The realistic novel in Spain arose out of a particular set of historical circumstances and from diverse streams of intellectual growth. These included social and economic factors (the rise of a middle-class, materialistic society, the Revolution of 1868, and the underlying political, religious, and economic corruption of the Restoration period) and scientific influences (positivism, Darwinism, and the Industrial Revolution). They also included philosophical currents (the eighteenth century position that truth can be discovered through the senses and, later, the influence of Krausism), and, most particularly, such literary developments as the influence of and reaction against Romanticism, currents from France (the realism of Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Stendhal, and Zola’s naturalism), and the rediscovery of Cervantine and traditional Spanish realism.
The Spanish realistic novel, particularly as exemplified by Alas, revealed some points of emphasis that differed from the French: a stronger continuity of thought and feeling with previous Romantic tendencies, a more pronounced stress on spiritual and religious matters, a regionalist framework (such as Alas’s focus on Asturias and Oviedo), and the constant presence of the Cervantine influence. The last characteristic included the special use of character and authorial perspectives that expose the ambiguity and complexity of reality, a distinctive brand of literary irony, and devices that produce the effect of character autonomy.
Within this general framework, Alas’s linguistic refinements and extremely subjective point of view deviated from the slightly more objective approach of many of his own Spanish contemporaries. Furthermore, while all realistic writers were critical of their environment, Alas, more than most, failed to camouflage his didactic stance. His realism, rather, is to be found in the solidity and extraordinary depth of his major psychological studies, his powers of observation and the resulting exactness of detail, and his intricate play of character-author perspectives. Like most of the major novelists of the second half of the nineteenth century in Spain, Alas evolved somewhat in his later years away from the realistic-naturalistic focus toward a more “idealistic” inspiration. Leo Tolstoy, rather than Balzac or Zola, became the most significant foreign influence during this period. The Asturian writer came to abandon, to an extent, his preoccupation with aesthetic theory and literary novelty in the search for a more transcendent, spiritual, often symbolic approach.
La regenta, Alas’s first and greatest novel, stands as one of the supreme achievements of nineteenth century realism in Spain and the rest of Europe. In it, one can see a reawakening in the Iberian Peninsula of what György Lukács called the “novel of romantic disillusionment.” Certainly, it is one of the most powerful creations of modern psychological realism. In La regenta, all of Alas’s literary theories were put into effect: A strong, ideological tone and theme provided a framework for exploring psychological motivations; the actualities of contemporary Spanish society are portrayed; and the smallest of details contributes to artistic ends. The work reflects the author’s conception of art as an ancha ventana abierta (wide-open window), in which Alas the critic could search for justice, Alas the educator could search for truth, and Alas the artist could search for beauty.
The book is many things in one: an autobiography (in its reflection of the author’s own personality, culture, ideology, and actual experiences); a regional novel (to the extent that its setting, called Vetusta, is the city of Oviedo); a treatise on national traits, both historical and contemporary; and the greatest of all Spanish “naturalistic” creations. (One must add, immediately, that none of the major realistic novelists in Spain subscribed totally to Zola’s concept of philosophical determinism or to full descriptive treatment of grotesque or crude realities.)
Despite the novel’s length and complexity, the basic threads of the action can be summarized in a few sentences. In broadest terms, the plot traces the process by which the heroine, Ana Ozores, is drawn into an adulterous relationship with an aristocratic Don Juan, Alvaro Mesía. Conflict arises from Ana’s physical attraction to Alvaro, which battles against idealistic, spiritual impulses nurtured by her confessor, Don Fermín de Pas, and natural inclination versus conjugal duty. The rest of the plot is a study of these figures and the behavior of literally hundreds of other characters who inhabit a city plagued by political corruption and social and moral degeneration. Ana’s vacillations—the very basis for the action as well as the novel’s style and structure—dramatize the need for love, both in the form of human companionship and in what Sherman Eoff has called “a personal and sympathetic relationship with Deity.”
Alas’s tone, his approach to his characters, and his setting are not “realistically” neutral. The author’s own feelings range through sarcasm, criticism, displeasure, hatred, sympathy, derision, and open, light humor. Just as evident, if not as pertinent to the work’s artistry, however, are Alas’s ideological, utilitarian themes; his condemnation of indifference, narrowness, provincialism, ignorance, pedantry, moral degradation, religious hypocrisy, and political corruption; and his dissection of a city in which, as Michael Nimetz puts it, “sex and religion occupy the same shrine and neutralize each other in the process,” thus producing a state of general frustration.
Alas’s irony is present everywhere. The many types and variations of ironic comment range from those that are primarily linguistic (“Vetusta, la muy noble y leal ciudadhacía la digestión del cocido y de la olla podrida”) to those directed toward characterization, as in descriptions of such minor characters as Don Saturnino; those related to manners or customs of the general population, as in the description of the casino library, where the books are “de más sólida enseñanza” but where “la llave de aquel departamento se había perdido”; and those that present purer, more open humor (as in Don Víctor’s reenactments of Calderonian honor plays).
Theimplied author’s actual position—that is, his presence as it relates to the action—can best be described in the words of Frank Durand. Alas believed the author (as opposed to a character within the novel) to be best qualified to interpret a character’s thoughts, actions, and motivations.Because Alas knows all, the reader not only sees characters through the author’s eyes but, entering their consciousness, sees reality through the eyes of the characters themselves. Thus the author’s omniscient point of view carries within itself, so to speak, narrower individual points of view. The resultant multiple perspectives serve to delineate the different characters as well as to develop the major themes and the main action of the novel.
At times the author himself is clearly speaking. At other moments, the reader is projected into the thoughts and feelings of the major characters. The judicious combination of these two points of view allows for an extensive as well as an intensive view of the characters and the city, and serves also to maintain a high level of interest throughout an extremely lengthy narrative.
With respect to language, realism is enhanced by the following elements: the inclusion of extremely exact detail, a frequent appeal to the senses, vivid imagery designed to highlight the animal nature of the city and its inhabitants, and a nearly constant sense of theatrical immediacy. Some stylistic traits, however, reveal the author’s conscious attempt to draw attention to language itself and thus to rise above realism: the use of reiteration, frequent “extremist” tendencies (antithetical expressions, hyperboles, paradoxes), and authorial allusions (usually ironic) to art or literature.
Much of Alas’s realism depends on the creation of what might be called a total atmospheric reality. With the exception of Pèrez Galdós’s Fortunata y Jacinta (1886-1887; Fortunata and Jacinta: Two Stories of Married Women, 1973), La regenta captures the urban social and physical milieu more completely than any single Spanish work of the nineteenth century. Few modern readers would deny that the novel is too long. The outcome of Ana’s story is powerful, however, precisely because the process preceding it goes on for so long. The background descriptions are, at the least, needed for an understanding of the external pressures and the heaviness of the material world that contribute to the denouement. The atmosphere of Vetusta (Oviedo) is in itself a major antagonist in the novel. Above all, the novel’s descriptions contribute to the author’s central goal: character study, the attempt to reveal the psychological complexity that positivistic naturalism had reduced to a series of systematized formulas. While the secondary figures are meant to represent types, Ana Ozores and Don Fermín de Pas are remarkably real and autonomous.
Several significant methods are used to achieve this depth. Alas reveals his characters from multiple perspectives: To the reader, the characters appear as what they are, what they think they are, and what others think they are. Frequently, actual mirrors are used to dramatize this complex play of perspectives. All the major characters are actors. The reader, also engulfed in so many points of view, tends also to confuse illusion and reality. The result is a sense of the characters’ distance and autonomy from authorial control, a Cervantine appearance of verisimilitude. The use of purposeful contrasts and parallels among the major and minor figures—such as de Pas’s spiritual motivations versus Alvaro’s licentious intentions, Don Víctor’s preoccupations versus Ana’s troubles, Obdulia versus Visitación, Camoirán or Cayetano versus Mourelo—constitutes another means of making the characters more vivid and more plausible.
Alas traces, carefully and logically, the historical and environmental origins and the subsequent development of Ana’s predicament: her need for love and her yearning for a child. The factors presented include the lack of a mother’s presence, the...
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