Spanish Long Fiction Analysis

Early didactic fiction

The first examples of exemplum prose fiction—probably translations or adaptations of Arabic works—include Calila e Dimna (c. 1251; Calila and Dimna) and the Libro de los engaños e los asayamientos de las mujeres (c. 1253; Book of Women’s Wiles and Deceits, 1882). The propagation of these early didactic works was facilitated by the increase in the manufacturing of paper in Spain during the thirteenth century and the invention of eyeglasses toward the end of it. This exemplum literature belongs to the tradition of short fiction because of its form—collections of brief prose pieces, each serving as an example of appropriate or inappropriate social conduct—but it presages some of the characteristics of the longer prose forms that eventually evolved into the novelistic form of the seventeenth century and after. As the titles of some of these collections indicate—the anonymous Libro del consejo e de los consejeros (early 1200’s; book of advice and advisers) and the Libro de los exemplos del Conde Lucanor y de Patronio (1328-1335; Count Lucanor: Or, The Fifty Pleasant Stories of Patronio, 1868) of Juan Manuel (1282-1348)—the exempla are linked together by a fictional device involving the relationship of central characters: usually an older, wiser counselor who tells the stories to a naïve, inexperienced person for whom the counselor is in some way responsible. Although the “short stories” that form...

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Chivalric and pastoral romances

The advent of a long fictional form that resembled in some ways the modern novel occurred only after the invention of movable type in the late fifteenth century. Although there are two significant examples of adventure fiction in the early 1300’s—the Libro del caballero Zifar (book of the knight Zifar) and the Gran conquista de Ultramar (the great overseas conquest)—the sixteenth century was the first period of extensive dissemination of long prose works. Some of this fiction was from the late fifteenth century, but the large, diverse audience that was the prerequisite for the development of the modern novel did not exist until the advent of printing made books accessible to less than wealthy readers.

The most popular works of fiction were, unquestionably, the romances of chivalry. The primary source of the Spanish version of the Arthurian legend was Amadís de Gaula (Amadis of Gaul, partial translation, 1567, 1803), originally in Portuguese and widely circulated in manuscript during the fourteenth century, then revised about 1492 by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo (c. 1480-c. 1550), who published it in 1508. It was so popular that it had been reprinted thirty times by 1587. In the sixteenth century, there appeared a total of twelve books about Amadis and his descendants, including Montalvo’s Las sergas de Esplandián (c. 1510; The Sergas of Esplandián, 1664), Amadís de Grecia (sixteenth century; Amadis of Greece, 1694), Lisuarte de Grecia (1514; Lisuarte of Greece, 1652) by Feliciano de Silva (c. 1492-1558), Palmerín de Oliva (1511; Palmerín d’Oliva, 1588), and Primaleón (1512; Primaleon of Greece, 1595-1596). The great popularity of the romances of chivalry is evident in the records of...

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La Celestina and the picaresque

Throughout the sixteenth century, the development of long fiction took two directions. Paralleling the novelistic prose that portrayed the world in the idealistic terms of the chivalric, pastoral, and Byzantine modes was a type of fiction more firmly based on the truth of sixteenth century experience. The earliest example is one of the masterpieces of Spanish literature, first published anonymously in 1499 as the Comedia de Calisto y Melibea (comedy of Calisto and Melibea). It reappeared several years later in a series of expanded versions titled Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea (1502; Celestina, 1631), in which there was textual evidence that the author of at least the major part of the work was Fernando de Rojas (c. 1465-1541). The printers of the novel changed the title to La Celestina because of the popularity of the main character, an earthy old woman who uses her skills of witchcraft to further her professional reputation as a go-between. It is a story of the passionate love of Calisto and Melibea, doomed to failure by the circumstances of their birth. Some critics have called La Celestina the first novel in Spanish, because it portrayed characters from all social classes in a more realistic manner than did the romances, which tended to idealize and perfect the world that they created.

La Celestina became a very popular work, and the name of the old witch, Celestina, entered the lexicon of Spanish as the generic term for a go-between or pimp. Throughout the sixteenth century, there were imitations of La Celestina and examples of prose fiction influenced by Rojas’s work that presented a fairly realistic portrayal of certain baser aspects of sixteenth century life. A surprisingly frank and erotic account of the life of a prostitute appeared in the Retrato de la lozana andaluza(1528; Portrait of Lozana, the Lusty Andalusian Woman, 1987), by Francisco Delicado (c. 1480-c. 1534), a priest who published in the following year a treatise on a supposed cure for syphilis, a disease from which he himself suffered.

The sixteenth century work of fiction that had perhaps the greatest impact on the development of the European novel was La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades, published anonymously in 1554 and translated into English as The Pleasant Historie of Lazarillo de Tormes (1576; commonly known as Lazarillo de Tormes). His work was the first example of what later was called the picaresque novel, the fictional biography (or often, as in this case, autobiography) of a parasitic delinquent. Lazaro, the picaro who narrates his own story, rises above his miserable surroundings by serving a series of masters, using all of his cunning and wit to survive in a cruel society. As he changes from a child to an adult, he accumulates the experience of sustained contact with a deceptive world and becomes as cynical and dishonest as the people who have exploited and mistreated him. Lazarillo de Tormes is extraordinary for its brutal satire and comic narrative, particularly in the context of the prevailing literary vogue of heroic chivalric adventures, courtly conduct, and pastoral love.

Lazarillo de Tormes continued the tradition of social realism established by La Celestina, and part of that...

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Miguel de Cervantes

The life of Cervantes fell in the two centuries of the Spanish Golden Age, the sixteenth and seventeenth. The publication of his monumental Don Quixote de la Mancha was a culmination of the previous trends of prose fiction in Spanish and a point of departure for the novelistic works not only of the remaining years of the Golden Age but also of the prose literature of the eighteenth century. Examples of all the significant forms of fiction that had developed by 1600 are found in Cervantes’ writing. His Galatea is a pastoral romance. The picaresque as well as reflections of the early didactic tales appear in the collection of his short novels, the Novelas ejemplares (1613; Exemplary Novels, 1846), while Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda (1617; The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda: A Northern History, 1619) is a Byzantine novel. The chivalric tradition is the foundation of Don Quixote de la Mancha, but this vast panorama of Spanish life and literary tradition contains interpolated, self-contained stories that represent all of these styles of literature. Don Quixote de la Mancha, in fact, is a work of fictional literature that deals directly with fictional literature and its relationship to real, historical experience. It is a culmination of the tendency to regard literature as serving some motive other than pleasurable entertainment, yet it is as much a satire of that tendency as a restatement of the conviction that literature does—and perhaps should—influence its audience in an edifying manner.

The emphasis on literature and its audience is clear in the basic presuppositions of the history of Don Quixote—that his insanity is the result of reading too many chivalric romances and that his assuming the role of a knight errant is the result of his interpreting the romances as history rather than fiction. The episodes with moralizing commentary of Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza are reminiscent of the early exemplum literature but are rendered ironic by the insanity of the counselor and the shifting of roles of the knight and the squire as teacher and student. This vast and complex...

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The eighteenth century

Although Don Quixote de la Mancha had considerable influence in the seventeenth century, the most significant manifestations of the impact of Cervantes’ work on Spanish literature appeared during the Enlightenment, along with evidence of the influence of Quevedo and Gracián. That these three writers were emulated during the eighteenth century is understandable, for it was the supreme age of social criticism and the last great attempt in European culture to renovate society according to rational principles. It was a time of supreme optimism, in which intellectuals were convinced that, through judgment, insight, and good taste, a perfect world could be established. Thus, Quevedo and Gracián, as social satirists, were...

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Romanticism and Costumbrismo

During the early years of the nineteenth century, few novels were published in Spain; in part, this was a consequence of a particularly strong expression of the recurring idea that prose fiction is immoral and detrimental to its readers. Indeed, the government attempted, with some success, to suppress the publication of novels. In spite of an official ban on translated fiction, a Valencia publishing house began in 1816 to publish a collection of novels that introduced foreign novelists to the ever-growing Spanish reading public.

The Romantic influences prevalent during the 1820’s and 1830’s resulted in a spate of historical novels, some written by the outstanding literary figures of the Spanish Romantic movement....

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The triumph of the nineteenth century “liberal” movement in Spain, the September Revolution of 1868, which dethroned the Bourbon monarchy and led to the establishment of the short-lived republic in 1873, was a turning point in the history of the novel. The aspirations, problems, and anxieties of Spanish society were, rather suddenly, appropriate material for narrative fiction, and the decade of the 1870’s was fertile ground for the thesis novel, a type of fiction in which the theme seems to unduly determine the structure, characterization, and plot development. It was also the decade of intense interest in the idealism of the German philosopher Karl Christian Friedrich Krause (1781-1832). The intellectual movement...

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Benito Pérez Galdós

Since the death of Pérez Galdós in 1920, the general reading public of Spain has been more familiar with his historical novels, the Episodios nacionales (1873-1912; national episodes), than with his realistic novels of contemporary urban society, the novelas españolas contemporáneas (contemporary Spanish novels), although these have always received more serious attention from scholars. The forty-six episodios form a fictionalized history of Spain’s recent past, from the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 to the Restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1874. While these are historical novels, they are somewhat unusual in that all the principal characters are fictional personages whose lives are intertwined...

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Generation of ’98

At the beginning of the twentieth century, several nineteenth century novelists, such as Pérez Galdós, Pardo Bazán, and Palacio Valdés, were still active, and there were others whose principal work retained the tone and the concerns of the late nineteenth century. Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (1867-1928), after the enormous success of naturalistic novels such as La barraca (1898; The Cabin, 1917) and Cañas y barro (1902; Reeds and Mud, 1928), turned to the anti-German wartime novels that became popular in Spain and abroad—Los cuatro jinetes del Apocalipsis (1916; The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1918) and Mare Nostrum (1918; English translation, 1919). The...

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The Civil War and the Franco era

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), a bloody conflict between the conservative Nationalists and the liberal Republican forces that led to the establishment of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1892-1975), had an extraordinary effect on the history of the twentieth century Spanish novel. Many of the outstanding literary figures went into exile and produced their most important novels in countries other than Spain. Also, the war experience became the material with which the novel dealt, in much the same way that the social malaise resulting from the disaster of 1898 had become the subject matter for novels in the early part of the century.

The two novelists who established themselves most successfully as...

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Charnon-Deutsch, Lou. Gender and Representation: Women in Spanish Realist Fiction. Philadelphia: J. Benjamins, 1990. Significant study addresses the sexual polarization of nineteenth century Spanish society and the patriarchal values and ideologies of gender inscribed in the fictional discourses of the major novelists, including José María de Pereda, Juan Valera, Clarín, and Benito Pérez Galdós.

Close, Anthony. The Romantic Approach to Don Quixote. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978. Critical overview that had considerable repercussions in Hispanic studies. Presents a general discussion of the Romantic interpretation...

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