Most of the commentary I've read about La Regenta compares the book to Flaubert's Madame Bovary, because of the obvious surface similarities. La Regenta is also considered to be one of those big 19th-century social novels, as it involves (at various distances) characters from all of the social classes of Spain. The book is usually labeled a "realist novel," no doubt because many readers believe Alas was depicting Spain in a factual manner, keeping the action of the story in the empirical world. I will suggest that this way of looking at the novel is correct only when considering the surface of the book, and that La Regenta is far less like Madame Bovary than it is like another great 19th-century novel that operates on the level of the irrational while hiding behind a realist facade: Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot.
The surface plot, the attempted seduction of Ana by the priest de Pas and the successful seduction of Ana by the small-time politician Mesia, obscures but does not actually overwhelm the parallel plot of Ana attempting to lead a proper Christian life, by turns modeling herself on St Teresa of Avila, Thomas a Kempis, and Fermin de Pas. Most readers see this life of faith as background, as activity against which the adultery plot functions, but I believe that Ana's striving to live her faith properly is in fact the primary story, and the drawn out adultery plot is the social background to that story. After all, every woman in Vetusta is an adulteress; adultery, lechery, and deceit are the status quo and Ana's engaging in that status quo in no way sets her apart from any other woman in the text. What does set Ana apart is her saintliness, her sincere devotion to God. In fact, Ana is the only "good" woman in La Regenta (up to her fall into Mesia's bed); there are no normal women in Vetusta, no women who are not either saintly Ana or scheming vixens.
The spiritual plot of the novel can be traced from Ana's backstory (an innocent child who wrote ecstatic love poems to Christ, was falsely accused of having sex with a boy from her village and shipped off to live as a virtual prisoner with two stern embittered aunts), through Ana's more-or-less virginal marriage to Victor, through the episode of the young nun dying in the Vetustan convent situated next to a sewer outlet, through Ana's interest in Teresa of Avila, though Ana's spiritual counseling from de Pas (who attempts to guide her away from the contemplative life into a more active worldly life that has the outward show of religion but lacks real and meaningful faith), through Victor's brief flirtation with the writings of Thomas a Kempis, through Ana's public humiliation in support of de Pas, through Ana's sophistry in convincing herself that to become Mesia's lover is an act of propriety, to the final scene of the novel, where the cathedral empties as Ana enters, de Pas fleeing from her in horror, Ana collapsing on the floor and kissed during her blackout by the grotesque sexton. La Regenta is a very long book so I may have some of these events out of order.
I believe that Alas is presenting a saint trapped in the profane world, in much the same way that Dostoyevsky's The Idiot presents a Christ figure trapped in 19th-century Russia. Both Dostoyevsky's Myshkin and Alas' Ana seek purity and goodness, and both are tempted and fall. Myshkin is epileptic, Ana is subject to some kind of physical and mental collapses. Both Myshkin and Ana are human and flawed characters, but they are also both clearly morally far superior to everyone else in the novels they inhabit, raised by their authors onto pedestals from which these saints' fellow characters wish to topple them.
The theme of the cloister is important to Ana's story. For most of the book, Ana is homebound, alone with her faith and doubts. Early on in the book, a daughter of one of Vetusta's upper class citizens dies in a convent, victim of the unsanitary conditions there. The young nun had been placed in the convent at the suggestion of Fermin de Pas, the most influential priest in town. This episode foreshadows Ana's story (a devout woman whose world is controlled by selfish men is slowly poisoned by the toxic city in which she lives). Ana's strongest impulse is to remain cloistered, sleeping alone, meditating and praying and leaving the house only to attend mass and make her confession. She is most able to reconcile her life with her faith when she is alone, though her mysticism is viewed by her family and neighbors as a form of madness that must be cured. When Ana attempts to bring Victor back to an active religion, he reads The Imitation of Christ. The quoted lines from Kempis' book provide one of the central axes around which La Regenta turns:
Settle and order everything according to your own views and wishes, yet whether you like it or not you will always be made to suffer; you will always find a cross. Sometimes it will seem as if God has abandoned you, and sometimes you will be mortified by your neighbor; what is more, you will often be a burden to yourself.Book III Chapter XX of Kempis' Imitation reminds us that "it is sweet to despise the world and to serve God," and the explicit use of Kempis reinforces Alas' cloister theme: Ana is better off away from the wicked world of Vetusta, and to turn her back on social obligations in order to face God is not necessarily madness. The problem, of course, is the toxic presence of Vetustan men intruding upon Ana's solitude.
In the Spain of the 1880s, the saintliness of Teresa of Avila was being hotly debated. Was she an enraptured mystic inspired by the Divine, or was she merely a hysterical young woman? Ramon Mainez wrote a book about the hysteria of Teresa, and sent a copy of it to Leopoldo Alas, who was a professor of Roman law and a well-known journalist and literary critic. Alas responded, "I remember that on one occasion Galdos and I spoke of the 'big deal' that could be made of Saint Teresa in an historical novel, in the best sense of the word. It's true. And he could write it, because he's able to understand so many mysteries of poetry and feeling that exist in Saint Teresa and her divine madness. Believe me, Mr Mainez, doctors can tell a lot about what was happening to Saint Teresa, but they cannot say everything."
La Regenta, like much of Dostoyevsky's work, is an angry book. Alas is disappointed in the Church, in civil society, in humanity. It is a great religious novel, is La Regenta, the gasping voice of a dying faith, maybe. My understanding is that Alas had, by the time he wrote the book, fallen away from the Church, and his disappointment seems to embrace even himself. Alas' unreliable and sarcastic narrator is no better than the citizens of Vetusta; he leers at Ana when she is naked and getting into bed, he revels in the blasphemies of the town's official atheist, he turns a blind eye everywhere and cheers on evil with as much enthusiasm as he cheers on goodness. Behind this sarcastic idiot stands Alas, shaking his head, thinking of Thomas a Kempis and the imitation of Christ, thinking of the mysteries of poetry and feeling that exist in Saint Teresa and her divine madness.
Later this week, maybe, I'll post some favorite excerpts from the book, mostly from the second half, probably.