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Reviewed by:
  • Ambiguous Angels: Gender in the Novels of Galdós
  • Stephanie Sieburth
Catherine Jagoe, Ambiguous Angels: Gender in the Novels of Galdós. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994, 236 pp.

In a volume of just over two hundred pages, Catherine Jagoe makes a vital contribution to Galdós studies, to the study of Spanish nineteenth-century culture, and to the methodology of feminist criticism. Her central thesis is that Galdós’s representation of female characters must be understood in the light of the dominant image of women in European culture in the late nineteenth century: the domestic angel. She further argues that the ongoing debate in Spain on women’s role, and the changes in that debate over time, do a great deal to explain the changes in the ways Galdós represents women over the course of his long novelistic career.

The book consists of an introduction, six chapters, and an epilogue. The first chapter describes the concept of the angel in the house which dominated nineteenth-century Spain’s discourse on women, be this discourse legal, medical, political, or journalistic. Jagoe usefully points up contradictions in the concept of the angel: winged, yet a prisoner in the home; touted as superior to men yet deprived of almost all legal rights; constantly occupied yet not working, etc. The second chapter describes Galdós’s nonfiction writings on women, which adhere to conventional bourgeois gender ideology, and show no significant evolution over time. Galdós’s fiction, however, often problematizes the ideals he upheld in his nonfictional prose.

Chapter 3 examines Galdós’s early novels, focusing on Gloria and La familia de León Roch. She notes a pattern that recurs frequently in the Galdosian corpus: [End Page 420] a novel such as Gloria will begin with a critique of domesticity and patriarchal ideology as confining to women, yet halfway through, the representation of the female protagonist will change and her conventional angelic qualities will appear, presented by a narrator whose attitude is much more patriarchal at the end of the text than at the beginning.

Chapter 4 considers the novels of the 1880s, examining the spendthrift characters, who replace the beatas as Galdós’s new antiheroines; both kinds of women contrast with the ideal bourgeois angel, who “wants the right things, and in the right way.” (92) She focuses next on El amigo Manso, situating it most usefully in the context of new legislation encouraging women to teach, and of the founding of several training schools for women. She then presents an extremely incisive reading of Fortunata y Jacinta as a problematization of the bourgeois categories of angel and fallen woman, showing how Fortunata, by the end of the novel, explodes bourgeois stereotypes by appropriating the term angel and insisting it must apply to her.

The 1890s found the bourgeoisie beleaguered by working-class unrest, rebellion in the colonies, and a feminist discourse advocating roles for women outside the home. In Chapter 5, Jagoe skillfully analyzes how the ambiguous and contradictory narrative presentation creates an unresolvable tension in Tristana between patriarchal and feminist positions. Regarding Halma, she argues against critics who have seen its focus as spiritual and ahistorical, declaring that it explores what happens when an aristocratic woman tries to extend the angel’s spiritual and moral authority outside the home. She notes the much more univocal narrative presentation in Halma, which will characterize Galdós’s portrayal of gender issues after 1892. The sixth chapter argues that the heroines of the novelas dialogadas may be strong women, but they are used to serve an anti-emancipationist agenda, and glorified in their domestic roles, albeit in a more active and robust way than the earlier fragile angelic heroine. Thus Galdós becomes more conservative on gender issues even as he moves to the left politically. The epilogue is full of brilliant insights as Jagoe explores how to account for the emancipationist tendencies in the novels prior to 1892, given the conventional attitudes found in Galdós’s nonfiction.

Jagoe’s text sets down a methodology for feminist criticism, and shows her readers some pitfalls to avoid: confusing strong women characters...