Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr

by Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Role of Religion

At the center of this story is the theme of the role of religion in people’s lives. The title character, Don Manuel, is a model of compassion. He provides forgiveness and sets things right in many situations where the rules of the Catholic Church would have meted out punishment. The priest admits that he sees religion as the opiate of the masses. However, in his view, this is a necessary, beneficial element that improves people’s lives. Religion gives people something to hold on to, and provides a means of understanding the world. Without religion of some sort, Don Manuel is concerned that people would be lost. He clarifies, though, that this does not necessarily need to be Catholicism—people simply need a belief system.

Keeping and Losing Faith

One key theme is that of faith. The geographic elements of the town of Valverde de Lucerna provide symbolic imagery of this theme. The mountain that rises above the town can be understood as symbolic of the power of true faith that the gospel says can “move mountains.” In contrast, the mountain reflected in the lake is illusory and superficial. The lake also hides the ruins of an ancient city, symbolizing the death and decay that Don Manuel believes in as opposed to the hope of an afterlife. This work challenges the teaching that “faith without works is dead.” Priest Don Manuel’s selfless work leaves a lasting impression after his death that leads to him being considered for sainthood.

Even though Don Manuel gives the people in his presence peace and clarity in their own faith, he himself does not believe in heaven or hell. He has faith in life on the earth yet can offer little clarity beyond that. Faith does not take on a straightforward definition, therefore. Don Manuel is being considered for sainthood and at the same time, he spent a considerable amount of time questioning his beliefs or authority. 

Is Ignorance Bliss?

This work addresses the question of whether ignorance is bliss. The townspeople are ignorant of their beloved priest’s true beliefs. If they were to find out the truth, their image of Don Manuel would be shattered, casting a shadow on his good works. In Don Manuel’s view, they are also blissfully ignorant for believing in the fairy tale of an afterlife. He tells Lazaro, “We should give them opium, and help them sleep, and dream. I, myself, with my mad activity am giving myself opium.” This contrasts sharply with Unamuno’s position described in other works, such as Sentimiento Tragico, in which he says, “There is no point in taking opium; it is better to put salt and vinegar in the soul’s wound, for if you fall asleep and no longer feel the pain, then you no longer exist.” It seems that, from Don Manuel’s perspective, we cannot know everything; it is in our best interest to make the most of our finite time and at the very least have faith in our existence. Perhaps it is better to be ignorant of the afterlife (or its potential lack thereof) if it allows us to live a good life.

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