The Sea Gull
The Sea Gull
by Fernán Caballero
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set from 1836 to 1848 in Spain; written in French; serialized in Spanish in the Madrid newspaper El Heraldo in 1849; published in Spanish (as La Gaviota) in 1856, in English in 1867.
In a Spain divided between conflicting currents of traditionalism and modernization, the daughter of a Spanish fisherman marries a German doctor and becomes an opera star, only to lose her voice after falling in love with a bullfighter.
Cecila Böhl von Faber, known by her pen name Fernán Caballero, was born in 1796 in Morges, Vaud, Switzerland, to intellectual parents. Her father, Johann Niko-laus Böhl von Faber, was a German scholar and naturalized Spanish citizen whose writings introduced the theories of German Romanticism into Spain. Of Spanish and Irish heritage, her mother presided over literary gatherings. Caballero spent her early childhood in Cádiz, Spain, then moved to Germany, where for seven years she attended a French school. Upon her return to Cádiz at age 16, she beheld her country through the curious eyes of a foreigner, keenly noting Spanish habits, diversions, and speech patterns, observations that would stand her in good stead when she sat down to portray Spanish character types and customs, a hallmark of her writings. Widowed twice while still young, Caballero found herself in financial difficulty during her third marriage, a situation that compelled her to publish her many literary works. These include the novels Clemencia (1852) and Lafamilia de Alvareda (1856) as well as collections of Andalucian folklore. Most notable today is The Sea Gull, which signaled the reawakening of the novel, a genre that had virtually been dormant in Spain since the Golden Age. Regarded as didactic, The Sea Gull places its tradition-oriented characters in a positive light and ridicules those who prefer liberal French ideas, at a time when Spanish society found itself at a crossroads between two divergent trends in its evolution.
A nation on the margins
In the early nineteenth century, Spain lagged behind various other European countries in terms of political, social, and economic progress. The military strength of countries such as France and Britain led to an expansion of their imperial power, as they established new colonies overseas. In contrast, Spain’s international prestige suffered in the first part of the nineteenth century. Its military was in decline, and from 1808 to the 1830s, Spain lost most of its immense empire in the Americas. Its remaining colonial possessions were Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Cuba in particular assumed an integral role in the Spanish economy, for the colony not only delivered tax revenues to the impoverished nation, but also provided a market for goods such as Castilian grain and flour. A pressing international problem for Spain in the 1840s was maintaining possession of Cuba, which the United States coveted both for the island’s trade potential and for its strategic geographical location in the Caribbean. Spain kept a protective eye on Cuba. Aside from its economic value, the colony played a psychological role in that it was viewed as one of the last vestiges of Spain’s past imperial glory.
Meanwhile, nearby France strongly influenced Spanish taste in fashion, literature, and music in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. In fact, French styles became highly popular in urban Spain. At one point The Sea Gull features a character, considered ridiculous by the narrator, who goes to great lengths to follow French fashion.
During the 1830s and ’40s, the time of The Sea Gull, the industrial revolution had not yet permeated Spain. Its economy remained almost exclusively agrarian. When French and British travelers—accustomed to factories and capitalist production in their countries—saw Spain’s crumbling inns and medieval ruins, they felt as if they had returned to a past era. Noting the lack of even a railroad system, the visitors regarded Spain as tremendously backward. Many French regarded Spain as a land in transition between Europe and Africa, a marginal space on the fringes of modern Europe. In fact, the French author Stendhal (Henri Beyle) went so far as to identify Spain with Africa: “It seems that I am going to go to Spain, that is to say, to Africa” (Stendhal in Hoffmann; trans. M. Tanenbaum, p. 81). This image the French had of Spain is reflected by a conversation in The Sea Gull; one of the aristocrats (who favors modernization in Spain) remarks, “How right the French are when they say Africa begins beyond the Pyrenees,” to which another character replies, “They don’t say it since they [now] occupy a part of the [African] coast.… It would be too flattering to us” to associate Spain with French holdings (Caballero, The Sea Gull, p. 240).
The Romantic country par excellence
The perceived backwardness of Spain was precisely the quality that most attracted the French Romantics. These intellectuals abhorred the greed and the conformity associated with the rise of the bourgeoisie (middle class) in their own country during the first part of the nineteenth century and nostalgically yearned for an age when courage and dignity reigned. In Spain, French Romantics such as Théophile Gautier and Prosper Mérimée admired marginal characters such as the Spanish gypsy, whose lifestyle they viewed as a courageous rejection of the mediocrity of society. Furthermore, the French Romantics, alienated from their own industrial cities, valued the bonds between people in agrarian Spain, mourning the disappearance of these ties in France’s new capitalist system. There seemed to be less difference between social classes in Spain; the country came to represent a bygone age of harmony and heroism for which the French Romantics longed.
The pack animals and carts, broken-down roads, and traces of the ancient Moorish civilization that the French found in Spain offered fresh sources of inspiration for their writing, as did the castanets, folk dances, and characteristic clothing. An added attraction was the “ideal” Spanish woman, who captivated them with her dark hair, sensuality, and mystery. In fact, the country as a whole struck the French as exotic, a space that was alluring but also dangerous. Rumor had it that bandits roamed the countryside, particularly in the hot and distant South, which was regarded as the country’s most exotic region, an area in which all of its characteristic elements could be found in abundance.
The Sea Gull is replete with the very elements that the Romantics found picturesque in Spain. Guitar music, decaying edifices, and bullfights imbue the novel, which takes place mostly in the southernmost region of the nation, Andalusia. A preconception of the Spanish people as cruel is also a recurrent theme: the German doctor, for instance, is so sickened by a bullfight that he leaves the arena, wondering how anyone could enjoy the slaughter of innocent animals.
Absolutism and liberalism
In reality, Spain was not at all standing still at the time. Spain’s King, Fernando Vll (1784–1833), met with fierce opposition from liberals during his reign. Events outside and inside of Spain challenged the old system of political and economic oppression: the pivotal French Revolution of 1789; the Industrial Revolution in Britain; the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808, when the emperor’s brother Joseph Bonaparte replaced Fernando as king for five years and attempted to introduce economic reforms; and the Constitution of 1812, a blueprint for civil liberties composed by Spanish liberals but stifled for the time being with the return of Fernando in 1814. Influenced by these events, Spain’s mercantile and commercial classes pressed their king for greater economic and political freedoms and were supported in their drive by the intellectuals, who wanted Spain to keep pace with the rest of Europe. But the despotic king opposed liberalization, as did Spain’s two other bastions of wealth and power—the nobility and the Catholic Church. Tensions mounted. Fernando was forced to capitulate to the Spanish liberals in 1820, but he managed to reclaim absolute authority in 1823. As earlier, when he had returned to the throne in 1814, Fernando squashed his liberal foes, clamping down on innovative ideas and banning all foreign literature associated with liberalism. Thousands of liberals fled Spain in fear of persecution.
By the late 1820s, insurgence in the Latin American colonies had led to tremendous debt in Spain. Faced with the necessity of raising funds, Fernando decided to reach out to the conservative liberals, that is, to the wealthy commoners who desired a “bloodless, controlled transition to a liberal regime” (Smith, p. 6). Fernando’s gestures towards compromise with the conservative liberals laid the foundation for the development of a more liberal society. Over the next decade the guilds were forced to relinquish their control of the different trades, which paved the way for greater openness in manufacturing and in selling goods. Also, the Church’s holdings were assailed. In order to fill the country’s coffers, certain municipal and Church lands were seized and sold on the open market, which made it possible for people who did not belong to the aristocracy to own land. Disentailment (desamortizacidri), or the transformation of these lands into private property, began in 1836, after Fernando’s death. In general, the nobility supported such liberal compromises, since they minimized the threat to its power. The compromises allowed the nobles to keep their lands and to maintain their political and social influence. Part of the so-called liberal revolution of the 1830s was a new constitution in 1837, which gave some power to Spain’s parliament but left most of it with the reigning monarch.
THE PSEUDONYM OF CECILIA BÖHL VON FABER
Writing in the nineteenth century was typically regarded as an activity suitable solely for men, as it was suspected that literary involvement—even reading—could corrupt the moral principles of women. Perhaps influenced by her father, who did not endorse women’s intellectual pursuits, Cecilia Böhl von Faber demonstrated a reluctance to flaunt this cultural taboo: although she penned her earliest work during her teenage marriage, she did not submit her manuscripts for publication (with the exception of a work published in Germany and a short story published in Spain under her initials “C. B.”) It was only in the late 1840s, when her financial resources were dwindling (perhaps due to the carelessness of her third husband) that she decided to publish The Sea Gull, which had been composed several years earlier. Symptomatic of her ambivalence over whether a woman should have a literary career, Cecilia selected a pseudonym that was emphatically male: caballero means “gentleman”. Moreover, the full name evokes traditional Spain, adding to the patriotic tone of the work. Fernán recalls epics and monarchs; caballero also means “knight,’ The pseudonym, then, allowed the writer to camouflage both her gender and her German heritage.
The First Carlist War (1833–40)
In 1830 Fernando selected his newborn daughter Isabel (1830–1904) to be his successor, and his wife María Cristina of Naples to be regent until Isabel came of age. Fernando’s absolutist brother, Carlos Maria Isidor de Borbón (1788–1855), had other ideas, though. Desiring the crown for himself, he argued that the Salic Law, imposed by the French in 1713, forbade passing the crown to a female. Fernando tried to repeal this law, decreeing that the manner of succession revert to Spanish custom, which allowed a woman as well as a man to ascend to the throne. The clergy, infuriated by Fernando’s compromise with the liberals, sided with Carlos, supporting his claim to the crown.
When Fernando died in 1833, civil war broke out over the question of the royal succession. Supporting Isabel were the liberals, who favored modernization and a less powerful Catholic Church. Opposing her were Carlos’s advocates—the “Carlists”—the Church, the artisans, and the peasants. The liberal reforms posed a threat to these groups. The artisans faced competition on account of the weakening of the guilds. Disen-tailment jeopardized the peasants’ livelihood, depriving them of access to common lands, where they traditionally grazed their animals and grew food for themselves.
A bloody struggle ensued between liberal and anti-modern forces. Called the First Carlist War, it spread through much of northern Spain, lasting from 1833 to 1840. In retaliation for the violence initiated by the Carlists, the liberals not only seized ecclesiastic lands, but also dismantled most male religious orders. The Sea Gull dramatizes this upheaval through the recurring image of a disintegrating monastery that no longer has any religious function.
Ultimately the Carlists conceded defeat through the Vergara Pact of 1839, which signaled the imminent end of the war. But the Carlist movement did not disappear: opposition to economic modernization and cultural change in Spain would continue until the 1930s, most notably in the countryside, where some of the poorest members of society protested the results of the liberal revolution. Thus, the political struggle over whether to modernize persisted through the time of The Sea Gull and beyond—for roughly another hundred years. This struggle in fact initiates events in The Sea Gull, since the novel’s male protagonist travels to Spain to serve as a doctor for the liberals in the Carlist War.
The countryside and the city
In the first part of the nineteenth century, the typical village in Spain had its own government, a council composed of male inhabitants of the village, which made and interpreted laws based on local customs. It was obligatory, for example, to give shelter to needy transients; it was also mandatory to attend funerals. Since their laws grew out of local traditions, villagers found the centralization and homogeneity propounded by the liberals to be antithetical to their way of life. Villagers feared the loss of their community identity, for the liberals aimed to form “municipalities out of formerly distinct villages” (Shubert, A Social History of Modern Spain, p. 191). After the liberal revolution of the 1830s, some villages ignored the new national laws that came from the central government, instead continuing to abide by the traditions in their own community. Indicative of the independent nature of the villages were certain idiosyncratic religious rituals, which seemingly had no connection to the official liturgy.
Although aristocrats possessed a great deal of land in outlying villages and towns, they generally lived in Madrid or in the provincial capitals. Rarely visiting their holdings, they leased them out to tenants for cultivation. In the large cities, the aristocrats tended to socialize in tertulias, salons in which intellectual discussions took place. As noted, the liberal revolution brought an increase in economic opportunities. From this increase in opportunities came the growth of new social classes, perhaps most notably of an urban elite whose status was based on wealth rather than birth. The old aristocrats refused to mingle with the newly wealthy, a practice that would change only in the late 1880s, when the two groups began to intermarry.
Change occurred elsewhere in society as well. After the liberal revolution, when government became more centralized, the number of civil servants in Spanish cities increased. They formed part of las clases medias (the middle class). Along with doctors, printers, and landlords, the civil servants generally earned enough income (at least 8000 redes a year as of 1845) to qualify for the vote. Also in the middle class were shopkeepers, barbers, and music teachers, who usually did not earn enough (or pay enough taxes) to vote. At the bottom of the scale, the working class toiled mostly in the fields as agricultural laborers. In the cities, a small working class provided labor for industries such as rope factories, or sold candy and other wares in the streets. Some of these workers were women. While middle- and upper-class women were expected to devote their lives to domestic affairs and eschew a public identity (unless their involvement in public life took the form of charitable duties), working-class women labored out of economic necessity. Likewise, while the sons of the elite attended Jesuit schools, many working-class children sought jobs at an early age in order to contribute to the family’s income.
The sea Gull opens with a sea voyage to Spain in the year 1836. During the crossing, a Spanish duke named Don Carlos strikes up a friendship with an unemployed and homesick German doctor named Fritz Stein, who hopes to find work as a surgeon in the Spanish civil war in Navarre.
Two years later, Stein is wandering through the Andalucian countryside on his way to a seaport after being dismissed from the army for administering medical aid to a soldier on the opposite side (a Carlist). Delirious with fever, the doctor stumbles upon a dilapidated monastery whose inhabitants, an elderly woman named Aunt María and her family, nurse him back to health. Stein stays with the family and becomes acquainted with their folklore, proverbs, and superstitions. He also explores the nearby village of Villamar, where he encounters medieval Spanish relics.
One day the doctor is summoned to the seaside hut of an ailing 13-year-old girl and her doting father, a fisherman. The girl’s name is Maria, but she is known as “Marisalada” (or, in one English translation, “Marysal”); the nickname, which means “salty Maria,” implies a dry sense of humor, grace, and a liking for the sea. However, a boy in the monastery, Momo, tauntingly calls the girl la Gaviota, the Sea Gull, “Because she’s got such long legs … because she’s in the water as much as she’s on land; because she sings and yells, and jumps from rock to rock, just like the rest of them” (The Sea Gull, p. 45). Under Stein’s care, the Sea Gull recovers her health and becomes strong enough to sing again.
Struck by Marisalada’s gorgeous voice, Stein offers to give her singing lessons. The urchin Momo warns that Marisalada is ungrateful and selfish (la gaviota implies a wild, shrewish woman). Nevertheless, Stein falls in love with his pupil, mistakenly supposing that her emotional singing indicates a compassionate heart. At the urging of the monastery’s elderly Aunt Maria, who is determined to keep the gentle doctor in the village, Stein and Marisalada marry.
Three years later, Stein performs surgery on an injured hunter who turns out to be his old friend Don Carlos, the duke whom he met on his way to Spain. Amazed by Marisalada’s voice, the duke insists that she and Stein share their respective skills with the world. The Sea Gull, enthralled with the promise of fame and fortune, welcomes the opportunity to leave the rustic village; her saddened husband, who has been content in the village, reluctantly acquiesces. While her father sobs with grief, Marisalada departs with her husband and Don Carlos for Seville.
The next chapter takes place in a palace in Seville. The countess of Algar entertains guests who comment about the condition of Spain. Some discuss the exoticization of Spain and the influence of French culture on their own, while
BULLFIGHTING: FROM SPORT TO SYMBOL
The city of Seville, the setting for part of The Sea Gull, was famous in the nineteenth century for its corridas de toros (bullfights), an indigenous sport that came to symbolize Spain itself. Since the Middle Ages, bulls had played a role in certain rituals practiced by commoners, as well as in celebratory occasions at court, when nobles on horseback fought bulls to commemorate events such as royal weddings. Although aristocrats began developing specific rules for bullfighting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the sport languished at the beginning of the eighteenth century when the new Bourbon king of Spain, who was French, did not support it. Soon, though, commoners adopted the bullfighting guidelines developed by the nobility and began performing the sport at village and city festivals, attacking the bulls according to increasingly strict rules. A typical bullfight of the mid-eighteenth century consisted of a team of bullfighters, with apprentices who weakened the animal with lances and darts so that the matador, the expert, could deal the death blow. Over time, the matadors, who fought on foot, became the heroes of the spectacle and began to attain great wealth and national glory. By the start of the nineteenth century, the sport had grown into a lucrative business, with bullfights raising funds for religious, charitable, and political causes. The business attracted entrepreneurs, who leased newly built bullrings, purchased bulls especially bred to be aggressive, and hired bullfighters (toreros), most of whom came from the lower classes in Andalusia. Crowd control became a concern, for the fights were raucous affairs; rowdy spectators would pelt timid bulls and toreros with fruit and stones. Over the years, the bullfight would take on special significance for various writers, who came to regard it as a symbol of Spain’s repudiation of the modern world.
one of them emulates French tastes with disastrous results. After reaching Seville, Marisalada creates a sensation there when she performs the lead in an Italian opera. Everyone is astounded by her stunning voice. Infatuated with the young star, her patron, the (married) duke, composes love sonnets for her. She takes no interest in them, or him, for that matter, but a bullfighter named Pepe Vera captures her attention. He arranges a secret rendezvous with her.
Marisalada travels to Madrid, where she performs to even greater acclaim. Her voice is unparalleled in Spain. Back in the Andalusian countryside, her father, still depressed because of his daughter’s departure, lies dying. The urchin Momo arrives in Madrid to fetch Marisalada and Stein but returns without them, claiming that he saw the Sea Gull die a violent death before he fled the city in terror. Momo does not understand that what he saw was just an opera. The villagers mourn the deaths of Marisalada and her father.
One night Pepe Vera, the bullfighter, jealously grabs the Sea Gull, who by now has become his mistress, and forbids her from performing on stage. Although she catches a chill during their argument, Pepe forces her to go to a tavern with him anyhow. Stein meanwhile discovers his wife’s adultery and, heartbroken, informs the duke of the affair. The doctor leaves for Cuba, the duke, for Seville.
The next day Pepe Vera demands that the Sea Gull attend his bullfight. A feverish Marisalada goes to the arena, where Pepe Vera is killed by a bull. The Sea Gull finds herself not only ill but also alone. Six months later, a conversation in the countess’s salon reveals that pneumonia has destroyed Marisalada’s operatic voice and Stein has died of yellow fever in Cuba.
The novel ends in the village of Villamar, to which Marisalada has returned. The former opera star, now unkempt and raspy-voiced, has married the local barber, whom she once scorned and with whom she now has two wailing children. The final images are of a decaying fort and the crumbling monastery.
Italian opera and indigenous Spanish music
When the Sea Gull arrives in Seville in 1844, she attends one of the evening gatherings held by the Countess of Algar. Although the assembled nobles have been informed that she has an astonishing voice, they look skeptically at the newcomer, who is neither gracious nor elegant. When asked to sing, to the accompaniment of a piano, Marisalada performs the Italian aria Casta Diva from the opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini. She then moves on to a popular Andalusian melody, while playing the guitar. Although the trills from Bellini’s Norma are met with admiration and applause, it is the Spanish melody that garners the more enthusiastic reception. The members of the audience begin to clap and chant with delight when Marisalada breaks into the Spanish song, then nostalgically reminisce about other indigenous songs of their country. The juxtaposition of an Italian aria and an Andalusian folk tune points to the struggle between foreign and indigenous artistic and literary forms that had been going on in Spain for more than a century.
Italian opera was tremendously popular in Spain in the 1830s and ’40s, when The Sea Gull takes place, and had in fact long been popular there. Opera companies from Italy began arriving in Spain at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Spanish royal court at that time, which included Philip V’s powerful Italian wife (Elizabeth Farnese, Duchess of Parma) and an Italian prime minister, supported these companies, which proliferated so dramatically that they threatened to squash Spain’s indigenous lyric theater.
OPERATIC WORKS IN THE SBA GULL
In The Sea Gull, there are allusions to the fact that the central female character sings arias from Bellini’s Norma as well as from Rossini’s Otello and Semiramide. These operatic references may be regarded as warnings about the dire fate of women who rebel—or are even suspected of rebelling—against societal norms. In Bellini’s opera, the Druid High Priestess Norma breaks her vow of chastity and bears children with a mortal enemy of her people. In Rossini’s Semiramide, the queen of Babylon, Semiramis, has her husband murdered and unknowingly falls in love with her own son. in Otello, the innocent Desdemona is killed by her husband when he suspects her of adultery. These operatic allusions are not the only musical motifs that refer to the demise of women who resist cultural norms, Marisalada sings an Andalucian folk tune that recounts the murder of an adulterous wife by her husband:
And thrice he stabbed her through
The lady was dead by one o’clock
And her lover was dead by two
Tura lura lura, tura lura loo.
(The Sea Gull, p. 100)
Like most of the women in the musical references above, Marisalada rejects the conventions of society. Unlike the heroines above, however, Caballero’s protagonist does not perish but suffers a mundane fate. She is, in other words, denied the status of a tragic heroine.
In an effort to compete with this foreign musical form, Spanish musicians turned to their own popular culture for inspiration. The result was the development in the mid-eighteenth century of the tonadilla escénica (scenic tonadilla), a short operatic form whose melodies were influenced by rural folk songs and urban street music. The tonadillas escénicas —performed by a band of singers accompanied by an orchestra—featured the witty treatment of popular topics, along with character types associated with the lower strata of society, such as barbers or seamstresses. The comic element was essential; trends were often satirized, including the passion for Italian opera in Spain. Later, the foreign tendency to exoticize Spain would be another subject for parody.
CABALLERO’S FATHER REHABILITATES THE REPUTATION OF SPANISH LITERATURE
German Romantics believed that a literary work should not adhere to classical precepts; instead it should represent the essence of a particular people. This was a revolutionary idea for the Spanish when Johann Nikolaus Böhl von Faber (1770–1836), Fernán Caballero’s father, came to Spain with his German Romantic theories. In an 1814 article, Böhl defended the works of Golden Age playwright Calderón de la Barca (see Life Is a Dream, also in WLAIT 5:Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times), which had been criticized for violating the classical unities, which called for a play to have one main plot that takes place in one location within twenty-four hours. For Böhl, Calderón’s dramas, with their themes of knightly courage, religion, and love, were valuable precisely because they did not reflect classical restraint but rather captured the spirit of the Spanish people. In contrast, works modeled after classical Greek or Latin texts could not convey a country’s essence and should not be emulated.
Bóhl’s article triggered a famous literary polemic in which the German scholar exhorted a return to Spanish traditional literary forms. Opposing Böhl was a Spanish scholar, José Joaquin Mora (1783–1864), who, citing “the eternal rules of good taste,’ advocated adherence to classical rules, as exemplified in the French writings of the Enlightenment (Mora in Flitter, p. 12). The debate became politicized: to look for inspiration to French neoclassical writings, such as those of Voltaire, Bóhl implied, indicated a lack of patriotism. Eventually Mora came to agree with the tenets of German Romanticism. In fact, it was Mora who years later translated, edited, and serialized The Sea Gull
The tonadillas escénicas proved enormously popular in the mid-to-late eighteenth century. There was competition between indigenous and Italian operatic forms at the time, with each waxing and waning in popularity. By the first decade of the nineteenth century, interest in the tonadillas had languished, while Italian opera still flourished. Italian members of the Spanish court continued to support Italian singers, composers, and music, especially operas. A music school—now the Madrid Conservatory—was established (by the fourth wife of Fernando VII, María Christina of Naples), and its students sang solely in Italian, not in Spanish.
With the disappearance of the tonadillas escénicas, Spain’s indigenous lyric theater had become virtually nonexistent by the 1830s. Spanish musicians still attempted to counter the Italian presence in their country’s theaters, achieving a victory of sorts in the late 1840s, when some young Spanish composers revived the zarzuela, a traditional Spanish entertainment from the seventeenth century. The modern zarzuela was a form of musical theater that included stock characters and spoken dialogue, as well as dances, melodies, and musical instruments regarded as authentically Spanish. Unlike the tonadilla escénica, the modern zarzuela did not die out but influenced Spanish music for years to come.
As noted, Fernán Caballero’s father, Johann Nikolaus Böhl von Faber, criticized the adoption of French Enlightenment ideals in Spain, propounding instead that artists embrace authentic Spanish traditions. His nationalistic attitude has been regarded as a primary influence on his daughter’s work. In the novel, when Marisalada leaves aside the popular melodies of Spain for the arias in the foreign operas, she literally loses her voice. Caballero’s father may have in some ways also been a prototype for The Sea Gull’s German doctor. The novel’s doctor travels to Spain and delights in its picturesque scenery as Böhl did himself.
The Sea Gull draws on oral and textual sources too. Its oral sources include folklore, popular song lyrics, and Andalusian proverbs (“A good fire is half of life; bread and wine the other half,” The Sea Gull, p. 79). The novel’s aristocrats tell anecdotes and use French and English expressions drawn from Caballero’s direct observations. Among the novel’s literary sources are courtesy books written by eighteenth-century Spanish women. Courtesy books contained tales that warned of punishment for a woman who flaunted society’s norms by rejecting the role of committed wife and mother; for her offenses in the novel—adultery and lack of devotion to her elderly father—Marisalada suffers the loss of her gifted voice.
Elements of melodrama, associated at the time with the serial novel, enter into The Sea Gull as well. Melodramatic language glamorizes Marisal-ada’s love for Pepe the bullfighter: “Maria loved that young and handsome man whom she saw facing death so serenely. She savored a love that subjugated her, that made her tremble, that wrung tears from her” (Caballero in Kirkpatrick, p. 332). Other literary influences are the Romantic myth of the genius who wins admiration from a dubious society and fictional tales of heroes who abandon the countryside for the big city in search of fame. This was the first time a Spanish author connected these two literary templates to a female protagonist.
It was not socially acceptable for a woman to be a professional writer in nineteenth-century Europe, and women commonly showed their discomfort at entering a domain reserved for men by employing male pseudonyms. Perhaps this uneasiness explains why women writers usually focused on domestic issues. The author of The Sea Gull had a different goal—she aimed instead to portray a nation in transition. Still, her stance is conservative. Caballero herself crossed the boundary that kept upper- and middle-class women from public careers, but her plot upholds a conservative viewpoint: the heroine’s pursuit of fame ends in the humiliating loss of her talent.
Notoriously difficult to classify, The Sea Gull is regarded as a precursor to the famous Spanish Realist novels of the 1870s and ’80s, yet it incorporates elements of Romanticism and costumbrismo, two currents that already existed in Spain. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cuadros de costumbres (sketches of customs) proved popular. In The Sea Gull, several interpolations of folktales and stories that interrupt the main narrative resemble cuadros de costumbres. For instance, in the middle of the narrative about Marisalada’s recovery from her childhood illness, the story breaks away to recount a didactic fable about a rooster. Fer-nan Caballero’s novel was actually the first in Spain to use the notion of costumbrismo (the portrayal of customs characteristic of a certain region), though this had already been done by the French author Honoré de Balzac, whose detailed depictions of contemporary society influenced The Sea Gull. Yet, described more as a conglomeration of different genres than a coherent narrative of “life and movement,” Caballero’s work is not regarded as a true realist novel (Kirkpatrick, p. 334). Because of its didacticism, The Sea Gull is viewed rather as a forerunner to an early phase of the realist novel in Spain, the nov-ela de tesis (thesis novel), which contained a strong, undisguised message. Finally The Sea Gull shares traits with Romantic works, for it defends traditional life in the villages, in contrast to the foreign-influenced culture of the cities.
Composition and reception
Caballero’s facility with French—the result of her education abroad—may explain why she composed The Sea Gull in that language. It is also possible that the novel was originally composed for French readers, since in the Prologue to the Spanish edition Caballero states that she wants the European public to have an accurate description of Spain. Various parts of the novel seem directed at a foreign readership; for example, on one occasion, the narrator explains that although the melodies of the Spanish ballads may be monotonous, their charm lies in the way in which the singer modulates his/her voice.
The author’s original manuscript was translated into Spanish by an editor. Since the original French version has been lost, it is impossible for scholars to ascertain how much of it was modified in the process of translation. Ironically, a work that appears to be promoting traditional Spanish practices and deriding the imitation of French ones has itself been mediated by this foreign language.
Shortly after being serialized in Madrid’s newspaper, El Heraldo, in the spring of 1849, The Sea Gull was hailed as groundbreaking for its accuracy in depicting Spanish life. A popular as well as a critical success, the serialization prompted curiosity over the author’s true identity. Caballero, concerned that the reception of her work would be adversely affected if her gender were known, tried to keep her identity a secret. Despite her fears, her editor’s revelation later that year that Fernán Caballero was a woman did not dampen enthusiasm for the work. Within 20 years, five editions of The Sea Gull had been published in book form.
One eminent critic of the day, Eugenio de Ochoa, singled out The Sea Gull as the first modern Spanish novel to compete with highly regarded realist novels, such as those by Britain’s Henry Fielding. While he observed that there was a dearth of action in the novel and lamented its heroine’s destiny, Ochoa praised the lifelike characters, and predicted that The Sea Gull would provide a literary foundation for the future. In his words, the novel was “the first light of a beautiful day, the first flower of the glorious poetic crown” that would adorn future Spanish novelists, a prediction that would be borne out by the novel’s effect on later Spanish literary works (Ochoa, p. 340; trans. M. Tanenbaum).
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