Pepita Jiménez

by Juan Valera

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 859

Naturalism and realism were the two literary currents in vogue when Juan Valera decided to write his first novel. Valera felt a profound antipathy for naturalism, with its emphasis on what he considered the gross and the vulgar, and he disliked realism for its lack of imagination. He believed that a good novel must be both inventive and amusing. Searching for an alternative to either naturalism or realism, he decided on a new form, the psychological novel. His work remains within the general framework of realism, but unlike his contemporaries, Valera describes an interior reality rather than the objective reality.

Valera, considered to be one of the three most important novelists of nineteenth century Spain (along with José María de Pereda and Benito Pérez Galdós), was also one of the major literary critics of that period. He was born into Spanish aristocracy, studied law and religion, was an elected deputy in congress, and had a long career as a diplomat, serving as an ambassador to Vienna and as a minister in Lisbon, Washington, D.C., and Brussels. Valera first received critical acclaim for his essays, which covered a wide array of subjects. An important literary contribution was his psychological analysis of his characters. Although Valera attempted earlier novels (some of which appeared in serial form in newspapers), Pepita Jiménez is his first completed novel, and is regarded as his best.

Valera was an elegant and refined author. He is acknowledged as the foremost stylist in his language of the nineteenth century. He was a keen observer who studied human passions and feelings, and a master of the understated emotion. In general he created well-developed characters, using balanced, artificial language to add depth to his novels and draw out the relationship between the characters. A writer who used a contemporary setting to address the problems existing in his society, he believed that a novel could be credible and true to life without portraying the vulgar things common in the works of naturalistic authors. He was an admirer of form and beauty and believed that the purpose of art was to inspire and create beauty. These views, along with his opposition to didactic literature, set him apart from his contemporaries, who followed the tenets of naturalism and realism. Unlike many of his contemporaries who wrote for a living and had to follow the established trends, Valera’s wealth enabled him to formulate and try out his own literary theories.

One example of Valera’s literary independence is his use of local color. In his novels, the description of the beautiful Andalusian landscape often enhances the story line, while allowing the author to focus his attention on the psyche and to explore the emotions of his characters. In Pepita Jiménez, Valera uses his favorite theme of love in his psychological analysis of the main character, seminary student Luis de Vargas. This novel, which is written in the form of a series of letters, reveals Luis’ inner thoughts and feelings through his correspondence with his uncle, the dean of a cathedral.

Valera incorporates other perspectives into Pepita Jiménez , too. In the introduction to the novel, the author claims to have found this manuscript among the personal papers of the dean of an unnamed cathedral. This is followed by letters written by Luis, his uncle, and his father. Taken together, these letters provide an analysis of Luis’ growing attraction to the young widowed Pepita Jiménez and his resulting internal conflict between physical love and spiritual duty. The combination of the different perspectives is particularly important since they provide a more complete picture by which an accurate...

(This entire section contains 859 words.)

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evaluation of Luis’ situation may be made when Luis is incapable of discerning the truth about himself. The frame of the preliminary letters underscores the contrast between true mysticism and the main character’s perception of it.

Valera draws heavily upon his knowledge about sixteenth century ascetic and mystical literature to expose Luis’ false mysticism and to criticize the preparation of candidates for service in the priesthood. To do this, Valera uses irony and parody of the mystical experience to show how Luis has misinterpreted his calling. The young seminary student rationalizes and employs mystical language to hide his true feelings, confusing religious devotion and human passion. Believing himself to be blessed by God (an error of pride) and uplifted to the mystical experience, he is unprepared for life outside the safety of the seminary walls. Instead of experiencing the truth and goodness of God and the absorption into God’s love, Luis gradually abandons his soul to Pepita, whose beauty has captivated him. Torn between his growing love for Pepita and his vows to enter the priesthood, Luis is forced to evaluate his feelings and finally realizes that he has not, in truth, been called to the priesthood. At first, Luis intends to follow through with his original plans to take up his vows rather than to admit his mistake and marry Pepita. Eventually, however, Luis acknowledges his error and, enchanted by Pepita and the sensual happiness of the Andalusian landscape, renounces his vows to marry the woman he loves.