Thursday, January 03, 2013

Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós: Tristana

Tristana: Buñuel’s Film and Galdós’ Novel: A Case Study in the Relation Between Literature and Film by Colin Partridge (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995). All quotes are from Partridge’s translation of the text unless otherwise noted.

I'm realizing how poorly thought out my approach was on writing about Tristana, but I’m halfway through it…so I’m continuing with that plan. I’m hoping once I’ve finished all the posts is that it will make a decent whole. We’ll see…

A summary of the story can be found in the post on Don Lope, Tristana’s guardian. This post continues looking at the characters in Benito Pérez Galdós’ Tristana and also tries to make a natural continuation to the previous post on the novel promoting women's rights even though it wasn't the desired manifesto desired by some.

I’ll start with a paragraph from the essays by Colin Partridge since it sums up Tristana’s situation and role in the novel, raising the point that there are similarities with other characters in Galdós' works:
Although Tristana is the center of events she is never allowed to have a dominant influence over other characters. Circumstances shape her; she has little power to shape circumstances. These limitations symbolize a woman who, in the social reality of her time, possessed domestic power within a patriarchal household but was allowed no initiative outside the home or in any action dedicated solely to self-fulfillment. Tristana is comparable to other Galdosian figures dreaming of a life outside present constraints but unable to reach that life or achieve a stable balance between the actual and its alternatives. The psychological condition provoked by this frustration is the focus of Galdós’ presentation of Tristana.
Galdós often uses names to highlight a point or provide irony and Tristana is no exception. Triste mean gloom or sadness, the station in life she is consigned to after her parents die and she becomes Don Lope’s ward…and victim. “Tristana went to live with Don Lope and…(one must say this, although it sounds cruel and painful), within two months of taking her under his care, her name was added to his already extensive list of victories over female innocence.” [ellipsis in original] The name also alludes to the mythical Tristan and his doomed love affair with Iseult/Isolde, providing a foreshadowing of Tristana’s failed relationship with Horacio.

Some notes on Tristana’s relationship with Don Lope:
  • His perverted chivalric code colors his view of his relationship with Tristana. He believes he is protecting her, keeping her from danger from other men. 
  • She initially doesn’t notice the difference in their ages because of her innocence and his skill.” Her inadequate schooling seriously weakened her; and all sorts of devious manipulations, in which this foxy Don Lope was a past master, kept her confused and at a loss; he was compensating for what years had taken from him by subtle tricks with words and tender gestures—all remarkably effective.” 
  • His wiles are tested as Tristana becomes disillusioned in the household and her own sexuality awakens when she meets the painter Horacio. When describing Don Lope to Horacio, Tristana proves to be extremely perceptive about the contradictions in him:
    “No; he’s a bit of everything: he’s an amazing combination of good qualities and horrible deficiencies. He has two consciences: one very pure and noble for certain things, and another like a swamp. He uses each depending on the situation. He can put them on and take them off like shirts. He uses his black and filthy conscience for anything pertaining to love. … In his youth he cut a dashing figure and until very recently he’s kept up the illusion of being dangerous. You realize that his conquests have diminished in importance as the years have added up. I was the last ticket he drew out from the lottery. I belong to his declining years.”
  • As Tristana's abhorrence for Don Lope grows, he cajoles and threatens her, essentially driving her into Horacio’s arms and, eventually, Horacio’s bed. 
  • One of the funniest ironies in the novel is that Tristana takes on some of Don Lepe’s beliefs, especially his avoidance of marriage. 

With Horacio, Tristana becomes both his muse and, ironically, his distraction (more on that in the post on Horacio). The lovers develop a language based on Dante with Tristana in the role of Beatrice. The irony compounds because of her relationship with Don Lope. Similar to Dante, Tristana elevates Horacio to a role akin to a deity, something the painter could never live up to. This elevation would have occurred, to some extent, while Tristana is under Don Lope’s rule, but it becomes more important when the lovers are apart—absence made the veneration easier. Although Tristana lays out her beliefs and desires several times, here is a succinct summary of a significant part of them in one of her letters to Horacio:
“The more I think about the problem of my life the more it overwhelms me. I want to be somebody in the world, to cultivate an art, to live on my own resources. But discouragement floods over me. Is it true, dear God, that I want the impossible? I want to have a profession and yet I have no training, I don’t know how to do anything. It’s a terrible situation.

“I don’t want to be dependent on anyone, not even on the man I adore. I don’t want to be kept by him—a disgraced being—a female orifice kept by several men because they get pleasure from it, as they would from a hunting dog; and I don’t even want the man of my dreams to become my husband. I see no happiness in marriage. I yearn to express myself in my own way, to be married to myself, and to be the head of my own family. I don’t know how to love from duty; only in total freedom can I show my lifelong fidelity and my daily loyalty.”
The arts appeal to Tristana—painting, books, acting, teaching, music—and she seems to be a suitable student. Except for learning the piano, though, she fails to apply herself for an extended period of time. Combined with her floundering comes her disillusionment with Horacio, which was bound to happen given her deification of him—there is no way he could live up to her vision of him (even before his changes) :
This was not the man who, having been blotted from her memory by distance, her creative imagination had laboriously reconstructed. Now he seemed a rather coarse, ordinary individual, with a face that lacked any appearance of intelligence… .
With all the powers aligned against Tristana and her own weaknesses, it’s no wonder she gives in to the powers controlling or influencing her. She declares, when trying to walk on crutches, “I can only resign myself to the inevitable!” It seems to encompass her resignation beyond her physical limitations. One last quote from Partridge, whose essay provides great summaries on the characters:
As a character Tristana evokes pathos as a continually violated victim; although she never physically escapes from the manipulations of her elderly guardian, youthful lover, pretentious teacher and defeatist environment, mentally and spiritually she creates other realities to turn to; sadly her journeys into an ever-deepening loneliness to become one of the most forlorn and isolated females in the history of the novel. … Although Galdós was always sympathetic to women suffering from social constraints…he did not make Tristana a vessel of emergent feminine consciousness. Tristana was too inexperienced, too naïve, too idealistic; and the forces opposing her were too many and too pervasive.

It’s a powerful novel, speaking more to disappointment in a society that isn’t more open in offering educational/social possibilities for a woman wishing to develop and contribute.


Anonymous said...

As a student of literature studying this text, I found this a very useful article! Thank you!

Dwight said...

I'm glad it could be of use! If you have other comments on the novel, feel free to share them...