Miserable marriages exist both in real life and in fiction, but with fictional miserable marriages, readers have the opportunity to chuckle at the domestic enslavement of others. The author, Leopoldo Alas (1852-1901) in this case, presents just the right blend of unhappiness and characters who either asked for it or who juggle their marital discord with some sort of coping mechanism.
Emma Valcárcel, we are told, is a “spoiled only child,” who at age 15 kidnaps her father’s handsome, poor, and stupid clerk, Bonifacio Reyes, and strong arms him into an elopement. Emma ends up in a convent, and Bonifacio, in Mexico, tries “earning his living as the rather inept editor of a newspaper, whose main purpose was to insult others.” In time, Emma, a wealthy heiress, and with her Uncle Juan Nepomuceno as her guardian, marries a sickly older man, and is a widow within a year. Emma, who rules the Valcárcel family like some sort of benevolent despot, arranges for Bonifacio to be given a job that will bring him back into her orbit. The plan works and they are married.
It’s not a happy marriage, and Emma turns to her family for adoration (most of her male relatives are infatuated with her–but her fortune may have something to do with that). Bonifacio, finding a flute that belonged to Emma’s father, learns how to play. Since Bonifacio is a handsome man, Emma delights in dressing him up in expensive clothes, and showing him off on social occasions, but he never has any money of his own.
Following a miscarriage, Emma’s health and temperament, are in decline, and Bonifacio, who tries to pursue a separate life through the more bohemian crew at the local opera house, becomes a nursemaid/slave to Emma’s petulant demands for massages given with various lotions. She “despised her husband more with each day that passed, considering him useful only as a handsome physical presence,” and “telling Bonifacio off became her one consolation.”
His willingness to submit to all the intimate tasks of the bedroom, to his patient’s many complicated whims, to the sad, tender voluptuousness of convalescence, seemed to Bonifacio viewed from outside, not the natural aptitude of some saintly, fussy hermaphrodite but the romantic excesses of a Quixotic love applied to the minutiae of married life.
Juggling Emma’s tyrannical demands for domestic servitude, Bonafacio begins an affair with a third rate opera singer Serafina, even as he is slowly bled for money by her other lover, Mochi, the opera company impressario and lead tenor. Since Bonafacio has no money of his own, he turns to Emma’s uncle for a loan.
The book’s introduction, written by translator Margaret Jull Costa, mentions that one of the criticisms of Leopoldo Alas’s best known work, La Regenta, is that “Alas had stolen the plot of Madame Bovary.” That being the case, then of course, it becomes significant that the dominant female character of His Only Son is named Emma. While Madame Bovary’s doom was driven by debt, Emma Valcárcel also has problems with money management.
Her one talent was for spending money. Kindly Juan Nepomuceno, formerly Emma’s legal guardian and now her administrator, would happily have shooed away all the flies–in the form of her relatives–who buzzed around the rather shrunken honeycomb of her inheritance, but this simply wasn’t practicable because his niece had grown so fond of all the members of the Valcárcel family, past, present, and future, that she demanded they be treated with the utmost generosity.
Emma knows that her uncle is ripping off her estate, but she doesn’t care. She glories in it. While Emma Bovary had romantic ideals that led to her destruction, Emma Valcárcel romanticizes the portraits of her deceased ancestors.
No wonder His Only Son was banned. The novel portrays a hypocritical society rife with adultery and corruption. After Emma’s father’s death, it was discovered that he left behind “a whole tribe of bastard children,” and that “the lawyer’s chastity had not been quite as perfect as everyone thought; his real virtue had consisted largely in prudence and stealth.”
Even though this tale of adultery and money-grubbing has all the earmarks of tragedy, Alas turns his scenes into domestic farce. While adultery has drastic results in Madame Bovary, here adultery acts as an aphrodisiac in Bonifacio’s marriage. The women in His Only Son are very strong characters with the men weak and led by the nose, but it’s still the men who somehow or another have the power.
The excellent introduction explores the subversive nature of His Only Son, and the way the novel exemplifies the “clash between romanticism and realism.” It’s in this clash between the two schools of thought–Romanticism and Realism, that most of the novel’s humour is to be found. This New York Review Books edition also includes the novella Dona Berta.
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa