The Novel Histories of Galdos

The Novel Histories of Galdos

by Diane Faye Urey, Diane F. Urey

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Benito Perez Galdos (1843-1920) occupies a position in Spanish literature surpassed only by Cervantes, and, like him, made a major contribution to the European novel that is now becoming widely recognized. In a semiological approach to the second period of Episodios Nacionales, Diane Urey demonstrates the relevance of these twenty-six novels, the least studied of


Benito Perez Galdos (1843-1920) occupies a position in Spanish literature surpassed only by Cervantes, and, like him, made a major contribution to the European novel that is now becoming widely recognized. In a semiological approach to the second period of Episodios Nacionales, Diane Urey demonstrates the relevance of these twenty-six novels, the least studied of Galdos's works, to fundamental issues such as the relationship between history and fiction, and between mimesis and creation. Her findings of ambiguity, irony, and allegory in this writer's highly self-conscious historical novels will revise our views of Galdos's place in European letters while offering new insights into a general theory of historical fiction.

Diane Urey offers an alternative to referential or ideological interpretations of the Episodios by stressing the indeterminate textuality of historical incidents and the fictionality of historical discourse. Drawing on Derrida, De Man, Foucault, and Hayden White, she applies a wide range of narrative theory to these texts and concludes that novel and history are interchangeable modes of discourse because they rely necessarily on the same narrative strategies.

Originally published in 1989.

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The Novel Histories of Galdós

By Diane Faye Urey


Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06777-3


The Search for Meaning in the Third Series

Historical truth, romantic idealism, the journey — these are some of the diverse concerns of the third series of Galdós's Episodios nacionales. Written between 1898 and 1900, these ten historical novels examine the literary, social, economic, and political transformations in Spain from 1834 to 1846. These years see the zenith of romanticism, the first Carlist war over the heir to the throne (Fernando VII's infant daughter Isabel or his reactionary brother don Carlos), the regencies of Maria Cristina and Espartero, and the beginning of Isabel II's reign. The Episodios' treatment of these times and events can be viewed as a temporal projection that establishes relationships of cause and effect. Symbolic relationships among the various historical and fictional elements of the novels supplement and clarify the stories. Yet the conventional types of relations that seem to produce meaning also break down and undo meaning in the series, so that cause and effect become an infinite tracing of effects whose hypothetical causes are forever absent. Symbolic structures like metaphor and analogy give way to irony and antithesis; relations of identity become relations of difference in their constant fluctuation. Such ceaseless and often contradictory movements are, of course, inherent in the mode called historical fiction. These two apparently different, yet fundamentally similar, manifestations of meaning in temporal, or historical, and symbolic, or fictional, projections are both functions of the same relationship among words. Thus both temporal and symbolic projections are similar interpretive constructs. The reader's journeys into the past through historical reconstruction or the many and varied journeys undertaken by fictional characters in the novels are all equally journeys through words. As we seem to travel back in time to 1834, forward through love and war to 1846, and through each volume to our interpretations of character and epoch, we journey only through the relations among signs. Fiction is about images, significative processes, signs. The Episodios nacionales are about the fictions of fiction and the fictions of history. More than anything else, these works are concerned with the signifying processes that produce the illusion of meaning.

There are many moments in the third series where it can be seen that the temporal, structural, thematic and symbolic organizations of these novels are themselves unstable processes inviting varying interpretations. Such moments demythify the logics of history, romanticism, and the journey. Each of these relations can provide an explanation of one system of signs in terms of another, but not of the founding order itself. This is the case for any explanatory tactic, as Lévi-Strauss perceived. In "How I Became an Anthropologist," he writes of finding his models in the geologist, in Freud, and in Marx, and observes: "At a different level of reality, Marxism seemed to me to proceed in the same way as geology and psycho-analysis (in the sense in which its founder understood it). All three showed that understanding consists in the reduction of one type of reality to another; that true reality is never the most obvious of realities, and that its nature is already apparent in the care it takes to evade our detection." The third series constantly exchanges one reality or perspective for another, that is, one explanation for another, as it exchanges words for words. Yet each explanation is only one more interpretation, translation, symbolic or temporal projection, in an open series of relationships among signifying systems. This is the logic and the process of the interpretive enterprise of Galdós's historical novels, and of history itself. As Jean Baudrillard writes, "Thus, to be logical, the concept of history must itself be regarded as historical, turn back upon itself, and only illuminate the context that produced it by abolishing itself. ... To be rigorous the dialect must dialectically surpass and annul itself." Where this does not occur, as with many nineteenth-century interpretations of history that assume universal explanations, the explanation itself becomes the ultimate meaning: it is "transhistoricized." By revealing its own status as signifying process, the third series undermines the notion of a transcendentally significant meaning in history or in any other interpretive projection. It is thus about itself as process, not just an interpretation. The following pages will examine some of the ways in which these ten novels demythify and demystify their own novel histories.

The third series is about the illusions involved in the temporal pursuit of meaning in multiple ways. First, if labeled historical reconstruction, these volumes can be read as explanations of past causes and effects which might serve as lessons for future generations. Such a reading entails a dual temporal projection or interpretation. This duality corresponds to the two great movements in nineteenth-century philosophy of history — that there is a force or logic that can be objectively observed, and that this logic then can be projected into its future evolution and/or ultimate meaning. In this way the historical pursuit appears to move in two directions, revealing truth in both cases. Second, the dominant literary code of the series, romanticism, also invokes a dually temporal projection: it is the cultivation and idealization of a past coupled with a desire for its return. This romantic urge is demonstrated in the characters' emotions and activities throughout the series. Third, in the formal structure of the series there is an emphasis on narrative discontinuities which conflicts with a more conventional illusion of a linear storyline and reading process. The series begins in medias res and ends with a retracing of events that began before the first volume opens. The reader must often wait for the end of one story sequence until several volumes have elapsed, then backtrack in order to find out what "occurred." The reader's distance from characters and events is usually mediated by many narrators, just as the characters remain at geographical or epistolary distances from each other. Fourth, the characters are involved in journeys that, while seeming to carry them forward, often lead them backward — emotionally or geographically. Their paths are frequently unknown, random, or sidetracked. Correspondingly, as they consciously search for their past, their ideal or their identity, they find instead emptiness, disillusion, or, ultimately, the separated self of the schizophrenic.

Each one of these temporal aspects in the third series relies on multiple symbolic relationships among words and readers. Each textual process ultimately reveals how all interpretations of history, fiction, self, and other break down, just as do the textual structures upon which these interpretations rely. Such an undermining motivates a reevaluation of conventional modes of perceiving history, of reading literature, and of constructing meanings for the self and the world. As we journey through the third series, we come to rethink our ways of reviewing the past and of reading signs, just as the characters reread themselves in the search for an absent ideal. The journeys of the characters of these novels reflect on all the other elements of the series. These episodios fully exploit the metaphors of life and literature as journey or voyage and ultimately reevaluate that metaphor as metaphor. Thus they consider the status of language as image or sign. This study analyzes these processes in the three separate plots contained in Zumalacárregui, La campaña del Maestrazgo, and Bodas reales, and in the unifying plot revolving around Fernando Calpena, thus incorporating detailed reference to Mendizábal, La estafeta romántica, Vergara, and Los ayacuchos, and passing reference to De Oñate a la Granja, Luchana, and Montes de Oca.


José Fago, the soldier-priest protagonist of the first volume of the third series, Zumalacárregui, is, as Alfred Rodriguez writes, "an anguished being, withering under the strain of an unbearable inner contradiction." This contradiction arises from his "confused effort to segregate an obsessive past ... from a present that demands a very different pattern of behavior." His libertine past haunts him when his emotional and military energies become focused on the futile pursuit of Saloma Ulibarri, the woman he seduced, before becoming a priest, three years before the novel opens in 1834. The first chapter finds Fago sent to confess Saloma's father, a village mayor condemned to the firing squad by the Carlist general Zumalacárregui. He ends up, rather, confessing to Ulibarri. This fictional introduction is a counterpart to the historical beginning: In Galdós: The Mature Thought, Brian Dendle writes that "No historical background is given; the novel begins, in medias res, with Zumalácarregui's invasion of the Ribera de Navarra." Like Fago's inconclusive emotional and geographical journeys are the random record of military skirmishes and the "wandering, inconclusive nature of the military campaign" (Mature Thought, 40). Both the story and the history take place over a wide geographical area and seem to follow no logical sequence of events. Fago's crisis of conscience, a chance word about Saloma, or his hallucinations direct his course. Dendle observes that this serves to provide an "impressionistic vision of the nature of the [Carlist] movement" (40). Indeed, this impressionism seems a most appropriate format for depicting events of the past, if they are without logic.

References to the role of chance as opposed to logic in human affairs abound in this volume and throughout the series. For example, chapter 24 describes Fago as he begins one of his many searches for Saloma:

Toda la noche anduvo por desolados campos, sin dirección fija, adoptando el acaso por guía único de su andar vagabundo, y creyendo que los senderos desconocidos suelen conducirnos a donde deseamos. Renegaba de la prevision, del método, de todo el fárrago de prescripciones por que se guían los hombres, y que comúnmente resultan de menor eficacia que los dictados de la fatalidad. Somos unos seres infelices que creemos saber algo y no sabemos nada, que inventamos reglas y principios para engañar nuestra impotencia; vivimos a merced de la Naturaleza y de las misteriosas combinaciones del tiempo. Iba, pues, entregado a Io que el espacio y el tiempo, ministros de Dios, quisieran disponer en su tiránico dominio.

Whether he is confronting time, space, fatality, chance, nature or God, man is powerless to know or alter his mysterious, indecipherable course; so a lack of direction or a vagabond path is as effective as method or foresight. The repetition of Fago's opinions by the narrator ("somos unos seres infelices ...") in this and many other passages, or their echo through the voices of other characters in the novel, makes this question not idiosyncratic to Fago, but pertinent to the larger concerns of the series. In this case, both those loyal to the pretender don Carlos, the "carlistas," and those loyal to the throne and the regent María Cristina, the "cristinos," believe that God is on their side and thus directs their actions. The Cariists go so far as to refer to the Virgin as "Generalísima" (2:852). But even this hyperbolic faith in a divine logic does not spell victory for don Carlos:

Pero aquel Dios, que muchos suponían tan calurosamente afecto a uno de los bandos, dispuso las cosas de distinta manera, y pasó Io que según unos no debió pasar, y según otros, sí. Estas sorpresas, que nada tienen de sobrenaturales, obra de la divina imparcialidad, son tan comunes, que con ellas casi exclusivamente se forma un tejido de variados hechos que llaman Historia, expresando con esta voz la que escriben los hombres, pues la que deben tener escrita los ángeles no la conocemos ni por el forro (2:832).

The right or wrong of history is a matter of opinion; its truth is forever hidden from men. Rather, what is called History is merely the written weave of assorted events, ordered according to the writer's impressions and perspective. Whether Zumalacárregui, the Carlists, the Cristinos, or Fago believe their course directed by God or chance makes no difference, since the directing hand, should it exist, is forever unknown.

The desire to judge right and wrong in war is a search for an ultimate meaning, a transcendental truth, just as is the search for the correct interpretation of the written texts of the novel or history. Zumalacárregui illustrates how the knowledge of and judgment about history are necessarily derived from written documents that have already been interpreted and thus always removed from the origin of the event itself — its cause — which can never be present. The meanings offered in histories as to causes may be rather an ordering of effects. In The Use and Abuse of History Nietzsche identifies this effort, which he calls "monumental history," as one type of error that can be made in historical interpretation:

Its object is to depict effects at the expense of the causes "monumentally," that is, as examples for imitation; it turns aside, as far as it may, from reasons, and might be called with far less exaggeration a collection of "effects in themselves" than of events that will have an effect on all ages. The events of war or religion cherished in our popular celebrations are such "effects in themselves." ...

As long as the soul of history is found in the great impulse that it gives to a powerful spirit, as long as the past is principally used as a model for imitation, it is always in danger of being a little altered and touched up and brought nearer to fiction. Sometimes there is no possible distinction between a "monumental" past and a mythical romance, as the same motives for action can be gathered from the one world as the other.

These remarks are particularly suited to this first volume of the third series, just as Nietzsche's other categories — "antiquarian" and "critical" — offer insights into subsequent volumes. The cultivation of great men and deeds and the forgetting or hating of all else (Nietzsche, 15-16) appear to be the follies of don Carlos, of Fago in his admiration and emulation of Zumalacárregui, of Zumalacárregui's concept of his own historic mission (2:789), and of posterity's exaltation of him. The first chapter exclaims: "¡Zumalacárregui, página bella y triste! España la hace suya, asi por su hermosura como por su tristeza" (2:789). Yet this monument of Spain's history is perhaps not a fit object for emulation, the volume will suggest.

The two-paragraph apostrophe to the Carlist general in chapter 1 depicts him as a valiant military strategist who puts "los deberes militares sobre todo sentimiento de humanidad" (2:789). Correspondingly, the first view of Zumalacárregui in action has him mercilessly whipping the women who resisted his siege at Villafranca (2:801). The narrator's comments about the necessity of this tactic to strengthen the soldiers' resistance are conveyed in part through the free indirect style, as were the opening two paragraphs of the novel. The free indirect style implicates the narrator, and consequently the reader, in this epic brutality. Thus Zumalacárregui's behavior — including his "heroism" — is presented in an ambiguous light from the outset. Fago cannot understand the necessity for this public display of cruelty, which provides another dissenting point of view in an equivocally "epic" characterization (2:801). Such contradictory interpretations of this "monument of history" serve to undermine unilateral definitions of greatness, right, and wrong. This is most obvious in the physical description of the General, through Fago's eyes:

Era el General de aventajada estatura y regulares carnes, con un hombro más alto que otro. Por eso, y por su ligera inclinación hacia delante, efecto sin duda de un padecimiento renal, no era su cuerpo tan garboso como debiera. En él clavó sus ojos Fago, examinándole bien la cara, y al pronto se desilusionó enteramente, pues se Io figuraba de facciones duras, abultadas y terroríficas, con hermosura semejante a la de algunas imágenes de la clase de tropa, como los guerreros bíblicos Aarón, Sansón y Josué. ... [Zumalacárregui] era un tipo melancólico, adusto, cara de sufrimiento y meditación. (2:800–801)


Excerpted from The Novel Histories of Galdós by Diane Faye Urey. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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