During the last seventy-five years, with increasing frequency, anthropological studies have appeared on the importance of gifts in various societies throughout the ages. Essai sur le don, forme archaïque de l'échange, by Marcel Mauss, a disciple of Émile Durheim, was perhaps the first one; more recently, in 1989, the book written by Jonathan Parry and Maurice Bloch entitled Money and the Morality of Exchange (Cambridge University Press). In 1997, a large volume, edited by Alan D. Schrift, came out with essays written by anthropologists, entitled The Logic of Gift (Routledge). Other books have focused on the phenomenon of exchange, as is the case with the study by John Davis which is simply called Exchange (1992, University of Minnesota Press), or Craig Muldrew's entitled The Economy of Obligation, 1998 (St. Martin's Press). One of the last studies to have come out, more specialized but not less revealing, is the one by Natalie Zenn Davis called The Gift in Sixteenth Century France (University of Wisconsin Press). This author is a historian and in her book she engages in a dialogue with the anthropologists on this fascinating subject.
According to Davis, there are three types of transactions between individuals and/or societies. These are: sale, coercion, and gift. Goods and services may be bought and sold in the open market; compulsion, theft, or violence may obtain them; and they may be given away freely, without return being explicitly expected.1 Each one of these modes of exchange has its own rules and etiquette. Among the types of gifts that exist we may single out Christian charity, aristocratic liberality, the exchange of favors between friends, and mutual help between neighbors. In each of these cases, the donors were expected to give freely without any expectation of return. Nevertheless, the recipients were supposed to reciprocate appropriately.
For my purposes, one of the most interesting chapters in Natalie Zenn Davis's book is 'Gifts and the Gods.' She suggests that theological disputations that accompanied the European Reformation were, essentially, disputations on gifts; particularly, the question of whether human beings were supposed to reciprocate God's gifts, and whether God was obliged to reciprocate the gifts of human beings. In other words, whether God could be put under an obligation.
Davis identifies four models of mutual obligation between God and humankind. I shall deal only with two of them that are pertinent to this paper. The Catholic model was one of complete reciprocity, in which spiritual transactions were represented as an exchange of gifts: between the living and the dead; between the clergy and the laity; between the rich and the poor; and between God and man. The living prayed for the souls in Purgatory who reciprocated in turn by their own ghostly interventions and their intercession before the saints on their behalf. The priests offered prayers and masses for the laity who responded with equipment and money offerings for the church, which varied in size so as not to construe them as payments. The rich gave alms to the poor who were expected to pray for their benefactors. And God's gifts to man were reciprocated with masses which were deemed to be sacrificial returns for the gifts received.
Another important model was the Calvinist. Calvin rejected virtually all the old Catholic notions of reciprocity. For him, God's gift was his son Jesus, given to man freely and as part of His gratuitous goodness. Heaven was not a compensation that one could earn, but the inheritance given to those whom God adopted as His sons or daughters. Calvin denied flatly the possibility that God could feel Himself obliged to reciprocate, and he rejected completely the possibility that a human being could make an adequate return for the Divine Grace received. In his opinion, the Catholic sacrifice of the mass was an impertinent attempt to reciprocate the redemption of mankind by Christ. Furthermore, he rejected the doctrine of Purgatory, thereby ending reciprocity between the living and the dead, and also between the rich and the poor, because all the poor had to offer in compensation for the alms received from the rich were prayers which now were deemed to be useless.
Calvin thought it wrong for the rich to expect reciprocity for their liberality. Rich people had an unilateral obligation to give up to the limit of their possibilities and it was evil to try to subjugate a person to whom you have done a benefit by making him obliged to reciprocate.
It may be obvious already to most of you the resonance that all I have said thus far has in the novels of Galdós. I am going to examine certain situations that will illustrate the theme of the gift in his novels without trying to be exhaustive.
Galdós's novel of charity, understanding this word not as divine love (caritas), but in its most common meaning of alms given to the poor, is Misericordia (a word which could be translated both as compassion and mercy).
The novel, as some of you will remember, begins with the description of the church of San Sebastián with its 'two fronts' or entrances on opposite sides. Once he describes them the narrator tells us that
The poor beg for alms from the faithful, a gift from which the latter expect reciprocity in the form of prayers for their souls. It is as if these beggars represented 'a sort of customs officer who collected entrance fees to the divine places, or the contribution imposed to impure souls who come to be cleansed' (pp. 63-4).3
From the beginning of this novel we enter fully into what Natalie Davis calls 'Gifts and the Gods'. The marvelous thing about Misericordia is that, precisely in the field of charity, we find the example of Benigna, the only complete and absolute form of altruism in Galdós's novels (and, perhaps, in the nineteenth-century European novel). Benina, as she is most often called, not only does not receive any compensation for her good deeds towards Doña Paca but, on the contrary, Doña Paca and her family reject her as soon as they collect their 'miraculous' inheritance. It is for this reason that I begin this study with Misericordia, a novel that presents, as it were, a Calvinist model of charity.
I shall briefly summarize the story. Benigna is the servant in the home of Doña Francisca, also known as Doña Paca, a lady who formerly had a comfortable position in society, while her husband was alive, but who now has fallen into poverty, without giving up her former airs. Benigna feels obliged to beg in the streets in order to help maintain the household; but in order not to humiliate her lady she invents the story that she works part time at the home of a priest whom she calls don Romualdo. Without any logical explanation, a priest of the same name appears at the home of Doña Paca to notify her that her rich uncle had died and made her sole heiress to his fortune. This is why I called this inheritance 'miraculous' within inverted comas. As soon as Doña Paca recovers her former status in society, she decides that Benigna will no longer do as a servant and lets her go.
From the very beginning of the novel, from its first paragraphs, the narrator presented many examples of charity, some very questionable. The wealthy don Carlos Moreno y Trujillo, for example, swindler and dealer in black market goods, has made his considerable fortune by illegal means; now he attempts to win Heaven for his late wife, and for himself, through the stingy alms that he distributes on the northern entrance of the Church of San Sebastian. Galdós's text is clear on the subject. Zapata's widow, Doña Francisca (also known as Doña Paca) puts it in the following words:
[…] un hombre que ha ganado dinerales haciendo contrabando de géneros […] Cree que repartiendo limosnas de ochavo, y proporcionándose por poco precio las oraciones de los humildes, podrá engañar al de arriba y estafar la gloria eterna, o colarse en el cielo de contrabando, haciendose pasar por lo que no es, como introducía el hilo de Escocia declarándolo percal de a real y medio la vara. (p. 126).4
We touch here on a theme that was often discussed during the Reformation: whether God is obliged to reciprocate human beings in the guise of transactions between the living and the dead. The living pray for the souls of the deceased in Purgatory, who, in turn, once liberated and in Heaven, will be able to intercede directly before God, or through the saints, to save their souls. Calvin rejected all of these transactions. Galdós makes use of them, but always in an ironic tone bordering on the grotesque.
Before abandoning Misericordia in order to pursue the same theme in other works, I wish to mention the curious case of the blind beggar Almudena and his myth about the wealth of King Samdai to which, according to him, he and Benina can accede.
In chapter XII, after the description of King Samdai's riches that Almudena makes for the sake of Benina, the old woman muses:
And later, when speaking to Doña Paca on the subject, Benina tells her:
This 'commerce' of possible gifts between ghostly beings or between the needy, quick and dead, becomes an important part of the novel's denouement since Benina's inventions turn out to be a reality. The inheritance that Doña Paca receives is, after all, the gift of a dead man to a living person. The mystery of this transaction is never cleared up in the novel; it remains in the ambiguous zone Galdós enjoyed leaving his readers from time to time in order to tease them.
Curiously, the character of the blind beggar, Almudena, owes his presence in this novel, according to Galdós himself as he tells the story in the Preface to the 1913 Nelson edition of Misericordia, to a gift. When someone told him about a blind man who begged before one of Madrid's churches, he went to seek him. The blind man, he tells us,
Eight years before Misericordia, Galdós had written his curious short novel Torquemada en la hoguera (Torquemada at the Stake), which was to be the beginning of a series of four novels devoted to the same person whom we had met before in earlier novels as a 'secondary' character.
In the first novel of the series, published in 1889, the narrator presents the background for his protagonist: a tough money lender, a usurer; he had married Doña Silvia, who died after producing two children: Rufinita, 'cuyo nombre no es nuevo para mis amigos, y Valentinito, que ahora sale por primera vez.'8
The novel revolves around the life and death of this child of whose 'precoz inteligencia [Torquemada] estaba tan orgulloso, que no cabía en su pellejo' (p. 15).9 The reason for his pride was the prediction made by the child's arithmetic teacher at the Institute where Valentín studied:
These words contain the core around which this short novel develops. In the first place we have the suggestion that the boy 'is the most wonderful scrap of divinity that has ever fallen on earth,' with which the idea of a nexus between Torquemada's world and God's is introduced. In second place, the prediction that 'when this lad becomes a man he will astonish the world and turn it upside down,' which is not fulfilled because of the illness and premature death of Valentín. What constitutes, then, the core of the plot is Torquemada's fight to rescue his son from death's clutches, with the consequent corollary of an ill- understood religion: the unique idea of bribing God with charities never before attempted or imagined by the miser. Because the gifts and kindnesses which the need to save his son inspire in Torquemada are nothing but a shameless transaction with God for the sake of his son's life. A transaction which, as we may guess, finds no divine answer.
The process through which Torquemada goes from his well-known 'materialism' to the awareness of a transcendental world, is a gradual one. His conversations with don José Bailón are the cause of this 'transformation.' Bailón was a defrocked priest who, after living with a rich widow from whom he inherited a fortune, embarks on a business career which brings him in touch with the miser. Bailón had previously published, around 1873, some half revolutionary, half religious pamphlets which had been forgotten by everyone except for Torquemada, who turned out to be 'the only mortal' who read them.
'Algunas tardes se iban a pasear juntos los dos tacaños, charla que te charla,'11 the narrator tells us, and those conversations touched upon religion, such as the following one. Bailón speaks:
But he adds immediately:
But the day came when, upon returning to his house, his daughter Rufina told her father: -No te asustes, papá, no es nada… Valentín ha venido malo de la escuela (p.26).15
Faced with this situation, which worsens rapidly, Torquemada begins to think seriously about all the drivel Bailón had told him, from which he begins to conclude that his son's illness is due to the fact that «He faltado a la Humanidad, […] bien merecido nos está." (p.28).16
The more he thinks about the possible causes of Valentín's illness, the more he connects it with divine punishment. In his mind a commerce of give and take exists between man and God. '¡Bonitas cosas hacía Dios, la Humanidad o quienquiera que fuese el muy tal y cual […]!' (p.36).17
Since Valentín's condition worsens, 'the skinflint' decides to put Humanity to the test by starting a campaign of alms giving. One night he leaves his house in search of beggars, but none appear in sight. Finally, when he finds one he questions him:
This makes him think about the efficacy of his actions: 'Works of charity. That's the whole trick' (p. 41).
The trouble is that Valentín gets worse again. Torquemada leaves the house to buy ice and, later, iodine. The father lends himself to carry out these chores diligently. On the way back to his house, '… al doblar la esquina de la calle de Hita [se encuentra con un mendigo haraposo] la cabeza al aire, un andrajo de chaqueta por los hombros, y mostrando el pecho desnudo. […]
-Señor, señor - decía con el temblor de un frío intenso --, mire cómo estoy, míreme […] «Si conforme traigo la capa nueva, trajera la vieja…" (p.41). 20
Upon entering his house he repents, changes his new cape for the old one and leaves again in search of the beggar. A poor copy of Saint Martin.
Torquemada's problem is to square his miserliness with the idea of convincing God, or Humanity, that he is, deeply inside him, charitable and good so that he can earn Valentín's health.
His trials at charity amaze those who know him when he goes out to collect the rent of his properties. Valentín's illness, meanwhile, does not abate. Torquemada remembers a letter he had received the same day that Valentín fell ill. It was from 'un antiguo y sacrificado cliente […] pidiéndole préstamo con garantía de los muebles de la casa' (p.47).21 He now decides to respond to this request and directs his steps towards the house of his former victim in order to help him. On the way there he feels someone tucking at his cape. It is our former friend Isidora Rufete (the protagonist of an earlier novel The Disinherited Lady).
Torquemada promises to go to her house later.
When he finally reaches his old client's house, what disappointment! His client no longer needs the loan he had asked for. It seems that a relative has come to his help... Torquemada leaves the house after offering his client a loan at a ridiculous interest, muttering to himself: 'there is no dealing with ungrateful people.' And he proceeds quickly to help Isidora.
The episode with Isidora is lamentable. She is living with a consumptive painter who is nearing death. Torquemada decides to help them, but takes the patient's paintings 'as a remembrance.'
Finding himself overcome by despair seeing that Valentín's condition does not prosper in spite of all his efforts, he decides to utilize more direct means. From his secretary where he kept the jewels that his debtors leave as pledges 'for usurious loans,' he takes out an enormous pearl, 'the size of a hazelnut, with a beautiful sheen, and picking it up in his fingers, he showed it to the old woman'(p.63).
The old woman is Tía Roma, a servant in his house from Doña Silvia's time.
And she didn't finish her sentence, but we know what she was going to say. Tía Roma, a simple and truly religious woman, knows perfectly well that one cannot bribe saints. For this reason she advises him to sell the pearl and to devote the money to the poor.
But no act of his has any efficacy: Valentín dies. After the showy burial, on the following day, Torquemada '[…] fue acometido desde que abrió los ojos, de la fiebre de los negocios terrenos' (p.72).25 Tía Roma who is observing him tells her boss: '- […]Ya está otra vez preparando los trastos de ahorcar' (p.73).26
His transaction with the divine powers having failed, Torquemada announces to Tía Roma: '-[…]La misericordia que yo tenga ¡puñales!, que me la claven en la frente (p.73).27
In spite of his social evolution throughout the rest of the four novels devoted to him, Torquemada remains a skeptic to the end of his life. After disposing in his will of his substantial fortune which he divides into three equal portions, two-thirds for his children (Rufinita and the second Valentín), the last third he leaves '[…] enterito para la santa Iglesia, repartido entre los distintos institutos religiosos que se dedican a la enseñanza y a la caridad… Se entiende que eso será después de mi fallecimiento… Claro.' Las novelas de Torquemada, p. 631).28
No matter how hard father Gamborena tried to prepare him spiritually, Torquemada's mind remains in the world of business: '… convertir el Exterior y las Cubas en Interior…' (p.648).29, is his theme, to the point that his last word before he dies, 'Conversion', leaves everyone in doubt as to whether he meant the conversion of his soul or of the External debt.
Dealings or transactions with God do not appear only in connection with grotesque characters like Torquemada. Surprisingly, in 1890, when the first part of Galdós's novel Angel Guerra appeared, we find quite a different type of character: a young gentleman from Madrid who belongs to a prosperous family and who, as often happens up to our own time, professes to be a revolutionary. We are dealing here with a young university educated man, liberal in politics, more an atheist than a believer who, after an attempted uprising in which he has participated and which culminates in the execution of the Sergeants of San Gil's fortress, finds himself wounded. After Dulcenombre, his mistress, gives him first aid, he returns home when he finds out about the serious illness of his mother. Doña Sales, before she dies, lectures her son, giving us, in passing, a very exact description of Angel's family background, because we are dealing with the man who will be the center of the action. He comes from 'personas bien nacidas, cristianas, decentes [quienes "se enriquecieron con el trabajo y los negocios lícitos"]. No queremos suponer, ni echamos facha; no usamos escudos ni garabatos en nuestras tarjetas […] Pero tú, ¿qué caso has de hacer de esta pobre mujer ignorante, que no ha ido a la Universidad, ni sabe leer esos libracos franceses? Claro. Tú, destinado a reformar la sociedad y a volverlo todo del revés, levantando lo que está caído y echando a rodar lo que está en pie, eres un grande hombre, un pozo de ciencia. No estoy a la altura de tu sabiduría (Ángel Guerra (Madrid: Alianza), pp. 77-78).30 Doña Sales is as direct and frank as all this, as well as in the rest of her lecture.
But how are you going to pay attention to this poor, ignorant woman who has never attended a university - she continues in this tone, reminiscent of Doña Perfecta's ironic speech -who has never read all those French books?
As always, the Spanish conservative Catholics blame all the ills of their country on French influence.
But of course, you were destined to reform society and to turn everything upside down, raising the fallen and messing all things up that are fine, you are a great man, a deeply learned chap. I am not up to your wisdom (Angel Guerra, Madrid, Alianza Editorial, pp. 77-8).
This is how Doña Sales describes her son and we cannot conceive anyone more different from Torquemada than Angel Guerra.
But he will have to go through the same Purgatory as the 'miser.' After his mother's death and having inherited her fortune, his daughter Ción falls ill. Her father becomes desperate. He is ready to do anything to save his daughter.
Ever since his mother's illness and subsequent death, and owing to his complicity in the revolutionary attempt, Angel had found a refuge and hiding place in his house, with the result that he has been continuously in contact with Leré, Ción's governess. Galdós utilizes in this part of the novel echoes from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, with Angel in the role of Rochester and Leré in that of the eponymous heroine. But it is only a faint echo. Angel is tamed much more easily by Leré who begins to exert a strong influence on him from almost the very beginning of their meeting, particularly in religious matters. The seriousness of Ción's illness pushes Angel towards his old beliefs which 'manifested themselves in the external form of prayers...' And, at certain moments, Angel will reason as follows:
The transaction with God, implicit in this monologue, is not that different from Torquemada's ravings, only that here it is expressed in a slightly more cultivated speech. In essence we are dealing with the same theme: 'our asking and His giving.'
What does become absurd is 'the gift' that Angel decides to offer God in exchange for Ción's health. Torquemada, in his own crude way, carried out certain charities. Angel, however, does not hesitate to sacrifice a human being in order to obtain his objective.
After having recently received a letter from his mistress Dulce, his lover for a long time, Angel exclaims:
The quotation is long but indispensable to show how the atheist Angel, influenced by the religious teachings of Leré (ill-understood, of course) tries to make a deal with God: nothing less than the gift of the life of a completely innocent person, totally ignorant of the situation, in exchange for the life of his daughter. Angel, at this moment, is neither better nor more intelligent than Torquemada who, as we saw, influenced by Bailón's drivels, tries to deal with God in similar terms. We are not surprised about Torquemada, but about Angel, we cannot help but feel surprised at his totally selfish behavior. In fact, Angel comes close to sacrilege as he assumes (although only virtually) the power over the life and death of a human being. This scene is emblematic of Angel's problem. In spite of Leré's angelical influence over him, and of her help, Angel will never be able to conquer his earthly egotism. His mystical trances later in the novel, when he is in Toledo, are but a sublimation of his libido.
As much in the case of Torquemada as in Angel's, their failed transactions with God are the key to their characters. In both cases materialism triumphs over transcendence.
The idea that through gifts or donations to the church one could 'buy' an entry to Heaven, as we saw in the case of don Carlos Moreno y Trujillo in the novel Misericordia, or with Torquemada, at the end of the series devoted to him, repeats itself insistently up to the end of Galdós's novels and plays. Only that in his last works, as for instance in Casandra, and in his last episodio, Cánovas, the theme appears more openly induced by the church and the clergy or their representatives.
Casandra, a novel in dialogue form written in 1905 and adapted to the stage in 1910, presents the case of Doña Juana, a childless widow, who decides to leave all of her immense fortune to the church instead of helping her needy nephews and the illegitimate son of her late husband. With the latter she is particularly cruel in order to avenge the offense that her husband had inflicted upon her in the past. She tries to separate him from Casandra, his partner of many years, in order to marry him to someone else, and to take her children away. All in the name of an ill understood religion. Casandra saves the family situation by killing Doña Juana before this lady is able to sign such a monstrous will. Her personal sacrifice is heroic. Her last words after the crime, although melodramatic, utter a great truth: 'I have killed the Hydra that was haunting mankind! Humanity, you may breathe again!'
In Cánovas this situation repeats itself, only that in this episode it appears as anecdote in order to illustrate the terrible influence that the invasion of the French religious orders is exerting over Spain during the Bourbon Restoration. The of Pastrana, we are told, has left all of her wealth to the church. When someone asks whether she had no relatives to bequeath her fortune, the answer is highly ironical:
One cannot find a better sentence to conclude this trajectory over those novels by Galdós in which he focused on the importance of the 'gift', with particular attention to the type of transaction that Natalie Zenn Davis called 'Gifts and the Gods.'
We may conclude that Galdós's position with regard to Catholic vs. Calvinist disputations over gifts during the Reformation is closer to the latter than to the former, which does not mean, as the 'Neocatholics' suggested, that he was an atheist or an irreligious person. I am more and more convinced of Galdós's profound religiosity. It is because of it that he was always against any of those superstitions that the clergy of his time utilized to subjugate and exploit the faithful. Such was the case during the Bourbon Restoration, when circumstances lent themselves to these abuses by a clergy anxious to recuperate the properties that the Church had lost with Mendizabal's Disentailment. Galdós's presentation of the theme of 'Gifts and the Gods' in his novels goes from the very human stance of Torquemada and Angel Guerra, who turn to God as the last resort for the salvation of their children, to the open exploitation of the faithful's credulity that we have found in his last works. From all of these cases Benina's altruism in Misericordia stands out as exemplary: gratuitous charity without any expectation of reward.
© The Pérez Galdós Editions Project