Friday, November 9, 2012

They're better raw - the great Fortunata

The title of Fortunata and Jacinta is misleading, suggesting some sort of balance between the two characters, and Galdós does his best to increase the confusion.  The novel does not begin with Jacinta – it begins with a detailed history of the retail fabric trade in Madrid, including a baffling genealogies of the key families (“a tangle whose threads are almost impossible to follow,”, 83), much of the latter in a section amusingly titled “Still More Details about the Distinguished Family.”  “There’s more yet,” Galdós warns me (83), and he means it.

The novel is divided into four roughly equal parts.  It turns out that Jacinta only has a starring role in the first, and even there we meet Fortunata first.  It is a heck of a debut:  “a pretty woman, young and tall” – no that’s not so interesting, I have to skip a sentence or two:

The girl wore a light blue scarf on her head and a large, heavy shawl over her shoulders, and the minute she saw the Dauphin she swelled up at him, I mean, she put her hands on her hips and raised her shoulders with that characteristic gesture the low-class women of Madrid have, filling out their shawls with a movement that reminds you of a hen ruffling her feathers  and swelling out before coming down to normal size again.  (I.iii.4, 43-4)

And that’s not the best part:

“What are you eating, sweetheart?”

“Can’t you see?” she replied, showing it to him.  “An egg.”

“A raw egg!”

Very gracefully , the girl lifted the broken egg to her mouth for the second time and sucked it again.  (44)

There is no  way the heroine of the novel is going to live up to this introduction.  Talk about vigor: “Then she finished sucking the egg and threw away the shell, which smashed against the wall one flight below them.”

All of the business about birds and eggs and shells is going to return near the end of the novel.  This was vivid enough that, even seven hundred pages later, I knew exactly which earlier scene  Galdós was invoking.

It is not uncommon for authors of difficult novels to at some point give readers their theory of the novel, instructions on how to read their books.  It is also common for these instructions to appear near the end of the book, because writers are perverse cusses who enjoy suffering.  Galdós waits until five pages from the end, when a secondary character tells Fortunata’s story to a literary critic:

The response from the famous judge of literary works was that it had the makings of a play or a novel, although in his opinion the artistic texture wouldn’t be especially attractive unless it were warped in places so that the vulgarity of life might be converted into esthetic material.  He didn’t tolerate “raw life” in art; it had to be scrubbed, seasoned with aromatic spices, and then thoroughly cooked…  in the end they agreed that well-ripened raw fruit was very good, but so were compotes, if the cook knew what he was doing.” (, 813)

As I read this, I remembered the woman they were discussing, who declared, almost eight hundred pages in the past, “’They’re better raw.’”

Dwight: thanks for the hosting and motivation and twenty-one posts!


  1. I know I gush over it but that's one of my favorite "introductions" of a character in all of literature. The symbolism is so heavy but it still works.

    My pleasure in hosting this and I'm glad additional people have discovered the novel and it looks like some more will later. It deserves the audience.

  2. I'm closing in on the end of the book now. As Tom said a couple of days ago, it really does become Fortunata's story as it goes along, and her character really fills out in Books II and III.

    The egg scene really is memorable, and the symbolism works on a couple of levels.

    It's interesting that when Fortunata and Jacinta are in the same scene, there's often a strong religious significance to the plot action. I'll have to think about that some more.

  3. I'll have to think about that some more.

    Me too! I kept messing with the idea of writing about this - sainthood, Mauricia's visions, something related to religion - but kept retreating.

    The egg scene is a killer. Weird, disgusting, sexually loaded, alive.

  4. The idea of sainthood seems to be very important, especially late in the novel. Fortunata, Guillermo, Maurice and Segismund are all saints' names. All martyrs, too, interestingly enough.

    Yes, the egg scene is weird and disgusting and sexual, and it's at that very moment our hero Juanito decides to pursue Fortunata. So, huh. Also a neat bit of foreshadowing with the egg shell sucked empty and then smashed against the wall.

    Juanito's encounters with Fortunata all interrupt events of daily life; Jacinta never steps into a normal domestic scene with Fortunata.

  5. That's one way the title is a trick - Fortunata and Jacinta hardly ever meet. An amusing trick.

    Guillermina is a marvelous saint, a lifelike one in that she is quite annoying. No matter how good you think you are, she is a living reproach.

  6. And no matter how good you think Guillermina is, she provides a self-reproach on sainthood. Like I noted in my post on the real-world basis for her, or if I didn't mention it'd have to be a real pain in everyone's purse (and other areas) to warrant such a tribute.

  7. Yes, a huge pain. She is not the hermit saint, but an entirely plausible version of the good works kind. She never lets it drop, never gives you a break.