Pedro Antonio de Alarcón Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Pedro Antonio de Alarcón developed an impressive variety of narrative techniques over the course of his career by which he could entice his readers into an intriguing story and still reserve for them the kind of surprise he found to be essential to the short-story genre. The most famous story of his younger years, “El Clavo” (“The Nail”), first published in 1853 when he was only twenty, illustrates how early he learned the skills of the artful storyteller. To entice the reader into this rather wildly romantic tale of ungovernable passions, Alarcón used two separate narrative voices, recounting three apparently separateincidents, each involving a different woman of mystery.

The curiosity of readers is promptly piqued. They begin to wonder where lies the connection that unites the three separate incidents. The first incident is the narrator’s account of the woman who rejected his love; the second is the account by Zarco, the narrator’s friend, of the woman with whom he fell in love and whom he made pregnant, but who failed to appear for their planned wedding; and the third incident is the discovery by the narrator and his friend Zarco, in the town graveyard, of a skull with a nail driven through it, which strongly suggests the murder of a husband by his wife. Since Zarco is a judge, he sets out to bring the murderess to justice, with the help of his friend Felipe, who is the narrator of the story. Eventually, a tense trial scene reveals that all three women of mystery are one and the same person. Zarco holds true to his judicial calling, suppresses his personal passion, and sees his beloved condemned to death for murder. The final twist to the story comes, however, as she mounts the scaffold to be executed: Zarco, unable to resist his passion for her, has obtained a pardon and comes bearing it to save her at the last moment, where-upon she falls in a faint at his feet and is discovered moments later to be dead. There are several improbabilities and unbelievable coincidences in this intricate plot, but Alarcón manages by his narrative skill to make it an exciting, unpredictable, and spellbinding tale, illustrating the cruel ironies of fate which prevent the consummation of true love.

“The Embrace at Vergara”

Similar techniques, which control the narrative point of view and permit the surprise effect at the end, can be seen in other tales of the early period in Alarcón’s career. In contrast to the somber drama of “The Nail,” for example, one finds a lighthearted comic tale of thwarted love in “El Abrazo de Vergara” (“The Embrace at Vergara”), in which the victim tells his own story in the first person. Thus, the reader can know only what is known by the narrator, who attempts the seduction of a pretty young traveling companion in a stagecoach, thinking she is a foreigner because she says nothing. Just when he thinks he has succeeded, however, the stagecoach stops, the young lady gets out, is greeted by her husband, and says a cheery farewell to her victim in perfect Spanish. As a final ironic twist, the author intervenes at the very end to tease the reader, who must doubtless be disappointed because the title suggests the story is about a political alliance, known popularly as “the embrace at Vergara.”

“The Prophecy”

In a completely different vein, the story “La Buenaventura” (“The Prophecy”) tells of a gypsy who persuades a dangerous outlaw to let him go free by offering to tell his fortune. Although it is a third-person narrative, the perspective through which the reader receives the narrative is constantly that of the gypsy, so that the unexpected fulfillment of the gypsy’s prophecy at the end is a surprise not only to the gypsy but also to the reader as well. Among Alarcón’s stories, this work has been almost as popular an anthology piece as “The Nail.”

“The Nun”

If the earliest stories bear the imprint of Alarcón’s Romantic origins as a writer, his later stories of the 1860’s and 1870’s clearly demonstrate an altered sensibility. Improbable plots and extravagant diction have vanished, and the focus of interest is more psychological than sentimental, more realistic than fantastic, just as the prose is more concise and restrained. “La Comendadora” (“The Nun”), published in 1868 and probably Alarcón’s...

(The entire section is 1790 words.)