Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Torquemada by Benito Pérez Galdós
Translation by Frances M. López-Morillas
New York: Columbia University Press (1986), Hardcover
ISBN: 0231062281 / 9780231062282

The Torquemada novels:
1. Torquemada at the Stake (1889)
2. Torquemada on the Cross (1893)
     a. Story
     b. Themes
     c. Characters
3. Torquemada in Purgatory (1894)
     a: Part One
     b. Part Two
     c. Part Three
4. Torquemada and Saint Peter (1895)

Leading into Torquemada: references in Fortunata and Jacinta

I spent a lot of time on these novels because I was hoping they would provide an introduction to Galdós for anyone not familiar with his work.
Dr. Rhian Davies provides a helpful summary page of the Torquemada novels at The Pérez Galdós Editions Project.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Galdós gives a very sympathetic portrayal of a most unsympathetic character. Francisco Torquemada, also known as Torquemada the Worse (a comparison to the Inquisitor, his namesake), proves to be a wonderful literary creation. The irony that anyone named Torquemada would be tortured in the manner I’ve highlighted in previous posts provides much of the humor and pathos of the novels. In the posts on these novels I’ve looked at some of the themes, characters, and story lines, but with this post I want to step back and look at some of the issues Galdós raises and what he offers as solutions. It’s a tall order for a short post, but here goes...

In her summary Dr. Davies summarizes part of what I wanted to address:

The Torquemada novels are closely linked to the events and ideas of nineteenth-century Spanish society. They explore the evolution of society and the rise of the nouveaux riches and express the diversity of responses which such social mobility evoked, ranging from the hostility of the blind Rafael, who in his despair commits suicide, and Torquemada's constant unease to the openly predatory reactions of Cruz, who is prepared to do anything to retrieve her respectable social position. The novels also consider the significance of appearances, of social traits, and of what often turn out to be superficial social norms. It could even be argued that they are closely related to the phenomenon of regeneración in the Nineteenth Century. It is perhaps significant that Galdós should have chosen to name his protagonist after Tomás de Torquemada, for the Inquisition was often a theme of the regeneracionista treatises of the period. Some argued that the Inquisition had isolated Spain from her European counterparts and condemned the country to decadence. There are, indeed, many readings that can be applied to the novels: such is the universality of Galdós's novels, which, in lending themselves to multiple readings, constantly renew their appeal for readers of all backgrounds and all beliefs.

I’ll begin with a quote from the last novel in the series since it captures part of the “evolution” Dr. Davies describes. Galdós provides an aside when discussing the last duke of Gravelinas and why the mansion Torquemada bought was up for sale :

In the end that fine gentleman had to succumb to the law of the century, which means that the propertied wealth of the historically famous families is gradually passing into the hands of a secondary aristocracy whose patents of nobility are lost in the shadows of some shop, or the crannies of the moneylending business. (page 428)

Galdós doesn’t appear to have a problem with the nouveau riche in general or their “shadow”y past, rather his concern is with the traits or qualities he sees (or the lack of such) in many of them. Father Gamborena, introduced in the final novel confirms and augments many of the themes the author raised in the earlier novels.

Torquemada’s avarice overrules everything he tries to do. Good deeds are seen by the moneylender only as part of a business transaction—the most important question involves what will accrue to him if he performs the act. Despite the good traits portrayed by Cruz del Aguila, especially when the family was poor, the priest highlights her faults which reflect many of the failings of the nobility. Her determination to return to the upper classes leads her to push Torquemada well beyond the level needed to escape poverty. Her pride when pushing for more acquisitions and higher standing provides a never-ending source of friction between the two characters. The blending of the two groups has the potential to be monstrous if you focus only on the negative traits, as symbolized by the son of Francisco and Fidela, but Galdós presents other examples. Going into the background of Rafael’s friend Morentín, Galdós emphasizes his class mixture: “He was a bachelor, of lower-class extraction on his father’s side and aristocratic on his mother’s, hence a hybrid socially like almost all the present generation”. (see excerpt for pages 248-250 in the other posts) Morentín, the “professional adulterer” (the only activity to escape his indolence), is no less monstrous than the younger Valentín. His pride and snobbery are compounded by his affairs, which are supposedly victim-free (at least socially) until his attempt to seduce Fidela.

One theme I found humorous despite its implications was the burden of being rich. Torquemada always complains about what is expected of him trying to move up in social rank—as the expression goes he has to spend money to make money, especially in a Spain where cronyism reigns. And here is where Galdós excels—his ambiguity about the changes mentioned above shows he understands the pluses and minuses of the so-called progress. Two quick examples that highlight benefits from progress— Galdós notes that industrialization provides nicer and better products for a cheaper price, and Torquemada’s plan to convert the debt (unrealized) would lower the interest rate for everyone borrowing money, including the poor. In addition to a benefit there’s a price, and that’s exactly the point. Every transaction involves a trade-off…is it worth the cost? What is gained, what lost? The positive traits the nobility used to display have disappeared with their money, while the “secondary aristocracy” shows little interest in anything outside their own needs and wants.

If you read only the first novel in the series you may mistake it for an anti-capitalist screed. Father Gamborena emphasizes there is a role for the rich to play and the good they can do in society, highlighted by Cruz’s conversion and her acts in the last novel. To muddle things more, Galdós rarely romanticizes the poor (the Aguilas are a huge exception). There are many examples of Torquemada’s thoughts of the poor which are less than charitable. Galdós provides many examples contrary to these generalizations, yet Torquemada increased his wealth by being a good judge of human character. Or so we’re told. The priest doesn’t rebut Torquemada when the miser complains about leaving money for the poor, concerned that “sometimes everything you give them winds up in the taverns, and if you give them clothing it winds up in the pawnshops.” Galdós, through the priest, calls for an increase in concern for others and benevolent acts, such as true Christian charity (my words, not his). I think this is where the ambiguity comes in and why Galdós makes Torquemada a sympathetic character. As much as every character insulted Torquemada for the “blood money” he made from the poor, he was one of the few people in the city providing funds to them. For a price, of course, but when nothing else is available this is what happens. Galdós calls for alternatives, criticizing a religion that only goes through the motions for appearances.

A few quotes from Father Gamborena should help clarify what Galdós meant by true Christian charity and the damage because of its absence :

“And do not tell me that it is you who protect religion, strengthening worship with splendid ceremonies or organizing charitable brotherhoods and committees; in most cases, you merely surround Almighty God with official and worldly pomp, denying Him the homage of your own hearts. You want to make Him one of those constitutional monarchs we have nowadays, who reign but do not govern. … [E]xternal homage is not acceptable unless you accompany it with the surrender of your hearts and the submission of your intelligence.” (page 451)

“You, the upper and wealthy classes, bored, tired because you do not have a glorious role to play in present-day society, have lowered yourselves to politics, like the sick and sad nobleman who, not knowing what to do for amusement, lowers himself to joking with the servants. … It is true that you possess a nominal faith, but only as an emblem, as a mark of class to defend yourselves with in case your rights are attacked and your positions menaced.” (page 452)

“We must return to religious simplicity. … Human willpower is diminishing visibly, like a tree that is turning into a shrub, and from a shrub to a potted plant.” (page 453)

Is Christian charity enough to improve the situation? That’s part of the open-ended appeal or frustration with Galdós. There are no easy answers, which is why the Christian charity emphasis feels a little…underwhelming. Highly recommended—I hope to see others reading Galdós soon!


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

How soon is "soon"? If soon is closer to later, yes, absolutely. Such useful posts.

Dwight said...

Maybe a fall reading of Fortunata and Jacinta? Most people seem to have a lot lined up for the near future, so maybe something before the end of the year would be good.

Glad they're of use. Definitely enjoyable novels.