The Family of Pascual Duarte

by Camilo José Cela

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

This novel, like all literature, can be analyzed in different ways, but a common thread among most readers' interpretations would be that of the randomness of life's events and their destructive effects. The central character, Pascual, is a man whose story is shot through with misfortune and crime. His parents are abusive to him. His younger brother dies basically as a result of neglect, and his sister becomes a sex worker. Pascual himself appears at first as a weak innocent in the midst of this, but his own behavior has a streak of cruelty leading to murder.

One cannot be sure if Cela is presenting Pascual as a figure like Meursault in Camus' The Stranger, a man alienated from the world and its traditional values; or if the novel is a more conventional form of social criticism, showing that the randomly cruel conditions of life in rural Spain are such that Pascual's descent is inevitable. Pascual narrates his story in a matter-of-fact tone, acknowledging the sins and crimes he has committed but telling us, at the very beginning, that "I am not, sir, a bad person." It is possible Pascual is a sociopath, except for the fact that he says he regrets his crimes, and he feels remorse, though if this is genuine, one wonders why he has deliberately and even methodically committed such acts. It is as if an uncontrollable force has urged him on, almost like Macbeth, except that Pascual unlike Macbeth has nothing to gain by killing. Perhaps, then Cela's ultimate theme is that it is simply an unknown quantity of the cosmos that is responsible for criminal behavior.

It's significant that in the novel's postscript we are told that Pascual does not go to the gallows calmly, but first passes out, and then

....he began carrying on so about not wanting to die and its being a terrible thing to do what they were doing to him, that he had to be dragged along and put down on the stool by force....he ended his days spitting and stamping, with no thought for the persons around him, in the most abject and the vilest way a man can die, letting everyone see his fear of death. [p. 166, trans. Anthony Kerrigan]

It's a far cry from the existential calm of Meursault, who on the last page of l'Étranger quietly wishes that at his execution there will be a great crowd who will greet him "with howls of hatred."

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