Friday, December 14, 2012

His Only Son by Leopoldo Alas: Emma and Serafina

In His Only Son, Alas has drawn some remarkable characters. Emma Valcárcel, the wife of Bonifacio Reyes (Bonis), almost steals the novel. As I mentioned in the previous post, the names often provide either meaning or irony in Alas’ work. Emma’s name may recall Emma Bovary, but as I mentioned in the previous post that role is reserved for her husband. Romanticism plays no role in this Emma’s life. Cárcel (“prison”) does, figuratively in her self-retirement to the bedroom, literally in the sentence of revenge she carries out on her husband. The opening sentence of the novel provides a good starting point to get to know her: “Emma Valcárcel was an only child, and spoiled.” Alas takes pains to describe the family portraits and history of her ancestors, remarking on the deterioration of the generations, a theme in the novel that romanticizes the past and while also skewering that romanticism.

Emma’s capriciousness leads her to take revenge for every perceived slight against her. Ruing her whimsical decision to marry her childhood sweetheart she determines to make Bonis’ life a living hell. Bonis seeming indifference to her actions makes her even madder. Emma also takes a perverted revenge against her uncle managing the family estate—she suspects him of lining his pockets, so she determines to spend her money as fast as possible. Yep, that'll show him.

Emma takes to her bedroom after a miscarriage but her hysteria is mostly an act. While luxuriating in her bedroom she heals and her sexual appetite returns. Even her erotic nature takes a perverse turn in the seduction of her husband (and not stopping with him) until she finds she is pregnant. Hysteria strikes for real as she believes she will die in childbirth. Even though she doesn’t, she rejects the role of motherhood before and after the child is born.

Serafina, the soprano in the visiting opera troupe, is the other woman in Bonis life. He rhapsodizes and romanticizes everything about her, dreaming that she provides everything feminine (in a positive manner) that his wife does not. Serafina allows Bonis to dote on her, although the reader is initially left in the dark as to her motivations. It’s easy to believe that she plays along with Bonis' wooing for the same reasons that Mochi, the leader of the troupe, does—to cadge money out of Bonis. It turns out Serafina also acts out of revenge against Mochi, echoing some of Emma’s actions. Emma’s pregnancy changes things for all the relationships. Bonis, wanting to be a model father, ends the affair. Serafina struggles with the termination—she seems to truly want to abandon the artist lifestyle and settle down. Her role for Bonis has changed, though. Wanting to live only for his son he abandons her, shutting her out of his life and rejecting any fact she tries to tell him.

There are many other topics I could cover in this wonderful novel. The importance of music, the unconscious, use of archetypes…there’s plenty packed in the book. For the next post, though, I think I’ll try and provide a summary and add some information about the unfinished sequel.

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