Miguel de Unamuno Essay - Critical Essays

Unamuno, Miguel de


Miguel de Unamuno 1864-1936

Spanish poet, essayist, novelist, philosopher, playwright, and journalist.

The following entry provides criticism on Unamuno's works from 1934 through 2003. See also Saint Emmanuel the Good Criticism.

An important figure in the Spanish cultural movement known as the Generation of 1898, Unamuno was an innovator of genre and style who does not fit easily into any literary category. Although he considered himself first and foremost to be a poet, during his lifetime he was best known for his essays on religion, metaphysics, politics, and Spanish culture. Today, Unamuno is remembered primarily for his fiction, which is valued for its idiosyncratic forms and poetic use of language to express psychological states and emotional conflicts. An early existentialist and modernist, Unamuno explored the tensions between reason and faith, religion and freedom of thought, and the tragedy of death, for which reason offers no consolation. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Arthur A. Cohen praised Unamuno as “the greatest stylist in the Spanish language since Cervantes.” Unamuno's existential, experimental writings have strongly influenced twentieth-century literature, including writers as diverse as Federico García Lorca, Juan Ramón-Jiminéz, Henry Miller, and Graham Greene.

Biographical Information

Born on September 29, 1864, in the Basque city of Bilbao, Unamuno was the third of six children born to Félix de Unamuno, a baker, and Salomé Jugo. His father died when Unamuno was six, and Unamuno was raised by his mother and uncle in a devout Catholic household. As a child, Unamuno witnessed violence between traditional and progressive Basques during the Carlist siege of Bilbao. From 1880 to 1884, Unamuno studied philosophy and letters at the University of Madrid, writing a doctoral thesis on the origins of the Basque people and language. In 1884 Unamuno returned to Bilbao where he founded the socialist journal La Lucha de Clases. In 1891, newly married to Concepción (Concha) Lizárraga Encénnarro, he secured a professorship at the University of Salamanca, where he had both a successful academic life and ten children. In 1897, his third child contracted meningitis and died. This death triggered a spiritual crisis for Unamuno, who, unable to find comfort in either his intellectual convictions or Catholicism, gradually abandoned socialism because it did not address what he felt was the greatest human problem, death. In addition to writing, Unamuno played an important role in intellectual life, serving as rector of the University of Salamanca from 1900 to 1914 during a time of great upheaval. In 1914, he was dismissed from the university for criticizing the policies of King Alfonso XIII. In 1924, Unamuno campaigned against the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera and was exiled without his family to the Canary Islands. After a few months, he escaped to Paris and became a cause célèbre in intellectual circles. Unamuno spent five years in exile, living mostly in Hendaye, a French Basque town. After Rivera died in 1930, Alfonso fled Spain and the Republic was proclaimed. Unamuno returned to Salamanca and resumed his teaching post. However, in 1936, as civil war erupted, Unamuno denounced Francisco Franco. Although Franco authorized his execution, to avoid an international incident, Unamuno was placed under house arrest, where he died at age 72 on New Year's Eve, 1936.

Major Works

A modernist and existentialist, Unamuno was also a stylistic innovator who combined poetry with prose and philosophy with fiction to create new genres such as the nivola, which lacked external markers and character descriptions, conveyed a sense of timelessness, and reflected the illusory nature of the material world and the importance of the inner lives of his characters. “Faith which does not doubt is dead faith,” Unamuno once wrote, and the tension between doubt and faith pervades all his work. Informed by the work of Hegel, Kierkegaard, Bergson and James, Unamuno incorporates philosophical discourse into his narratives. Unamuno's early novels, Paz en la Guerra (1897) and Amor y pedagogía (1902; Love and Pedagogy) explore the interconnectedness of self and world through death, and satirize objective positivism. Abel Sánchez (1917) explores how jealousy becomes self-hatred; Tulio Montalbán (1920) interrogates the conflicts between one's public persona and one's inner life; and La Tía Tula (1921) ponders its heroine's self-denial. Unamuno's final novel, San Manuel Bueno, mártir (1933; Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr), concerns a priest who has lost his faith in God but nevertheless ministers to his parishioners. Several of Unamuno's works fall under the category of metafiction, most notably Niebla (1914; Mist), in which a character dies upon learning he is a figment of Unamuno's imagination, and Cómo se hace una novela (1927), a novelistic essay about novel-writing that describes an author writing a character writing another character and so on. Noted for its blend of philosophy and romanticism and for its privileging of meaning over traditional forms, Unamuno's poetry focuses on religion, Spanish culture, geography, and domestic life. In a long poem, El Cristo de Velázquez (1920; The Christ of Velazquez), Unamuno meditates on the symbols evoked by Velázquez's painting of Christ; in poetry collections such as De Fuerteventura a París (1925) and Romancero del destierro (1928), Unamuno reflects on his experience as an exile. Like his fiction, Unamuno's plays focus on the internal lives of his characters, relying on austere settings and evocative symbolism to explore spirituality and faith as a necessary lie. A prolific essayist, Unamuno contemplated metaphysics, literature, religion, politics, and travel. En torno al casticismo (1895) attempts to define Spain's character and collective psychology. Del sentimiento trágico de la vida (1912; The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples) explores the intrahistoria, or ignored history, of the rural Spanish provinces. Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho (1905; The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho) suggests that Cervantes' quixotic hero represents the spirituality of the Spanish people.

Critical Reception

Many early critics were mystified by Unamuno's paradoxical, determinedly unsystematic essays and novels. In 1922, H. C. Harwood called The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples “confusing and self-contradictory.” Of The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho Aubrey Bell wrote in 1919, “He agrees with no one but himself, and not with himself for very long.” Although V. S. Pritchett once called Unamuno “the only [Spanish] writer to attain a European reputation,” he also dismissed Mist as a “very bad novel.” Yet, in his lifetime Unamuno also had fans. In 1908, Havelock Ellis proclaimed Unamuno “one of the most brilliant of Spanish writers and a penetrative critic.” In 1922, the American novelist John Dos Passos admired Unamuno's “anarchic fury,” and Mark van Doren called The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples “modern Catholicism's richest, most passionate, most brilliant statement of the grounds that exist for faith in immortality, now that reason and science have done their worst.” In 1931, Edgar Holt considered Don Quijote y Sancho “one of the most invigorating works that contemporary literature has produced.” Many critics believed Unamuno represented a Spanish sensibility. In 1952, for example, John Mackay wrote that Unamuno was “undoubtedly the greatest interpreter of the Spanish race.” Most critics suggest that Unamuno's genre-bending, metaphysical metafiction was ahead of its time. Allen Lacey praises Mist, Abel Sánchez, and Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr “for [their] improvisatory technique,” arguing that Unamuno's “sense of the novel as a vehicle for serious play, as a comic metaphysic, has strong affinities to the best work of Jorge Luis Borges and John Barth.” Martin Nozick calls El Cristo del Velázquez “a major work of unflagging vitality and resonances, … made up of wave upon wave of Whitmanesque rhythms,” and Howard Young appreciates El Cristo's “Miltonic flow” as well as “the subdued sadness of his later sonnets.” For R. E. Batchelor, Unamuno is a modern paradox, combining “the imperious, warrior-like vitality of a Nietzsche with the intellectual paralysis of a Pirendello, [and] the stirring pride of an Ibsen with the frustration of a Kafka.” Throughout the twentieth century, critics have found, in Enrique Fernandez's words, that “Unamuno … deserves to be a category unto himself.”

Principal Works

En torno al casticismo (essays) 1895

Paz en la guerra (novel) 1897

De la enseñanza superior en España (essays) 1899

Tres ensayos (essays) 1900

Amor y pedagogía [Love and Pedagogy] (novel) 1902

Paisajes (travel essay) 1902

Cartes (correspondence) 1903

De mi país (travel essay) 1903

Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho [The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho] (essay) 1905

Poesías (poetry) 1907

Recuerdos de niñez y de mocedad (autobiographical essays) 1908

La esfinge (play) 1909

La difunta (play) 1910

Mi religión y otros ensayos breves [Perplexities and Paradoxes] (essays) 1910

Rosario de sonetos líricos (poetry) 1911

Soliloquios y conversaciones [Essays and Soliloquies] (essays) 1911

Por tierras de Portugal y de España (travel essay) 1911

Contra esto y aquello (essay) 1912

El porvenir de España (correspondence) 1912

Del sentimiento trágico de la vida en los hombres y en los pueblos [The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples] (essay) 1912

El espejo de la muerte (short stories) 1913

La venda, La princesa doña Lambra (plays) 1913

Niebla [Mist] (novel) 1914

Ensayos. [Essays and Soliloquies] 7 vols. (essays) 1916-1918

Nada menos que todo un...

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Jose A. Balseiro (essay date June 1934)

SOURCE: Balseiro, Jose A. “The Quixote of Contemporary Spain: Miguel de Unamuno.” PMLA 49, no. 2 (June 1934): 645-56.

[In the following essay, Balseiro comments on the works and life of Unamuno, arguing that Unamuno himself was a quixotic thinker.]

In his essay on Hamlet and Don Quixote, Ivan Tourguéniev stated that no man aspires to be called a Quixote. The Russian novelist did not presurmise the dream of Miguel de Unamuno. If the Knight-Errant makes clear that his duty binds him to protect the weak, relieve the oppressed, and punish the bad, Unamuno accepts and practices his creed. But Unamuno, being by far more quixotic than Cervantes, interprets...

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Angel Del Rio (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: Del Rio, Angel. Introduction to Three Exemplary Novels, by Miguel de Unamuno, translated by Angel Flores, pp. 11-33. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1956.

[In the following essay, Del Rio provides an overview of contemporary American responses to Unamuno and demonstrates that Three Exemplary Novels “are highly representative of Unamuno's conception of the tragic character,” noting that “the central idea in all [Unamuno's] fiction is the struggle to create faith from doubt and ethics from inner life.”]

I cannot help wondering, rereading these three strange stories thirty-five years after their first publication, what will be the modern American...

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Peter G. Earle (essay date October 1964)

SOURCE: Earle, Peter G. “Unamuno and the Theme of History.” Hispanic Review 32, no. 4 (October 1964): 319-39.

[In the following essay, Earle provides readings of Unamuno's En torno al casticismo, Abel Sanchez, San Manuel Bueno, mártir, and Paz en la guerra, among others, to suggest that in Unamuno's conceptualization of history, the destiny of peoples is inextricably linked to the destiny of individuals.]

“¿Es la eternidad que pasa o el momento que se queda?”

The emphasis which Unamuno repeatedly placed on romantic, spiritual anxiety and on the enigmatic notion of intrahistoria has...

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J. E. Varey (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Varey, J. E. “Maese Miguel: Puppets as a Literary Theme in the Work of Unamumo.” In Spanish Thought and Letters in the Twentieth Century, edited by German Bleiberg and E. Inman Fox, pp. 559-72. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1966.

[In the following essay, Varey discusses how Unamumo utilizes images of puppets and puppetry as a recurring thematic motif throughout his body of work.]

“Aujourd'hui”—wrote Emile Zola in 1881—“le roman est devenu l'outil du siècle, la grande enquête sur l'homme et sur la nature.”1 Thirty-four years later, in 1925, José Ortega y Gasset declared that the new art was to be interpreted as...

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Mario J. Valdes (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Valdes, Mario J. “Metaphysics and the Novel in Unamuno's Last Decade.” Hispanofila 44 (1972): 33-44.

[In the following essay, Valdes argues that Unamuno's late works of literature, from Paz en la Guerra to San Manuel Bueno, mártir and La novella de don Sandalio, jugador de ajedrez, demonstrate a well-developed metaphysics and that Unamuno's literary works metaphorically express a dialectical method and a fundamental dualism.]

One of the fundamental problems that confronts the literary critic is how to determine the place and function of philosophy in literature. Because the novel is a more elastic genre the influence of philosophy in...

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Salvador Jimenez-Fajardo (essay date fall 1976)

SOURCE: Jimenez-Fajardo, Salvador. “Unamuno's Abel Sanchez: Envy as a Work of Art.” Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century 4 (fall 1976): 89-103.

[In the following essay, Jimenez-Fajardo provides an extended close reading of Unamuno's Abel Sanchez to examine the manifestations of envy, arguing that in Abel Sanchez, it is Joaquin's envy, and the resulting obsession, that makes his art triumph over Abel's.]

Two men are friends from childhood. Abel is an artist, the other, Joaquín, a doctor. Always, it seems, Abel triumphs in life with ease and grace. Joaquín hates him for it. Abel takes from Joaquín the woman he loves. Joaquín saves...

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D. L. Shaw (essay date April 1977)

SOURCE: Shaw, D. L. “Three Plays of Unamuno: A Survey of His Dramatic Technique.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 13, no. 2 (April 1977): 253-64.

[In the following essay, Shaw uses three plays by Unamuno—La esfinge, Fedra, and El otro—to trace the development of Unamuno's “narrative concept of drama,” noting that while Unamuno's early work was influenced by Ibsen, his later plays imitated Pirandello; the author concludes that the very qualities that made Unamuno a “distinguished innovator” in fiction undermine his success as a playwright.]

A prominent feature of critical reaction to Unamuno's theatre is the lack of interest which has...

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Paula K. Speck (essay date November 1982)

SOURCE: Speck, Paula K. “The Making of a Novel in Unamuno.” South Atlantic Review 47, no. 4 (November 1982): 52-63.

[In the following essay, Speck argues that Como se hace una novella is a series of metanarratives constructed like a maze of mirrors in a carnival, suggesting that the novel tells the story of Unamuno's search for this narrative “way out” of the labyrinth of reflection.]

Como se hace una novela (1927), one of Miguel de Unamuno's last novels, contains his most extreme experiments with narrative form. In it, he set out to push to their farthest limit the explorations of the autonomous character, the self-reflecting narrative, and the...

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Walter Glannon (essay date March 1987)

SOURCE: Glannon, Walter. “Unamuno's San Manuel Bueno, mártir: Ethics through Fiction.” Modern Language Notes 102, no. 2 (March 1987): 316-33.

[In the following essay, Glannon provides a close reading of Unamuno's 1931 novel, San Manuel Bueno, mártir, to explore the ways in which the novel addresses the possibilities of meaning in a world that appears godless and pointless.]

“… hier am Ende der Leiter steht der Asket und Märtyrer.”

Nietzsche: Morgenröthe, 113

Miguel de Unamuno was a writer of chameleon-like shifts in both personal and intellectual mood throughout...

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Nicholas G. Round (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Round, Nicholas G. “‘Without a City Wall’: Paz en la Guerra and the End of Realism.” In Re-Reading Unamuno, edited by Nicholas G. Round, pp. 101-20. Glasgow, Scotland: University of Glasgow Department of Hispanic Studies, 1989.

[In the following essay, Round argues that Paz en la Guerra is both one of the last works of nineteenth-century Spanish realism as well as postrealism—using a metanarrative to unite documentary, historical fact with novelesque, imaginative vision.]

Of Paz en la guerra two things are fairly generally granted: that it is unlike Unamuno's later novels, and that it stands at an extreme outer limit of Spanish...

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Armand F. Baker (essay date winter 1990)

SOURCE: Baker, Armand F. “Unamuno and the Religion of Uncertainty.” Hispanic Review 58, no. 1 (winter 1990): 37-56.

[In the following essay, Baker explores the themes of faith and uncertainty in Unamuno's works, including Diario íntimio, Del sentimiento trágico de la vida, La agonía de Cristianismo, Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho, and Cristo de Velázquez.]

There has rarely been a writer who was more preoccupied with religion than Miguel de Unamuno, since almost everything he wrote can ultimately be related to his efforts to resolve the problem of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. It is often taken for granted that, in spite of his...

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Jennifer Lowe (essay date January 1993)

SOURCE: Lowe, Jennifer. “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Letter-Writer: Reflections On and In Unamuno's La Novela de Don Sandalio, Jugador de Ajedrez.Forum for Modern Language Studies 29, no. 1 (January 1993): 62-74.

[In the following essay, Lowe explores how Unamuno uses the epistolary form as a narrative method in La novela de Don Sandalio.]

“Fue por fin mi amigo al campo a curarse de sus murrias, tal y como le aconsejé, y desde allí me escribe esto: ‘Mi querido Miguel: No puedo más; pasado manaña me vuelvo a la ciudad.’”1 The “friend” allegedly writing to Unamuno from the countryside to announce his imminent return is a...

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Stephen J. Summerhill (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Summerhill, Stephen J. “The Autobiographical Subject as Allegorical Construct in Unamuno's Diario íntimio.” In Neuvas Perspectivas Sobre el 98, edited by John P. Gabriele, pp. 33-42. Madrid and Frankfurt am Main, Spain and Germany: Iberoamericana and Vervuert, 1999.

[In the following essay, Summerhill reads Unamuno's Diario íntimio as religious allegory, arguing that for Unamuno the “road to reality is through imitation of books; and sincerity of religious belief is a learned behavior.”]

Unpublished during Unamuno's lifetime, the Diario íntimo was discovered in the late 1950s by Armando Zubizarreta, who along with Antonio...

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Audrey R. Gertz (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Gertz, Audrey R. “Masquerading as the Archetype: Images of Femininity in Miguel de Unamuno's Nada menos que todo un hombre.” In Neuvas Perspectivas Sobre el 98, edited by John P. Gabriele, pp. 251-59. Madrid and Frankfurt am Main, Spain and Germany: Iberoamericana and Vervuert, 1999.

[In the following essay, Gertz suggests that in Nada menos que todo un hombre Unamuno subverts readers' understandings of archetypes through the fusion of the Self with the Other and the Other into the Mother.]

Miguel de Unamuno's short but powerful novel, Nada menos que todo un hombre (1916), illustrates according to one critic “a progressive...

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Joan Ramon Resina (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Resina, Joan Ramon. “For Their Own Good: The Spanish Identity and Its Grand Inquisitor, Miguel de Unamuno.” In La Generacion del 98: Frente al Nuevo Fin de Siglo, edited by Jesus Torrecilla, pp. 235-67. Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi B.V., 2000.

[In the following essay, Resina contextualizes Unamuno's evolving political philosophy as a member of La Generacion del 98, paying close attention to the ways in which Unamuno's Basque heritage influenced his theories of linguistic and national identity.]

Sean cuales fueren las deficiencias que para la vida de la cultura moderna tenga el pueblo castellano, es preciso confesar que a su generosidad, a su...

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Paul R. Olson (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Olson, Paul R. “Lacquer Boxes: Como se hace una novella and the Return of the Nivola.” In The Great Chiasmus: Word and Flesh in the Novels of Unamuno, pp. 156-74. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2003.

[In the following essay, Olson explores the Hegelian conceit of the ontological equivalence of Pure Being and Pure Nothingness in Unamuno's novels as represented by a set of nesting boxes each containing another laquered box and argues that over a period of forty years, Unamuno's use of the nesting-box motif provided a structural and topological guiding principle that informed his work.]

In 1914 Unamuno was summarily dismissed from...

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Further Reading


Baker, Armand F. “The God of Miguel de Unamuno.” Hispania 74, no. 4 (December 1991): 824-33.

Considers the contradictions inherent in Unamuno's rejection of the doctrine of pantheism, arguing that Unamuno's writings suggest he embraced a doctrine of “panentheism”—a belief that the world is “in God” and that God is both immanent and transcendent.

Batchelor, R. “Form and Content in Unamuno's Niebla.Forum for Modern Language Studies 8, no. 3 (July 1972): 197-214.

Addresses Unamuno's craftsmanship as a novelist in Niebla.

Blanco Aguinaga, Carlos. “Unamuno's...

(The entire section is 1833 words.)