La Regenta (The Judge’s Wife)

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La Regenta (The Judge’s Wife)

by Leopoldo Alas (“Clarín”)


A novel set in Vetusta (fictionalized version of Oviedo), a provincial town in northern Spain in 1877-80; published in Spanish (as La Regenta) in 1884-85, in English in 1894.


Ana, a beautiful young woman, is coerced by her two aunts into marrying an old retired judge (regente). Pursued by a priest and by the local womanizer, she finds herself seduced by the latter and shunned by the Catholic Church.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Leopoldo Alas, better known by the pseudonym “Clarín,” which he adopted in 1875, was born in Zamora, Spain, on April 25, 1852, but his ancestry and cultural preference tie him to the province of Asturias on the northern coast. From 1863 he lived in its capital city of Oviedo, leaving to spend summers at a small farm he inherited in the rural village of Guimarán (also the surname of a major character in La Regenta, or The Judge’s Wife). Alas completed his undergraduate law degree at the University of Oviedo in 1871, then earned a Doctorate in Jurisprudence from the University of Madrid and became a professor in Roman Law at his hometown University of Oviedo in 1882. The position made it possible for him to marry and to begin writing his most important works. To supplement his meager salary as a college professor, Clarín wrote dozens of short stories and scores of newspaper articles, mostly book reviews. In his own day he was less well known for the two novels he also managed to write: La Regenta and His Only Son (Su único hijo, 1891). The former now ranks among the finest realist novels of nineteenth-century Spain. The latter, by contrast, shows a change, perhaps a decline, in Clarín’s narrative artistry and creative energy. His fondness for gambling, his late-night habits of writing until dawn and his disorganized, crowded work schedule ruined the author’s already poor physical and psychological health. He died before his fiftieth birthday, June 13, 1901, a sad and largely forgotten figure, unaware of the impact his one novel would have on Spanish letters a century after his passing. In La Regenta, Clarín evokes life in a provincial town during an age of tumultuous change in late-nineteenth-century Spain.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The politics of a hereditary monarchy

Whenever a king dies in a hereditary monarchy, his first-born offspring automatically inherits the throne. In Spain, as elsewhere in Europe, the normal order of things also dictated that the firstborn male child—not the female—customarily became king. In fact, the Salic Law, instituted in 1713 under the Bourbon king Felipe V, forbade the ascension of a woman to the throne in Spain unless there were no eligible male heirs. Because the law did not have to be invoked for many years, it was largely forgotten. In the minds of many jurists, a more equitable rule of succession already existed dating from the time of King Alfonso the Wise (1221-84). The Law of Partidas stated that the crown is patrimonial in nature, meaning that a king will be succeeded by his eldest child, male or female and, in the event of his or her death prior to ascending the throne, that child’s first-born child, would, in turn, be the next in line.

As Fernando VII lay dying in September of 1833, he was persuaded to declare the earlier Law of Partidas as the only legitimate mandate, thereby paving the way for his three-year-old daughter Isabel to inherit the crown upon reaching maturity. Opposition to the declaration came swiftly and vigorously from those who wanted Fernando’s brother Carlos to become king. Isabel’s partisans won the day. After the caretaking regency of her widowed mother, María Cristina, Isabel became queen in 1843, whereupon Carlos’s supporters began a series of three bloody civil wars. Called the Carlist Wars, the three conflicts lasted half a century and ended with the defeat of his supporters—the pretenders to the throne—several years after the death of Carlos himself. By the beginning of the third Carlist War (1872), his grandson, Carlos Maria, would have been king. Isabel’s reign lasted until 1868, when the government and Spaniards in general became disenchanted with a queen whose marriage at sixteen years of age to her cousin, the homosexual Don Francisco de Asís had driven her into countless affairs with members of her administration, and whose politics had allowed the country to drift into social chaos and financial ruin. Isabel and Francisco finally separated in May of 1870 while in exile in France. (On a microcosmic level, the negative reaction experienced by the heroine of Clarín’s novel echoes the reaction to Isabel’s indiscretions in real life.) By 1868 labor unions had begun to exert a degree of force in society, the Catholic Church had extracted a settlement for the 1836 expropriation of their lands and buildings whereby priests and other church officials became part of the government payroll, and the overseas colonies, feeling the loosening of political dominance by Spain, were beginning to rebel. The crises became so constant and so severe that Isabel was finally deposed, peacefully, while summer vacationing on the northern coast. Unfazed, she simply went into exile in Paris until 1877, leaving Spain in the hands of a provisional government. Formed by a parliament and several military factions, this coalition issued a new constitution and eventually paved the way for a return to monarchical rule. Since no one wanted anything to do with Isabel or the Bourbons, her 13-year-old son Alfonso was passed over in favor of Prince Amadeo of Savoy, third son of King Victor Immanuel II of Italy. Though their lineage was in no way connected to the Spanish monarchy, General Juan Prim, who headed the government at the time, persuaded the constitutional Parliament to ratify his wish to bring new blood to the throne. This was done by a slim vote margin on November 16, 1870. The rule of this imported monarch lasted scarcely three years—from January 2, 1870, until February 11, 1873. Amadeo, officially Spain’s fifteenth king, was unable to cope with the country’s profound unrest. Left alone after his main supporter and prime minister, General Prim, was assassinated and despite his kind and agreeable nature, the new king failed to consolidate any power base from which to operate. Other difficulties—the simmering civil (Carlist) war, the opposition of the young prince Alfonso’s party, a secessionist rebellion in the colony of Cuba, and the people’s indifference to a foreigner as their ruler negated whatever chances for success Amadeo may have had. An assassination attempt on him and his wife on July 18, 1872 in broad daylight on one of Madrid’s main avenues no doubt made him resign from this failed experiment and return to Italy, where he died in 1890.

Parliament accepted Amadeo’s resignation and declared a new republic. What followed was a short period of anarchy during which the Carlists intensified the third of their campaigns for the throne (beginning December 1872), and other political and military groups vied for power. In the following 25-year period, Spain’s two strongest parties, the conservatives and the liberals, disenfranchised all others (including the extreme right-wing Carlists) and made a pact whereby elections would be rigged so that each group could enjoy alternating periods at the helm. This political maneuvering, known as the turno pacijico, worked quite well, since each party was assured a turn in power.

Far from Madrid, in the provinces, where La Regenta takes place, most of this power was wielded by caciques, local political bosses, who could be anyone from a conservative aristocrat (such as the Marqués de Vegallana in Clarín’s novel) to a moderate liberal (such as Alvaro Mesía, Vegallana’s secret right-hand man and political ally). As Clarín implies by the two men’s relationship in the novel, there was little or no difference between the two parties in charge of either the central or the local government in real life. Eventually, the head of the real life conservative group, moderate Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, persuaded his own party as well as the opposition to agree to restore the monarchy in order to further stabilize the country. Preparations were made to bring Isabel’s son to power.

The Bourbon Restoration

As a preparatory move, the young Alfonso became a cadet at the British military academy of Sandhurst to learn not only the art of war but also the ways of governing, to develop an understanding of how a constitutional monarchy should run, and to meet other dynastic scions likely to become his peers in the capitals of Europe. On December 1, 1874, using the prince’s birthday as a pretext, Cánovas engineered the “Sandhurst Manifesto,” a strategic political document that spelled out in some detail the tenets of the monarchical restoration about to take place. A few weeks later, on December 29, a military uprising in favor of Alfonso proclaimed him king. His mother Isabel had long ago (1870) reconciled herself to renouncing the throne on his behalf. With nothing standing in the way, the new king triumphantly entered

Madrid on January 14, 1875, as Alfonso XII. There followed a decade of relative tranquility (during which Clarín’s novel takes place). The last Carlist pretender fled to neighboring France on February 27, 1876; the Cuban crisis entered into a long truce achieved through a peace accord on the strength of General Martínez Campos’s victory on behalf of Spain in Zanjón, Cuba, on February 10, 1879; and Spain itself could boast of an orderly rotating form of government led alternately by the liberal Práxades Mateo Sagasta and by the conservative Canovas del Castillo.

After the sudden death of his first wife and cousin Mercedes of Orleans, Alfonso married a Habsburg princess. He proved to be a conciliatory ruler, one interested in serving as king for all his subjects, regardless of their past loyalties. The well-liked monarch traveled widely throughout Spain and abroad, especially in France and Germany, though his health was weak and living conditions were, at best, unpredictable throughout Europe. Early in his reign, Alfonso contracted tuberculosis, an incurable disease at that time and one that he kept secret from everyone outside the palace circle. Alfonso continued to visit troubled parts of Spain—the southern provinces of Málaga and Granada, which were devastated by major earthquakes in 1884, and the area surrounding Aranjuez, where an outbreak of cholera claimed hundreds of victims in 1885. His own death would soon follow. That autumn, on November 26, 1885, unable to withstand the rigors of the Castilian climate, he succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 28. Spain was stunned by the news of his premature death, never having been told of the king’s ill health. Alfonso left behind a royal family—his queen María Cristina and their two daughters, Maria de las Mercedes and Maria Teresa. Five-and-a-half months after Alfonso’s death, the widowed queen gave birth to a son. The birth insured an uninterrupted succession: the infant would become the future Alfonso XIII, grandfather of the current king of Spain Juan Carlos I. From the day of her husband’s 1885 death until 1902, when her son took over as the new monarch, Maria Cristina de Habsburgo-Lorena continued to oversee the familiar alternating governments of Práxedes Mateo Sagasta and Antonio Canovas del Castillo (until the Cánovas’s assassination in 1897). A strong regent queen, her international influence was underscored by Queen Victoria’s goodwill visit from England to Spain during her reign.

Social progress in nineteenth-century Spain

Despite the political intrigues and their ensuing turmoil, industrial advancements found their way into Spain and slowly helped to modernize what was then one of the most backward countries in Western Europe. Progress came haltingly in a two-steps-forward, one-step-backward fashion. In 1834, for example, after centuries of persecutions and public burnings, the Inquisition (the tribunal to suppress deviation from the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church) was formally dissolved. Its dissolution was followed

by the creation of the Civil Guard in 1844, which inspired the same fears and engendered even greater abuses. If great wealth came to the industrialized regions of Catalonia and the Basque provinces, so did labor unrest, strikes, and sabotage, following the publication of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles’s Communist Manifesto (1847). If the Catholic Church’s vast properties were expropriated and put up for public sale (Desamortizacion de Mendizabal, 1835), only the already powerful and wealthy were able to take advantage of the newly available lands, so the latifun-dios (enormous estates) were enlarged and the poor further disadvantaged. Yet the general population also experienced improvements in life. Most Spaniards came to enjoy the economic, health, and safety benefits of such innovations as the use of steam power in factories (in Barcelona in 1833) and the public lighting of streets in large cities (in the 1840s). This, in turn, promoted longer hours of commerce, stricter building codes, paved streets, the addition of sidewalks to separate traffic from pedestrians, and enough prosperity to warrant new storefronts with large windows to showcase merchandise. The July 1849 adoption of a uniform chart of weights and measures, based on the decimal system, further aided commerce and consumer confidence. The following year, the first postage stamp was issued, promoting long distance communication over land. In 1852 a faster means of bridging distances, the telegraph system began operating as a regular service. Transportation of people and freight progressed to the relatively inexpensive, rapid, safe, and regularly scheduled service of a small railroad inaugurated in 1848 between the cities of Barcelona and Mataró, and, by the 1880s, to a national network of railways that facilitated travel within the country and opened up Spain to foreign visitors and commerce. Foreign business was further aided by the passage in 1869 of a fairly comprehensive set of trade laws that encouraged the exportation of great quantities of minerals and other goods. Sales of copper, zinc, lead, and iron fostered a much-needed economic upturn following the severe 1866-68 recession that was largely responsible for Isabel II’s overthrow. New construction of underground sewer systems, indoor plumbing, water reservoirs, and canals did away with human water bearers and encouraged better hygiene, particularly in crowded urban areas where, according to the 1860 census, many of Spain’s 16 million people lived. This total, which had grown by 6 million since the beginning of the nineteenth century, included a large number of discontented workers who, in 1879, founded the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party to remedy labor grievances and settle disputes.

Of course, established factions of society ardently resisted change. The elite, comprised—in the novel—of the Judge, the marques de Ve-gallana, Fermin de Pas, Alvaro Mesia and their hangers-on, constituted the most conservative element of Vetusta’s society. Against their ruling status we begin to notice the growing economic forces of a) the nouveaux riches—individuals who make their money in business and commerce, b) the returning emigrants who have accumulated wealth abroad in the colonies and now seek preeminence, and finally c) the very large, menacing masses of salaried factory workers ready to strike and hold protests as a means of gaining higher wages, better working conditions and a more equitable distribution of capital. Examples of the three groups are sprinkled throughout La Regenta. Ana’s walk through the new part of the city (Chapter IX), when the ill-dressed, coarse-mannered, and sweat-stained factory men and women leave their workplace in the evening, is portrayed as an encounter with an uncontrolled river of people whose intentions and aspirations run contrary to the status quo that Ana’s husband and their friends seem determined to maintain.


“Alas [Clar’n] shows in vivid and telling detail the absurd, unchanging world of mediocrity, pretense, hypocrisy, boredom and quirkiness of decadent provincial society” in late-nineteenth century Spain (Rutherford in Alas, p. 16).

The elite, as might be expected, resisted the elevation of average citizens that had been experienced in nearby France since the French Revolution there. Clarín reveals his suspicions of French customs and ways time and again in his writing, referring to them mostly with derision. In La Regenta one of the most visible instances is Alvaro’s affected mode of dress. As a dandy, his clothes, his impeccable shirt-fronts, his cologne, his mannerisms of speech and his tastes in cheap popular literature are all imported from Paris, a city he knows only superficially.

Out of the social mainstream—provincial gentry and women

Most members of the nobility lived in and around the court city—initially Toledo and then Madrid—since the center of power, money, and influence always depended on the king’s whereabouts. The minor aristocracy and landed gentry, however, preferred to live in the provinces. There the less powerful or wealthy families saw their resources diminish with each passing generation. Titles, such as count or marquis, meant only past glories but present financial ruin unless marriages of convenience could be arranged so that new money could be added to an impoverished lineage. In the case of Ana, the novel’s heroine, her father, Don Carlos, married a penniless Italian seamstress for love and proceeded to squander his meager fortune on lost causes, so Ana is left with nothing but countless mortgages on the family’s estates.


The Freedom Education Institute was founded by Francisco Giner de los Rios (1839-1915) on May 31, 1876. Giner was a follower of the German idealist philosophers—mainly Karl Krause, His importance lies in assembling a small group of like-minded educators, whose teachings shaped the lives and writings of men such as the author of La Regenta and every generation of intellectuals in the last third of the nineteenth century. These instructors sought 1) an educational system free from political and religious coercion, 2) equal rights for all educators (men and women alike), 3) reforms to update scientific inquiry, and 4) the freedom to think, write, and research in the field of one’s choice. They also championed a host of principles that would liberate students from the dogmatism and stagnation long prevalent in Spain. The institute’s artists looked at their predecessor Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) as a well-spring of Spanish art. Among his best-remembered canvasses are the large oil representation of execution-style killings by Napoleon’s troops firing upon unarmed peasants, which Goya himself witnessed near his house in the Madrid outskirts.

Women’s status in late-nineteenth-century Spain changed very little from centuries past. Their places outside of marriage were the convent, the brothel, the agricultural field, or domestic service. With the onset of urban commerce, they slowly made their way into the workaday world as lowly clerks in fabric concerns, groceries, and flower shops, where they catered to other, more well-to-do women. In all cases, such working women would be supervised by male managers or owners. Women who married well might, depending on their husband’s wishes, have servants and time for leisure. Few of them engaged in meaningful intellectual pursuits since, as of 1870, only 9 percent of all women could read.

In La Regenta, mindful of their niece’s impoverished status as a result of her father’s—that is, their brother’s—bankruptcy at death, Ana’s old spinster aunts, Anunciación and Agueda Ozores, oblige their orphaned charge to marry a respectable judge. That he, Don Victor, is older does not much matter to either of them. He meets their requirements, for he is honorable, distinguished, and a member of Vetusta’s upper class. In the end, however, the thirty-some-year age difference between Ana and the judge, with all of its attendant implications (differences in tastes, habits, and sexual and other needs), dooms them.

Culture in nineteenth-century Spain

The cultural highlights of the nineteenth century began with the reopening of the universities upon the death of Fernando VII, who had ordered their closure, the construction of the Prado Museum, filled largely with treasures imported from Italy and Flanders by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), the inauguration of several lyceums and academies, among them Madrid’s Ateneo in 1835, the Institución Libre de Enseñanza (The Freedom Education Institute) in 1839—which had the greatest impact on Spanish writers of the second half of the nineteenth century and well into the next one, including especially Clarín—and the Real Academia de Ciencias in 1847.

In the realm of literature, two great movements stand out, Romanticism (1835-44) and realism (1849-1902). To Romanticism belongs Don Juan Tenorio (1844; also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times), a play about a rakish young nobleman by José Zorrilla (1817-1893) that Clarín uses explicitly within the novel as the centerpiece and turning point of La Regenta (Chapter 16), itself realism’s most formidable paradigm. Linking the two works of literature, Clarín fashions a superimposition of characters: Ana, who identifies herself with Zorrilla’s Dona Inés and Alvaro with Don Juan. However, Alvaro himself, jaded by Zorrilla’s play has no patience for either the playwright’s idealism or Ana’s sublimated imagination. The Romantic concept uniquely espoused by José Zorrilla that man’s salvation is possible through the love of a woman was likewise dismissed by the realists, who saw life as a struggle rather than a choreographed dialectic of passion and betrayal.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Although the action in La Regenta takes place in the late 1870s during the early stages of the Restoration Period (1875-1902), the work spans the larger part of the nineteenth century. Its 30 chapters are divided into two halves. Part 1, published in 1884, contains the initial 15 chapters and lasts three days, beginning in the early afternoon of October 2, 1877, and ending well into the evening of October 4. Part 2, published in 1885, spans a three-year period, its chronology based on the liturgical calendar whose dates correspond to well-known holy days in Catholic Spain.

The setting is a small provincial city that is located in the northern region of Asturias and functions as the religious center of an equally unimportant diocese in this remote area. As its name, Vetusta (“Ancient”), implies, nothing much has changed here throughout history. The cathedral, a mixture of gothic architecture and later additions, constitutes the symbolic, spiritual, and physical center of the daily lives of its inhabitants. Thus, appropriately, the novel begins and ends in this edifice.

Two days before the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi, as the townspeople sleep off the effects of a typically heavy midday meal, we are introduced to the most formidable character of the novel as he plies his trade from his center of operations. He is Fermín de Pas, the canon and vicar-general of the cathedral, perched atop the highest steeple of the church, telescope in hand, spying on the faithful and the not-so-faithful Vetustenses before he is called to attend afternoon choir services along with other members of the church administration. Because only three days transpire in the first part of La Regenta, the narrative tempo is slow—not time but space, through abundant but rather static descriptions, fills the pages. The narrator dwells on the lives of the protagonists and the places where they thrive. Fermin’s metier is the cathedral and everything connected with it—the confessional, the vicarage (where he lives with his mother and with a lusty maid), the pulpit, the bishop’s apartments, and the living rooms of his richest parishioners, where he wields influence and power. Though a priest, Fermín remains nonetheless a vigorous man, trapped, by the time we meet him, by his mother and his vestments in a life that has ceased to offer further challenges or rewards. From the confessional, he controls wives and through them their husbands and lovers, and he also learns those secrets that no one else can know since he alone can connect all of the dots. Information gives him power. Fermin also derives much of his power from his mother Paula’s influence over the bishop, a holy man whose only misfortune (ironically, his name is Fortunato) was a sexually weak moment with her, which he is being made to pay for all his life. Paula’s ambitions for her son include making him rich, a goal she achieves by bankrupting all competitors in the sales of religious objects in Vetusta. With a simple (though secret) decree, every parish priest in the diocese is obliged to purchase everything from candles to missals in an establishment she owns as a silent partner, piously called “The Red Cross.” In addition to his mother, the aristocracy is Fermin’s ally in his fight for control of all of Vetusta, an uphill battle in those times when the urban factory workers and many of the nou-veaux riches preferred a totally secular existence, free from the shackles of a dogmatic Church and a domineering aristocracy.

Fermin’s telescope lingers on the figure of Ana Ozores, a member of Vetusta’s impoverished aristocracy and the young wife of an old retired appellate court judge. Closer to Fermin’s age, the judge’s wife represents for Fermin the most desirable forbidden fruit. He begins to court Ana, ironically when he takes over as her confessor and spiritual advisor. Always careful not to let his passion show, Fermin tries to seduce her by means of dazzling religious challenges designed to prove to the other Vetustenses his sway over the most admired woman in the city. At first, Ana (scarred as a child by the sexual perversions of her father’s housekeeper, Camila, and Camila’s lover) accepts willingly the intellectual and spiritual ways of Fermín. One day, however, she realizes that his constant demands and intimate presence exceeds the realm of the spiritual and constitutes nothing less than the possessiveness of a jealous lover. Horrified at the thought of being a married woman pursued sexually by a man of the Church, Ana withdraws and the stage is set for the consummation of an adulterous affair with Vetusta’s local womanizer, Alvaro Mesia.

Significant in the love triangle of Ana, Fermin, and Alvaro, is the absence of her own husband Victor (another narrative irony) from this traditional structure. In La Regenta, it turns out, the wronged man is not the husband but instead the spiritual figure of Fermin. He has become, in his own eyes, Ana’s true spouse due to Victor’s inability to function as her sexual partner, her friend, and her defender against the amorous assaults mounted by Alvaro. The thirty-some-year age difference between Ana and Victor, combined with separate bedrooms and a childless marriage, the lack of common interests, and a provincial existence in which males dominate every facet of life, mean that the spiritual, intellectual, and physical longings of this beautiful, sensitive, and intelligent young woman cannot be fulfilled.


The realist aesthetic under which Clarfn wrote La Regenta came very close to the naturalist credo of the French novelist Emile Zola 0840-1902), wherein man’s instincts would always triumph over his spiritual desire for moral righteousness. The Credo holds that one’s heredity, the milieu in which one is reared and the moment in which she lives determines that individual’s conduct In other words, given the right circumstances anyone can fall prey to immoral or unethical behavior and give in to passion or instinct

When the novel begins, Ana and Víctor have already been married for eight years. In that time, they have begun to slowly drift apart as each has become more set in his/her ways: Victor hunts, goes to the theater every night, trains caged birds, and builds ineffectual animal traps. Ana, on the other hand, reads the works of the Spanish mystics such as Saint Teresa (see Interior Castle , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). Also Ana writes poetry and a diary, and goes for walks in the country with a traitorous maid. While the husband avoids any and all sorts of domestic contact, the wife hungers for spiritual stimulus and intellectual gratification to sublimate the emptiness and isolation to which she feels condemned.

Ana reaches her moment of crisis when she realizes Fermin’s desire for her—a double sin since it threatens not only adultery but also sacrilege because it involves a priest’s breaking his vow of chastity. Ana is repelled by the thought: “[she] felt something like hatred for a moment. ’What? Her own confessor was compromising her? … How horrible! How disgusting! A love affair with a priest!’” (Alas, La Regenta, p. 631). Weary of her marriage, her confessor, and an in different circle of jealous friends who would like to see her morally diminished, she spots Alvaro on his white horse a few days prior to the feast of All Saints (November 1st), when the romantic play by José Zorrilla, Don Juan Tenorio, is traditionally staged. Persuaded to attend the performance, Ana is transfixed by Zorrilla’s lovers to the point that she identifies with the heroine Inés. The heroine harbors a chaste love for Don Juan, is abandoned by him, and dies. Ana’s response to the play amazes her real seducer, who observes her from the opera box he shares with other members of Vetusta’s minor aristocracy. A jaded rake, Alvaro is incapable of being moved by sentimental pleasures or Zorrilla’s romantic rhetoric. He realizes that the time is ripe for him to make a daring move. The seduction scene takes place offstage, so to speak, outside the narration, between chapters 28 and 29, so that when the action resumes a couple of months later, Ana and Alvaro, now lovers, are having Christmas day dinner at the Judge’s house in a strange and at the same time familiar setting. Though outwardly normal, the dining-room scene unfolds on several levels: Victor worries that the maid Petra may betray his innocent flirting with her; Ana is upset with Petra because of her arrogant behavior of late; Petra conceals her duplicitous allegiance to Fermin, who has decided to hire her as a maid if she helps him wreak vengeance on the Judge (for his unconcerned cuckoldry) and his wife (for her infidelity to both); and Alvaro realizes that his age precludes the sexual prowess necessary to keep the maid silent with his attentions while also satisfying Ana as a lover.

Fermín, ever the devious manipulator, has the maid set Victor’s alarm clock ahead on the morning he goes hunting so that the unfortunate old man sees Alvaro leave his wife’s bedroom through a back balcony. Fermin’s revenge is truly complete when Alvaro kills Victor in the ensuing duel and subsequently leaves Vetusta for Madrid where an old conquest awaits him. Ana is left alone, destitute with a widow’s pension, and shunned by the society she herself had once disdained, which now hypocritically condemns her—not for her illicit affair, but for not having avoided the scandal that killed her husband and forced one of the city’s most prominent figures to depart. “Vetusta the noble was scandalized, horrified.… Mesia’s bullet, for which the judge’s wife was to blame, broke the peaceful tradition of silent, well-mannered prudent crime. Many illustrious ladies … were known to be deceiving, or to have deceived, or to be about to deceive their respective husbands—but without any shooting!” (La Regenta, p. 706). The social order of this regimented society has been transgressed and no one is willing to forgive, least of all the two principal bastions of convention—the aristocracy and the Church. The novel ends, as it had begun three years earlier, in the cathedral as Fermin tends to his liturgical tasks; but when his eyes now rest upon Ana—who comes in search of forgiveness—they are so full of hatred that she falls to the stone floor faint with the fear that he’s about to strike her.

A play within the novel

Chapter 16, which centers on Don Juan Tenorio, falls exactly in the middle of the novel. It is also the first chapter of the second volume of the work. Both factors indicate its primary importance in La Regenta. In his novel of love and betrayal, the author introduces a second level of meaning by introducing Zorrilla’s play of evil redeemed by love as counterpoint to his own plot. José Zorrilla, though still alive at the time Clarín wrote his novel, had premiered his play on March 28, 1844, 30 years before the publication of La Regenta. The play had become successful beyond anyone’s dreams, certainly beyond Zorrilla’s, who signed away his author’s copyright for a meaningless sum and now watched as others became wealthy while he struggled near poverty. Though no one can be absolutely sure why Don Juan Tenorio’s popularity grew to such proportions, the fact remains that Spanish theatergoers expected to see its annual staging on November 1 as an almost pagan celebration of All Saint’s Day and the Day of the Dead (November 2). Perhaps its many fans saw in the characters of the libertine Don Juan (tireless lover, profligate gambler, invincible swordsman, repentant sinner) and the angelic Dona Ines a tale of love triumphant, where one woman’s sacrifice tips the balance in the eyes of a merciful God to save a sinner from the fires of hell—a salvation that had not befallen the same character in the Friar Tirso de Molina’s (1571-1648) original theological drama of the Golden Age The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest (1630; also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). There, the protagonist had been made to pay for his sins by eternal damnation. In Zorrilla’s “drama religioso-fantastico,” as he subtitled it, Don Juan is redeemed by the love he feels for Dona Ines and her pact with the Almighty that he be given one last chance to repent for his sins.

Clarín’s heroine, Ana, not only sympathizes with Zorrilla’s innocent female figure, but actually identifies with her and even sees herself playing the role of someone who can save the sinner she recognizes as Alvaro. Ana’s tearful and mesmerized state in the course of the performance astonishes even the jaded Alvaro. The novel’s use of this romantic text, then, a) better profiles the innocent character of Ana and the skeptic one of Alvaro, and b) serves as a narrative stratagem that introduces the most important segment of the novel, the willing seduction of Ana, who mistakes sex for love at the hands of a womanizing, empty-headed male archetype.

The judge’s wife was happy as she fell [into her adulterous affair]: she could feel the dizziness of her fall in her stomach. And if on some mornings she awoke not to happy thoughts but to doleful ones … she soon cured herself with the new system of naturalistic metaphysics which she had at last unwittingly created for herself so as to satisfy her invincible desire to carry all events of her life into the regions of abstraction and generality.

(La Regenta, p. 642)

Literary context

The nineteenth-century Spanish novel developed over a 50-year period, beginning with Fernan Caballero’s The Seagull (1849; also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times) and ending with Vicente Blasco Ibanez’s Reeds and Mud (1902). Spanish literature of the second half of the century is dominated by the narrative, whether the short story or the novel. Although Benito Perez Galdos (1843-1920), Clarín’s friend and fellow author, wrote 34 novels—many more than Clarín—and is considered by many to be the greatest writer of Spanish realism, Clarín’s La Regenta is almost universally acknowledged as the masterpiece of realist fiction in Spain. It appeared just before Galdos’s own renowned four-volume Fortunata and jacinta (1886-87; also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times), and Emilia Pardo Bazan’s (1852-1921) The House of Ulloa (1886; also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). That Clarín’s novel is ranked so highly can perhaps be attributed to its sense of a complete, closed world where every possibility is exhausted in terms of character portrayal, situational complexities, theme development, historical context, and richness of psychological insight. The ironic perspective of its narrative and the daring nature of its main argument—the love triangle involving a married woman and a priest—undoubtedly add to its enduring appeal, as does the cloud cast upon the dominant role of the Catholic Church in nineteenth-century Spain.


Since Clarín was known primarily as a writer of short stories, book reviews, and newspaper columns, the publication of his first novel came as a surprise for many people. Among other writers, the reaction was both cautious and largely reserved. Only Galdós had much to say publicly, and this was many years after the original publication of La Requenta when Clarín asked Galdós to write a prologue to the second edition of La Regenta. Since Galdos knew that his friend was dying, the words are kind and full of admiration for Clarín’s talents as a writer, but they are also carefully chosen due to the strong impact that the work had had on the larger popular audience.


In his reply to the Bishop of Gviedo’s denunciation of his novel, Clarfn justifies the writing:

I believe that my novel is moral, because it is a satire of bad habits without alluding to anyone directly .… for example, no one can see even the remotest likeness between my bishop don Fortunato Camoiran and the present day bishop of Oviedo, … As far as the insults that have been heaped on me in your pastoral letter, I will overlook and forgive them because they come from your Grace, besides they do not injure me since I cannot demand satisfaction from a bishop.… But I hope that, according to the letter and the spirit of the Gospel, that you will rectify the false affirmations which I have pointed out

(Cabezas, pp. 144-46; trans. R. Landeira)

In the prologue Galdós writes: “I would say that Ferm’n de Pas is more than a cleric, he represents the ecclesiastical state in all its greatness as well as with its failings, the gold of an immaculate spirituality falling onto the impure mud mire of our origins” (La Regenta, p. xvii). The Catholic Church, on the other hand, was neither muted nor cautious in its reaction to La Regenta. Mon-signor Martinez Vigil, Bishop of Oviedo, where Clarín lived and taught, and the historical referent of Vetusta, took to the pulpit to denounce the novel—as did other priests—and to advise good Catholics not to read it. Sexual appetites in priests (Fermín is not the only cleric who falls victim to lust), adultery among the aristocracy, and fights to the death between husbands and lovers are topics too destabilizing for the Church to tolerate. Clarín thought the condemnation so stinging and unjust that he himself replied to his bishop in a long letter published by the local newspapers, which subsequently has been reprinted in critical studies many times over.

Clarín’s concern about the attacks upon his novel and his religious beliefs were not unfounded, as can be seen by the veritable disappearance of La Regenta from bookstores and libraries for decades. No paperback popular version of the work existed until 1962, and not until one decade later was a reliable critical edition available. Censorship during the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975) made it difficult—in other words, unprofitable—for publishers to reissue the novel by itself, so that the only way to access the work was to purchase it as part of a very expensive leather-bound volume of selected works, poorly printed in an ancient double column format full of typographical errors. Thankfully, homage volumes commemorating its centenary, several new critical editions, and two recent translations into English have since been published in acknowledgement of La Regenta’s status as one of Spain’s pre-eminent realist masterpieces.

—Ricardo Landeira

For More Information

Alas, Leopoldo. La Regenta. Trans. John Rutherford. Middlesex: Penguin, 1984.

Brent, Albert. Leopoldo Alas and “La Regenta.” Columbia: University of Missouri Studies, 1951.

Cabezas, José Antonio. Clarín: El Provinciano Universal. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1936.

Durand, Frank. “Structural Unity in Leopoldo Alas’ La Regenta.” Hispanic Review 31 (1963): 324-35.

Eoff, Sherman H. “In Quest of a God of Love.” In The Modern Spanish Novel. New York: New York University Press, 1961.

Nimetz, Michael. “Eros and Ecclesia in Clarín’s Vetusta.” Modern Language Notes 86 (1971): 242-53.

Rice, Miriam Wagner. “The Meaning of Metaphor in La Regenta.” Revista de Estudios Hispdnicos 11 (1977): 141-51.

Sánchez, Roberto G. “The Presence of Theater and ’The Consciousness of Theater’ in Clarín’s La Regenta.” Hispanic Review 37 (1969): 491-509.

Savaiano, Eugene. An Historical Justification of the Anticlericalism of Galdós and Alas. Wichita, Kans.: Wichita State University, 1952.

Valis, Noel Maureen. The Decadent Vision in Leopoldo Alas. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana University Press, 1981.

Weber, Francis. “Ideology and Religious parody in the Novels of Leopoldo Alas.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 43 (1966): 197-208.

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La Regenta (The Judge’s Wife)

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La Regenta (The Judge’s Wife)