Benito Pérez Galdós went to Madrid as a student of law in 1863, but literature and the theater proved more interesting to him than the bar. Early in his literary career, he wrote several novels about politics and social customs. Then, between 1876 and 1878, Pérez Galdós became interested in religion and published three novels dealing with its different aspects: Doña Perfecta, the story of a town dominated by the clergy; Gloria (1876-1877), a novel about a clash between the Jewish and Christian religions; and La Familia de Léon Roch (1878), a story of religious fanaticism that ruined a happy household. All three novels are classified as belonging to the novelist’s early period, although they represent a great technical advance over his first attempts.
In Doña Perfecta, Pérez Galdós portrays religious intolerance and hypocrisy in a small Andalusian cathedral town removed from the main current of life. The novel graphically presents what Gerald Brennan labeled “the stagnant, stupid, fanatical Spain of the country districts.” Pérez Galdós also describes the clash of modern ideas against the walls of bigotry and prejudice. Representative of the new order is the scientifically trained, clear-thinking, outspoken bridge builder Pepe. The old is represented by a wealthy woman so fanatically religious that to save her daughter’s immortal soul she would even condone murder.
The shadow of intolerant Doña Perfecta hovers darkly over Orbajosa, just as the cathedral looms over plaza and town. The human beings in the cathedral make it a somber place rather than the mellow, beautiful, hope-inspiring temple of God it could be. Far from attacking religion itself, Pérez Galdós’s purpose in writing Doña Perfecta is to reform religion. He criticizes Catholicism for its faults but acknowledges that it had once given robust, rural Spain its strength. Pérez Galdós champions the cause of progress while condemning the abuses of traditionalism, although he is aware that traditionalism could be a life-giving flame.
The novel’s characterization is thinner than it is in the author’s later works. Father Inocencio clearly symbolizes one of the many types of rural priests of his time, but other characters are not depicted with finesse. Character motivations are also vague at times, and gorgonlike Doña Perfecta herself is one of Pérez Galdós’s weaker female characterizations. The characters are not strongly etched because Pérez Galdós viewed them not as individuals but as representatives of their class or profession. Atmosphere and setting are stressed for the same reason. An important element in Doña Perfecta is Pepe’s hope that human beings can be led upward by education. Pepe Rey thus reflects the views of nineteenth century Spanish intellectual thought that had influenced the author, and as such he is more realistically drawn than many of the other characters in the novel.