Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Perfecta Rey is a devout prominent resident of Orbajosa, a small town in Spain. She is pushing for the marriage of her daughter, Rosario, to her brother’s son, José, known as Pepe. (First cousin marriage were common among upper-class Spaniards at the time.) However, Inocencio, the cathedral’s Penitentiary or Canon, would like Rosario to marry Jacinto, the son of his sister, María Remedios. They are primarily interested in the Rey family’s wealth.
Rosario is described as lovely, in being extremely sweet and modest, but having a beauty different from the way it is conventionally understood.
The real beauty of Dona Perfecta’s daughter consisted in a species of transparency, different from that of pearl, alabaster, marble, or any of the other substances used in descriptions of the human countenance; a species of transparency through which the inmost depths of her soul were clearly visible; depths not cavernous and gloomy, like those of the sea, but like those of a clear and placid river.
On a visit to Perfecta’s home, Inocencio praises religion and denigrates materialism and science; he knows that Pepe is an engineer. Pepe takes the bait and launches into a fervent defense of science, then tells Rosario he did it on purpose to goad the canon. He claims that science explains everything. His speech offends his aunt, who is deeply committed to her Catholic faith.
"There is no other descent to hell than the descents of Geology, and this traveller, every time he returns from it, declares that there are no damned souls in the centre of the earth . . . . In short, my dear canon, orders have been given to put on the retired list all the absurdities, lies, illusions, dreams, sentimentalities, and prejudices which darken the understanding of man."
Inocencio makes the most of this disagreement between aunt and nephew, convincing Perfecta that Pepe could not be a suitable husband. Pepe decides to return to Madrid but receives a note from Rosario—who has decided that she loves him—that she will die if he leaves. Although her mother tries to keep her in seclusion, the young lovers arrange a night-time tryst. From his balcony he hears her approach in the dark, then goes down to the garden to meet her. She leads him to a secret, locked enclosure in the family chapel, where she shows him the feet of Jesus on the cross and commands him to kiss them, which he does. She then demands to know if he believes in God. He questions that she could doubt him.
“Because I wanted to hear it from your own lips . . . . What greater happiness than to hear . . . : ‘I believe in God?’”
“Rosario, even the wicked believe in him. If there be atheists, which I doubt, they are the calumniators, the intriguers with whom the world is infested. For my part, intrigues and calumnies matter little to me; and if you rise superior to them and close your heart against the discord which a perfidious hand would sow in it, nothing shall interfere with our happiness.”
The next day, Perfecta—unaware of their meeting—tells her nephew she has changed her mind about the marriage. Pepe insists that he will marry Rosario because they love each other. Before long, the situation is out of hand, with countless intrigues as Pepe pursues his courtship of Rosario. A subplot of a military occupation of the city, as the national government aims to quell an uprising, intersects with the love story; Perfecta believes that Pepe is siding with the national government against the Orbajosans. Rosario finally decides to leave with Pepe, who is heartsick without her. When he enters the garden to meet her, Perfecta and her henchmen are waiting for him.
Dona Perfecta took a few steps forward. Her hoarse voice, vibrating with a terrible accent, hissed forth these words:
“Cristobal, Cristobal—kill him!”
A shot was heard. Then another.
Although the official verdict is suicide, the rumors fly that Pepe was assassinated. Rosario loses her mind and is sent to a sanatorium.