Pedro Antonio de Alarcón Alarcón, Pedro Antonio de - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Pedro Antonio de Alarcón 1833–-1891

Spanish novelist, novella and short story writer, travel writer, poet, playwright, and critic.

The following entry provides criticism on Alarcón's short fiction from 1979 through 1999.

Famous for his vivid tales of Spanish life, Alarcón has been commended for enlivening Spanish literature with his animated voice and elegant style. By utilizing new forms—the short story, novella, travel diary, and memoir—he contributed much to the literary development of his country. In addition, his work reflects many of the major literary developments of his time, mirroring the gradual shift from romanticism to realism.

Biographical Information

Born to a noble but impoverished family, Alarcón turned to writing at an early age, publishing his first novel at the age of twenty-one. The same year he became editor of El látigo (The Whip), a Madrid avant-garde newspaper at which he launched vitriolic attacks on the government, military, clergy, and other writers. Alarcón so incensed his fellow artists that a group of them arranged for organized jeering at performances of El hijo pródigo (1857), his only play, thus resulting in its swift failure. He soon left his editor's post to volunteer for military service during the Moroccan campaign of 1859-60. Diario de un testigo de la guerra de Africa (1860), his enormously successful account of this adventure, provided him money and reputation, and for the next thirty years he produced dozens of short stories, poems, travel essays, sketches, and novels, including his acknowledged masterpiece, El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat), which appeared in 1874. In addition to his literary activity, Alarcón was involved in politics, and having dedicated himself to increasingly conservative causes, he served four times as deputy to Alfonso XII. Disheartened by critical disapproval of his later literary works, Alarcón virtually abandoned writing, publishing only two notable works, a literary reminiscence and a collection of short stories, between 1884 and his death in 1891.

Major Works of Short Fiction

In his Historia de mis libros (1884), Alarcón divides his short stories chronologically into three groups: his early stories, which were written while he lived in Guadix and Granada and exhibit the influence of writers like Walter Scott and Victor Hugo; his middle stories, which were written in Madrid and influenced by Alphonse Karr and Agustín Bonnat; and his later stories, which renounce any particular influence and are considered of high quality. Alarcón's stories were collected in three volumes, Novelas cortas: Cuentos amatorios (1881), Novelas cortas: Historietas nacionales (1881), and Novelas cortas: Narraciones inverosímiles (1882). Most of the stories of Historietas nacionales are war stories and are set during Spain's war with Napoleon's France, known as the War of Independence. Written before 1860, these early stories are classified as romantic in nature. Cuentos amatorios includes stories that have the common theme of love. Narraciones inverosímiles contains stories that are invented, not based on actual events—unlike the stories in the other volumes. Despite his impressive number of short stories, Alarcón is best remembered for his novella, The Three-Cornered Hat. Set in Guadix in the early 1800s, this humorous story chronicles an old man's unsuccessful attempt to seduce and corrupt a virtuous and intelligent young woman.

Critical Reception

Although Alarcón is sometimes called a “one-book author,” memorable only for The Three-Cornered Hat, his contribution is hardly limited to that single novella. Commentators note that he was an influential author with a unique personal voice and mastery of many literary forms that he helped introduce to Spanish literature. Recent critics have attempted to place Alarcón's short fiction within the tradition of nineteenth-century Spanish literature and trace his literary development from romanticism to realism. Commentators have evaluated the influence of such writers as Walter Scott, Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Agustín Bonnat, and George Sand on Alarcón's fiction, particularly the early stories. His portrayal of women has been another topic of critical analysis.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Cuentos, artículos y novelas 1859

Novelas 1866

El sombrero de tres picos (novella) 1874; also published as The Three-Cornered Hat in The Three-Cornered Hat and Other Stories, 1886

Amores y amoríos, historietas en prosa y verso (sketches, short stories, and travel essays) 1875

Novelas cortas: Cuentos amatorios 1881

Novelas cortas: Historietas nacionales 1881

Obras completas 19 vols. (prose and verse) 1881-1892

Novelas cortas: Narraciones inverosímiles 1882

The Strange Friend of Tito Girl 1890

Dos ángeles caídos y otros escritos olvidados (short story, sketches, essays, and poems) 1924

Tales from the Spanish 1948

The Nail and Other Stories 1997

The Nun and Other Stories 1999

El final de Norma (novel) 1855; also published as Brunehilde; or, The Last Act of Norma, 1891

El hijo pródigo (drama) 1857

Diario de un testigo de la guerra de Africa (travel essays) 1860

De Madrid a Nápoles (travel essays) 1861

Poesías serias y humorísticas (poems) 1870

Cosas que fueron. Artículos de costumbres (sketches, travel essays, and criticism) 1871

La Alpujarra (travel essays) 1873

El escándalo [The Scandal] (novel) 1875

El niño de la bola (novel) 1880; also published as The Infant with the Globe, 1955

El capitán Veneno (novel) 1881; also published as Captain Spitfire and the Unlucky Treasure: Two Spanish Novelettes, 1886

Últimos escritos (prose and verse) 1881

La pródiga (novel) 1882

Viajes por España (sketch and travel essays) 1883

Juicios literarios y artísticos (criticism) 1883

Historia de mis libros (reminiscences) 1884

Cyrus DeCoster (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: DeCoster, Cyrus. “Short Stories” and “Cuadros de Costambres.” In Pedro Antonio de Alarcón pp. 32-58. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.

[In the excerpt below, DeCoster provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Alarcón's short fiction and sketches.]

Between 1852 and 1854 Alarcón wrote short pieces of all sorts for El Eco de Occidente, mostly stories, costumbrista sketches, and poems. I was unable to locate the issues of El Eco de Occidente published in Cádiz in 1852-53.1 The first versions of the stories “El amigo de la muerte,” “La buenaventura,” “El clavo,” and “La cruz de palo” appeared in it; what else, one cannot say. The issues published in Granada in 1854 were collected in a volume and are readily available.2 Alarcón left Granada in July of that year, and after a month's hiatus, Salvador de Salvador took over the editorship of the journal, although Alarcón continued to send him material from Madrid. Alarcón salvaged six stories from the year's production, “El abrazo de Vergara,” “El asistente,” “¡Buena pesca!”, “La corneta de llaves,” “El extranjero,” and “El rey se divierte,” in addition to a few poems and republished them later. In 1924 Agustín Aguilar y Tejera collected the rest of Alarcón's production for that year, a miscellaneous grab bag of sketches, articles, poems, and one story which gave the title to the volume, Dos ángeles caídos y otros escritos olvidados (Two Fallen Angels and Other Forgotten Works).3 Much of the material is hack work, hurriedly cranked out because copy was needed, and Aguilar did Alarcón's reputation little service by republishing it. The “lost” material of the Cádiz issues was, no doubt, equally trivial.

After establishing himself in Madrid, Alarcón reworked much of this material from El Eco de Occidente, particularly the stories, and published them during the late 1850s in various journals, principally El Museo Universal, the Semanario Pintoresco Español, and La América. At the same time he was also writing new material. In 1859 he collected ten stories, “El afrancesado,” “El extranjero,” “¡Viva el Papa!”, “El ángel de la Guarda,” “Dos retratos,” “El asistente,” “Los ojos negros,” “El clavo,” “Dos ángeles caídos,” “Soy, tengo y quiero,” and the sketch “Las ferias de Madrid” in three volumes of Cuentos, artículos y novelas.4 In 1866 he republished some of these stories plus others in another collection, Novelas, which is today very rare.5 The volume was, incidentally, well reviewed by Manuel del Palacio, who likened Alarcón to Balzac and Poe.6 Five years later appeared Cosas que fueron. Artículos de costumbres. The subtitle is something of a misnomer because, in addition to costumbrista sketches, it includes travel articles and pieces of literary criticism, both new and old. Another volume, Amores y amoríos, historietas en prosa y verso (1875), contains mostly recent material which was being collected for the first time.7

In 1881 Alarcón began to publish his so-called Obras completas in the “Colección de Escritores Castellanos”; the last of the nineteen volumes finally came out in 1892. The short stories were collected in three volumes, Cuentos amatorios [Novelas cortas: Cuentos amatorios] (1881), Historietas nacionales [Novelas cortas: Historietas nacionales] (1881), and Narraciones inverosímiles [Novelas cortas: Narraciones inverosímiles] (1882). A revised edition of Cosas que fueron was brought out in 1883 with only costumbrista material. The travel articles plus the regionalistic sketch “La granadina” went into a new volume, Viajes por España (1883), while the articles of literary criticism were gathered in Juicios literarios y artísticos (also 1883).

We have seen that in his Historia de mis libros Alarcón divides his short stories chronologically into three groups. The first stories, written in Guadix and Granada, and including “El clavo,” “El amigo de la muerte,” “El extranjero,” “El asistente,” and “La buenaventura,” supposedly show the influence of Scott, Dumas, Hugo, Balzac, and George Sand. The second group consists of the stories he wrote after coming to Madrid in 1854 when he had come under the influence of Alphonse Karr and Agustín Bonnat. In retrospect, he looks back on this fad of his as an aberration, and he characterizes such stories as “El abrazo de Vergara,” “La belleza ideal,” “Los seis velos,” “¿Por qué era rubia?”, and “Soy, tengo y quiero” as extravagant and buffoonish. In general, they are not among his strongest efforts. In the third group, which includes “La Comendadora,” “La última calaverada,” “Moros y cristianos,” and “Tic … tac,” he says he has renounced his “Bonnat” manner. These late stories, the work of the mature Alarcón, are consistently of superior quality.

The majority of Alarcón's stories were written in the 1850s, before he reached the age of twenty-seven. During the next decade he was primarily involved in politics and wrote rather little. “Novela natural” (1866) and “La Comendadora” (1868) were the only stories published during those years. When in 1873 he began to devote himself to literature again, he concentrated on the novel and wrote only a few stories: “La última calaverada” (1874), “Sin un cuarto” (1874), “Tic … tac” (1875), “El libro talonario” (1878), “Moros y cristianos” (1881), and “La mujer alta” (1882).

When bringing out new editions of his works, Alarcón almost invariably made revisions, often of a substantial sort. Montesinos has studied in detail the variants of many of the stories. In some cases there are as many as three different versions. For example, “El clavo” was first published in El Eco de Occidente in 1853; Alarcón revised it extensively when republishing it in the Semanario Pintoresco Español in 1856 and once again before collecting it in the Obras completas. Montesinos claims that although Alarcón often made minor stylistic improvements, the later versions are usually no better than the original ones: “The author is incapable of improving on his first draft. He can rewrite a work of his; what he cannot do is to redo it.”8 Montesinos, not a great admirer of Alarcón's, is somewhat hard on our novelist. Alarcón made no effort to alter the fundamental nature of his works when revising them, but at least the majority of his changes are for the better.

The division of the stories into the three volumes, Historietas nacionales, Cuentos amatorios, and Narraciones inverosímiles, is somewhat capricious. Some of the stories would seem to fit better in another of the collections, and several of the pieces are not even stories at all. But no grouping is altogether satisfactory, for there is just too much variety. So I shall follow Alarcón's divisions, which is what most critics, including Montesinos, have done. No other system seems preferable. I have, however, postponed discussion of those works which are really costumbrista sketches to the chapter where I take up this genre.


Seven of the Historietas nacionales are war stories, mostly dealing with the War of Independence, hence the title of the volume. They are all early works, written prior to 1860. In three of the most popular of them, “El carbonero alcalde,” “El ángel de la Guarda,” and “El afrancesado,” Alarcón glorifies the bravery of the Spaniards in their struggle against Napoleon. The chauvinistic tone, the improbably heroic exploits of the Spaniards, the barbarous deeds of the invaders, and the exaggeratedly rhetorical language are indicative of their Romantic affiliation. The protagonist of “El alcalde carbonero,” the mayor of a village of charcoal makers near Guadix, leads the heroic if futile defense of the town by the vastly outnumbered peasants against a French army. At the end, surrounded and seriously wounded, he hurls himself to death on the rocks below to avoid being captured. “El ángel de la Guarda” is a true story according to Alarcón. The setting—Tarragona on an idyllic May day in 1814 after the departure of the French—offers an ironic contrast with the tragedy that occurred there during the invasion. Three years earlier a young couple with the woman's mother and baby brother, had taken refuge in a dry cistern. When the baby started to cry, the mother clutched him to her breast so the pursuing soldiers would not hear him. The three adults were saved, but the baby suffocated, and the mother subsequently lost her mind.

In “El afrancesado,” García de Paredes, an apothecary and a descendant of the sixteenth-century hero of the same name, is accused of being an afrancesado, a French sympathizer, for consorting with the enemy. One evening, while he is hosting a banquet for twenty French officers, the townspeople break in, intent on killing him for his treachery. Instead, they find that he has poisoned the wine, and both he and the officers are about to expire. The final scene, with the townspeople supporting the hero surrounded by dead and dying Frenchmen, could scarcely be more romantic:

You would have then seen a tableau as sublime as it was frightful. Several women, seated on the floor, were holding the dying patriot in their laps and arms. Just as formerly they had been the first to demand his death, now they were the first to shower him with caresses and blessings. The men had taken all the lamps from the table and, kneeling, were lighting up that patriotic and charitable group. And at each death rattle which was heard, each time a Frenchman slipped down to the floor, a glorious smile lit up the face of García de Paredes.

(pp. 115-16)

The townspeople react to García de Paredes's barbarous act of poisoning the enemy officers in cold blood with “a simultaneous cry of terror and admiration.”

A. H. Krappe argues that the source of this story was an episode in the civil war between Caesar and Pompey as recounted by the Greek historian Appian.9 The protagonist here was also an apothecary, and the number of officers poisoned was the same, which hardly seems coincidental. But one doubts that Alarcón had been that familiar with Appian. Fichter more plausibly suggests that many similar stories circulated in Spain during the years following the Napoleonic invasion and that Alarcón was simply retelling a traditional tale.10

“El extranjero” (“The Foreigner”) has quite a different slant. A Spanish soldier coldheartedly kills and robs a sick Polish prisoner named Iwa near Almería. Some years later he himself is taken prisoner and forced to join Napoleon's army invading Russia. He falls ill in Warsaw and is cared for by a Polish family. The mother recognizes a locket he is wearing as one that had belonged to her son, Iwa. She and her daughters gain revenge, brutally clawing him to death with their nails. The soldier thus pays retribution for his crime.11 Alarcón here is critical of the inhuman treatment of helpless prisoners. The jingoistic tone of the other war stories is absent, and the villain is even a Spaniard. But the Romantic strain is still strong. It is a violent story, and the outcome depends heavily on coincidence; it is Iwa's family in Warsaw that happens to befriend the Spanish soldier. Alarcón uses two narrators in the story. The first episode is told the author by an old peasant, a miner, who had witnessed the murder of the Pole. Then a few days later the author overhears the second part being recounted by a retired army officer in the casino in Almería. This device, although not ineffective, is perhaps a little too neat.

“La corneta de llaves” (“The Cornet”) is the only one of the war stories with a humorous strain to it. An officer, captured by the Carlists, is about to be shot, but saves his life by volunteering for the band, claiming he can play the cornet. By practicing night and day for two weeks he manages to get by. However, once the war is over, he refuses to have anything to do with the instrument.

The rest of the stories are more heterogeneous. “La buenaventura” is, like most of the Historietas nacionales, supposedly historically true. It was first published in El Eco de Occidente in 1853 under the title “Parrón” (p. 10). A gypsy is captured by a band of thieves led by Parrón, the scourge of the district, who kills all his captives so no one can inform on him. The wily gypsy offers to tell Parrón's fortune, his buenaventura. His prediction is that the thief will be hanged the following month. Parrón says that he will keep the gypsy prisoner for a month and will then shoot him if the prophecy is false. The gypsy manages to escape and returns to Granada. There one day he recognizes Parrón as one of the local militia. So the thief is captured and hanged, just as the gypsy had foretold. Parrón acknowledges that he had been a fool to spare the gypsy's life and that he is getting what he deserves. The story has an authentically popular ring to it which explains why it has been frequently anthologized.

With its Andalusian setting and shrewd peasant characterizations, “El libro talonario” (“The Stub Book,” 1877) has something in common with “La buenaventura.” The opening pages have a regionalistic note to them; Alarcón describes in some detail how the gardeners of Rota lavish care on their squash and tomatoes. Tío Buscabeatas (the name—Seeker of Bigots—is amusing but hardly appropriate in the story) finds one morning that his beautiful crop of squash has been stolen. He locates them in the market of nearby Cádiz. The device he uses to prove they are his is in the spirit of a chascarrillo, a humorous popular story. He had cut the stems off all the plants and is able to fit each into the irregular hole on the top of its respective squash, just as the tax collector tears receipts unevenly from his stub book so as to be able to ascertain later whether they are authentic. The thief is sent off to jail, and everyone compliments tío Buscabeatas on his ingenuity. Told in a simple and unpretentious manner, “El libro talonario” is one of Alarcón's most successful stories.

Other stories might as well have been included in one of the other two collections. In “Fin de una novela,” which is dated Guadix, 1854, the narrator wanders into an abandoned and semiruined monastery in Guadix late one fall afternoon and comes upon a beautiful woman praying. When she sees him, she falls down unconscious. He flees and later discovers that she has died. No one knows anything about her past or why she was living there. As the title suggests, the author gives us the ending of the story but not the beginning. The setting, the time of day, the season, the mysterious situation, the fragmentary quality of the story—all contribute to creating a poetical mood.

“¡Buena pesca!”, a violent and melodramatic tale of love, jealousy, and revenge, typifies another aspect of Romanticism. An elderly, unattractive fisherman is insanely jealous of his beautiful young wife. He is aware that she is interested in their neighbor, a handsome young noble, and he plans to do away with his rival. After cutting partway through the log which serves as a bridge crossing the stream to their cabin, he announces to his wife that he is spending the night in town. Upon returning the next morning, he finds the log broken through as he expected, but two bodies instead of one are caught in the net he had strung downstream. By the time the police arrive, he has gone crazy and is in the process of sawing off his right hand. Alarcón makes little effort to analyze the psychological motives of his characters. The story is even told with a frivolous touch typical of his early Bonnat manner, which does not jibe with the gruesome end. He contrasts the physical appearance of the couple: “It is true that if the poor fisherman dressed shabbily, it was because his wife did quite the opposite; it is true that if the husband had worked less in order to care for his hands, she would have had to work more, thus spoiling hers; it is very true that the fish which smelled so bad paid for the soap which smelled so good” (p. 144). The wife's incipient infidelity is treated banteringly, almost as though he were writing a drawing-room comedy instead of a grisly tale of passion and jealousy. Even the title of the story, “¡Buena pesca!”, the words the mad fisherman repeats as he saws off his hand, have an ironic tone. His good catch is his dead wife!


Although there is variety in the collection Cuentos amatorios, the stories all treat a common theme, love, in one or another of its aspects. They range from the melodramatic “El clavo,” to the Freudian “La Comendadora,” to humorous tales such as “La última calaverada,” “Sin un cuarto,” “La belleza ideal,” and “Tic … tac.”

“El clavo” (“The Nail”) is one of Alarcón's longer stories, over half the length of El Capitán Veneno. In Historia de mis libros Alarcón claims that “El clavo,” which is subtitled “Causa célebre,” a translation of the French cause célèbre (famous trial), was recounted to him by a magistrate in Granada when he was a youth. It may well be based on an actual event, but, as Alarcón tells it, it is a wildly implausible tale. At first there appear to be five main characters, the narrator, Zarco the protagonist, and three women, but then the three telescope into one. The story opens with the narrator meeting a beautiful and mysterious woman on a stagecoach, but they are soon separated. A few days later, he goes to visit his friend Zarco, the judge in a small Andalusian town. While walking by a cemetery, they happen upon a recently disinterred skull with a nail driven through it. The victim turns out to be a prominent local citizen who had presumably died two years before of a stroke. The two friends realize that this man must have been murdered by his wife, Gabriela, who had been alone with him at the time. The judge vows to find the culprit.

Zarco describes to the narrator his complete disillusionment with women. He had fallen in love with a beautiful woman named Blanca while visiting Seville two years before. Although she had become pregnant by him, she refused to marry him then, but promised to meet him in Seville a month later. When he returned two weeks early, she was nowhere to be found. Disenchanted, he left and obtained a transfer to another town.

The narrator then goes to Seville, where he encounters his stagecoach friend at a ball. She claims to be a Spanish American named Mercedes, and again she vanishes. He returns to visit Zarco. Suddenly Blanca appears and explains that she had forgotten the name of the town where Zarco was stationed and had been unable to communicate with him until she met the narrator in Seville. Their illegitimate child had died at birth. Zarco is enraptured, for he has found the woman he loves. Then the police inform him that the murderess has been apprehended. In a dramatic confrontation they discover that Gabriela, Blanca, and Mercedes are one and the same person. When she left Seville the first time, she had returned home and murdered her husband, whom she loathed, in order to be free to marry Zarco. The incorruptible Zarco sentences her to death and leaves town. When three weeks later she is being led to the gallows, Zarco comes galloping up with her pardon, but at that very moment she dies, overcome by the strain.

One of Alarcón's most popular stories, “El clavo” has been reprinted and translated many times. It is understandable that mid-nineteenth-century readers would be carried away by the sensational plot. Alarcón manages to build up considerable suspense, but the story is full of improbabilities. Zarco happens to be assigned to the town where Blanca (Gabriela) had formerly lived. He chances upon the skull with the nail driven through it. It seems incredible that she had forgotten the name of the town where he lived so that she was not able to communicate with him or that he was able to obtain a pardon for her. On what grounds, one wonders. Numerous times in the story Alarcón invokes the hand of fate. He states that the upright judge was destined to discover the crime the woman he loved had committed, to sentence her to death, and then to arrive late with the unwarranted pardon. When, after finding the skull, the narrator asks Zarco whether Gabriela will be caught, he replies: “There is a certain dramatic fatality which never pardons. More explicitly: when bones come out of a tomb to testify, there remains little for the courts to do” (p. 67). The theme of passionate love, the series of fortuitous actions, and the role played by fate make “El clavo” one of Alarcón's most melodramatic stories.

“Novela natural” starts out as a Romantic tale and then ends on an ironic note. A girl finds a notebook in the Plaza Santa Ana in Madrid and, from the notes and comments in it, giving free rein to her imagination, she pieces together the troubled life of its owner, a young man beset by gambling debts and despairing of ever being loved. At that point her father comes in and tells her that the young man has just committed suicide in the Puerta del Sol. The “notebook” device is clever, but at the same time, artificial. At the end of the story the father tells the daughter to order the servants to put on dinner. Like the girl's father in Mesonero Romanos's sketch “El romanticismo y los románticos,” who says: “And in the meanwhile the shirts don't get sewn and the house doesn't get swept, and all my money goes for books,” he belongs to another generation and has little sympathy for the excesses of the young.

“La Comendadora,” a work of the mature Alarcón, stands in a category apart among his stories, both in subject matter and technique. The setting is a palace in Granada in the eighteenth century. Three people are present. The grandmother, a proud and inflexible countess, had virtually forced her daughter, now an attractive woman of thirty, to enter a convent (belonging to the order of the Comendadoras of Santiago—hence the title) so that the family inheritance would go undivided to the older brother. The son had died, and the two women are caring for the grandson, a spoiled, high-strung, and neurotic child of six or seven. The boy announces that he has overheard a painter who is restoring art works in the palace say to a sculptor: “How beautiful the Comendadora must look naked! Like a Greek statue!” (pp. 34-35). The boy then insists on seeing his aunt naked. Throwing a tantrum and frothing at the mouth, he keeps shouting, “See her naked!” until the grandmother, fearing for his life, sends the servants from the room and tells her daughter, “It is God's will.” That evening the Comendadora returns to her convent, never to leave again.

“La Comendadora” is psychologically the most interesting and original of Alarcón's stories. The domineering grandmother who had shipped her daughter off to a convent at age eight is manipulated by the unbalanced child. She hypocritically tries to pass the blame off on God and has the Inquisition take the unfortunate painter off to prison. In “La Comendadora” Alarcón has left behind his Romantic heritage. The story with its Freudian implications has a modern tone to it, and it is told with a sobriety and concision unusual in Alarcón. The brief yet evocative description of the luxurious palace on a sunny spring morning offers a contrast to the decadent, aristocratic family. The three figures are rapidly yet effectively characterized. The story builds up quickly to the climax—the succinct order the grandmother gives her daughter. What follows is left to the reader's imagination. Alarcón avoids all erotic titillation and soberly focuses on the psychological situation. There is no overkill, as in so many of his stories; he suggests more than he says.

The critics have been universal in their praise of “La Comendadora.” Pardo Bazán, the first to write at some length about Alarcón's stories, appreciated its unique position: “It is impregnated with an inner melancholy, which takes hold of the soul. Here there is no verdor gozo [sexual stimulation], only black austerity.”12 The usually hostile Montesinos waxes enthusiastic and concedes that it is “one of Alarcón's rare unqualified successes.”13

In several of the Cuentos amatorios, rather than exalting romantic love, Alarcón treats humorously the discomfiture of a suitor. These genuinely amusing stories lack the pretentiousness which mars much of his work. “La belleza ideal” and “El abrazo de Vergara” (“The Embrace at Vergara”), both early works (1854), are variations on the same situation. In the former, an ingenuous young man meets an attractive, somewhat older woman on a train. Discovering that he is a stranger to Madrid, she insists that he stay in her home. He is under the illusion that he is about to embark on an affair when he discovers that she and her husband run a pension and she was only after a boarder. In the second story, the narrator is seated next to a beautiful woman in a stagecoach. When he begins to court her and pay her extravagant compliments, she remains silent, leading him to think she is a foreigner and does not speak Spanish. He is finally about to embrace her when they pull into the Basque town of Vergara. She jumps out of the coach, greets her husband, and goes off saying good-bye to him in perfect Castilian.

Examples of his “Bonnat” manner remain in the later, definitive version of the story. The title itself is a pun, alluding as it does to the reconciliation between the liberals and the Carlists in Vergara in 1839. The relationship between the two episodes is, of course, ironical, for the protagonist in the story gets no embrace. The style is deliberately jerky, with a series of paragraphs each containing but one short sentence. Exaggerated metaphors call to mind Gómez de la Serna's greguerías: “The hand is the thermometer of love; the eyes are the barometer; and the heart the chronometer.” “When four eyes of less than twenty-five say to each other, it is dangerous for them to keep looking at each other.” Then Alarcón facetiously adds: “This axiom is composed of a phrase of mine, an allocution by Alphonse Karr, and a verse by Lord Byron” (p. 89).

A former rake tells the story of his reformation in “La última calaverada” (“The Last Escapade,” 1874). One foggy night he left his home in the country on horseback to embark on an adulterous affair with a neighbor's wife. En route he fell off the horse, spent some time looking for his hat, and then proceeded on his way. Upon arriving at what he thought was his prospective mistress's villa, he found instead that he was back at his own house with his wife. After he had climbed back on his horse, the animal had headed for home without his realizing it. Taking this as a lesson, he renounced his philandering.

“Sin un cuarto,” also of 1874, is the story of Rafael, a young, wealthy, and naive young man, who meets an attractive woman at a masquerade ball. She encourages the captivated but recalcitrant youth to accompany her home. He treats her like a...

(The entire section is 11478 words.)

Lou Charnon-Deutsch (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Charnon-Deutsch, Lou. Introduction to Death and the Doctor: Three Nineteenth-Century Spanish Tales, translated by Robert M. Fedorchek, pp. 13-28. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Charnon-Deutsch contrasts Alarcón's version of the “Death and the Doctor” tale, “Death's Friend,” with that of Fernán Caballero's “Juan Holgado and Death” and Antonio de Trueba's “Tragaldabas.”]

“Death and the Doctor,” an oral tale circulating in the Tyrone, was recorded in Gaelic by Eoin Mac Néill in 1912, then translated and reprinted in Ulster Life in 1992 by Gerard Downey and Gerard Stockman. In this Irish...

(The entire section is 7075 words.)

Colleen J. Combs (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Combs, Colleen J. “The Development of The Short Story,” “Stories Not Included in the Obras completas,” and “Conclusions.” In Women in the Short Stories of Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, pp. 19-26, 111-32. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Combs traces Alarcón's development as a short fiction writer, examines his portrayal of women in “La cruz de palo: Novela romántica,” “Dos ángeles caídos,” and “Mañanas de abril y mayo,” and explores the defining characteristics of his female characters.]

It seems appropriate to study Alarcón's evolution from Romanticism to realism in his short stories for a...

(The entire section is 11311 words.)

Cyrus C. DeCoster (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: DeCoster, Cyrus C. Introduction to “The Nail” and Other Stories, by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, translated by Robert M. Fedorchek, pp. 17-24. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, DeCoster offers an overview of Alarcón's life and fiction.]

Pedro Antonio de Alarcón was born in 1833 in Guadix, then an impoverished city of ten thousand inhabitants in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada forty miles east of Granada. He studied law for a few months at the University of Granada, but his parents could ill afford the cost. He then enrolled in the seminary in Guadix but found that he had little calling for the clergy. Writing was...

(The entire section is 3376 words.)

Stephen Miller (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Miller, Stephen. Introduction to The Nun and Other Stories, by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, translated by Robert M. Fedorchek, pp. 12-26. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Miller chronicles the critical reaction to Alarcón's short fiction, concluding that “it is time to read Pedro Antonio de Alarcón anew, and Robert M. Fedorchek's translations here and in ‘The Nail’ and Other Stories are fine places to begin.”]

Together with Pérez Galdós, Alas, Pardo Bazán, Palacio Valdés, Pereda, Valera, and Fernán Caballero, Pedro Antonio de Alarcón figures among the major authors of Spanish nineteenth-century...

(The entire section is 5482 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Colford, William E. Introduction to The Three-Cornered Hat, by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, translated by Harriet de Onís, pp. i-xiii. Great Neck, N.Y.: Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 1958.

Investigates the origins of Alarcón's The Three-Cornered Hat and places the novella within its historical, literary, and cultural contexts.

Fedorchek, Robert M. “Pedro Antonio de Alarcón: ‘The French Sympathizer’ Translated from the Spanish.” Connecticut Review 15:1 (1993 spring): pp. 35-40.

Offers an analysis of the English language translation of Alarcon's short story “The French...

(The entire section is 154 words.)