As the nineteenth century was drawing to a close, the loss of Spain’s remaining colonies to the United States in the war of 1898 definitively marked the end of a once-mighty empire. A mood of despair prevailed among intellectuals. Two principal groups emerged, each with its particular attitude toward and theories regarding this crisis concerning the fate of Spain. The conservative faction advocated a return to God, country, and king, the foundations of Spain’s former glory and her hope for the future. Liberals, however, sought an alternative solution in the ideas of European rationalism and humanism, a complete break with the past.
In his role as cynic, Pío Baroja’s mission was to attack any institution or system. Therefore he identified with neither the conservatives nor the liberals. Although the destructive element of liberalism appealed to him, its constructive element did not. He abhorred traditional values and conventions, even making fun of such unusual castizo (Spanish traditionalist) practices as writing in the twentieth century using Golden Age (seventeenth century) language.
The Tree of Knowledge is Baroja’s attempt to comprehend and explain Spain’s destiny. In the novel, Baroja tells a pessimistic tale with a harsh message. Spain is living in the past, according to an outdated pragmatism which keeps it out of touch with the rest of twentieth century Europe. A provincial mentality is nurtured, while any attempts toward progress are suffocated in a stifling atmosphere of unreality, ignorance, and intolerance. Both society and individual operate on primitive levels to no good whatsoever. Rather than look to the future (the attitude that built Spain into a world power in the fifteenth century), the country busies itself re-creating its past through the reenactment of myths and legends which belong to former times (Don Quixote, Don Juan, and the aristocracy, among others). There are those who starve to death so as not to lose face, those who self-induce blindness and insanity in order to protect a past ideal, and those who serve as the hosts of society’s parasites.
More than any other novel of its generation, The Tree of Knowledge conveys the climate of hopelessness in late nineteenth century Spain. It is an honest appraisal of that society, one that logically points to bleak prospects for the future. The severe tone and message make it an appropriate literary response to a time of crisis.