Analysis of Camilo José Cela’s The Family of Pascual Duarte

The Spanish author Camilo José Cela (1916–2002) started his successful first novel in 1940 and finished it in 1942. After being rejected by several editors, the book was published in Burgos, Spain, in 1942, and it caused immediate opposing reactions. Most criticism of the novel, however, was based on its morality rather than its artistic value, as the public debated the bad example offered by Pascual Duarte’s behavior. The Family of Pascual Duarte has often been associated with Albert Camus’s The Stranger, published the same year. Cela’s novel includes meaningless violence and an apparent lack of morality, which can be easily linked to the works of existentialists like Camus. Cela’s Pascual Duarte commits three murders, including matricide, and offers no hint of sincere remorse for killing his own mother. The Catholic Church condemned the text as depraved and morally harmful; nonetheless, the novel was an absolute success. A second edition was issued in 1943, but this time it was banned, and it could not be republished in Spain until 1946.

The first chapters work as the introduction—very much in the tradition of Spanish picaresque literature. These chapters look at Pascual Duarte’s early years, not very happy ones as it transpires. In the novel, the writer presents a transcription of a long letter that Pascual Duarte himself has written from prison and from which the reader gets in contact with the details of his ominous crimes. Cela thus uses the well-known technique of the “found manuscript,” very popular in Spanish literary tradition, from Cervantes to Pío Baroja. By this technique, the writer achieves the sense of distance from the actual text that is also a characteristic of the works by Cela.

The plot is simple and linear, although facts and real time do not fit on certain occasions. Pascual Duarte starts his story by describing his village and the customs of ordinary people in a realistic, but not too thorough, manner. It is notable that one of the houses prominent in the narration belongs to the person that will become Pascual’s last victim. The five first chapters refer to his family and upbringing and are filled with details about himself, his parents, his brother Mario, and his sister Rosario. His brother will die very young, and Pascual’s first sexual experience with his future wife, Lola, takes place not far from his brother’s grave.

The narration is often interrupted by scenes that describe Pascual Duarte’s life in prison and the thoughts and impressions he reveals while writing his life. After the first five chapters, the next six focus on his marriage to Lola and their honeymoon, which includes a dramatic ending: Pascual Duarte injures a man from his village in a bar row. The couple’s first son is lost when Lola has a miscarriage, and the second dies when the baby is only 11 months old. Details of his misfortune and reflections from prison will follow up until chapter 14, in which Pascual Duarte tries to escape from his disgraceful fate by running away and trying to start a new life in a northern city of Spain. Happiness does not last long: In the following chapter he returns to his native village, where he witnesses the death of his wife and discovers that the lover of his sister has also been intimate with his Lola.

In chapter 16, Pascual Duarte stabs El Estirao, his sister’s lover, to death. He suffers his first imprisonment as punishment for this crime, and he is released after three years. His sister tries to offer Pascual a new life and marriage. Esperanza—a name that means “hope” in Spanish—will become his second wife. But Pascual soon becomes conscious that his mother will make his new life impossible, as she had already done with his former marriage. Chapter 19 includes a meticulous description of her murder. The end of the novel incorporates another note from the transcriptionist and two “letters” that inform the reader about the end of the story, which concludes with Pascual Duarte’s execution for his terrible crimes. These letters try to bring a sense of realism that makes the story even more thrilling.

Sometimes the words of Pascual Duarte seem to be simultaneously justifying and regretting his actions, which is perhaps the most important point for discussion when studying the novel. Violence is all around Pascual Duarte, but this antihero, instead of looking for an alternative to his situation, becomes even more violent toward those who surround him. The existential conflict between the man and his environs is eventually resolved by the victory of his sordid conditions, except that Pascual Duarte takes the situation further: From being a victim of the number of frustrations that he faces in life (the troublesome upbringing, the loss of a newborn son, his unhappy marriage, and so on), he becomes an insane, cold-blooded killer.

Gibson, Ian. Cela, el hombre que quiso ganar. Madrid: Aguilar, 2003.
Perez, Janet. Camilo Jose Cela Revisited: The Later Novels. New York: Twayne Publishers, 2000.
Sánchez Salas, Gaspar. Cela: El hombre a quien vi llorar. Barcelona: Carena Editorial, 2002.
Tudela, Mariano. Cela. Madrid: ESESA, 1970.
Umbra, Francisco. Cela: Un cadáver esquisito. Barcelona: Planeta, 2002.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis, Picaresque Novels, Spanish Literature

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: