MLN 116.2 (2001) 250-265
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An Essay in Feminist Rhetoric:
Emilia Pardo Bazán's "El indulto."
"El indulto," originally published in 1883 in Revista Ibérica, was the first short story by Emilia Pardo Bazán to gain a certain recognition among her contemporaries. According to Constantino Cabal, Pardo Bazán's previous attempts at the genre of the short story had received discouraging comments from her father, and she spent eight years without finishing another one: "Hasta que un día, un impulso interior la hizo coger la pluma nuevamente para emborronar dos o tres [cuentos]. Uno de ellos, Indulto, se hizo célebre. Y desde entonces, la prodigiosa señora condesa no ha dejado de cultivar el género . . ." (22). A story that highlights the disenfranchisement, brutality, and destitution of the lower classes, "El indulto" has traditionally been regarded as one of the best representatives of the genre in Spanish naturalism. In her prologue to La dama joven y otros cuentos (1885), the author claimed that her story was no more than the transcription of an actual episode that allegedly took place in her native La Coruña (the fictional Marineda)--"El indulto no es más que un sucedido . . . que me contaron en Marineda y yo apunté sin quitar una tilde" (iv)--and critics usually agree in reading the story as a piece that both illustrates the social concerns of Spanish writers after the Revolution of 1868 and exemplifies the documentary premises of literary naturalism.1 Works affiliated with this movement have elicited [End Page 250] mostly thematic considerations on the question of determinism and the realities of social or individual degradation--the depiction of hereditary pathology and brutality, the destructive influences of the environment, or the use of base language. This concern for the representational aspects of fiction has created the impression that naturalistic poetics is simply the result of subjecting art to the demands of testimony: "According to this approach, naturalism is then an art from which conventions, genre, poetic codes and forms have all been expunged, a literature purged of literariness" (Baguley 16).
Against such an understanding of these narratives there has been in recent years a considerable amount of research devoted to the literariness of naturalism.2 In the case of Pardo Bazán, feminist revaluations of her works have translated the general concern for social testimony into a more focused attention to the female condition in nineteenth-century Spain--thus sharing with traditional criticism of naturalistic texts a common interest in the representational aspects of fiction--but they have also been alert to the ways in which the writer confronted the gendered discourses of contemporary poetics. Thus, "El indulto" has been read not only as a testimony against the victimization of women, but also as a reversal of the romance plot of Victorian narratives and their patriarchal imagery of family life. As recent studies have shown, Pardo Bazán's works remain a fertile and still largely unexplored ground (after all, she authored about six hundred short stories) for the study of the poetics of the nineteenth-century short story from a feminist perspective.3 In this [End Page 251] essay, I would also like to question the limitations of a reading determined by the emphasis on naturalistic mimesis and contend that, more than a denunciation of the female condition in nineteenth-century Spain, and beyond the rebuttal of plots and conventions, "El indulto" uniquely contains some of the ingredients necessary to formulate a feminist rhetorical project--a project in which both the representation of harsh realities and the transmutation of poetic forms are intended to effect a critical reaction on the part of the reader.
Susan Lanser has argued that feminist criticism, "given the ideological intent of its critical practice," has for a long time concerned itself with a somewhat exclusive attention to the mimetic aspects of narrative, and is therefore suspicious of the use of narratological analysis, which in turn has traditionally disregarded questions of pragmatics and gender in its study of the formal categories of...