For a country whose most famous literary work is a novel, Doña Perfecta has the appearance of an early novel, a novel whose shifts in style and the occasional lacuna in the plot, suggest a nascent form, one that hasn’t quite come into shape. This, of course, is an error. Benito Pérez Galdós’ 1877 novel is a brilliant work whose structure, style, and themes all seem quite modern, and underscore the struggle between the modern, industrial world of the cities and the conservative, inflexible one of the rural provinces. It is a story, though written nearly 25 years before the start of the twentieth century, presages the internecine battles of the next hundred years.
The titular Doña Perfecta is the matriarch of an upper class family that comes from a rural provincial capital. It is an isolated place. The journey from the modern train station takes several hours by horse back through land that rife with bandits. It is ringed with with shanties and the town has been in decline for some time. None of this stops Doña Perfecta and her circle of friends, which includes a high church official, from looking suspiciously at anything that comes from the Capital, Madrid. When her nephew Pepe comes to town to marry her daughter and claim his ancestral lands, the conflict between these two worlds collide.
Galdós does not make it clear what Pepe exactly does to set off the ire of Perfecta and her friends. He lets the inhabitants relate what they’ve heard, leaving the reader in a game of telephone where what one hears about the young man might be upsetting, but is it true? The accusations are, naturally, all of a religious nature, but essentially are reducible to one idea: he has used his scientific thinking to disrespect the traditions of the city. Pepe, a good engineer more interested in building a physical future, one built on reason, cannot see what harm it is to walk through a church and look at the art. In the age of over tourism, it is hard to take this as a great crime, but it does show an inflexibility, an unwillingness to even listen to Pepe defend himself. Pepe doesn’t do that very well for he speaks in modern terms, ones that they are unable to understand.
Galdós’ characterizations are one of the true strong points of the novel. While he does employ a narrator that gives local color, or pushes the plot along with details from larger events, particularly the revolts of the 1870’s, it is in exploration of the voices of the narrow minded inhabitants of the province that the novel comes alive. Doña Perfecta is a particularly exasperating one, but one of those dark characters who sparkle in fiction. Her ultimate fate, dark and just as it is, is also tragic, and given her moral rectitude one she is completely unable to see.
Ultimately, Doña Perfecta reveals a Spain unable to shake itself of a lethargy and embrace the modern world. It is a failing with tragic consequences for both the characters of the novel, and the country as a whole.