THE THREE-CORNERED HAT begins with leisurely descriptions of characters and setting, then abruptly picks up rhythm and moves into two climaxes. It is colorful, funny, and brisk. Most action occurs in the mill, but a dance air was noted in the story by Spain’s greatest musician, Manuel de Falla (who later put the novel into a ballet). The story’s archaic charm, wit, local flavor, and pleasant, almost vaudeville “Spanishism” are inimitable, as are its characterizations. The characters created by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón are usually symbols of good or evil, and his action the struggle between the two forces, but this is less true of his masterpiece, THE THREE-CORNERED HAT. This is also the only Alarcónian novel not soaked in melodrama. Its true significance is that it fuses simple, costumbrista descriptive techniques—once dominant in the Spanish novel—with techniques of the thesis novel. It also combines picaresco (romantic roguery) touches with Spanish realism and is uniquely steeped in the flavor of a vanished past. The novel even inserts political meaning into the plot by reflecting a village’s struggle against the Spanish national government and French ideas.
For THE THREE-CORNERED HAT, Alarcón selected elements from stories of the so-called “blindman’s ballad,” or Spanish oral tradition, that he had heard as a child. His novel was also influenced by Giovanni Boccaccio and was originally intended as a humor story for a Cuban magazine. Remembering a childhood tale, however, Alarcón rewrote the work in six days as a novel. Professor Edwin Place strove to discover other of the novel’s roots and found some in a French tale of adultery that has notable similarities to THE THREE-CORNERED HAT. Alarcón feared that adulterous themes from Boccaccio or French literature could be ruined through vulgarity but believed that they could be beautified and made more Spanish by delicate, deep handling. One of Alarcón’s associates once commented that if he were a knight, grandee, or banker, he would yield his sword, coat-of-arms, or money to become “the hat-maker of the hat that you have put so much into vogue.”