Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr, Miguel de Unamuno - Essay

Miguel de Unamuno


(Short Story Criticism)

Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr Miguel de Unamuno

(Full name Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo) Spanish novelist, short story and novella writer, poet, essayist, playwright, autobiographer, and journalist.

The following entry presents criticism of Unamuno's novella San Manuel Bueno, mártir (Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr), which was initially published in serial form in 1931 and then as the title story of the 1933 short fiction collection San Manuel Bueno, mártir, y tes historias mas. See also Miguel de Unamuno Criticism.

Widely considered one of Unamuno's best fictional works, the novella San Manuel Bueno, mártir (1933; Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr) chronicles the struggles of a Catholic priest who is torn between his religious doubts and the spiritual needs of his parishioners. In a larger sense, the story explores the incompatibility of faith and reason, as represented by philosophy or religion and science. Commentators regard Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr as perhaps Unamuno's most profound exploration of faith and spirituality.

Plot and Major Characters

The majority of Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr is told in memoir form by the character of Angela Carballino, one of Father Emmanuel's parishioners and friends. Reflecting upon her relationship with Emmanuel, which had occurred several years before, she regards him as a believer plagued by doubts. In addition to her perceptions of Emmanuel, she offers those of others: her atheist brother, Lázaro, views the priest as a fellow nonbeliever; and parishioners in the small Spanish village of Valverde de Lucerna look up to him as a true believer and a man of God. These contradictory assessments of Emmanuel add to the enigmatic nature of the text. The story takes place in the humble village of Valverde de Lucerna, which is situated between a lake and a mountain, Peña del Buitre. As the parish priest, Emmanuel is the spiritual center of the village—but he also wields significant political and social power as well. When Lázaro approaches Emmanuel with a plan for converting a church into the headquarters for an agrarian syndicate, Emmanuel refuses on the grounds that the purpose of religion is not to influence or resolve political issues—it is meant to provide people the illusion of eternal life. In a particularly revealing passage, Lázaro has his first Holy Communion to the delight of his sister and the whole village. Afterwards, Angela is overcome with joy at her brother's conversion, which she assumes was facilitated by Emmanuel's help. When she talks to Emmanuel, she is saddened to hear that her brother did not undergo a religious conversion; instead, he is pretending to adhere to Catholic beliefs for the good of the village at Emmanuel's suggestion. Furthermore, the priest explains that he himself has experienced serious doubts not only about the afterlife, but also regarding the very existence of God—yet has decided that it is morally responsible to encourage his parishioners to trust that immortality exists, since it is possible that it does. Despite his own doubts, or perhaps because of them, he executes his duties as a parish priest in an exemplary fashion. When Emmanuel dies, the villagers go to his house to collect his possessions as relics and the Church views him as a potential saint.

Major Themes

The central thematic concern of Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr is the conflict between faith and reason embodied by the incongruous portrait of Emmanuel. Although the priest is beset by doubts, he devotes his life to the Catholic Church, giving spiritual guidance and comfort to the humble peasants of Valverde de Lucerna. Critics identify alienation as a recurring theme in Unamuno's work; in Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr, the priest seems to be an integral part of the village's spiritual life, but his own doubts isolate him from them in a fundamental way. Sacrifice and compassion are also prominent themes in the story, as Emmanuel helps others by denying himself full self-expression through the sheer determination and manipulation of his own will. In this way, some critics have associated Emmanuel with the character of Christ, and it has been argued that Unamuno implies that Christ himself was a nonbeliever who sacrificed his own life to provide the world with the illusion of immortality. Critics also underscore the political themes in Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr. By creating a character who discusses the political and social implications of religion and accepts the Marxian premise that religion is the opiate for the masses, commentators assert that Unamuno forces readers to question their own religious beliefs as well as the role of religion in an educated and advanced society. The novella is frequently viewed as an autobiographical work, in that it reflects Unamuno's own religious, philosophical, and social conflicts and explores issues raised in much of his earlier fiction and essays. Commentators assert that by presenting different perspectives of Emmanuel, Unamuno engenders uncertainty about Emmanuel's true beliefs.

Critical Reception

Because of its idealism, rationality, and depth, Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr has inspired much scholarly study during the twentieth century. Critics praise Unamuno's ability to depict spiritually-centered characters—like Emmanuel—whose essence is defined by what Salvador de Madariaga has called “conflicts of souls.” Some commentators argue that this renders Unamuno's characters lifeless symbols in morality plays. Others, however, maintain that Unamuno's portrayal of characters' inner lives makes them more fully realized and thus more accessible to the reader. Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr is widely considered Unamuno's best fictional work in terms of the intricacy with which emotion and logic are synthesized in the character of Emmanuel who, because of his combination of passion and wisdom, has been compared to the Grand Inquisitor in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brother Karamazov. Unamuno is applauded for incorporating philosophical discourse into Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr and his other fictional works, which he utilized to depict the manifestation of ideas in the lives of ordinary people. Critics have also debated the symbolism of the mountain, lake, and village in Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr and have found parallels between the characters of Emmanuel and Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

El espejo de la muerte 1913

Abel Sánchez [Abel Sánchez] (novella) 1917

Tres novelas ejemplares y un prólogo [Three Exemplary Novels and a Prologue] (novellas) 1920

La tía Tula (novella) 1921

Don Sandalio, jugador de ajedrez (novella) 1930

San Manuel Bueno, mártir, y tres historias más [Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr] (novellas) 1933

Obras selectas. 7 vols. (novels, novellas, essays, letters, and dramas) 1946

Obras completas. 15 vols. (novels, novellas, essays, poetry, and dramas) 1950-63

Abel Sánchez, and Other Stories 1956

Cuentos. 2 vols. 1961

Paz en la guerra (novel) 1897

Amor y pedagogia (novel) 1902

El torno al casticismo (essays) 1902

Paisajes (essays) 1902

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

Poesías (poetry) 1907

Recuerdos de ninez y de mocedad (autobiography) 1908

La esfinge (drama) 1909

La difunta (drama) 1910

Mi religion y otros ensayos breves (essay) 1910

Rosario de sonetos líricos (poetry) 1911

Del sentimiento trágico de la vida en los hombres y en los pueblos [The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples] (essay) 1913

Niebla (Nivola) [Mist (Niebla)] (novel) 1914

Fedra (drama) 1918

El Cristo de Velázquez [The Christ of Velázques] (poetry) 1920

La venda (drama) 1921

El pasado que vuelve (drama) 1923

Rimas de dentro (poetry) 1923

Teresa (poetry) 1924

La agonía del Christianismo (essay) 1925

Raquel encadenada (drama) 1926

Cómo se hace una novela (essay) 1927

Sombras de sueño (drama) 1930

El otro [The Other] (drama) 1932

El hermano Juan; o, El mundo es teatro (drama) 1934

Ensayos. 7 vols. (essays) 1951

Poems (poetry) 1952

Cancionero, Diario poético (poetry) 1953

Soledad (drama) 1953

The Last Poems of Miguel de Unamuno (poetry) 1974

Miguel de Unamuno's Political Writings, 1918-1924 (essays) 1996

Arthur A. Natella Jr. (essay date fall 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Natella, Arthur A., Jr. “Saint Theresa and Unamuno's San Manuel Bueno, mártir.” Papers on Language and Literature 5, no. 4 (fall 1969): 458-64.

[In the following essay, Natella finds parallels between St. Theresa and the character of Angela in Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr.]

Miguel de Unamuno's last novel, San Manuel Bueno, mártir is a pessimistic and provocative tale of the conflict between faith and reason in an unbelieving priest who despite his own doubt attempts to maintain spiritual values in the lives of his flock. Don Manuel is a martyr who expends his energy in giving spiritual comfort to the humble peasants of the Spanish village...

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J. F. Tull Jr. (essay date winter 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Tull, J. F., Jr. “Alienation, Psychological and Metaphysical, in Three ‘Nivolas’ of Unamuno.” The Humanities Association Bulletin 21, no. 1 (winter 1970): 27-33.

[In the following essay, Tull examines the theme of alienation in Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr.]

The concept of alienation, both as a psychological term and as a literary theme, seems to be in the process of becoming an empty abstraction, a stereotyped artifice to label conveniently what is, in truth, a habitual way of viewing human society and the universe shared by many individuals in the contemporary world. Actually, the sense of alienation is not new. As a psychological phenomenon in...

(The entire section is 3698 words.)

Reed Anderson (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Anderson, Reed. “The Narrative Voice in Unamuno's San Manuel Bueno, mártir.Hispanofila, no. 50 (1974): 67-76.

[In the following essay, Anderson considers Angela's portrayal of Emmanuel and regards “her struggle with her own belief and with her own existence as the novel's most intriguing aspect.”]

On the 9th of February, 1930, after six years of separation from his home and family, Unamuno returned at last to Spain with the fall of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship. The unhappy period of exile seemed to precipitate for Unamuno a problem which had existed beneath the thematic concerns of a major portion of his writing up to that time. Unamuno...

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David G. Turner (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Turner, David G. “San Manuel Bueno, mártir, y tres historias más.” In Unamuno's Webs of Fatality, pp. 122-29. London: Tamesis Books Limited, 1974.

[In the following excerpt, Turner explores the role of faith as well as the symbolism of the lake, river, and mountain in Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr.]

Of the four novels which comprise this volume, the last, Una historia de amor, was added as an after-thought, having been first published as early as 1911. In the Prologue, Unamuno points to “el pavoroso problema de la personalidad, si uno es lo que es y seguirá siendo lo que es” as an important feature common to the leading characters of...

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Douglas M. Carey and Phillip G. Williams (essay date March 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

Carey, Douglas M., and Phillip G. Williams. “Religious Confession as Perspective and Mediation in Unamuno's San Manuel Bueno, mártir.MLN 91, no. 2 (March 1976): 292-310.

[In the following essay, Carey and Williams perceive confession to be a significant element of Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr.]


Unamuno in San Manuel Bueno, mártir has created a fictional intra-historia, the “inner history” of his characters' lives.1 The narrator of the novel, Angela Carballino, in her role as confessor, lays bare her own alma, her “soul,” as well as...

(The entire section is 7967 words.)

Susan Predmore (essay date September 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Predmore, Susan. “San Manuel Bueno, mártir: A Jungian Perspective.” Hispanofila, no. 64 (September 1978): 15-29.

[In the following essay, Predmore offers a Jungian interpretation of Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr.]

Critics have generally agreed that San Manuel Bueno, mártir, besides culminating Unamuno's literary career, is the most intensely personal of his “nivolas,” for it is in this work that he symbolically stages conflicting aspects of his own personality. The specific nature of these psychic opponents is best described by Carlos Blanco-Aguinaga in his book, El Unamuno Contemplativo, where the author traces Unamuno's marked...

(The entire section is 5237 words.)

C. A. Longhurst (essay date July 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Longhurst, C. A. “The Problem of Truth in San Manuel Bueno, mártir.The Modern Language Review 76, no. 3 (July 1981): 581-97.

[In the following essay, Longhurst argues that readers of Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr will never be able to know the truth about the character Emmanuel because he is never seen directly, but always indirectly through the eyes of Angela.]

We all know that fiction is the opposite of fact. A novel is called fiction, not fact ; it is therefore not true. Yet while we are reading it we treat it as if it were true. What we are told in a novel, then, is true in a limited sense, that is to say it is true within the...

(The entire section is 10995 words.)

Allen Lacy (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Lacy, Allen. “The Unbelieving Priest: Unamuno's San Emmanuel the Good, Martyr and Bergman's Winter Light.” Literature/Film Quarterly 10, no. 1 (1982): 53-61.

[In the following essay, Lacy compares Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr to Ingmar Bergman's 1961 film Winter Light.]

Of its various kinds of “priests,” modern Western society has tended to think in terms that one might label either “Gnostic” or “Socratic.” Where a profession deals with knowledge of a religious, personal, or moral sort, non-professionals commonly expect that the practitioner will generally act on his knowledge, that right knowledge will lead to proper...

(The entire section is 4332 words.)

Gene M. Hammitt (essay date fall 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hammitt, Gene M. “Unamuno's Peña del Buitre and Valverde de Lucerna.” Romance Notes 25, no. 1 (fall 1984): 30-4.

[In the following essay, Hammitt discusses the names of the fictional locales of Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr—the mountain Peña del Buitre and the village of Valverde de Lucerna—and how they reflect Unamuno's philosophies.]

The nivolas de Miguel de Unamuno generally place little importance on locale and geography. Rather, they emphasize the spiritual and psychological agony of the characters.1 Accordingly, we observe in these works a notable paucity of place names and topographical references. Consequently, our...

(The entire section is 1636 words.)

Shirley King (essay date January 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: King, Shirley. “San Manuel Bueno and Unamuno's Reading of Hauptmann.” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 19, no. 1 (January 1985): 39-54.

[The following essay, King finds connections between Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr and Gerhart Hauptmann's Der Ketzer von Soana.]

“Si quiere usted enviarme algo envíeme de Hauptmann.”1 When Miguel de Unamuno wrote these words in 1899 in a letter addressed to a friend in Berlin, he was interested in the writings of the German author Gerhart Hauptmann. Thirty-three years later a short novel by Unamuno was published under the title: San Manuel Bueno, mártir, the story of a priest...

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Walter Glannon (essay date March 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

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

[In the following essay, Glannon views the search for meaning to be a central theme in Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr and explores the ethical implications of Emmanuel's actions.]

“… 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 his life: the flirtation with the ideas of Comte, Spencer, Marx, and Hegel,...

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Gregory Peter Andrachuk (essay date spring 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Andrachuk, Gregory Peter. “‘He That Eatheth of This Bread Shall Live Forever’ (John 6:58): Lázaro's Communion.” Romance Notes 31, no. 3 (spring 1991): 205-13.

[In the following essay, Andrachuk examines an overlooked passage in Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr and suggests Unamuno is writing about an alternative church.]

At the thematic and structural centre of Unamuno's San Manuel Bueno, mártir (1931), lies a passage whose significance has been completely overlooked. Here, the narrator, Ángela Carballino, describes her brother's reception of the Holy Communion:

Y llegó el día de su comunión, ante...

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Peggy Whitten Watson (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Watson, Peggy Whitten. “‘Ir monja’: Entering the Convent in Unamuno's Abel Sánchez and San Manuel Bueno, mártir.Selecta 15 (1994): 63-6.

[In the following essay, Watson discusses the interior/exterior representation of imagery and the role of women in Abel Sánchez and Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr.]

In San Manuel Bueno, mártir (1930), Angela's mother questions her daughter's intentions: “Me parece, Angelita, con tantas confesiones, que tú te me vas a ir monja” (17). Angela attempts to comfort her mother with her reply: “No lo tema, madre … pues, tengo harto que hacer aquí, en el pueblo, que es mi convento”...

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Thomas R. Franz (essay date spring 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Franz, Thomas R. “The Poetics of Space in San Manuel Bueno, Mártir.Hispanic Journal 16, no. 1 (spring 1995): 7-20.

[In the following essay, Franz employs Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space to analyze the symbolic use of space in Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr.]

Many studies have wrestled with the symbolism in Unamuno's San Manuel Bueno, mártir and have interpreted the symbols in very different ways. So wide is the critical chasm that at least one critic has declared that “there can be no objective solution to the question” (Butt 67). Nevertheless, the major treatments of the problem (Falconieri, Morón Arroyo,...

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Nelson R. Orringer (essay date fall 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Orringer, Nelson R. “Unamuno and St. José Martí, the Good.” Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos 21, no. 3 (fall 1996): 191-201.

[In the following essay, Orringer elucidates Unamuno's views on José Martí and contends that the Cuban freedom fighter served as a model for the character of Emmanuel in Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr.]

A young Canadian oak struck down at the height of life, Victor Ouimette, often provided mental kindling for rigorous ideas. Doffing his usual self-restraint in intellectual forums, he relished baiting and debating his interlocutors. Not without autobiographical cause, therefore, he titled the masterpiece of his youth...

(The entire section is 4948 words.)

Tom Boerigter (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Boerigter, Tom. “The Rationalization of Faith in San Manuel Bueno, Mártir.Romance Languages Annual 2 (1999): 457-59.

[In the following essay, Boerigter examines the extended dialogues between the characters of Angela and Emmanuel to gain insight into questions of faith and doubt in Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr.]

Miguel de Unamuno in his novel, San Manuel Bueno, mártir, reveals his central character as a figure torn by existential angst while simultaneously driven by a compassion to serve others. The development of these two characteristics within a single character gives rise in the novel to a consideration of religious faith. The...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Batchelor, R. E. “The Novel of the Ego.” In Unamuno Novelist: A European Perspective, pp. 64-106. Oxford: The Dolphin Book Co., 1972.

Considers Unamuno's work from a philosophical perspective.

Gordon, M. “The Elusive Self: Narrative Method and Its Implications in San Manuel Bueno, mártir.”’ Hispanic Review 54, no. 2 (spring 1986): 147-60.

Explores the narrative method in Saint Emmanuel.

Jurkevich, Gayana. The Elusive Self: Archetypical Approaches to the Novels of Miguel de Unamuno. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991, 199 p.


(The entire section is 535 words.)