Considered by some to be the greatest Spanish novelist after Miguel de Cervantes, Benito Pérez Galdós is known for his numerous historical novels and his treatment of nineteenth century Spain. In his contemporary novels, Pérez Galdós attempts to capture the flavor of Spanish life during a period of great turmoil and political change. In addition to a complex portrayal of nineteenth century Spanish life, Pérez Galdós’s novels are rich in characterization and psychological subtlety. They are matched by few other novels of the time.
Pérez Galdós spent his childhood in the Canary Islands, where he was the youngest in a well-to-do family. In 1863, Pérez Galdós left for Madrid to study law at the University of Madrid. He failed, through lack of interest, his law course, but Pérez Galdós took an intense interest in the daily life of Madrid. An astute observer of life, he set out to pursue his interest in writing, which led him to work for a newspaper after his university days. He published his first novel in 1870, the start of a long and immensely productive career as a writer.
Fortunata and Jacinta is a massive novel in four volumes, which focuses on the lives, sufferings, and eventual reconciliation of two women of very different backgrounds and social statuses. The women are the lover and the wife of Juanito Santa Cruz. Both vie for his attention and loyalty. While Fortunata and Jacinta overflows with finely portrayed characters from nearly all strata of nineteenth century Spanish society, the core of the novel focuses on the subtly idealized, yet flesh-and-blood portrayal of the female protagonists as representatives of two opposing ideals. This opposition is set in a Christian framework, in which charity, compassion, and forgiveness are seen as the highest principles of a spiritual life.
Many of the characters in the novel are portrayed with great complexity and depth, but their purpose is primarily to act as foils for Fortunata and Jacinta. Probably the most complex character besides the two female protagonists is Maximiliano Rubín, or Maxi, who, despite his mental and physical weakness, appears to embody certain philosophical and ethical concerns of Pérez Galdós. These concerns are the overbearing effects of environment and heredity on a person’s life. Maxi strives to overcome his inherited weaknesses, but he is fated to be thwarted at every turn by bad health and mental instability. Juanito, in contrast, is a character of little emotional depth, who lacks intelligence, sensitivity, or insight, and whose main function in the novel is to further the character development of the two protagonists.
The narrative complexity of Fortunata and Jacinta is typical of nineteenth century realist novels, whose aim is to provide the illusion of a complete vision of the actual life of the time and place portrayed. This aim accounts for the extensive background material presented in volume 1 of the novel. Readers may feel this material to be excessive, but they should take into consideration the fact that family history, references to actual events, political figures, places, streets, names, and other detailed information are all meant to provide the sense that readers are getting a true glimpse into Spanish society. These details also set the stage for the further development of the characters. Pérez Galdós, for instance, meticulously portrays Juanito as the indolent and spoiled child of doting upper-class parents. All his actions during the early chapters of volume 1 confirm that his behavior will cause suffering to Fortunata and Jacinta, although the relative flatness of his character prevents readers from assigning him anything but cursory blame for their pain.
The final chapter of...
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volume 4 brings together the many tributaries of Pérez Galdós’s tale, uniting Fortunata and Jacinta with a bond of love, understanding, and forgiveness. Fortunata’s suffering ends in death, as readers suspect it must, while the barren Jacinta inherits the infant Fortunata has by Juanito. Despite the continual sufferings of both women they are redeemed, at least partially, by the resolution of their circumstances. As she nears death, Fortunata is seen to be capable of deep sympathy as well as of compassion for those who cause her to suffer and seems also to transcend her earthy nature.
On her deathbed, she accepts Jacinta’s message of thanks through Guillermina, forgives even Juanito, then finally, in a delirium that resembles religious ecstasy, declares herself to be an angel, an “angel face,” just like her infant.
With Jacinta’s adoption of the infant after Fortunata’s death, Jacinta at long last finds the joy that escaped her. She effectively bears a child, although through the womb of another woman. An association of Fortunata with the Christ figure is not out of the question, for in dying she brings life and hope. The final message of Fortunata and Jacinta appears to be a positive one in which disparate, often conflicting, personalities and beliefs are reconciled under the veil of a somewhat mystic ethic of compassion. The two former enemies, with death separating them, “one of them in visible life and the other in invisible life . . . may possibly have looked at each other from opposite banks and wished to embrace.” Juanito, as obtuse as ever, finally receives his due from Jacinta, who consigns him to the role of a nothing, a husband who loses all respect from and influence over his wife. He becomes utterly superfluous, an appendage to his wife’s existence.
The novel ends with Maxi finally being placed in an asylum for the insane. Even in this end there is hope, for it is in his confinement that Maxi, like all the others who suffer in Pérez Galdós’s story, finds rest in the submission of his will “to whatever the world wishes to do with me.” He, as have Fortunata and Jacinta, makes his peace with the world.