You are here

Benito Pérez Galdós - Dona Perfecta

Benito Pérez Galdós - Dona Perfecta

Pepe Rey has, by order of his father, left his home to visit the small town of Orbajosa where his aunt, Dona Perfecta, lives. Pepe has recently graduated as an engineer and is a man of the new generation, inspired by Darwin, German philosophy, and the miracles technology promises. He has little time and less inclination for the stoic, small-minded Catholic zealotry of his aunt and of Orbajosa in general. This causes conflict within his family which has terrible consequences as, later, Orbajosa becomes embroiled within a terrible uprising against the Spanish government.

Galdos writes achingly well. Of his many strengths, the most immediately arresting is his capacity for description. The opening chapters of the novel spend some time describing the major characters in impressive detail. This is a narrative device that could, in the hands of a lesser writer, spell the doom of the novel, for nothing disrupts flow more than excessive description, particularly at the beginning. Yet with Galdos, there is never a sense of tangential exposition; no, we are shown the heart and soul of Pepe, of Rosario, of Dona Perfecta.

Consider this stunning paragraph, describing Rosario: 'Rosario was a girl of delicate and fragile appearance, that revealed a tendency to pensive melancholy. In her delicate and pure countenance there was something of the soft, pearly pallor which most novelists attribute to their heroines, and without which sentimental varnish it appears that no Enriquieta or Julia can be interesting. But what chiefly distinguished Rosario was that her face expressed so much sweetness and modesty that the absence of the perfections it lacked was not observed. This is not to say that she was plain; but, on the other hand, it is true that it would be an exaggeration to call her beautiful in the strictest meaning of the word. The real beauty of Dona Perfecta's daughter consisted in a species of transparency, different from that of pearl, alabaster, marble, or any of the other substances used in descriptions of the human countenance; a species of transparency through which the inmost depths of her soul were clearly visible; depths not cavernous and gloomy, like those of the sea, but like those of a clear and placid river. But the material was wanting there for a complete personality. The channel was wanting, the banks were wanting. The vast wealth of her spirit overflowed, threatening to wash away the narrow borders.'. This quote, while long, illustrates Galdos' illuminating ability with words. Is there anything more commonly described in a novel than that of the beautiful female? And yet Galdos is able to make what could be trite and turns it into something sublime. The other characters benefit from equally rich, evocative description.

At first, the town of Orbajosa welcomes Pepe. He is shown around, and introduced to, the various inhabitants of the town. Dona Perfecta, by reputation as 'perfect' as her name suggests, loves the societal weight that her learned, handsome nephew is able to supply. One of her first guests is Don Inocencio, the town canon. And this is where the troubles begin.

Pepe is intelligent, but so is Don Inocencio. It is here where Galdos raises the stakes, so to speak. Pepe is rational and calculating; he dislikes the sheep-like belief of Orbajosa's Catholic population. As Don Inocencio says, '...the brain, a place for breeding maggots.'; he is echoing the beliefs of his flock, of himself, of the town. From Pepe's response, which is lengthy, I shall quote a snippet: 'But it is not our fault if science overturns day after day the vain idols of the past: its superstitions, its sophisms, its innumerable fables--beautiful, some of them, ridiculous others--for in the vineyard of the Lord grow both good fruit and bad.'. As can be seen, Inocencio and Pepe are at loggerheads, there is no real middle ground where they can meet.

Throughout the first half of the novel, Pepe and Inocencio argue. Soon, Dona Perfecta, as well as other members of the town, become involved with the argument. Pepe is resolutely against the beliefs of Orbajosa, while from their point of view, Pepe is a young upstart without proper respect for the customs and heart of the town. Rosario serves as the prize - Pepe is in love with her, but Dona Perfecta, her mother, comes to adamantly detest the man. In a grand irony, she opposes the very marriage she so forcibly arranged.

A large portion of the anti- and pro-Catholic arguments deal with the advent of technology, and the 'immoral' view put forth by Charles Darwin. 130 years after the publication of Dona Perfecta, we know that in many ways, Darwinism and evolution and technology have 'won'. The Catholic church do not fear or abhor technology in all its forms, and nor do they automatically oppose philosophy, Germanic or otherwise. It could be argued that the church has shifted its focus away from what is presented in this novel, which is one of Dona Perfecta's two great weaknesses. Both Pepe and Inocencio are intelligent and present compelling arguments, but it is only Inocencio's which seem dated and irrelevant.

Halfway through the novel, when Orbajosa as a whole considers Pepe almost as bad as the devil, the novel changes tack, to become a study of rebellion and uprising. Pepe disappears for almost the remainder of the novel, and we are left to deal with the very people whose sympathies we cannot share. Because Dona Perfecta et al appear ridiculous due to their adherence to their (now) outdated views, it is difficult to care as they struggle against the government and begin to rebel.

Which is the novel's second great flaw. It is hardly Galdos' fault that the world has changed in a century and a half. But the argument can be put forth that this novel is so dated as to be a period piece of little value past that of novelty.

The novel's ending, for all the confused, irrelevant second half, is melancholy and affecting in its sobriety. Due to Galdos' superb ability to draw his characters in such detail, we are genuinely saddened at the overwhelmingly depressing finale. Nobody, whether Catholic or technologist, sympathetic or distasteful, comes away happy and satisfied. His closing comment is immensely fitting, 'This is all we have to say for the present concerning persons who seem, but are not good.'

Galdos is an extremely talent writer, and one who is thought of very highly in Spain. Again and again, while reading, I was struck by the sheer beauty and truth in his description of people and place, and in his analysis of thought and emotion. That Dona Perfecta, the novel, has aged poorly is a difficult criticism, and is almost the only negative I can think to lay at its feet. Yet it is also such a huge, terrible flaw that it becomes difficult to recommend the novel to anyone who is not already a fan of his writing. Galdos is an amazing, essential Spanish author, but read something else of his.




Spanish Authors