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ArribaAbajoThe hall of mirrors in Galdós' Lo prohibido

Mary Anne O'Neil

Following Stendhal's dictum that «Un roman: c'est un miroir qu'on promène le long d'un chemin»,75 Galdós in Lo prohibido uses the novel as a means of bringing the reader face to face with the corruption and superficiality of contemporary Spain. The mirror, however, does not function simply as a reflection of the social and moral realities of Madrid, for Galdós uses it in more subtle ways, varying both its meanings and its connotations. Both glass and people function as literal and metaphorical mirrors, creating a revealing depth study in illusion and reality on the social and psychological levels. The brilliance of the author's «mirroring» consists in the felicitous juxtaposition of the characters, who frequently succeed in finding the illusion that they desperately seek in their mirrors, and the reader, who is inevitably led to view the reflection of truth that generally escapes the character in question.

The first mirror that appears in Lo prohibido is the «espejo biselado» that José María offers Eloísa. There can be no doubt that this gift marks a turning point in their relationship. Previously Eloísa had accepted her cousin's affections as mete gestures of friendship, but shortly after accepting the mirror she gives evidence of deeper feelings and finally enters into an adulterous relationship with him. Because of its associations with the two lovers, the mirror becomes a symbol of greed and adultery.

Galdós carefully constructs the scene to convey the impression that the two «innocents» are on the verge of sin. He represents the «tienda de Equía», where the mirror is on sale, as a mock Garden of Eden in which Eloísa is allowed to purchase baubles, but is forbidden her heart's greatest desire. José María, «la encarnación del diablo seductor, cuyo máximo ideal se halla en la conquista pecaminosa de la fruta prohibida»,76 realizes that his cousin will not resist the temptation of such an unattainable luxury. Eloísa also understands the danger represented by the mirror: «No mires, no mires. Esto trastorna, esto deslumbra, esto ciega. No es para nosotros».77 Her conclusion that «Esta tienda es la sucursal del Infierno» (116) is prophetic, for the purchase and gift of the mirror releases the two lovers from their inhibitions and brings about their downfall. Eloísa's insatiable desire for luxury leads her to bankruptcy and prostitution, just as José María's lust eventually is accompanied by a loss of moral and economic rectitude.

The mirror itself is described in such a way that it becomes the perfect symbol of their adultery. It is baroque, a style associated at once with excess and the art of illusion. These terms bring to mind Eloísa, but they apply equally as well to José María who lives in an illusion, allowing his passions to consume his entire being. The mirror is beveled, causing a double reflection and creating the impression of greater depth. José María's passion for Eloísa acts, in much the same way, as a «trompe l'oeil», for what he mistakes as genuine love turns out to be only a desire to gratify his egotism. The colors are significant also: «En el color dominaban   —60→   los esmaltes metálicos de rosa y verde nacarino», (116) two shades which Raimundo employs in his «Mapa moral gráfico de España» to represent adultery and «libidinous desire» (314).78 The mirror sets the tone for their relationship, doomed from the start to be both deceptive and destructive.

The «espejo biselado» reappears when José María frequents María Juana's house. His eldest cousin expresses a desire for her bankrupt sister's mirror at about the same time that she and José María begin their flirtation. It might even be conjectured that, as in the case of Eloísa, it is shortly after the mirror is mentioned that she is seduced, because, for the first time, José María speaks of her «estimables prendas» (341) and of his desire to revenge himself upon Medina, «de jugarle una mala pasada» (343). If María Juana is «la mujer que quisiera amar porque ve amar a otra»,79 the mirror is also for her a symbol of greed; it represents her envy of the pleasures Eloísa has experienced and that she has been denied in her marriage. She would like to possess José María as a devoted lover in the same way as her sister. lt is ironic, inasmuch as she is unable to attain him, that she becomes the ultimate possessor of the «espejo biselado».

Camila is seldom associated with the mirror, since she is neither greedy nor adulterous. There is one point, however, where she seems capable of succumbing to these two sins, and, significantly, at this time alone, she is found before a mirror. During her nursing of Eloísa and her quarrel with Constantino, she spends an afternoon trying on her sister's finery «mirándose en el gran espejo de pivotes» (375) with José María present. Shortly afterwards, she suggests that her cousin return that evening. He interprets this invitation as an acquiescence to his desires, but is disappointed when Camila and Constantino are reconciled.

An examination of the mirror in its associations with the three sisters reveals that it is an incitement to lust. Eloísa, morally the weakest, introduces both the mirror and adultery into the family. In María Juana's hands, the mirror becomes an ironic reminder of her intense sibling rivalry and frustrated passion. Camila, the symbol of moral strength, is only briefly tempted by the passions that destroy her sisters.

In addition to converting vanity into lust, mirrors are used by Galdós to stress the illusions and pretenses of Restoration Madrid, a world more concerned with outward appearance than virtue. He parades before the reader several characters whose external respectability masks moral or economic corruption. They constantly seek themselves in mirrors, not simply because they are vain, but also because they are vitally interested in projecting a social identity that hides their degradation.

One such character is the gallant «Sacamantecas», «persona de intachables formas», who «tenía la especialidad de cebarse en la carne viva» (158). Wherever this maligner of reputations goes, his first impulse is to admire himself in a mirror (158). Likewise the handsome Marqués de Cícero constantly seeks his own reflection. A hollow rather than evil character, José María calls him a person «a quien jamás sorprendió nadie en posesión de una idea» (170). The financier Torres is even more of a hypocrite. Presenting himself as a self-made man whose wealth comes from hard work and intelligence, he turns out to be a usurer and embezzler. Significantly, he receives the «espejo biselado» from Eloísa and at the height of his prosperity plans to decorate his house with mirrors (428).

But Eloísa is the most egregious of the image makers. José María is duped   —61→   into believing that her extraordinary beauty reflects moral grandeur, «Pues en su perfección física creí ver impresos los signos más hermosos del alma humana» (61).80 Long after he is aware of her true nature, he still notes that she can maintain an aura of respectability, and even when she has sunken into virtual prostitution, she can pass for «el espejo de las viudas» (314). Eloísa not only has several mirrors in her house, she also surrounds herself with shiny, reflecting objects, such as jewels or the «reflectores» used to give the illusion of reality to her paintings. She devotes all her energy to creating the illusion of elegance and wealth where in reality there exist only vulgarity and debt.

José María often describes her as a beauty «para deslumbrar». In effect, Eloísa creates a dazzling exterior in order to limit the world's knowledge of her to external appearances and to blind others to her true nature. She becomes an expert at creating optical illusions. For example, in her mock deathbed scene, she mirrors her head in elegantly folded silk: «[...] se veía la cara como si estuviera cristalizada en el fondo de uno de esos feldespatos que tienen reflejos de ópalo y ráfagas de nácar» (382). Her purpose here is to transform her contorted physiognomy into a thing of beauty. Significantly when she cannot maintain illusions, at the period of her bankruptcy and illness, she is deprived of mirrors. One of the first things José María notices upon entering the pillaged house is that «agujeros horribles en la pared... marcaban el sitio del espejo biselado que había ido a parar a casa de Torres» (351).

Galdos' treatment of Eloísa reminds one of the Sartrian «être pour autrui»,81 the person who seeks himself in the eyes of others. Lacking the moral integrity founded on her own identity, Eloísa must constantly seek herself in mirrors. In two visits to José María's house, she uses mirrors in just this way. In the first, after a passionate love scene, she attempts to persuade him to invest money (199-201). When her efforts fail, she returns home to her husband. Both at the beginning and the end of this episode, she glances in the mirror -the first time to compose the right face for her lover, the second to remake herself into a dutiful wife. Long after she has lost his love, Eloísa pays another visit to her cousin in an effort to seduce him with her beauty. His insulting inferences that she has become «una francesa» (307) send her scurrying to the mirror. She must reassure herself that she is producing the right effect.82 An inauthentic character, Eloísa plays the role her audience requires and totally lacks moral solidity.

Eloisa, in turn, reflects the superficiality Galdós found so prevalent in Madrid. The society in which she lives is preoccupied, as she is, with vanity and the impression it creates, while giving lip service to virtue. As don Rafael explains, «Es el mal madrileño que nos lleva a ser tolerantes con las infracciones de toda ley, así moral como económica... para que a nuestras mujeres y a nuestras hijas las llamen elegantes y distinguidas» (438). The mirror is a fitting symbol for this society concerned with external appearance rather than integrity, which tries to keep the observer at the surface rather than allowing him a glimpse of its underlying corruption. Having no moral depth, it is content to project a beautiful illusion.

In the course of the novel, as Galdós strips his world of illusions, the mirror does an about-face and becomes the symbol of truth. Especially in the second half of the novel, certain naive or hypocritical characters are forced to admit unpleasant realities. For example, the innocent Constantino, who has defended José María   —62→   against all charges of immorality, is pushed before the mirror by Eloísa: «Le he calentado las orejas a ese venado, y le he puesto ante el espejo para que vea aquella cornamenta que le llega al techo» (414). José María himself tries for the greater part of the novel to shirk responsability for his actions, claiming to be dazzled by Eloísa or Camila and incapable of acting rationally. The mirror forces him also to confront reality. In Eloísa's palace María Juana exclaims to her cousin: «Mírate, mirémonos todos en este espejo» (376). This concrete example of the ravages caused by excess passion is a condemnation of José María as well as of his mistress. He fears the mirror during his illness: «[...] no me atreví a pedir un espejo para mirarme» (461). The physical proof of his degradation is too painful for him to face.83

Without a doubt, Eloísa and María Juana both function as mirrors for José María in the process of his disillusionment. After they have ceased to be his mistresses, both sisters have several confrontations with their cousin, who usually finds these meetings disagreable, either because of Eloísa's immorality or María Juana's pedantry. The reader wonders why he is so harsh towards these two women not entirely lacking in good qualities who rush to his aid in time of need. The answer is, perhaps, that they act as his conscience, causing him to feel guilty about his own moral defects.

Throughout the novel José María condemns Eloísa's insatiable acquisitiveness, the sin that leads her to sacrifice her honor and dignity. Yet his lust functions in the same manner. His determination to seduce Camila forces him to ridiculous excesses, such as following her about town or worshipping her shoes. Like Eloísa, he destroys his fortune, health and reputation for an unattainable pleasure. Eloísa is well aware of these similarities and never fails to remind him of them. On her sickbed she reproaches: «Y a ti, grandísimo pillo, ¿quién te perdona? Porque tú eres tan malo como yo, quizás peor» (365). María Juana's most unpleasant trait, her hypocrisy, is shared by her cousin. Just as she praises the virtues of marriage while pursuing him, so also he admires Camila's fidelity while trying to seduce her. Whenever María Juana meets José María, she harps upon their mutual weakness and need for reform. The closer José María approaches ruin, the more antipathetic he considers the two women's sermons, until finally in the scene where his knavishness towards Camila is revealed, he throws them forcibly out of his house. Yet his attempts to escape the truth, to break the mirror, are futile, for during his final illness, he avows his mistakes. Moreover, his final behavior is largely explicable in terms of his two mistresses. He is overwhelmed with remorse, as was Eloísa, and his exhortations to lead a simple, regulated life are stolen from María Juana's lips.

Both Galdós and his critics have noticed a tendency towards «gemination» in his paired characters.84 Very often, couples, especially husbands and wives or lovers, take on aspects of one another. By having one character mirror the personality of another, Galdós is able to disclose truths to the reader that the individual characters do not understand.85 In Lo prohibido the three Bueno de Guzmán sisters, each involved in a different way with José María, all reflect different sides of his personality. Eloísa represents his childish tendencies towards hysteria and excess; María Juana, a parent figure, expresses hypocritical lip service to order and reason; Camila stands for the happiness he believes attainable through hard work and legitimate love. The three women form a triple mirror, constantly held   —63→   before the eyes of the protagonist, to remind him of his vices and virtues, of his capacity for success as well as his penchant for self-destruction.

In a more general sense, the use of characters as mirrors performs a vital function in this first-person narrative where the narrator-protagonist has almost total control over the reader's perceptions. By surrounding José María with several personalities, each of whom has one of his character traits, Galdós allows the reader to view his protagonist objectively. The importance of women in explaining his personality has already been noted; however, both the men of the Bueno de Guzmán family and those José María encounters in society provide significant insights. Don Rafael and Raimundo reflect his tendencies towards hypochondria and laziness. Severiano reveals the same foolish attraction to expensive women. Taken together, the secondary characters, through their observations and treatment of José María, facilitate the reader's understanding of a complex protagonist, who, Galdós would have us believe, symbolizes the moral failures of Spain.

Finally, José María himself functions as a mirror for Restoration Madrid. He reflects its cult of appearances, its love of elegance and refinement, its pretensions to progress. However, as the novel unravels, he shows the «mirror image» of this society -the engrained corruption that takes hold of men's souls and destroys all but the strongest. Just as Eloísa uses the mirror to create illusions, the author uses José María as a mirror to disillusion the reader and to make him aware of social problems.

The mirror, therefore, functions in Lo prohibido as a double reflection of both the social and moral realities of contemporary Spain. This use of the mirror is totally in keeping with the literary conventions of the Nineteenth century novel. Yet it is also very modern, for in its associations with Eloísa and the other unauthentic characters of the novel, it brings to mind the Sartrian hell of Huis Clos. Galdós varies the meaning of the mirror, making it an ambivalent symbol of both reality and illusion. This enables him to reinforce the theme of deceit and immorality in Madrid society while simultaneously exposing these defects to the reader. Finally, the mirror becomes a structural device by means of which the reader gains an objective view of the protagonist. By the constant reflection of Eloísa, María Juana and Camila, who together form the dominant mirror of the novel, the reader avoids succumbing to the constant dissimulations of the first-person narrator and sees José María as he really is.

University of Oregon.

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