The Family of Pascual Duarte

by Camilo José Cela

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

As if often the case with books, the most striking quotations occur at both the beginning and the end. In The Family of Pascual Duarte it is not the literal start of the book (which is the "transcriber's note") but the beginning of Duarte's own narrative that is significant and perhaps the key to Cela's principal theme:

Yo, señor, no soy malo. (No, sir, I am not a bad person).

Pascual, in spite of the horrible crimes he commits, is not evil, or at least, he does not view himself that way. I would identify both social criticism and existential thinking at the root of Cela's novel. In the grinding poverty of rural Spain in the late nineteenth--and early twentieth-century, with abusive parents, it would be surprising if Pascual were somehow to become a model citizen. His whole environment is constricting, but the larger point may be that life is like that for anyone, even for people who do not grow up in such circumstances. The last line of Pascual's narrative is:

Podía respirar... (I could breathe....)

This comes after the horrific culmination of his crimes. What Pascual experiences is a sense of liberation, and the reader must focus primarily on the reasons for it and the mystery behind those reasons.

After each of his successive crimes occurs, Pascual expresses an afterthought which is revealing. He shoots his dog because the dog is staring at him in a way he thinks is accusatory. After doing so he says,

La perra tenía una sangre oscura y pegajosa que se extendía poco a poco por la tierra. (The bitch's blood was dark and sticky and it spread slowly along the dry earth.)

This is his first killing, but with those that follow, his observations about blood continue, as we will see below.

After his first period of incarceration Pascual reflects that they should have kept him locked up longer, for then he would not have been able to commit his worst crime. But his reflection on the time in prison is striking:

Tres años me tuvieron encerrado, tres años lentos, largos como la amargura, que si al principio creí que nunca pasarían, después pensé que hablan sido un sueño; (I was kept locked up for three years, three long years, as long as the street of sorrow. At first it seemed my sentence would never end. Long afterwards, the years seemed like a dream.)

After he has killed his mother, Pascual says of her blood, which has spurted all over him:

Estaba caliente como un vientre y sabía lo mismo que la sangre de los corderos. (it was warm as a soft belly and tasted like the blood of a lamb.)

There is religious symbolism in this quote, as in many other places in the book. One might ask what Pascual is alluding to here, about his mother's death as a kind of sacrifice, or perhaps about his own salvation or, conversely, damnation resulting from not only this act but his entire life.

N.B.--I have used the 1964 translation of Anthony Kerrigan for the quotations.

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