In a novel full of ambiguity, Tristana’s lover Horacio is the one certainty. He’s a disappointment.
I should expand on that judgment and qualify it where appropriate. Horacio’s early years resemble Tristana’s background. Orphaned in his youth he became confined by his grandfather. Then Horacio’s story diverges from Tristana’s experience—his grandfather dies and he achieves financial security, allowing him to pursue his love of painting. Horacio playacts at a bohemian life. An early clue that Horatio doesn’t measure up as an artist comes from the distraction Tristana provides. He may call her his muse but he is so preoccupied with her that he abandons his work. The turning point in his relationship with Tristana is not when he leaves to take care of his aunt but in their discussion about children. Tristana turns out to be the real non-conformist of the pair. When taking care of his aunt he finds he enjoys the rustic lifestyle. And as Colin Partridge puts it in his essay on the novel:
His absorption into southern country life dramatizes the collapse of the delicate balance between artist and bohemian that he had maintained in the Madrid suburb. Although first presented as an urban dweller he is, as his name infers, one who prefers rustic pleasures to urban stresses. But unlike his Roman namesake he withdraws to the countryside without having first fulfilled himself as a celebrated artist in the capital.
In addition to Tristana being a problem drama, Galdós indicts a passive artistic community for posing instead of helping revitalize a backward, moribund society. Horacio betrays Tristana’s hopes as much as Don Lope does. Some of that betrayal comes from her immaturity—as Tristana develops she begins to see Horacio’s thoughts as coarse and common. As for her hopes to have an equal partner in her rebelliousness, Horacio falls short.
I’d like to include a few quotes from the novel that highlight the differences between what Horacio had been looking for and what he found in Tristana. The first quote shows that Horacio may talk about the “thorny problem of the liberated woman” but isn’t ready for a solution:
These artistic sentiments, these fanciful flights of a superior feminine intelligence, delighted the young fellow; and not long after they started having intimate relations, he began to see the infatuated young woman growing visibly before his eyes, while he seemed to diminish in importance. This really surprised him; and he found himself on the verge of opposing her, because he had imagined he’d found in Tristana a woman who was of lesser intelligence and weaker willpower, a wife who would live on her husband’s moral and intellectual life and feel with his eyes and his heart. But in reality this young woman was taking her own course, throwing herself into the free spaces of thought and revealing the most remarkable aspirations.
The last quote shows his distraction from painting caused by his love for Tristana, but also focuses on the conventional role he wishes she would play:
It must be admitted that the bouts of amorous excesses our artist of the ideal experienced at those times distracted him from his noble profession. He painted little and always without a model; he began to feel the remorse of the conscientious worker, the anguish before unfinished pictures waiting for form and structure; but between art and love he preferred the latter. It was new and aroused the most delightful sensations; it was a recently-discovered, fertile, exuberant, extremely rich world he could take possession of by advancing resolutely and planting his foot as explorer and conquistador. Art would wait for the time being; he would come back to it when his burning desires had calmed down; then love would appear more peaceful, akin to quiet colonization rather than frantic conquest. This good fellow sincerely believed that Tristana was the love of his life, that no other woman could attract him or ever replace the delight-provoking, generous Tristana. He liked to imagine that time would soothe her fever for ideas; such a flow of penetrating thoughts seemed to him excessive in a wife or long-term mistress. He hoped that his continuing affection and the passing of time would eventually restrain his adored one’s imaginative and rational outbursts, making her more of a woman—more domestic, more conventional and more typical of the present-day.