The Family of Pascual Duarte

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The Family of Pascual Duarte

by Camilo José Cela


A novel set in the impoverished Estrermadura region of west central Spain from the 1880s to 1942; published in Spanish (as La familia de Pascual Duarte) in 1942; in English in 1946.


From prison the 55-year-old agricultural laborer Pascual Duarte narrates his life, especially the events that led to his two jail terms for two homicides, and to his execution in 1937 for a third murder, that of the local nobleman.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Camilo José Cela Trulock was born in 1916 in the seacoast village of Iria Flavia in Galicia, which sits in the northwestern corner of Spain. His father’s job as a customs official required frequent moves by the family, making coastal Galicia and Madrid the poles of the young Cela’s life. Further disrupting Cela’s pre-university education was his misconduct at different schools and his first bout with tuberculosis in 1931. Cela’s university career in Madrid as a student of medicine came to an abrupt halt because of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), in which he suffered a shrapnel wound while serving with the Nationalist forces. By 1940 Cela was hard at work on The Family of Pascual Duarte, his writing interrupted by a recurrence of tuberculosis in 1941. Undaunted, Cela not only finished this first novel but went on to publish more, including La colmena (1951; The Hive, 1953). He published as well collections of stories, essays, poetry, and travel literature; in this last genre, his most renowned work is Viaje a la Alcarria (1948; Journey to the Alcarria: Travels Though the Spanish Countryside, 1964). Despite occasional problems with government censors, by the early 1950s Cela was earning his living as a writer of fiction and nonfiction. His 1957 induction into the Spanish Royal Academy of the Language, and his 1989 award of the Nobel Prize for Literature signify, respectively, Cela’s national and international recognition. In The Family of Pascual Duarte, Cela sets a career-long pattern of centering his fictions around the lives and points of view of people he identifies as losers in society. Success for these characters, including Pascual Duarte, amounts to achieving self-knowledge and becoming reconciled to one’s lot in life.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Revolution, the Restoration and the oligarchy

Between the September 1868 Revolution, which led to the expulsion of Queen Isabella II from her throne, and the 1875 Restoration of the monarchy, in the person of Isabella’s son Alfonso XII, Spain experimented with democracy. In fact, it experimented with several kinds of democracy, including the antimonarchical, wholly elected government of the First Republic. But monarchically inspired civil war in the north and democratically inspired armed autonomy movements in the south weakened the Republic, produced a coup d’etat in 1874, and led a year later to the restoration of constitutional monarchy under Alfonso.

Cela has his protagonist Pascual Duarte born in the early 1880s, a period in which Spain operated under the post-restoration political compromise between the conservatives of Antonio Cánovas del Castillo and the liberals of Práxedes Mateo Sagasta. The compromise aimed theoretically at re-establishing social and political order by better balancing the needs and demands of the upper and lower classes. In practice the Restoration witnessed the increasing domination of Spanish society by the oligarchy (formed by the traditional landed aristocracy, the new industrial and financial elite, and the leaderships of the Catholic Church and the military).

Segments of this group made a mockery of parliamentary rule by widespread election fixing. Extremely powerful provincial bosses–caciques—used the economic clout of the oligarchy to field pliable candidates to the Spanish parliament (the Cortes), to buy votes for those candidates, and to suppress opponents. Liberal and conservative professional politicians, mainly from the upper middle classes, took turns administering the parliamentary system. Their power-sharing arrangement—called the turno pacífico (the pacific turn)—protected the oligarchs’ interests and improved the economic position of the politicians. The shortcomings and failures of this system became especially apparent in the 1890s to the working classes—agricultural laborers of the great estates in Andalusia, industrial workers of the coal and iron regions in Asturias and the Basque Country, and factory workers in Catalonia. Solutions to these problems included demands for higher wages and shorter working hours.

Violence and radicalization of Spanish society

Spain’s government, as indicated, was in alliance with its oligarchy. At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, many events both placed the working classes in opposition to this alliance, and revealed the government’s inability to manage well the country’s affairs. Among the more spectacular of these events were

  • The prosecution of colonial wars in Morocco in northwestern Africa in 1893 and in Cuba in 1895 to protect the mining, agricultural, and mercantile interests of the oligarchy
  • The August 1897 assassination by an anarchist of Prime Minister Antonio Canovas del Castillo, the architect of the Restoration and the turno pacifico
  • The loss of the 1898 Spanish-American War, in which more than 50,000 Spanish working-class soldiers and sailors died from tropical illnesses and in battles they were not equipped or led to win
  • Renewed colonial misadventures in Morocco, including military disasters (most notably in 1909 and 1921), which led to more than 11,500 Spanish deaths on the battlefields, and to bloody riots, assassinations, and executions at home

The middle classes and the oligarchy, who constituted no more than 30 percent of the Spanish population, could buy their sons out of the draft that funneled soldiers and sailors to the above-named wars and adventures. The working classes enjoyed no such alternative. Instead they saw their sons fall to disease or become cannon fodder to protect the colonial plantations, mines, and markets so important to the monied interests of the country. Even Spain’s neutrality in World War I, which boosted Spanish agricultural and industrial production to supply the demand of the warring powers, benefitted the upper classes much more than the laboring ones.

Unfortunately for the oligarchy, however, with increased production came notable increases in the number, concentration, and radicalization of organized Spanish workers. Within about a decade Pablo Iglesias’s Socialist trade union, the UGT (General Union of Workers) climbed from only 3,000 members (1908) to 200,000 (1920) (Thomas, p. 25). The more radically inclined CNT (National Confederation of Labor) rose from 50,000 members in the early 1870s to 1.5 million in the 1930s (Thomas, pp. 40–41). Meanwhile, by 1936, the year the Civil War began, as many as 30,000 super-radical workers, judging the CNT too willing to compromise with the government, had become active in the secret society known as the FAI (Federation of Iberian Anarchists). Bomb throwers and assassins, its members were deadly terrorists.

The reign of the constitutional monarch Alfonso XIII (1886–1941) began in 1902 when he entered his majority. Not surprisingly the young, inexperienced king had no particular success in helping to create a new agenda to alter either the already well-established pattern of governmental incompetence, corruption, and criminal malfeasance, or the working classes’ escalating violent responses. General Miguel Primo de Rivera’s coup d’etat of September 1923 was welcomed by a tired, divided country. The general, popular for his successes in reasserting Spanish dominance in Morocco following the 1921 massacre of 10,000 Spanish soldiers there, ushered in a prosperous, peaceful period of nearly six years. Regrettably, however, the Primo de Rivera dictatorship did nothing to advance the political development of the country. Instead the regime contented itself with creating the simulacrum of a parliamentary monarchy headed by the inept Alfonso XIII, who fell into a pattern of accepting and condoning Primo de Rivera’s unconstitutional measures. As a result the fundamental issues of socioeconomic justice in Spain festered, making radical left-wing political alternatives attractive to the laboring masses.

The Second Republic and the Civil War

Faced by the need to re-establish effective parliamentary rule and to rehabilitate the tarnished image of Alfonso XIII, the post-Primo de Rivera government called for national elections in April 1931. Contrary to government hopes and expectations, the vote became a negative reaction to constitutional monarchy and to Alfonso, who had cooperated with the dictator Primo de Rivera. On April 14 the Second Republic was


A decade before Cela’s The Family of Pascual Duarte appeared, another Spanish writer, José Ortega y Gasset, tackled the issue of violence in his study The Rebellion of the Masses (1930). Ortega, the scion of an important Madrid newspaper family, analyzes societal problems, including violence. He condemns all, regardless of socioeconomic class and position, who do not have a holistic vision of history and society yet pretend to be competent in directing contemporary political life. At home and abroad he observed the contention among capitalists, fascists, and communists that flourished between the two world wars. He concluded that the agenda of each of these groups was too narrow, too self-interested, too uninformed to merit any of them the leadership of the peoples and nations of the world. Concretely Ortega proposed that European society be directed by skilled, altruistic politicians who would be advised by broadly humanistic historians, scientists, writers, and philosophers.

proclaimed and Alfonso went into an exile from which he never returned.

The Second Republic had a tall order to fill. It contended with mounting mutually exclusive demands from the political left and right. Especially significant were the growth and militancy of the centralizing Communist Party, guided and supported by the Soviet Union, and growing autonomy movements in nearly all regions of Spain. In villages, towns, and cities, as Ernest Hemingway records in For Whom the Bell Tolls, old personal wrongs and grievances fueled class hatreds. On the left were peasants, workers, intellectuals, and labor leaders. On the right were politicians, priests, military officers, and wealthy individuals. Both sides singled out for assassination opponents in the enemy camp. In February 1936 the last parliamentary elections of the Second Republic were held. They were won by the Popular Front, a coalition of socialists, communists, Catalonian separatists, and republicans. But already in January military officers, including General Francisco Franco, and the oligarchical financial elite had begun plotting the overthrow of this coalition and the Republic in general. So it is not surprising that the level of societal violence rose tremendously. Between February and June 1936, there were 269 murders, 1,287 injured and wounded, 160 churches destroyed and 231 damaged, 69 right-wing political headquarters wrecked and 312 damaged, 113 general strikes and 228 partial ones, and 10 newspaper offices sacked and 33 others attacked (Bertrand and Petri, p. 382). The specific event that triggered Franco’s July 18, 1936, rebellion was the assassination of José Calvo Sotello, a very prominent monarchist representative to parliament. In the early hours of July 14 he was taken from his Madrid residence by leftist militants on the police force and killed in the street by them; then his body was dumped in a local cemetery. These militants were, for their part, revenging a drive-by assassination earlier that evening of a Communist policeman by young, upper-class gunmen. Punctuating this panorama of violent chaos was a Popular Front measure of special relevance to the background of The Family of Pascual Duarte. In late March, 3,000 small, medium, and large estates, mostly in Estremadura, were divided up among as many as 75,000 peasants. While the novel does not even allude to this policy in Spain or around Pascual Duarte’s village, the historically aware reader understands that Pascual’s murder of the Count of Torremejía, the local large land owner, probably took place in later March, shortly after the Popular Front’s appropriations and redistributions of Estremaduran lands.

The Novel in Focus

Plot overview

The Family of Pascual Duarte begins with a “Preliminary Note by the Transcriber,” a person whose identity we never learn. In the middle of 1939, the transcriber found, in a pharmacy of the small city of Almendralejo in Estremadura, an “original manuscript” that “was almost unreadable, for the writing was rough and the pages were unnumbered and in no consecutive order” (Cela, The Family of Pascual Duarte, p. 3). The pages comprise the handwritten narrative of one Pascual Duarte. Despite acknowledging that he has cut certain crude passages, the “transcriber” affirms that he has “not corrected or added a thing” (Family, p. 4). He justifies publishing the manuscript on grounds that the reader’s conduct should be the exact opposite of Pascual Duarte’s.

Two other documents follow: a letter dated February 15, 1937, written by Duarte from Bada-joz Prison in Estremadura to a pharmacist in the nearby city of Mérida; and an extract from the pharmacist’s will dated May 11, 1937. The pharmacist was a friend of the Count of Torre-mejia, the last man whom Pascual Duarte murdered. The manuscript as a whole begins with his short dedication to the Count, “who, at the moment when [Duarte] came to kill him, called him Pascualillo, and smiled” (Family, p. 11). In conjunction with this dedication, the letter to the pharmacist shows that Pascual feels remorse for the killing, and that he wants someone who knew the Count to understand his killer and to forgive the crime. The pharmacist’s will shows that, though filled with revulsion by Pascual’s story, he decided the manuscript should survive him and have a future independent of him.

From the January 1942 materials at the end of the novel—more words from the transcriber and letters from a prison chaplain and a guard—the reader learns details of Pascual Duarte’s last days. The materials review his religious conversion, his initial acceptance of his fate, and his subsequent recalcitrance—he ultimately had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the place of execution by garrote.

Contained between these framing sections, there are, in the Kerrigan translation cited here (done in collaboration with Cela), 18 unnumbered, chapter-like divisions of Pascual Duarte’s first-person narrative.

Plot summary

Pascual Duarte’s handwritten materials recapitulate the principal persons and events in his life as an agricultural laborer. Pascual was born and lived in a house owned by his family, but, in a region of estates, without appreciable land for the Duarte family to cultivate. He writes about his parents, siblings, animals, spouses, friends, enemies, and victims on the one hand; his period spent in Madrid and La Coruña, his incarcerations, and his thoughts on the other hand. In the initial paragraph of section four, Pascual explains to the pharmacist, his designated addressee, the lack of a systematic thread in his writing:

You will know how to forgive me the lack of order in this narrative. Following the footsteps of the people involved rather than the order of events, I jump from beginning to end and from the end back to the beginning. Like a grasshopper being swatted. But I can’t seem to do it any other way. I tell the story as it comes to me and don’t stop to make a novel of it.

(Family, p. 39)

Despite the literary sophistication suggested by this apology, Pascual’s education, which he owed to the insistence of his otherwise abusive, sometimes jailed father, was limited. By age 12, around 1894, at his mother’s bidding, seconded by his own inclination, he stopped studying. He had by then learned the basic skills: “how to read and write, and to add and subtract” (Family, p. 27). Although Pascual never explicitly states how he earned his living while in his home village, a web of indirect references indicate that he worked for the large landowner the Count of Tor-remejía, and that his hunting, fishing, and care of a few domesticated animals supplemented his cash income as an agricultural laborer.

Pascual’s memoirs, again despite his apology about their randomness, have a generally chronological structure. He does, in keeping with the apology, present successions of people and events and intervals of time between them rather than a start-to-finish narrative. But the information he gives, in conjunction with dates from the framing sections, allows a reader to organize easily Pascual’s life in time. He was born in 1882 to an authoritarian Portuguese father, who was a smuggler, and an uncaring Spanish mother in a small village six miles east of Almendralejo. The family house, small and dark with a dirt floor, was situated a few hundred yards outside a village, just beyond its cemetery. The Count lived in the principal residence on the village square. While Pascual’s family house seems to pass down through the maternal line, the men were the


In 1976 the Spanish director Ricardo Franco (1950–98) released his film version of The Family of Pascual Duarte. Whereas Cela’s novel avoids all direct and most indirect historical and political references to the Spain of 1936, the filmmaker stresses them. He creates scenes that do not exist in the novel: Pascual’s father as a left-wing political sympathizer; politically motivated shootings and arson in and around Pascual’s village; and Pascual shotgunning the Count The film further contextualizes this last scene by having it occur just as the nobleman is about to leave his estate for the city because the countryside is too dangerous for big landowners, Franco’s movie thus becomes a fairly realistic recreation of the period, especially when Pascual is taken off to prison by soldiers, not police. It is commonly known that Cela does not like Franco’s restructuring of his novel Cela intentionally left out such direct ties to history in the novel. By making the actions and conflicts of Pascual’s memoirs ambiguous in their sociohistorical references, Cela universalizes issues of the individual, society, and violence, rather than limiting them to the Spain of the Civil War period, Pascual Duarte’s extended family is humankind.

breadwinners. When Duarte or his father were home, money was apparently never a problem for the family. Nonetheless, life in the house was extremely contentious because of Duarte’s parents’ bitter relations, and the boy learned it was best to keep out of sight. His sister, the future runaway and sometimes prostitute Rosario, was born about 1887. As an infant she was a unique source of joy for Pascual and his father. Throughout their lives, even when separated by geography, the bordello, or jail, Pascual and Rosario maintained an abiding love for each other. In 1902, at a time when Pascual had had the luck to complete (exceptionally for the period) an uneventful military service, the birth of his second sibling, the mentally and physically deficient Mario, preceded by two days the horrible death from rabies of Pascual’s father. Although Pascual cared for Mario, despite guessing him to be the offspring of his mother’s lover Don Rafael, he did not intervene during the years of mistreatment and abuse of the child by its heartless mother and Don Rafael. Pascual mentions that Mario’s ears were eaten off one day by a family pig, and that on another day Don Rafael kicked the child senseless and left him bleeding from the ears. This much amused his mother. When Mario fell into an oil vat and died at age nine, Pascual viewed it as a release from a life that was very hard even for the strong. While lingering at his brother’s grave after a burial service, Pascual encountered a local woman named Lola. She was attracted to Pascual, and when he failed to take advantage of their isolation, she mocked his manhood and he responded by forcibly taking her right there on the freshly turned earth of Mario’s plot. Lola then conceded Pascual was a man and confessed her love for him.

At this point there is a break in the narration. Pascual states that for the preceding 15 days he has written nothing. He has been busy with his lawyer and has been moved to another prison. He has also reread what he has written. From his new cell, which he likes much better than his old one, he can see the outdoors: countryside, butterflies, mules and teamsters, women and children. He muses about his writing, his life, what was and what could have been.

Resuming his narrative, Pascual explains that when Lola was eight months pregnant they were married in the local church and, by horse, took their wedding trip of about 20 miles to Mérida. Pascual recalls it as the happiest time of his life. When passing through the village on their return, Pascual was persuaded to stay and drink with his friends while Lola continued alone on Pascual’s mare to the house. When some words were exchanged between Pascual and another man, Pascual sliced him several times with his knife and went home. There he learned that the mare had thrown Lola and that she miscarried. Filled still with drink and rage, Pascual went out and stabbed the mare to death. Lola’s second pregnancy produced a son who filled her and Pascual with joy. Pascual remembered that, given his customary bad luck, he was very apprehensive about the child’s welfare. His fears proved well-founded. At age 11 months, around 1915, Pascual junior died from the effects “of an ill wind, a treacherous and evil draft” (Family, p. 88). Pascual thought both his mother and wife blamed him for the infant’s death and felt a growing hatred for his mother, who seemed to be the origin of all that was wrong in his life. One day in the fields, while resting from hunting with his dog Chispa, Chispa sat looking at him. Feeling that even the dog was blaming him, he killed her with his shotgun. This made Pascual understand that, because of the hate he had, he must leave home or he would deal with his mother as he had with Chispa.

Here there is a second break in Duarte’s narration. A month has passed since Pascual wrote about his hate. The day before taking up his pen again, he confessed his sins to the same prison chaplain who communicated with the transcriber in 1942. Pascual now dwells on what might have been had he known before his crimes his present sense of peace. He also discusses the difficulties of writing and his fear that he may be executed before he finishes his story.

The narration proper resumes with Duarte fleeing his home in the dead of night. Having decided to go to America, he took all the family money and boarded a train bound for Madrid. There he lodged in the house of a laborer for two weeks. After taking in the sights and noting how Madrilenians could become very angry, say things that would provoke a knife fight back home, and yet not fight, Pascual went to the Galician seaport of La Coruña. Learning that he did not have half the necessary fare for passage to America, he remained in La Coruña for 18 months, first working at odd jobs, then settling in as a bouncer at a house of prostitution.

When overcome by homesickness, Pascual returned to his village, probably in early 1918. His mother received him very coldly. Life had been difficult for her and his wife Lola in his absence. The mother, it seems, had facilitated relations between Lola and Stretch, Rosario’s debaucher and pimp, and Pascual’s archenemy. Lola informed Pascual that she was pregnant. When he obliged her to tell him by whom, she confessed that Stretch was her lover and then appeared to drop dead from fright. Pascual immediately searched for Stretch, but learned from Rosario that he had fled upon Pascual’s return. Tired of prostitution and with Stretch gone, Rosario came back home to be with Pascual. A period of contented tranquillity in the Duarte home ensued. In retrospect, though, Pascual observes that an old pattern in his life was reemerging: just as things seemed to be looking up for him, the influence of “my unlucky star, that evil star which seemed bent on destroying me” reasserted itself (Family, p. 125). This time his ill fate was signaled by Stretch’s reappearance, first in town, then, coming to fetch Rosario at the Duarte home. In their new meeting Stretch demonstrated so much arrogance and disdain for Pascual that Pascual smashed him with a stool, crushing Stretch’s shoulder bones. Despite being seriously wounded, Stretch, who had mistaken Pascual’s previous restraint towards him as cowardice, could not remain quiet. He taunted Pascual, promising to shoot him when he recovered and mocking him for not being able to take care of his women. At that point Pascual crushed and killed Stretch like a bug underfoot.

Around 1921, after serving a jail term shortened to three years for good behavior, Pascual returned home. At his sister’s urging, he married Esperanza, a family friend who had always loved him from a distance. Pascual was happy with Esperanza, but within two months his mother’s evil presence was preying upon his mind. Pascual wondered why he came back home when the only remedy for what he felt towards his mother was putting distance between them. While writing his memoirs 15 years later, he attributed that return to his habitual unlucky star. In any case, Pascual was soon plotting his mother’s death. On the night of February 12, 1922, he entered her room. Filled with conflicting emotions, he watched her sleeping for a long time. Just as he decided he could not kill her and was leaving the room, he made a noise that woke her. He then felt impelled to kill her. After a fierce struggle, he stabbed her in the throat and was covered by her spurting blood. Running out of the house, he bumped into Esperanza and kept on going. Once free in the fields, he recalled, in the final words of his narration, “I could breathe …” (Family, p. 158).

From the framing materials mentioned above, the reader understands that Pascual spent most of the time between 1922 and 1936 in prison. Knowledge of the history of the period indicates the following: Pascual was probably included in the amnesty of February 1936 that freed mainly political prisoners from jail; he may have killed the Count around the time in late March when the Popular Front government divided Es-tremaduran estates among agricultural workers; and he was probably taken prisoner for the murder of the Count sometime after August 7, when nearby Almendralejo was occupied by General Franco’s Nationalist forces. The framing materials suggest Pascual was executed in late February 1937 for the murder of the Count.

At the root of the problem

In the first section of his narrative, Pascual tells how he used to fish for eels in a foul-smelling stream behind his house. His wife commented “that the eels were so fat because they ate the same” as the Count of Torremejia, “only a day later” (Family, p. 19). On the day Pascual is specifically remembering, he noticed Almendralejo in the distance. He suddenly realized that no one there “knew or cared that I had been fishing, that I was watching the


Following the failure of a right wing, Catholic government to bring order to national life, the Spanish parliament was dissolved in January 1936 and the ensuing February parliamentary elections brought the leftist Popular Front to power. One of this government’s first actions, implemented in some areas before explicit governmental authorization, was the amnesty of some 30,000 political prisoners in jail throughout Spain. Most of them had been imprisoned in the aftermath of the bloody repression by General Franco of a 1934 Communist rebellion of miners in the Asturias mining region of north-central Spain. If common criminals such as Pascual Duarte, then jailed for matricide, happened to be in the prisons of regions where leftist sentiment was high, they were also liberated and, given the societal chaos of spring 1936, remained free.

lights in their houses come on, that I was guessing what they said”; and, he then observed: “The inhabitants of cities live with their backs to the truth,” that they are unmindful of country people (Family, p. 19).

In his own way Pascual is experiencing what Ortega y Gasset called “particularism” in his book Invertebrate Spain, a work published first in 1921, just about the time Pascual and his wife come to the realizations noted above. For Ortega, particularism meant that individual social groups lost their identity as parts of the larger society and that all groups thereby lost an understanding of how members of other groups felt and thought. When Cela’s novel has the heedless Count let his sewage flow into the small stream, or has Pascual comment on the indifference of city people to country people, it makes particularism a concern. For Ortega, Spain was great when a common spirit and purpose infused the country during the centuries of the Reconquest from the Moors and the century of the discovery, conquest, and colonization of the Americas. It began its decadence, continuing still in Ortega’s early twentieth century, with the advent of particularism, which Ortega traces as far back as 1580.

When Duarte and his wife experience the particularistic isolation dividing the landed noble and the peasant, the city and the country, Cela incorporates into his novel a fundamental analyses of the Spanish national situation that culminated in the Civil War. This said it must also be observed that Cela, partly because of censorship, partly because of his view of how fiction relates to society, does not make Pascual Duarte the kind of typical, representative character found in nineteenth-century realist novels. Although Pascual Duarte lives specifically between 1882 and 1937, the Ortegan particularism he observes and lives is centuries old. He and his story are something like allegorical representations of the Spanish condition. The violence that characterizes this one man is a reaction to particularism and also symbolic in that it is a national characteristic. For Ortega the most negative aspect of particularism is its encouragement of violence by individuals and groups who have lost the socially learned preference and talent for conversation and mediation as ways to resolve problems.

Sources and literary context

The dominant prewar Spanish literature was vanguardist, embarking, as did Picasso in painting, on all manner of post-realist and post-naturalist experimentation. Miguel de Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset were the principal intellectual leaders of Spain at the time (see Mist and Meditations on Quixote , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). In Madrid, as a student and disciple of the poet Pedro Salinas, Cela participated fully in the cultural life of the country. His hospitalizations for tuberculosis in 1931 and 1941 and convalescence from shrapnel wounds in 1937 allowed him to read voluminously, particularly in the complete works of Spanish classics published by the Biblioteca de Autores Españoles (Library of Spanish Authors). Following a chance wartime stay in Estremadura and Almendralejo, the setting for much of The Family of Pascual Duarte, Cela, influenced by that reading and the prewar intellectual ferment in Madrid, began to incorporate into his writing the human and social observations he made.

Certain elements of the traditional picaresque first-person narrative and others of ballads of bandits and evildoers, were placed in the frame of a found manuscript, a strategy established by Cervantes in Don Quixote (also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). But while the discoverer of the Don Quixote materials must have them translated from the Arabic for his Spanish reader, the transcriber of the Pascual Duarte materials finds and organizes a narrative whose original version, he claims, was so chaotic as to have been unreadable. For his part, Pascual offers artistically self-conscious comments on his work as autobiographer and about his fear that he might be executed before he can finish his tale. The strategy recalls from Don Quixote the knight’s criticisms of how his squire Sancho Panza tells a story. Finally, Cela’s novel includes a multiplication of perspectives on Pascual Duarte that again derives from Cervantes’s practice in Don Quixote and that philosophically echoes Ortega’s 1925 essay titled “The Historic Sense of Einstein’s Theory.” When Pascal famously begins his tale with the words “I am not, sir, a bad person, though in all truth I am not lacking in reasons for being one,” the transcriber, the pharmacist, Duarte himself, and implicitly the Count have already given opinions about Duarte that make those words problematic (Family, p. 13). And after Duarte’s memoirs conclude, the transcriber, the prison guard, and the chaplain give more versions of Pascual’s life. This structuring may be read as an Ortegan experiment in truth seeking. The philosopher held that truth results from the discovery and reconciliation of all relevant, individual points of view. Cela’s novel presents many characters, from both the framing sections and from Pascual’s narrative proper, who opine on the actions and motivations of the protagonist. While each character has his opinion of Pascual Duarte, only the reader can take equally into account all viewpoints in the effort to determine as truly as possible the meaning of Duarte and The Family of Pascual Duarte.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Postwar violence—the national scene

In 1940, when Cela began reading to his friends fragments of what was to become The Family of Pascual Duarte, Spain was still reeling from the effects of the Civil War. Its population stood at 25.8 million. The best studies calculate that during the three years of civil war and the following year of repression 500,000 Spaniards—mostly males in their productive years—were killed or exiled; another 74,000 became political prisoners (Tamames, pp. 170–71). Furthermore, the economy was in ruins. At war’s end, towns and villages in the most bitterly contested zones had between 60 percent and 100 percent of their buildings destroyed (Tamames, p. 171). And as the nation began rebuilding, its agricultural and industrial production were 21.2 percent and 31 percent lower, respectively, than in 1935 (Tamames, p. 172).

In this panorama of terror, destruction, and death, the triumphant leader of the so-called Nationalist rebellion that began the Civil War in 1936, General Franco, had one principal aim: the consolidation of dictatorial military and political control by him over Spain. On the domestic front this meant snuffing out pockets of guerrilla resistance to his rule from die-hard Republicans. It also meant the legitimatization of his position by strengthening his ties to the Catholic Church and to the Falange party, the most harmless, from his viewpoint, of the prewar right-wing political groups. In the international arena his position was delicate. Although he was the declared ally of Hitler and Mussolini, and had received vital aid from them during the Civil War, Franco had little interest in the world war that was beginning as Spain’s war was ending. Hence, even though he and most Spaniards believed until late 1942 to early 1943 that the Axis would win, Franco only made one significant contribution to the fascist cause. In 1941 he sent the Blue Division, composed largely of former Nationalist soldiers whose personal loyalty to Franco was doubtful, to aid the Germans on the Russian front. For the rest of the war Franco maintained active diplomatic relations with the Allies, and, aided by luck, Spain’s peripheral position in Europe, and his own cunning, remained in control of Spain.

Postwar violence—the individual story

The primary reality for the average Spaniard in the period of the writing of The Family of Pascual Duarte was to survive the peace. This meant public adherence to the political and religious orthodoxy over which Franco presided and, in the private sphere, the securing of food, clothing, medicine, and shelter for self and family. For those tainted by previous personal or familial activities associated with the left-wing political parties of the Republic and its armed forces, the post-Civil War period was a daily life-and-death struggle. While those who were considered truly serious risks to the Franco regime were jailed or executed (at the rate of 200 per month between March 1939 and January 1940), low-risk dissidents, as well as their families and those of the executed and jailed, were subjected to persecution and ostracism, which lasted into the 1950s. Taken from them were their national identification cards and as a result many individuals lost their legal identity and could have no dealings through the judicial or bureaucratic systems. The confiscation of their passports meant that they could not easily or legally emigrate from Spain either. Finally, professionals had their degrees and/or licenses to practice taken away. The unremitting and very public mistreatment of this sector of the population constantly reminded the citizenry of the costs of resisting the regime. In many cases, those singled out as pariahs survived only through the charity of family members and friends whose loyalty was not questioned and who could function in the reduced economy of the period.

The literary environment

This climate of fear and terror carried over into the literary field. Arbitrary censorship and great concern about reprisals for any written indication of ideology or criticism contrary to the Franco regime were ever present. Hence, when Cela asked the prestigious, 70-year-old novelist Pío Baroja (see The Quest , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and their Times) to write an introduction for the first edition of The Family of Pascual Duarte, Baroja refused. Having read the novel in manuscript, he considered it too morally problematic to endorse personally by providing a prologue for it. This refusal was partially vindicated by the publication history of the novel. Even though censors allowed it to be published in December 1942, eleven months later they confiscated the second printing of the novel. In 1946 the censors again allowed the novel to be published in Spain. Nothing in Cela’s book had changed, just the delicate, ever-shifting, terror-inspiring equation of what the Franco dictatorship allowed and what it did not. Two statements by Cela add significant nuances to this point. In the framing materials at the beginning of The Family of Pascual Duarte, Cela has the transcriber justify the publication of Pascual’s memoirs for their negative moral: “Do you see what he does? Well, it’s just the opposite of what he should do” (Family, p. 4). Eighteen years later, in a prologue for an American school edition of the novel, Cela repeated the negative moral of the story, but playing on the word “pedagogical” added that its moral was not “very pedagogical from the perspective of typical pedagogy” (Cela, “Palabras ocasionales,” p. x). Here Cela, who had to earn his living in 1960 while still under the watchful eye of Franco’s censors, hints that Pascual’s violent behavior is more complicated than Franco’s Spain of 1942 or 1960 can or wants to contemplate. The fact is that Pascual Duarte’s violence is not idiosyncratic. Tremendous violence typified Spain during all of his life and the entire nineteenth century (the 1808–14 War of Independence from the French, three Spanish civil wars between 1835 and 1875, and the Spanish-American and Caribbean wars of independence). That being the case, despite his unexemplary life, one must ask: why should Pascual Duarte and his violence be surprising or be singled out for condemnation? It is clear that the fundamental constants of Spanish national life for this whole period were injustice, violence, and blood. On the eve of his execution, Pascual looked back on his life and said he would have lived differently if he had known earlier what he had come to learn. As World War II raged in Europe and Asia and the threat and exercise of repressive terror kept order at home, Cela offered Pascual Duarte’s story as an allegory about violence in Spain and all warring places. In 1942, as well as in 1960, when Cela added his prologue for the American edition, and in the present, the novel’s central question is the same—why all the violence? It gives one pause to consider that if Pascual had it all to do over again, he would live his life differently.


The Family of Pascual Duarte is, after Don Quixote, the most frequently published Spanish book. From its publication late in December 1942, the novel was received as the rebirth of the literarily serious Spanish novel after three years of war and three more years of repression. When the 1946 Spanish edition was allowed by censors, it was accompanied by the unofficial protection of a prologue by Gregorio Marañon (1887–1960), a politically untouchable world-class Spanish endocrinologist, literary essayist, and eminent public figure. In literary terms Marañon’s enthusiastic endorsement of the novel was especially important because of his personal friendships with three generations of Spanish writers represented by Benito Pérez Galdós, PÍo Baroja, and Cela.

From a contemporary perspective earlier critical tendencies to categorize The Family of Pascual Duarte as a novel of European existentialism and as the prototype of a Spanish literary movement called tremendismo (whose thematic emphasis is on brutality, want, and violence) are arguable. Cela has consistently rejected such labels for his fiction. Although he has tended to be evasive in discussing his creations, it is clear that he sees more correspondence between his work and that of Cervantes, the picaresque novel, and Ortega’s writing, than with those of existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus, or with any group of Spanish contemporaries with whom he supposedly shared a community of technical and thematic concerns. In any case, The Family of Pascual Duarte remains today one of Cela’s best and most enduring novels. Comments upon it figure importantly in the citations for both his 1989 Nobel Prize for Literature and his 1996 Cervantes Prize, awarded annually to a prominent author writing in Spanish.

—Stephen Miller

For More Information

Bertrand, Louis, and Charles Petrie. The History of Spain. 2d ed. London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1969.

Carr, Raymond. Modern Spain 1875–1980. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Cela, Camilo José. The Family of Pascual Duarte. Trans, and intro, Anthony Kerrigan. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964.

_____. “Palabras ocasionales,” La familia de Pascual Duarte. Ed. Harold L. Boudreau and John W. Kronik. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1961.

Charlebois, Lucile C. Understanding Camilo José Cela. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1998.

Kerr, Sarah. “Shock Treatment.” New York Review of Books 39, no. 16, 8 October 1992, 35–39.

Kirsner, Robert. The Novels and Travels of Camilo José Cela. Madrid: Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1963.

Miller, Stephen. “The Artistic Experimentation of Camilo José Cela: An Interview of the Writer in Texas on August 16, 1992.” South Central Review 10, no. 1 (1993): 12–21.

Pérez, Janet. Camilo José Cela Revisted. New York: Twayne, 2000.

Spires, Robert. “Systematic Doubt: The Moral Art of La familia de Pascual Duarte.” Hispanic Review 40 (1972): 283–302.

Tamames, Ramón. La República. La era de Franco. Vol. 7 of Historia de España. Ed. Miguel Artola. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1986.

Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. New York: Harper Colophon, 1963.

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