The sheer number and variety of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s works must obviously defy any efforts of systematic analysis that scholarship can provide. At best, one can note certain recurrent themes in her fiction and illustrate by example her most successful techniques.
“A Descendant of El Cid”
Of the overall evolution of her practices in short-story writing, one can say first that she wrote relatively few short stories during the 1880’s, her first decade as a serious writer, and perhaps half of those were in the form of sketches, of cuadros de costumbres—observations of her native Galicia—rather than plotted narratives. The best-known story of that period, “Nieto del Cid” (“A Descendant of El Cid”), shows Pardo Bazán about halfway along in her development from costumbrista to story-teller. “A Descendant of El Cid” is an account of an old village curate’s resistance to a band of robbers who invade his sanctuary in search of money. First with his hunting rifle, then with a common table knife, the curate puts up a fierce fight until he is killed by the thieves. The story begins with a neutral-voiced description of the curate, his nephew, and two servants having a frugal evening meal together in the tiny kitchen of the sanctuary. There is no preliminary “frame,” no indication of any identity of the implied narrator, or of the occasion for which the account has been set down. The beginning has the impersonal tone of a daily newspaper article. Fully half the story consists of a description of the setting and the generalized analysis of the tough and courageous character of the old curate. Until the invasion of the robbers begins, the story is indistinguishable from a cuadro de costumbres—that is, it is a portrait of the curate as a local type in Galicia. Once the action begins, however, the narrative moves swiftly to its violent conclusion, without description or analysis, and with the unblinking realism of gruesome detail. In a somewhat awkward concluding paragraph, the narrator suddenly uses the first person pronoun for the first time to say that he was told by a police sergeant, who arrived after the incident was over, what the curate’s body looked like when the thieves had finished with him.
It is the unbalanced division between description and action and the awkward handling of narrative technique in “A Descendant of El Cid” that reveals the still tentative grasp the author had, in the 1880’s, on the short-story form. That story is nevertheless powerful and deserves the popularity it has enjoyed. By the end of the 1880’s, Pardo Bazán had read the best work of Guy de Maupassant in French and had written admiringly of his mastery of the art of the short story; it is to Maupassant’s influence that one may attribute the fact that the 1890’s saw a great increase in the number of stories Pardo Bazán was publishing and a corresponding elevation in the level of her control of the medium. An impressive collection of tales about her birthplace, La Coruña—to which she gave the fictitious name Marineda—was the first clear indication that she had attained understanding and mastery of this rather new genre.
“The White Lock of Hair”
Cuentos de Marineda (tales about Marineda) appeared in 1892 and won for Pardo Bazán her first wide notice as a short-story writer. A deeply probing story of a woman’s private suffering, called “El mechón blanco” (“The White Lock of Hair”), is a fine example of the degree of mastery Pardo Bazán was able to demonstrate in that collection of home-town tales. The white lock of hair of the title belongs to a woman of striking beauty but reserved demeanor, the rest of whose hair is ebony black in color. She is the wife of the commandant of the military garrison in Marineda and the object of the most attentive curiosity in the town, both because of her provocative beauty and bearing, and because she and her husband had managed to give different explanations for the existence of that shock of white hair. The story thus opens with a mystery and concludes with its true explanation—an explanation which reveals fully the sorrow which had thus marked the commandant’s wife. Accused of unfaithfulness by her husband, she had sworn her innocence on the life of their baby daughter. Almost immediately thereafter, the child died of meningitis, and when the mother next appears in public, her jet-black hair is scarred with the single lock of white hair on her forehead. What gives the explanation its power to move the reader deeply is that it is made, almost offhandedly, by a stranger visiting Marineda who...
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