The character of the grandmother in Primera memoria is very important to the development of the story. Her appearance, actions and dialogue, as shown through the narrative of the young and old Matia, provide the main stimulus for the changes in the lives of Matia and Borja as they pass through adolescence. Through the narrative and the characterisation of the grandmother by Matute we are able to paint a picture of what we believe her character to be. Matute cleverly uses the character of the grandmother to portray various roles from the period in which she wrote the book and from fiction.
For example General Franco and the Snow Queen from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale ‘The Snow Queen’.
From the very beginning of the novel the characterisation of the grandmother gives us clues to the person that she is and how she is viewed by Matia. The descriptions throughout are often contradictory, they are ‘bittersweet’ Schraibman (1990, p 151) for example ‘el brillo verde del mar’ covered by the dark clouds, there is always a shadow over the beauty maybe caused by the attitude of the Grandmother conflicting with Matia’s memories, this is shown in the first paragraph:
Mi abuela tenï¿½a el pelo blanco, en una ola encrespada sobre la frente, que le daba un cierto aire colï¿½rico.
Llevaba casi siempre un bastoncillo de bambï¿½ con puï¿½o oro, que no le hacia ninguna falta, porque era firme como un caballo. Repasando antiguas fotografï¿½as creo descubrir en aquella cara espesa, maciza y blanca, en aquellos ojos grises bordeados por un circulo ahumado, un resplandor de Borja y aun de mï¿½.
Supongo que Borja heredo gallardï¿½a su falta absoluta de piedad. Yo, tal vez, esta gran tristeza.
What is clear from this opening description is that there are two sides to the Grandmother; One, is the exterior of an old possibly weak lady (an appearance that the Grandmother seems happy to continue), but inside she is a strong, cold and possibly wealthy and powerful lady (her power and wealth are apparent soon after). There is a certain air of deception around her, for example the walking stick which she does not need and together with her weak old lady appearance we see a women who likes to be in control and enjoys manipulating those around her. Her complaints about being old and of having financial problems appear to be a rouse to evoke sympathy, this image of the Grandmother continues throughout the story.
The Grandmother aims to bring Matia under her control and recreate Matia in her own image. The dominance that the Grandmother tries to implement over Matia is shown when she says ‘te dominaremos’ the Grandmother is clearly determined to stamp out any of the rebellious nature that Matia has and wants to ‘mold Matia into the image she wants’ Schumm (1999 p.48), Michael Thomas describes the Grandmothers ‘taming’ of Matia as though she is being ‘swallowed’ by her Grandmother. This figurative ‘swallowing’ of Matia into the world of the Grandmother provides a very negative characterisation of the character and gives her the role of the villain in the story, much like in the fairy tales that Matia reads. The control and influence of the Grandmother is evident in the case of Borja, who in Matia’s words knew how to behave in front of his grandmother ‘Era dulce y suave en su presencia y conocia muy bien el significado de las palabras herencia, dinero, tierras’ Matute (2009 , p15). He also inherited some of her traits, for example, her lack of mercy. This shows that the Grandmother has already tamed Borja, who has left his childhood behind and succumbed to his Grandmothers world.
Matia often uses animal metaphors to describe her Grandmother. The Grandmothers attempted control and intrusion on her life was a constant frustration for Matia and characterises her as a predatory animal, she recollects that the Grandmother was ‘like a greyhound’ that ‘sniffed their footsteps to find them’ Matute/Kerrigan (1991, p 19), as well as showing the intrusion and attempted interference in the lives of the youngsters Sandra Schumm believes this metaphor portrays an ‘animal tracking its prey’ Schumm (1999, p 47). Also she compares her Grandmothers eyes with those of an owl and calls her ‘the beast’ Matute/Kerrigan (1991, p 20) giving further information to the reader of the character and role of the Grandmother. On a small scale we are seeing a persecution of Matia by her Grandmother due to Matia’s past and her rebellious nature, and many people would side with Matia and see the Grandmother as the villain.
The character of Doï¿½a Praxedes has a lot of authority in the small island where she and her family live. Many of the people are her tenants and she enjoys her position on top of a hill looking down over her dominion showing her influence. Matia resents this and in another descriptive paragraph we are able to sense these feelings of resentment.
Allï¿½ estarï¿½a, como un dios panzudo y descascarillado, como un enorme y glotï¿½n muï¿½ecazo, moviendo los hilos de sus marionetas. Desde su gabinete, las casitas de los colonos con sus luces amarillas, con sus mujeres cocinando y sus niï¿½os gritones, eran como un teatro diminuto.
The way that the Grandmother observes the ‘colonos’ upsets Matia, Schumm (1999) claims that Matia empathizes with the people watched by the Grandmother because of the scrutiny she receives by the Grandmother. It is clear that Matia is not the only person scrutinised by the Grandmother who looks disapprovingly on anyone that differs from her traditionalist ideas, this includes Manuel and her staff. Her constant scrutiny and authority provoke reactions of fear in others, (much like the Spanish state at the time) nobody is willing to stand up to her, for example Antonia, who works for the Grandmother, does not have the strength of mind to challenge her authority when it mattered the most, the same with Matia. The Grandmother has established an almost dictatorial rule on her household.
In a historical context the character of Doï¿½a Praxedes carries some importance. As Spain was under a dictatorship at the time of writing the novel there was little literary freedom when writing, therefore Matute needed to express her ideas without saying what she wanted. The Grandmothers character can in many ways be compared with the Spanish state at that time. Her traditional and nationalist views clearly put her, in the readers mind, on the side of Franco, and yet she is the baddie, the villain who tries to take away Matia’s childhood. It would have been impossible to publish the book if Matute had spoken out openly against the regime, therefore creating a character that readers will be able to notice as a similar figure to that of the Spanish government and General Franco is important if she wants to put out a message. The Grandmother’s intrusive and authoritarian rule over her household and her tenants compares with that of General Franco’s rule over Spain. The Grandmother is very much a symbol of Christian Spain and a symbol of what was wrong with Spain at the time whilst they hung on to traditionalist values.
The Grandmothers role in Matia’s life is crucial in the end of her childhood, the Grandmother takes away Matia’s innocence and thrusts her into the adult world where Matia falters and stumbles in a place which she is not yet ready to go, however she has moved away from childhood and is at a difficult point in her life. Matia mentions two fairy tales throughout that run parallel to Matia’s tale; Peter Pan and The Snow Queen. However there is a contrast to Peter Pan as Matia finds that the island and her Grandmothers presence rob her of her childhood, Neverland in Peter Pan is the opposite to this. Anderson (1992) recognizes the ‘stepmother authority figures’ Anderson (1992, p.18) in both Primera memoria and The Snow Queen. The Grandmother plays the role of the Snow Queen in the novel and Matia’s feelings when she stays at her Grandmother’s house reflect those of Kay and Gerda when they meet the Snow Queen at her ‘mirror of reason’, Matia finds the same atmosphere at her Grandmother’s house, ‘frigid’ Anderson (1992, p 19) and cold, mirroring the Grandmother herself. ‘En casa de la abuela, hubo frialdad’ Matute (1999, this shows Matia’s feelings when in her Grandmother’s house, there is no warmth or joy for Matia and as it turns out there is no happy ending either.
In summary the character of the Grandmother in Primera memoria provides the novel with a villain; however she plays other important roles, as historical symbols, the destructive role she has in Matia’s childhood and her role on the island. The characterisation of her is negative throughout, however Matia cannot dismiss her altogether, hence the bittersweet descriptions that we see. Despite this she is cold and indifferent and her traditionalist values mirror that of the Spanish dictatorship and in the end she was the cause of the turmoil that Matia suffered at the end of her childhood by poisoning her with her own attitude and image.
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