In the early afternoon, I found myself potting plants eager to get them in their new place to grow and flourish. The sun was taking its toll on me, in addition to feeling quite tired after a not so good nights sleep and some cold like symptoms mimicking allergies. As I sat down to read Isabel Allende’s novel, “La isla bajo el mar”, I stopped to think, “how did my day begin?”- for the life of me I could not remember. Then suddenly, I did an, “Ah yes!” – In the morning I took a detour to the university to pick up the textbook I would be using to teach a new course in the fall – thinking about how to plan and organize the class syllabus, I opened the book and checked the Table of Contents – I say to myself, “aha! – 14 chapters – I will have to ‘cover’ seven. But what should I include? I have to calculate the number of classes, make up a calendar and decide what’s important – grammar is important, but I don’t want to kill with the drill, so I will emphasize conversation and culture. All students want to speak and learn about culture.” Oh, it was all so mind boggling at the moment and I really didn’t want to start a calendar in Word, so I set to reading the text’s first short story, “Águeda”, by Pío Baroja, (1872-1956).
The story has all the makings of a fairy tale without the happy ending, – it goes like this -Águeda is a young Spanish girl with a mother and a couple of sisters. She is ugly and has a physical deformity. While her sisters and her mother go out and seem to be enjoying life, Águeda sits at home, at a window overlooking a plaza in Madrid, doing “encaje”, which is a type of Spanish embroidery done on small pillows with bobbins and thread. Out of courtesy her sisters invite her to the theatre from time to time, but Águeda knows she is a social misfit and politely declines with a smile by saying, ‘maybe some other night’. The story takes an interesting turn. A lawyer friend of the family begins to visit the house. He talks with Águeda and is amazed at how attentive she is to what he has to say. He comes back again and again to converse with Águeda and she begins to fall in love with him. One day he asks her if she would like it if he became a member of the family. Águeda becomes so excited with this offer she can’t believe her ears. Then he says, “I have asked your father for the hand of your sister Luisa”. Águeda’s world crumbles around her – she locks herself in her room and cries all night. Her sister Luisa tells her of the good news and asks Águeda to embroider the pillows for her matrimonial bed. Águeda of course doesn’t oppose and sets to her task. As Baroja puts it; ‘Águeda dreamed of having a husband and children but knew she was destined to having a miserable life. If she didn’t break out crying while she did her embroidery it was because she did not want to leave imprints in the material from her tears.’ As time went on Águeda had moments of hope and thoughts that someday a young man would enter her life and love her, but as she looked down into the plaza and saw the many young men from all walks of life passing by, a scream welled up inside her. Águeda was left only with the memory of her desire for her first and last love.
As we hear the story we might think in our day and age, – how ridiculous! Things are never so bad, we all have a place in this world, and there is someone out there for everyone. Today our society is just and takes care of people with special supports. We are a happy people and there is a solution for everything. Yet, “Águeda”, a Cinderella story in reverse – an Ugly Duckling tale, without a happy ending, makes us stop and think of people who never fit in because of this or that abnormality, hidden or overt. The people around Águeda reveled in their happiness while Águeda sat in silence withholding her tears and appeared seemingly content with her place in life. Are there people with whom we interact everyday, who don’t fit in, but cover there sadness with so-called happiness?
The story was short and when I finished I was reminded of how dark, sad and morose literature from Spain can be and asked myself, “does it have to be so?”, and the answer was – “Yes!”. In order for the reader to have empathy for Águeda and learn a lesson, the purpose of all Spanish literature, Baroja had to tell the not so happy truth. He was not protecting the reader who wants to evade reality by reading fairy tales. The story’s universality strikes home even in modern times as we live in a society of ultra positive thinking in which an exaggerated sense of elation is a put on to mask the sadness which endures below the surface.
With the onset of the new semester, I will teach the story of “Águeda”. My students will read in Spanish and they will struggle with the meaning, so I will explain the words using synonyms and antonyms. Together, we will make up situations and give examples, draw comparisons and find contrasts, and hopefully, after all that, we will understand and reach out to the Aguedas who roam the world and perhaps, just maybe, realize, we all have some of Águeda within us, at some point in time.