- The Conflict of Narratives in Pérez Galdós’ Doña Perfecta
Benito Pérez Galdós’ Doña Perfecta (1876) has been the subject of a long scholarly debate about its virtues and imperfections as both literary monument and ideological document. Written and published in serialized form with the clear intent to counter the conservative wave taking hold of national politics in the early years of the Spanish Restoration period, it is traditionally considered to be one of the author’s thesis novels. Contrary to Galdós’ contemporary production of historical novels and his later works, texts like Doña Perfecta, Gloria, or La familia de León Roch stand out for being mainly concerned with seemingly abstract issues—devoted not so much to the recovery of the national past or the realistic representation of contemporary life, but to the allegorical portrayal of Spain’s cultural mentalities. 1 Given the ambiguous status of the generic label “novela de tesis,” it has been discussed whether the weight of Doña Perfecta rests on its first pole, the thesis—that is, the display of an ideological position disguised in a narrative—or on the second, the novel, the textual construction of a fictional world. As Richard A. Cardwell once put it, critics of the text have been compelled to read it either as art or as argument. But in [End Page 283] this novel the intertwining of fiction and ideology goes beyond a simplistic form-and-content pairing. If written to quarrel with fanaticism, it was also intended—at the explicit request of one of Galdós’ closest friends—as a response to the literary controversies of the time:
In 1876, as the controversy concerning realism and idealism continued both in the Ateneo and in intellectual journals, Galdós’ friend Fernando León y Castillo suggested that Don Benito now write his already-germinating ‘valiant and very Spanish novel of struggle’. . . . To do so would give Galdós, who felt his personal prestige and leadership in the realm of the novel to be at stake, an excellent opportunity to enter the polemic and demonstrate his own literary aesthetic.(Chamberlin 11–12) 2
In this essay I will argue that in Doña Perfecta Galdós, in responding to the canonized forms of fiction in his age and presenting his own alternative aesthetics of the novel, is also—and most prominently—making an argument about art. My main concern is to explore Galdós’ critical reading of nineteenth-century Spanish costumbristic writing as idealist poetics, and understand how Galdós uses the text of Doña Perfecta to create a space for his own narrative project.
Stephen Gilman contended in his influential Galdós and the Art of the European Novel—which incorporates an earlier essay, “Novel and Society: Doña Perfecta” (1976)—that the writing of the novel was driven by Galdós’ desire to overcome the static character of previous novelistic representations of social reality. Resorting to what Gilman called a “double dialogue,” the novelist had searched for a solution to poetic problems encountered in his previous historical novels (episodios) by exploring his experience “as a reader of the novels of his colleagues both native and foreign” (63). Among them, Gilman pointed to Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet as the most prominent influence on Galdós, who applied the same narrative pattern in Doña Perfecta to solve “the problem of presenting a static rural milieu, not as a costumbristic or pastoral story, but in terms of the nineteenth century novel” (64). 3
By focusing on Gilman’s notion of a double dialogue between costumbristic writing and realism, it is possible to shed light on some [End Page 284] features that have remained somewhat marginal to readers of Doña Perfecta. 4 Critics have long since agreed that the novel presents what Casalduero called a “religious-political-historical problem” (220). But I believe that it also posits a narrative problem: that is, the issues confronted in the text are present for the reader not only as part of the represented world (the historical reality of Spain around 1876), but also as a matter of representation itself (how is...