Journal of Anglo-Hispanic Romanticism

British Gothic as a point of departure for place and space in Becquer's Rimas y Leyendas

Elena Fernández Fernández

University of California, Berkeley


This paper studies and dissects the spatial transformations observed in Rimas y Leyendas by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer and how they are influenced by British Gothicism. In order to do so, I analyze Gothic concerns about the treatment of space within its contemporary fiction and, briefly, its nineteenth-century evolution in Spain. Afterwards, I analyze the Post-Romantic transformation of space in the fictions of Bécquer and the narrative consequences of such plot developments. I use the theoretical framework of Yi Fu Tuan to talk about spatial transformations, specifically in the terms he proposes in his ground-breaking study Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. My objective is to trace the evolution of treatments of space from the early Gothic through the late-romantic writing of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer.



"—¡En el Monte de las Ánimas – murmuró palideciendo y dejándose caer sobre el sitial – en el Monte de las Ánimas!" (Rimas 26). The dramatic sequence of events that will hasten the fate of the characters involved in the well-known short story of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer is precisely introduced by this utterance. This mount – el monte de las animas, a cursed place – is actually the core plotting device, as the morbid fascination with el monte traps the will of Alfonso and Beatriz, pushing them towards death and eternal damnation.


This paper studies and dissects the spatial transformations observed in Rimas y Leyendas by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer and how they are influenced by British Gothicism. In order to do so, I analyze Gothic concerns about the treatment of space within its contemporary fiction and, briefly, its nineteenth-century evolution in Spain. Afterwards, I analyze the Post-Romantic transformation of space in the fictions of Bécquer and the narrative consequences of such plot developments. I use the theoretical framework of Yi Fu Tuan to talk about spatial transformations, specifically in the terms he proposes in his ground-breaking study Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. My objective is to trace the evolution of treatments of space from the early Gothic through the late-romantic writing of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer.


In order to discuss this process, I use the neologism lugarificación1, or "placeification," as a type of spatial metalanguage that helps explain the transition that takes place when spaces change into places as Tuan describes in his study. To Lugarificar a space, consequently, means to connote it. In this way, space alone signifies denotation, a simple definition of a concrete scenario that works as the backdrop to where the fiction takes place. Place, however, would be the connotation of that same space as a result of the occurrence of certain events that will irreversibly impregnate it with psychological and semantic implications.


Both Spanish Romanticism and the works of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer have attracted the attention of critics and intellectuals for years, and different ideological positions have been taken with regard to them. Space as a category of literary analysis has recently been a trend among some scholars coming from different academic disciplines. This paper aims to contribute a new analytical angle to the intellectual discussion that has traditionally surrounded Bécquer.


The first spatial stop in this sequence of ideas takes place in the decade of the 1760s. It is in this moment when the European Aristocracy starts to develop a preference for a very specific kind of literature that will prophetically foreshadow the terror of the French Revolution to its readers. "The Enlightenment, which produced the maxims and models of modern culture, also invented the Gothic." (13) According to Fred Botting in his work "In Gothic Darkly: Heterotopia, History, Culture"; Gothic emerges in the heart of the Enlightenment and its development mirrors the rise of Enlightenment literature.


The attempt to provide one single definition of the Gothic has been proved to be quite a challenging intellectual task. Different critics held varying theories, but I will take Fred Botting as a point of departure. "Used derogatively about art, architecture, and writing that failed to conform to the standards of neoclassical taste, 'Gothic' signified the lack of reason, morality and beauty of feudal beliefs, customs, and work." (13) Several scholars such as Fred Botting or Ronald Paulson have attempted to explain the intellectual oxymoron of the Gothic as the offspring of the Enlightenment. According to these authors, the Gothic is a reaction to the alienation and anxiety that the Age of Reason produces in individuals. A society where nature and reality are understood as perfect machines ruled by empiricism produces at the same time a desire for freedom that is fulfilled through an aesthetic rupture. Liberation from rational constraints is therefore achieved with imagination, emotion and darkness.


Aesthetic escapism is a key element that Gothic authors will use to create their universe of fiction. Again using Botting: "The projection of the present onto a Gothic past occurred, however, as part of the wider processes of political, economic and social upheaval: emerging at a time of bourgeois and industrial revolution, a time of Enlightenment philosophy and increasingly secular views, the eighteenth-century Gothic fascination with a past of chivalry, violence, magical beings, and malevolant aristocrats is bound up with the shifts from feudal to comercial practices in which notions of property, government and society were undergoing massive transformations. (14) A very strong preference for setting Gothic fictions in faraway times or faraway lands went hand in hand with the revival of an old aesthetic concept: the sublime. The sublimity of nature and architecture created a fascination that was explored by Gothic and Romantic fictions.


One of the main plotting devices in Gothic Literatures will be precisely space. Romantic heroes and the ecstasy that nature produces in them come along with the plotting importance of settings within narrations (castles, churches, cemeteries, old mansions, etc.). Gothic fictions will therefore develop arguments where the catharsis of the main characters will be hastened by space. The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole, could be used to illustrate this relationship between plot and space. Placed in the High Middle Ages in Italy, this work of fiction depicts the troubles of a young princess, Isabella, trapped in the gloomy castle of Lord Manfred. This castle is not only the setting where the fiction takes place but a plotting device that directs the story as all the narration revolves around the escape of Isabella. Plot and space become the same narrative device: the dark corridors of the castle and the presence of the night build the main argument, the flight of Isabella.


According to Botting, the Gothic saw its greatest popularity precisely in the years that followed the French Revolution, merging real and fictional terror. A pandemic of Gothic taste spread all over Europe, creating similar movements such as the German Sturm und Drang and, in Spain, what has been labeled as Pre-Romanticism.


Russeld Seabold argued in his "La cosmovisión romántica: siete síntomas y cinco metáforas" that Spain had created Gothic taste before England, arguing that José Cadalso composed his 1789 work, Noches Lúgubres, using Pre-Romantic techniques earlier than any other European writer. Regardless of date competitions, there is a clear match between Noches Lúgubres in relation to its concerns with space and British Gothic works. The Regla de las tres unidades by Ignacio de Luzán served to dictate spatial taste norms during the Spanish Enlightenment, where space was regarded as a minimal narrative device separated from the task of plotting fiction. However, Cadalso's dark graveyard functions as the main conductor of the narration in Noches Lúgubres.


As nineteenth-century Romanticism intensifies in Spain, however, space develops a stronger presence within fiction. Works by José Zorrilla or Duque de Rivas will detract from or enhance certain spaces with narrative happenings. In this way, the seduction of a virgin novice must take place at the mansion of Don Juan but not at a convent, and the redemption of the sinner happens in a sacred cemetery and nowhere else. America or Italy will play different roles in Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino, where the Tres reglas rule is absolutely violated. In both cases, the choice of the setting will annunciate and structure the story. However, it is not until the composition of Rimas y leyendas in the late-1850s and early 1860s when space and catharsis will merge and therefore become an innovative narrative technique. In many regards, plot will become a device that explains, illuminates and deepens a sense of space.


According to Yi Fu Tuan in Space and Place. The Perspective of Experience: "In experience, the meaning of space often merges with that of place. 'Space' is more abstract than 'place'. What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value." (6). Spaces, according to Tuan, are existing geographies or architectures with no connotations. Places, however, are those same spaces covered with secondary associations and nuances that have evolved as a result of the happening of different processes. The question that must be raised at this point of the paper would certainly be what the nature of the relationship is between space, place and Bécquer.


It has been proposed that British Gothic shows a preference for certain spaces that will plot fictions and that Spanish Pre-Romanticism and Romanticism follow the same literary fashion. However, this space appears as a static reality within the world of the diegesis. Bécquer will go one step further by transforming spaces into places using the climax of the narration and characters catharsis to do so, therefore marrying space with fiction in an unprecedented manner. I will name this process of mutation from space to place lugarificación, and I will briefly analyze this process in two stories by Bécquer, "El monte de las ánimas." and "La rosa de la passion" where this spatial transformation clearly takes place.


"El Monte de las ánimas" presents a narrative structure where different spatial levels could be observed. First of all, the mount where all these events happen suffers a transformation from space to place at the very beginning of the story. Beatriz, a French aristocrat, sees the mount as a plain geographical feature: a space. However, Alonso, a Spanish lord, thinks about this same space as a place as for him it is not any mount, but el monte de las animas. The massacre of Templar knights and Spanish lords that happened there centuries ago created a legend that promises a cruel death to anyone who dares to stay at the Monte during All Saints Eve. The reader, along with Beatriz, observes a transformation between space and place that precipitates the fates of the main characters. Beatriz, the naughty French lady, demands that Alonso proves his love for her by finding her missing scarf lost during a ride on the mount. Conveniently enough, Alonso must venture alone to the monte de las ánimas the night of All Saints.


The catharsis of both characters comes along with a second spatial transformation. In this way, Beatriz dies of terror when she discovers her scarf covered in blood in her room, and the remnants of the lifeless body of Alonso, devoured by wolves, are found that same morning at the mount. As a result of this Gothic-style deaths, a second legend is created. Now, in the mount, adventurous viewers can not only face the ghosts of Templars and Spanish lords but they can also contemplate the spectacle of a barefooted Beatriz running in circles around the tomb of Alfonso while she is persecuted precisely by the former ghost inhabitants of the mount. This mount is no longer el monte de las animas, now it is also the mount of Alfonso and Beatriz. A space has become a place and the narration has come to an end. Precisely at this moment, a lugarificación of a space has taken place mirroring the catharsis of the main characters. To the contrary of what happened with British Gothic or Spanish Pre-Romanticism and Romanticism where space was used to lend structure to fiction, now the transformation of space into place drives the fiction in significant ways. The fate of the characters is merged with the space where the story is located, and their deaths will create a place which not only serves as the title of the story but that it is the story itself.


Another example that shows the same relationship between fiction and Space would be "La rosa de la pasion." In this story, there are also two different spatial levels. First of all, the reader is told that the church where the events are going to take place was an old sacred Christian temple that was destroyed by Muslim invaders and forever abandoned. This first transformation from space into place is very important for the narration, as it is this place where Daniel, a Jew from Toledo, decides to crucify the Christian lover of his daughter, Sara. A space that has become a place due to a profanation will again hasten the fate of the main characters in the story and will merge space and fiction. Sara discovers her father's plans, and sacrifices herself to save her beloved. The group of Jews decides to crucify her, and this violent death will transform a space into a place. The abandoned church will become a sacred place of pilgrimage, as a magnificent rose appears on it and later on it is discovered that it was connected to the bones of a young woman. The blend of the catharsis of the main character with a spatial transformation creates a third element: the plot itself. Again, plot is strongly driven by the creation of place in Yi Fu Tuan's sense.


Several other stories included in Rimas y Leyendas present similar lugarificaciones that actually become both plots and morals. "El beso," "Maese Pérez el organista" or "Tres flechas" observe this same new narrative technique.


Why does this collection of poetry and short stories sublimate the importance of space in narration? British Gothic and Spanish Pre-Romanticism and Romanticism surely expressed a spatial concern in their way of writing fiction, but Bécquer, probably the last Romantic writer, pushes this worry to a different level.


Both the British Gothic and the works of Bécquer are separated by almost a hundred years of distance and several historical differences surround their productions. In the particular case of Spain, the loss of the American Colonies as well as the relationship between land (and therefore space) and the Industrial Revolution created multiple concerns about how to manage the new territories of Spain. At the same time, Nationalistic movements and Costumbrismo, literary trends that were being debated all over Europe, exposed ideological differences and similarities between nations. These debates surely created a spatial intellectual hysteria.


It is not my intention to argue that late Romantic spatial concerns could be explained in terms of its historical context. Following the ideas of David Gies presented in "Imágenes y la imaginación románticas," "No existía ningún plan ideológico coherente en el movimiento romántico español, ni podemos discernir ningún bien pensado programa de cambio social: las diferentes, y a veces contrarias ideas estéticas, filosóficas y políticas que dominaron la primera mitad del s. XIX aseguraban esta brillante incoherencia" (141). However it is interesting to note the close relationship between the spatial escapism inherent in the British Gothic and the alienation of individuals in the Age of Reason. It could perhaps be argued that as the Industrial Revolution and its treatment of land develops, along with many other spatial aspects that were happening at the time both in Europe and in Spain, space is no longer just a plotting device in fiction but becomes fiction by its own means.


Dark castles, cemeteries, gloomy corridors or abandoned churches will transform from the point of view of narrative relevance as the nineteenth century moves along. No longer just devices used to stimulate the imagination of its readers, these will be used to create stories. The British Gothic will initiates a school of spatial style that that clearly informs the works of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. Rimas y leyendas therefore is the spatial offspring of British Gothic spatial concerns, though it is a rebellious progeny that will take its understanding of fiction one step further.

Biographical Notice

Elena Fernández Fernández is a graduate student in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Berkeley.

End Notes

1. The term lugarificación was suggested by Professor Estelle Tarica. I want to express my gratitude for her guidance and help throughout the process of writing this paper.


Bécquer, Gustavo Adolfo. Rimas y leyendas. Barcelona: Biblioteca Hermes, 1997. Print.

Botting, Fred. "In Gothic Darkly: Heterotopia, History, Culture." A New Companion to The Gothic. Ed. David Punter. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. 13-23. Print.

Gies, David T. "Imágenes y la imaginación románticas." El Romanticismo. Madrid: Taurus, 1989. 1140-154. Print.

Sebold, Russell. "La Cosmovisión Romántica: Siete Síntomas Y Cinco Metáforas." Castilla. Estudios De Literatura 2 (2011): 311-23. Print.

Tuan, Yi Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977. Print.