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.
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.
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.