Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós: far from the desired feminist manifesto

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)

I had originally planned to have several posts on the main characters of Tristana and then talk about the opposing viewpoints on the novel but I realized that order only makes sense for someone that has read the book. So I’m revising the schedule and posting on two differing opinions and reactions to the novel, relying heavily on Colin Partridge’s essay. A very general summary of the storyline can be found in the post on Don Lope, Tristana’s guardian.

From Partridge’s essay:
When viewed narrowly as a feminist novel, Tristana disappoints—a response clearly articulated when the book first appeared in 1892. The most celebrated expression of dismay came from the prominent novelist and polemicist Emilia Pardo Bazán. Soon after the first copies appeared she pinpointed accurately, from a feminist viewpoint, the novel’s potential—and failure.

Bazán herself was an active advocate of female freedom. She had written a study La muher Espãñola and was soon to provide a prologue to the first Spanish translation of John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1892). She and Galdós had been lovers in the years preceding his composition of Tristana and some of his insights into his young heroine’s dreams of libertad honrada derive from this important relationship. Although Galdós had always been critical of the limited roles permitted women at all levels of Spanish society, Pardo Bazán exercised her formidable powers of lucid persuasion to help him see their condition more compassionately and more profoundly. She corresponded regularly with him as the writing progressed and probably held high expectations about the novel’s value to the emergent feminist cause. So her disappointment, when she finally read the published work and learned the outcome of Tristana’s struggles, was personal as well as ideological.

In her review of the book she voices her regrets at the opportunities Galdós lost by failing to present what she thought was the central drama raised by Tristana’s life. This was the young woman’s loneliness and isolation as she lived divided between Don Lope’s restrictions and her personal aspirations. Pardo Bazán considered that Tristana’s awakening to a fuller understanding of her own position and a broader awareness of the position of women generally in Spanish society had given Galdós the opportunity to write a novel of personal and symbolic liberation. She saw the fictional Tristana representing many contemporary women in real life whose only choices were to become wives, nuns, actresses or prostitutes. … Instead of allowing Tristana to gain a degree of freedom through her patient, naïve efforts, he shows his heroine losing personal power as her sufferings increase and her young lover’s attentions diminish; in the final scenes Don Lope’s oblique manipulations are renewed and all three characters are finally absorbed within irrevocable patterns of traditional behavior.

Pardo Bazán’s disappointment is what makes the novel appeal so much to me. Galdós didn’t go for the simple solution. Any transformation by other characters to promote Bazán’s message would have been simplistic and superficial. Instead of an easy fix and happy ending, the characters are human. In addition, the novel’s focus isn’t solely on Tristana. Yes, there’s the focus on her exploitation and her limited outlets for ambition, but other characters evolve and develop in addition to her and she reacts accordingly. Partridge also highlights Galdós’ consideration of the novel’s setting:

He could have chosen to develop the fictional Tristana into a figure of success and shown her, like Theodore Dreiser’s near-contemporary Carrie Meeber, gaining celebrity status as an actress. But [1892] Madrid was no Chicago or New York; conservative Catholic Spain was not the protestant, individualistic United States.

Galdós’ literary faithfulness, avoiding an ideological resolution that would have felt false, still provides a powerful novel highlighting the limitations and restrictions imposed on women in Spain at the time. And, without blaming the victim, Tristana has her own shortcomings that hinder her independence. She repeatedly begins studies in areas where she could support herself, realizes she has an aptitude in the area and pursues improvement in it…then tosses it aside for some other subject to pursue. Like many other topics in the novel, Galdós doesn’t clarify this, leaving an ambiguity as to its cause—is this a personal failing or is she shaped by her limited role in society? I find myself closer to agreement with the second viewpoint Partridge presents, that of the critic Clarín (Leopoldo Alas), who

saw Tristata as representing another type of female experience. She is the woman conemned to immaturity by forces larger and more powerful than she could ever hope to confront successfully. Hers becomes a “gray destiny” as she grows to realize the constrictions placed on her by an inadequate education, Don Lope’s domestic arrangements and the absence of opportunities for a woman to make an honest and respectable career. Tristana is:
…“a spirit like many others in our mediocre world which are full of ideals and energy, but lack an ongoing clear purpose.”
In this interpretation Tristana is seen as a psychological contradiction—a static being who, at the same time, bubbles with repressed energies. Her only freedom is to imagine; but her fantasizing perpetuates her immaturity. In Clarín’s reading she embodies not the rebellious young woman who dreams of carrying new values to social reality but the many Spanish women doomed to life-long non-fulfilment beneath structures of man-made social conventions. She is more like Clarín’s own heroine Ana Ozores, in La Regenta (1884-1885), seeking self-knowledge in traditional Catholic Spain than like Nora Helmer seeking self-liberation in Ibsen’s Lutheran Norway.

So, soon after its publication in 1892, Emilia Pardo Bazán and Clarín established opposing viewpoints on Tristana which exist to the present-day.

The comparison to Ana Ozores is appropriate since that is exactly what I thought of while reading the novel. It’s not an exact similarity but there are many features that overlap, whether through looking at constraints limiting women or at the individual’s limitations. And again, there's the ambiguity as to her 'immaturity,' as Clarín puts it.

OK, the next posts will look at the two remaining main characters: Tristana and her lover, Horacio.

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