing this will incense Perfecta, and undermines Pepe at every turn.
María Remedios is Inocencio’s niece and housekeeper. She tries to thwart Pepe and promotes her son’s courtship of Rosario.
Jacinto is María Remedios’s son. He is an attorney and wants to marry Rosario.