Mariano José de Larra Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mariano José de Larra 1809-1837

(Also wrote under pseudonyms of Fígaro, El bachiller Don Juan Pérez de Munguía, El pobrecito hablador, El duende satírico, Andrés Niporesas, and Ramón de Arriala.) Spanish essayist, journalist, novelist, and playwright.

The following entry presents criticism on Larra from 1971 to 1999.

A renowned Spanish satirist and social critic, Larra's life and early death served as emblems of Romantic tragedy and as a source of inspiration for succeeding generations of Spanish intellectuals.

Biographical Information

Larra was born in 1809 in Madrid, the only child of Mariano de Larra y Langelot, a physician, and his second wife, Dolores Sánchez de Castro y Delgado. Larra's father joined Napoleon's Imperial Army during its occupation of Spain, and was compelled to accompany the retreating troops back to France in 1813. The family's exile lasted until Larra was nine years old when Spain issued a general amnesty for French sympathizers. He received his early education in French schools and spoke French rather than Spanish—factors that contributed to Larra's lifelong feeling that he was an outsider within his own country. In 1824 Larra entered the University of Valladolid, but left without earning a degree and returned to Madrid where he embarked on a career as a journalist. He founded the periodical El duende satírico del día, serving as its editor and principal contributor. Highly critical of Spanish politics and social customs, the publication was soon suppressed by the government. In 1829, Larra married Josefa Anacleta Wetoret y Martínez, a match that proved unsuccessful. Three years later Larra began publishing another journal, El pobrecito hablador, which lasted only slightly longer than his first effort. He continued to write for other periodicals and in 1833 began an affiliation with La revista española, for which he produced numerous satirical essays under the pseudonym Figaro. At the same time, Larra wrote several successful plays that were staged in Madrid during the 1830s. His unhappy love affair with Dolores Armijo, his financial difficulties, and his growing pessimism about the possibilities for meaningful social and political reform led to Larra's suicide in 1837 at the age of twenty-eight.

Major Works

Larra's most important works were the essays and satires he produced for various Spanish journals. In general, they may be categorized as political articles, literary criticism, and artículos de costumbres, or sketches of customs. The first group demonstrated Larra's commitment to political justice as well as his pessimism regarding the possibilities of achieving any real reform in his own time. His literary criticism was also marked by his liberal and progressive attitude, and by his belief in the aesthetic ideals associated with Spanish Romanticism. The final category, the artículos de costumbres, best illustrates Larra's keen powers of observation, his brutal honesty, and his biting wit. These essays are critical of everything from poor service in the restaurants of Madrid to such Spanish institutions as the bullfight and the masked ball. Larra's most famous essay, “La Nochebuena de 1836,” was composed less than two months before his death. Its narrator, widely assumed to be Larra himself, tours the city on Christmas Eve and is disturbed to find that the celebrations are marked by sensuality rather than spirituality. He returns home to discover that his servant is intoxicated, and in the classic role reversal associated with carnivals and festivals, the drunken servant freely criticizes the excesses and hypocrisy of his master's class.

Larra was also a renowned dramatist, producing No más mostrador in 1831 and Macías (1834), a verse drama based on his historical novel El doncel de don Enrique el Doliente (1834). The work, considered Larra's best play, tells the story of fifteenth-century Galician poet Macías O Namorado.

Critical Reception

With the exception of Macías, Larra's plays were considered little more than translations of the works of French playwrights of the time, most notably Eugène Scribe. Even so, they were popular and financially successful during Larra's lifetime, but have largely been forgotten since. His satirical essays, however, were widely read by his contemporaries and continued to inspire succeeding generations of liberal Spanish intellectuals throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Alvin F. Sherman, Jr. reports that Larra's influence can be seen in the works of several nineteenth-century Spanish writers, most notably the novelist Benito Pérez Galdó. In addition, Larra's political vision motivated many of the members of the Generation of 1898, particularly Unamuno and Azorín, and his work formed the basis of the ideological essays of Ortega y Gasset of the Generation of 1914. Paul Ilie also discusses Larra's influence on succeeding generations of liberals, including the Leftist intellectuals of the twentieth-century Spanish Civil War. In fact, Ilie believes that Larra's status as a champion of liberal causes is rising: “With increasing exaggeration, Larra is becoming the hero of modern Leftist scholarship. His reputation reflects growing idealization both in the literary world and in some scholarly circles.”

Larra's political and aesthetic philosophies contain inherent contradictions according to John R. Rosenberg, who has analyzed the essay “La Nochebuena de 1836.” Larra and his narrator are torn between the position of alienated personal superiority typical of the romantic hero and the desire to be part of the public discourse working toward social change that characterizes the liberal reformer. Rosenberg reports that “Larra is at the head of the Spanish romantic movement that paraded a series of heroes and writers who cultivated their marginality only to find themselves locked out of meaningful discourse and enclosed by silence.” Susan Kirkpatrick also explores the contradictions in Larra's work, maintaining that despite his liberalism, his representation of individual subjectivity was very conventionally male. According to Kirkpatrick, although Larra “exalts the hero's rebellion against political authority in the name of the individual subject's right to happiness, defiance of patriarchal law cannot be conceived as a positive attribute of the female protagonist.”