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  • The Picaresque and the Grotesque:Two Beauties and the Their Beasts
  • Nancy Marie Blain

In the novel, the orphan heroine has played a myriad of roles. Regardless of her role, the importance of the specifics of her character has often been overlooked, due mostly to competition from a more fascinating main character within the same work. Frequently, her exotic personality invites the other characters to bestow on her the role of a picaresque princess1 who cures the ills of society with a disapproving look or a wave of her tambourine. Just before the dawn of Realism, one such heroine appears in the Hispanic novel Sotileza (1885) by José María de Pereda. Thematically, Sotileza follows in the tradition of the "Beauty and the Beast," and especially shares affinities with Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris (1831). Hugo's novel is likely to have inspired Sotileza. During the preceding Romantic period, the gypsy Esmeralda, in Notre Dame de Paris, offers a possible literary source for Sotileza (Klibbe 122).

At first, a comparison between the two novels, Sotileza and Notre Dame de Paris, seems unlikely because of their authors' divergent political [End Page 161] views. Pereda was a conservative Catholic who fought against the revolution of 1868 and was elected as the Carlist deputy for Cabuérniga in 1871, while Hugo was a liberal whose attack on the church was transparent in his novel (Klibbe 14). Yet, they had similar goals in writing these novels: Pereda wished to preserve traditional Spain and Hugo wished to preserve the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Each author expresses his point of view through the use of picaresque elements, intermingled with grotesque features, to combine the uniquely marginal with that which is purposely distorted. Pereda's skillful references to Hugo's novel are in the form of comparisons between characters. The dynamic between Sotileza and one character, Muergo, is similar to the one between Esmeralda and Quasimodo.

Sotileza is of particular interest in that Pereda gives an orphan heroine a primary role in his novel. Her characterization is Dickensian,2 according to Wentworth Webster, who discusses Pereda in his article written in 1885 following the publication of Sotileza:

There is the same fondness for characters in the humble life, the same quick eye for external characteristics, the same seizing on the type which his peculiar trade or profession stamps a man; only the overflowing humour is somewhat wanting...


Sotileza typifies an orphan of a marginal class of Spanish society. She is raised in the maritime culture of Santander, a traditional way of life that fascinates Pereda. Her humble childhood, followed by her exemplary behavior, invites us to compare her moral values to the traditional moral code of Spanish society that Pereda clearly preferred. Webster adds that her moral cleanliness seems to proceed from a "natural temperament," thus allowing the then current tendency toward Naturalism to be evident in this novel (218). Sotileza symbolizes these values during her childhood and later as she develops into a careful and morally conscious young [End Page 162]

woman. The girl is conservative yet outspoken at just the right moments in the novel. Through Sotileza, Pereda expresses his social perspective without making bold political statements. Moreover, the novel Sotileza gives him the opportunity to perfect his finest gift of costumbrismo.3

Sotileza first appears amid a group of children who go to see Father Apolinar. Sotileza, then called Silda (Pereda 18) is the daughter of the deceased sailor Mules. Mules left little money to pay for the girl's care, but the neighborhood decides to give financial aid to an adoptive family. Mocejón and his greedy wife, "la Sargüeta," see an opportunity to use the funds to help with their own expenses and offer to take Silda. The Mocejón family lives in filth and treats her like an outsider. Silda sleeps in a corner near a pile of fishing nets with an old blanket. Once the Mocejón couple squanders her funds, the orphan is given nothing. She is diminutive, fair and delicate, distinguishing her from the Mocejón mother and her daughter Carpia:

...delgadita, pálida, algo aguileña, el pelo tirando a rubio, dura...


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