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ArribaAbajoThe political significance of La desheredada59

J. M. Labanyi

Antonio Ruiz Salvador60 has demonstrated how Galdó's use of contemporary historical events in La desheredada gives the novel a symbolic political significance. Politics clearly occupy considerable space in the novel: apart from the inclusion of historical events and of several politically involved characters (parliamentary deputy: Sánchez Botín; government officials: Manuel Pez and his affiliates, Joaquín Pez and Melchor Relimpio at certain points; socialists/anarchists:61 Juan Bou, Mariano), a large number of characters express opinions on the political vicissitudes of the time (in addition to the above: Augusto Miquis, José Relimpio, La Sanguijuelera, Tomás Rufete). In fact -as I hope to show in this article- if one broadens the concept of politics from contemporary political events to the general question of the structure of society, there is hardly a character or episode in the novel that does not in some way illustrate a political attitude.

It is in this sense that I would like to supplement Ruiz Salvador's conception of the political significance of the novel. I would suggest that its political function is not limited to that of a commentary on a particular historical period, but that the novel can also -and perhaps more importantly- be seen as a wider examination of the basic issue, made urgent by the particular historical events of the time, of the class-composition of society. Galdós's main talent as a novelist -and it is this that makes him still relevant for the present-day reader- resides precisely in this constant ability, in his depiction of a specific character or situation, to go beyond the psychological or historical particulars, in order to put forward a general hypothesis about the workings of human behaviour or society.

The key to the political function of the novel is to be found in the title. It is curious that this title has not aroused more critical comment. Galdós rarely gave his novels «significant» titles: the vast majority of the novelas contemporáneas simply bear the name or nickname (often symbolic, of course) of the main character or characters. La desheredada, although clearly an epithet of Isidora, is not a nickname in that it is not used to refer to Isidora in the novel either by other characters or by the narrator. One must conclude that the title, being untypical, was chosen by Galdós with a specific purpose in mind.

«Disinherited» in what sense? It seems unlikely that Galdós is making a reference to naturalist theories of hereditary determinism since Isidora almost certainly does inherit the madness of the Rufete family (despite E. Rodgers's point62 that only La Sanguijuelera and not the narrator explicitly states that Isidora takes after her father, the combined evidence of a clinically mad father, an eccentric quixote-uncie, a brother who ends up both demented and epileptic, and a symbolically big-headed son, would seem to me sufficient evidence of an inherited trait).   —52→   Nor can the title simply refer to the action of the novel, since Isidora is not disinherited inasmuch as her inheritance never existed except in her head. The only possible meaning of the title would seem to be a political one:63 «las clases desheredadas» was a commonplace synonym for «the poor» in the press of the time, and Galdós himself -or rather, his fictional narrator Máximo Manso- uses the phrase in this sense in his next novel, El amigo Manso.64

If the whole point about Isidora's inheritance is that it is an illusion, and if La desheredada consequently is primarily a novel about illusion, nevertheless the novel can be seen as having a fundamental political significance inasmuch as the substance of that illusion is the political question of the unequal distribution of wealth. The use of the word «disinherited» in order to refer to the «have-nots» of society poses the question in terms of the injustice -or otherwise- of such an unequal economic distribution: if the poor are «disinherited», it is implied that they have a right to a place in society, as a lawful inheritance. It is precisely in these terms that Galdós presents the issue of poverty versus wealth in La desheredada. That Isidora, believing herself to be the heiress to a fortune, regards poverty as an injustice is both obvious and natural:

Su apetito de engrandecerse no era un deseo tan solo, sino una reclamación. Su pobreza no le parecía desgracia, sino injusticia, y el lujo de los demás mirábalo como cosa que le había sido sustraída, y que, tarde o temprano, debía volver a sus manos.


But this question of the right to wealth is raised not only by Isidora's inheritance; it is a recurring theme throughout the novel. Isidora's belief in her right to a fortune is merely symbolic of a generalized view that the gap between rich and poor is a travesty of justice, which must be remedied by giving to the poor that which is their rightful due. On the two occasions of face-to-face confrontation between the two economic extremes constituted by Isidora's two visits to view the Palacio de Aransis, her respective companions -Miquis and José Relimpio the first time; Juan Bou the second- make this the central point of their comments:

-(Relimpio). Oiga usted lo que pienso, amigo don Augusto: ¡Lo que es el mundo!... ¡Qué unos tengan tanto y otros tan poco!... Es un insulto a la Humanidad que haya estos palacios tan ricos, y que tantos pobres tengan que dormir en las calles... Vamos, le digo a usted que tiene que venir una revolución grande y atroz.

-(Miquis). Eso digo yo, señor don José. ¿Por qué todo esto no ha de ser nuestro? A ver, ¿qué razón hay? ¿Qué pecado hemos cometido usted y yo para no vivir aquí?


-(Bou). Eso es, hay dos Dioses: el Dios de los ricos, que da cortinas, y el Dios de los pobres, que da nieve, hielo. Isidora, Isidora, ¿no opina usted como yo, no cree usted que esta canalla debe ser exterminada? Todo esto que vemos ha sido arrancado al pueblo; todo es, por tanto, nuestro.


But does Galdós share this view that poverty is an injustice and wealth a right? I would suggest that his attitude is somewhat ambivalent. To go back to Isidora as «la desheredada»: the fact she is not disinherited, inasmuch as she had no right to an inheritance in the first place, surely means that the title of the novel is ironic. Galdós would seem to be implying that «las clases desheredadas» do not have the right to expect society to provide a living for them as a birthright; indeed, that such belief in the right to wealth is a form of hereditary (i.e. generic) madness. It is significant that Gaitica, presented explicitly by the narrator as the very scum of society, should also introduce himself, in what the narrator's sarcasm   —53→   makes clear is a blatant lie, as a «desheredado»: «abandonado de sus nobles padres y desheredado por sus nobilísimos abuelos (¡miserias y bribonadas del mundo y de la ley!)» (1139).

With Isidora's inheritance, Galdós is, of course, specifically dealing with the question of the aristocracy -i.e. the right to wealth and position by birth into a certain class. But it is worth noting that Isidora does not hinge her claim to an inheritance solely on her supposed noble birth; she considers that she merits a position in society, even if she is not entitled to it by rank, because of her innate qualities of beauty and taste: a «birthright of merit» rather than of class:

Ella era noble por su nacimiento, y si no lo fuera, bastaría a darle la ejecutoria su gran belleza, su figura, sus gustos delicados, sus simpatías por toda cosa elegante y superior.


Galdós is clearly criticizing Isidora for persisting in her delusions of grandeur not just because her pretensions to nobility are based on forged documents -i.e. because she is not after all the granddaughter of the Marquesa de Aransis- but because she regards wealth and position as something to which one is entitled by accidents of birth (whether social or «moral»). In other words, the novel is not simply a critique of the concept of the aristocracy, but a wider attack on any form of belief in the innate right of the individual to a position in society.

In fact, this belief in the right to wealth and status through innate superiority is held by a number of other characters in the novel who do not consider themselves to have been cheated out of an aristocratic inheritance, but who simply consider themselves to be endowed by birth with select moral or intellectual qualities. Melchor Relimpio, whose mother has instilled into him the idea that he is blessed with «altas cualidades morales y mentales» (1022), indignantly refuses his uncle's to train him as an orthopaedist: «Sólo la idea de ir a trabajar con él en aquella odiosa tienda lo sublevaba. ¿Cómo podían entenderse él y su tío, él tan sabio, tan listo, llamado a sublimes destinos [...]» (1020). (The narrator comments: «Entre tantas combinaciones no se le ocurrió al joven Relimpio lo más sencillo de todas, que era trabajar en cualquier arte, profesión u oficio, con lo que podía ganar, desde una peseta arriba, cualquier dinero. Pero él, fanatizado por lo que oía decir de fortunas rápidas y colosales, quería la suya de una pieza, de un golpe, no ganada ni conquistada a pulso, sino adquirida por arte igual al hallazgo de la mina de oro o del sepultado tesoro de diamantes» (1022). Similarly, Joaquín Pez sees himself as entitled to a life of luxury because of his natural charm and elegance; if he is penniless, it is the fault of the present-day materialistic age, which no longer gives idealism its rightful due: «Yo vivo de lo ideal, yo sueño, yo deliro y acato la belleza pura, yo tengo arrobos platónicos. En otro tiempo, ¿quién sabe lo que hubiera sido yo?» (1091). There is, of course, an enormous difference between this notion of a «birthright of merit» and the concept of a meritocracy: in a meritocracy, position is earned through effort; the Rufetes, Peces and Relimpios of La desheredada expect recognition to fall into their laps solely because of their innate distinction. It makes little difference whether this innate distinction is real or imagined (Isidora and Joaquín Pez's genuine refinement makes them no more deserving than the brutish Mariano or the fraudulent Melchor Relimpio): the point Galdós is making is that wealth is not a right, but that it must be earned. He is putting the case for a genuine meritocracy.


In other words, Galdós is attacking -as in all his novels- those parasites on society who demand (and often take) without giving or producing in return. In La desheredada, the attack is not limited -as is the case in most novels- to a particular sector or class, but is applied systematically to the full range of the social scale. Apart from the familiar denunciations of the social and financial «apariencias» and «milagros» of the middle classes (the Relimpio family -excepting Emilia, who on her marriage comes to her senses) and of the civil service in particular (the Peces), Galdós launches a twin-pronged attack on the «vagos» of both the top and bottom of society. While the child «vagos» of the slums are depicted as «esos presidios sueltos del porvenir», (1051) a social evil that must be eradicated by correctional institutions such as the Penitenciaría para jóvenes delincuentes that the lawyer Muñoz y Nones wants to set up, similarly Miquis -referring to Joaquín Pez and the «mendicidad» of a bourgeoisie permanently in debt- half-jokingly (but only half-jokingly) talks of the need for reforms to curb «la alta vagancia»:

Yo pregunto: ¿No habrá algún día leyes para enfrenar la alta vagancia? ¿No se crearán algún día palacios correccionales? ¿No establecerán las generaciones venideras asilos elegantes, forrados de seda, para tener a raya la demagogia azul, dándole de comer?


This concerted attack on economic parasitism is complemented in the novel by the insertion of a set of characters incarnating precisely the virtues lacking in the former category of «vagos»: the virtues of honesty (as opposed to «apariencias»), individual initiative and hard work (as opposed to laziness and a passive belief in the innate right to wealth). This is the thematic function of minor characters such as La Sanguijuelera (whose poverty is due only to her generosity in helping out the Rufete family), Emilia Relimpio and the lawyer Muñoz y Nones; and of the more important figures of Juan Bou and Augusto Miquis. If Juan Bou has twice worked himself up from total penury (his first wife frittered away the entirety of his hard-earned savings) to a solid position in middle-class society, building up a thriving business, acquiring a medium-sized fortune65 and marrying the daughter of a wealthy blacksmith, Miquis -a self-declared «hijo del pueblo»- through a successful career in medicine marries the daughter of a rich and respected lawyer, and gains access to the upper echelons of Madrid society as the guest of his distinguished clients.

Of course, in suggesting that wealth is not a right but must be earned, Galdós is not justifying poverty. A society divided into rich and poor is unjust; but so too would be a society where all received an equal share of the national cake. In La desheredada, Galdós is defending the liberal notion of a free-enterprise society against both the stratified social order of the ancien régime (represented by the Aransis family) and new communistic visions of a classless society (represented by Juan Bou and Mariano). As in his critique of parasitism, we have another simultaneous attack on the top and bottom levels of society, this time not in terms of their economic habits but in terms of their ideology.

Galdós's presentation of the Marquesa de Aransis is interesting. Both she and the family mansion (symbolically representing its owner) are depicted as anachronistic relics from a now-obsolete Romantic past.66 Chapter IX of Part I («Beethoven»), in which the Aransis family is introduced, is not simply a piece of costumbrista nostalgia: it is making a point about the position of the aristocracy in   —55→   contemporary society. The gloom, the silence, the solitude, the decay of the Palacio de Aransis suggest that the aristocracy is confined to a symbolic Romantic cemetery: an image reinforced by the locked room in which the Marquesa's daughter died, preserved intact as at the moment of death:

La muerte estampaba su sello triste en todo. La falta de luz había dado a la tela de los muebles tonos decadentes. El polvo deslustraba las hermosas lacas, y había tendido sobre todo una neblina áspera y gris que no podía ser tocada sin estremecimiento de nervios. Sobre la chimenea permanecía un jarrón con flores que fueron naturales y frescas nueve años antes.


Even more significant is the fact that the Marquesa's daughter died from isolation («encierro») as a result of her family's refusal to allow her to marry an army colonel, i.e. to contemplate mixing by marriage with the middle classes. The thematic function of the Aransis family in the novel is to provide a critique of an outdated class-exclusivism.

If Galdós depicts the exclusivism of the aristocracy as leading to isolation and death, he similarly shows little sympathy for what he presents as the «exclusivist» social pretensions of the socialists or anarchists. If the aristocracy is criticized for refusing to mix with the middle classes, the politically-active working classes are criticized for wanting to abolish all classes other than their own. The Romantic obsolescence of the Aransis family finds its thematic parallel in the satire of Juan Bou as the «sunworker» (note the link ancien régime/socialism implicit in this parody of Louis XIV):

Deliraba por los derechos del pueblo, las preeminencias del pueblo y el pan del pueblo, fundando sobre esta palabra ¡pueblo!, una serie de teorías a cuál más extravagantes. Realmente, estas teorías no eran nuevas. Una generación se había embobado con ellas, mirándolas como pan bendito. Pero Juan Bou las había sublimado en su mente indocta, convirtiéndolas en una fórmula brutal del egoísmo. Según él, muchos miembros importantes del organismo social no tenían derecho a ser comprendidos dentro de esta designación sublime y redentora: ¡el pueblo! Nosotros, los que no tenemos las manos llenas de callos, no éramos pueblo; vosotros, los propietarios, los abogados, los comerciantes, tampoco erais pueblo. De toda idea exclusiva nace una tiranía, y de aquella tiranía nació el obrero sol: Juan Bou, que decía: «El pueblo soy yo».67


Galdós's presentation of the socialist Juan Bou is, however, more complex than straight satire. If he is satirized for his notions of popular power, his ethos of labour is nevertheless presented as an example to the «vagos» of society. It is made clear that, if he wants to destroy the leisured classes, it is not in order to occupy their place, but in order to construct a society of producers rather than consumers.68 Galdós's treatment of Mariano, representing the anarchist terrorist, is far more condemnatory. Not only is he guilty of the same class-exclusivism as Bou, but -as a «vago» rather than a genuine worker- he is motivated not by an authentic desire for an egalitarian society, but by that national defect which Galdós -echoing the cuerdo loco Tomás Rufete- singles out in the novel as characteristic of a parasitic society-envy:

En el fondo de su alma, Pecado anhelaba ser también saguijuela y chupar lo que pudiera, dejando al pueblo en los puros huesos; se desvivía por satisfacer todos los apetitos de la concupiscencia humana y por tener mucho dinero, viniera de donde viniese. En esto se distinguía radicalmente de su maestro, amantísimo del trabajo.



Even more telling of Galdós's political viewpoint is the link he establishes with Mariano between anarchism and hereditary madness, epilipsy and criminality, in a curious anticipation of the theories of the Italian criminologist Lombroso that were to have considerable currency in Spain in the 1890's.69 If socialist theory (in the form of Juan Bou) is guilty of class-exclusivism, revolutionary practice is the product of a warped mind, a diseased body and a criminal background.

Just as Mariano's revolutionary terrorism is not motivated by a genuine egalitarianism but by envy, conversely Galdós points out how this national defect of aspiring to usurp, the position of one's superiors has created a pseudo-democracy in contemporary Spain: «la confusión de clases en la moneda falsa de la igualdad» (1019). In other words, a disappearance of the pure externals of class-differentials (dress, material possessions), but an equality that is counterfeit inasmuch as it is based on false pretences («apariencias» -significantly, the previously-quoted phrase is used to describe a theatre audience) and not on a solid economic basis. The same point is made by Miquis's joking references to the surface «communism» of Spanish society (1064): «communistic» in the sense that, in a society living off credit and corruption, money and possessions continually pass from hand to hand.

Galdós is arguing in favour of a «confusión de clases» that is neither counterfeit nor communist (in the genuine sense of the word). Through his division of characters into ideological groups, and the respective sympathetic or hostile presentation of these groups, he angles his depiction of society in such a way as to persuade the reader of the need for a social mobility based on free enterprise. An example of precisely such social mobility -based on his mother's acquisition of money through business and on his own initiative as a man of action- will be provided by the character Manuel Peña in Galdós's next novel, El amigo Manso, whose case prompts the narrator, Máximo Manso, to make the following (somewhat overoptimistic) observations about Spanish society of the time:

Es evidentísimo que la democracia social ha echado entre nosotros profundas raíces, y a nadie se le pregunta quién es ni de dónde ha salido para admitirle en todas partes y festejarle y aplaudirle, siempre que tenga dinero o talento. Todos conocemos a diferentes personas de origen humildísimo que llegan a los primeros puestos y aun se alían con las razas históricas, El dinero y el ingenio, sustituidos a menudo por sus similares, agio y travesura, han roto aquí las barreras todas, estableciendo la confusión de clases en grado más alto y con aplicaciones más positivas que en los países europeos, donde la democracia, excluida de las costumbres, tiene representación en las leyes.70


In other words, with its condemnation of class-exclusivism and praise of a soundly-based social mobility, La desheredada can be seen as a demonstration -on a political level- of Miquis's belief, contradicting Isidora's extremism, in the need for «términos medios»:

-(Miquis). Desgraciada; si no acabas en la casa de Aransis, acabarás en un hospital.

-(Isidora). Bien, me agrada eso, en lo más alto o en lo más bajo... No me gustan términos medios.

-(Miquis). Y, sin embargo, en ellos debemos mantenernos siempre...


Indeed, in his inaugural speech to the Academia Real in 1897, Galdós stated that he saw the middle classes not as a class existing in their own right, but simply as the end-product of this «confusión de clases» -i.e. as the result of the intermixing of the two social extremes: the aristocracy and the pueblo:71


La llamada clase media, que no tiene aún existencia positiva, es tan sólo informe aglomeración de individuos procedentes de las categorías superior e inferior, el producto, digámoslo así, de la descomposición de ambas familias: de la plebeya, que sube; de la aristocrática, que baja [...].72

It is this dualistic -rather than triadic- view of society as composed of two extremes, with an area of overlap in the middle, that underlies the structure of La desheredada: Isidora attempts to find wealth (and in fact finds degradation) via nobility, Mariano via popular revolution -a kind of «high road» and «low road» to a common destination, as Miquis points out:

-Su hermano y ella han corrido a la perdición: él ha llegado, ella llegará. Distintos medios ha empleado cada uno: él ha ido con trote de bestia, ella con vuelo de pájaro...


Isidora and Mariano can be seen as twin-protagonists, representing a twin-pronged attack on two kinds of class-extremism (or exclusivism): that of the aristocracy (rejection of the pueblo) and that of the revolutionary (destruction of the upper classes).73 It is significant that the novel is set against a background of civil discord (i.e. conflict between intransigent extremes): in Part I, with the symbolic civil wars of the slum children, in Part II, with the real civil strife of the Carlist Wars.

Against this background of conflict, Galdós is putting forward a plea for mutual understanding: for a transcending of class barriers rather than class confrontation. Typically, his depiction of the two extremes of society is not presented in terms of a division into black and white: his attitudes towards both pueblo and aristocracy are mixed. If he praises Juan Bou for his initiative and hard work but ridicules his socialist theories, similarly he shows Isidora's belief in the innate right to wealth and position to be deluded, and yet ironically Isidora's aristocratic delusions do give her a certain moral nobility: it is only when she loses those delusions at the end of the novel that she finally loses any sense of morality.74

Birkbeck College. University of London.

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