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The Effects of Bureaucracy in the Life of a Clerk in Benito Perez Galdos’ Miau
The writer probes on the effects of bureaucracy in the life of a clerk, Don Ramon Villaamil, in Benito Perez Galdos’ Miau which was written and published in 1888. It is anchored on the sociological theories of Max Weber’s concept and functions of bureaucracy (Gerth and Mills, 1961) and its disintegrating effect on the main character and its repercussions in the multi-dimensional life of the protagonist. In understanding further the novel, the student writer uses Hippolyte Taine’s three-pronged approach to the contextual study of a work of art, based on the aspects of what he called race, geographical and social milieu, and historical moment (wikipedia.com).
Hence, to fully understand the bureaucracy mirrored in the novel, the writer traces first the historical, political and biographical life of the author and Spain in the nineteenth century. How all these artefacts affected the writer to record vignettes of hard truths in the society is remarkably interesting to investigate.
The Spanish novelist and dramatist Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920) is best known for his masterly treatment of the vast panorama of Spanish society in a series of historical and contemporary novels.
Benito Pérez Galdós was born on May 10, 1843, in Las Palmas, Canary Islands. Due to a rigid upbringing he developed into a shy, quick-witted boy, interested in music, drama, and painting. He learned English from an American woman whose illegitimate daughter, Sisita, was his first cousin and childhood love. One of Galdós’s most enduring remembrances concerned his affection for Sisita and the brusque intervention of his mother, who sent him away to Madrid in 1862 to study law.
In Madrid, Galdós felt irresistibly drawn to the turmoil of city life and soon abandoned his university courses for cafés, opera, theater, and long strolls through the streets. Intent upon understanding all classes and types of Spanish society, he frequented outlying districts, open-air markets, taverns, and tenement houses. By 1865 he had begun newspaper work. His articles on parliamentary sessions in Las Cortes made that newspaper famous.
Although Galdós was a perspicacious journalist, his ultimate aim was to give Spaniards not only a coherent picture of their daily lives but also a vision of a new Spain, reborn spiritually, culturally, and economically. He believed the novel best suited this purpose. In 1867 Galdós went to Paris, rediscovered the novels of Honoré de Balzac, and once back in Spain finished his first novel, La sombra (1870), and began a second, La Fontana de ore (1867-1868).
Henceforth, except for his advocacy of liberal politics, Galdós lived immersed in literary activity. He wrote almost a hundred novels and plays, which may be classified into three groups. The first group includes his 46 Episodios nacionales, historical novels beginning with Trafalgar (1873) and ending with Canovás (1912). They retell in story form stirring episodes of 19th-century Spanish history and embody Galdós’s conviction that the key to Spain’s present and future betterment resides in a critical examination of the past.
The second group includes Galdós’s realistic social novels, which divide into two subgroups. The first comprises the Novelas de la primera época (1867-1878). Among them are Doña Perfecta (1876) and Gloria (1876-1877), which boldly depict Spain’s provincial hypocrisy and religious fanaticism. The second is made up of the 24 Novelas españolas contemporáneas, (1880-1915), which mark the maturity of Galdós’s art. In such works as La de Bringas (1884), his four-volume masterpiece Fortunata y Jacinta (1886-1887), and Misericordia (1897), Galdós harmonized his passion for reform with the art of creating the illusion of reality. While treating many problems of Spanish life, he did not sacrifice character freedom to any social or moral teaching. Today, as then, his novels offer a compelling imagen de la vida.
The third group is made up of Galdós’s plays. After writing novels for 20 years, Galdós turned to the theater. In 1891 he recast his novel Realidad into dialogue, staging it successfully the following year. He produced 22 plays, of which La loca de la casa (1893) and El abuelo (1904) are considered his best. The premiere of Electra (1901) unleashed a storm of controversy, earning Galdós the hatred of Spain’s clergy and conservative class. Galdós was an authentic revolutionary of the Spanish theater. Reacting against José Echegaray’s outmoded romantic melodrama, he confronted audiences with a frank portrayal of social conflicts. His plays anticipated the innovations of modern Spanish drama.
In 1897 Galdós was elected to the Spanish Academy, and by 1912 he had become totally blind. Beset by financial difficulties, he continued to write, although his health was failing. He died on Jan. 4, 1920, in Madrid.
From the Galdos’ biography, facts which are reflected in the novel Miau are his beautiful and vivid description of Madrid, the streets, the plazas, the churches, the house and even the places of entertainment such as the parks and theatres or opera houses that his women characters Senora Pura, Abelarda and Milagros Villaamil are fond of frequenting to show their social status. Likewise, the insolent and abusive Victor Cadalso has a semblance with that of radical and revolting views of Galdos.
What is striking in the novel is the inclusion of many historical allusions and daily government bureaucratic system which affected our protagonist in the novel and the domino effect to his family. The history of nineteenth century Spain is sometimes considered by other writers as the century of madness due to the gross effects of bourgeoisie capitalism, political unrest, rise and fall of one government to another and constant civil war within Spain and her colonies in the Philippines and Cuba.
It is noteworthy to look at the tumultuous history of Spain during the nineteenth that will reflect also the divisive, despotic and unpeaceful milieu which our protagonist experienced at the hands of the selfish bureaucrats.
In 1866, a revolt led by Juan Prim was suppressed, but it was becoming increasingly clear that the people of Spain were upset with Isabella’s approach to governance. In 1868, the Glorious Revolution broke out when the progresista generals Francisco Serrano and Juan Prim revolted against her, and defeated her moderado generals at the Battle of Alcolea. Isabella was driven into exile in Paris.
Revolution and anarchy broke out in Spain in the two years that followed; it was only in 1870 that the Cortes declared that Spain would have a king again. As it turned out, this decision played an important role in European and world history, for a German prince’s candidacy to the Spanish throne and French opposition to him served as the immediate motive for the Franco-Prussian War. Amadeus of Savoy was selected, and he was duly crowned King of Spain early the following year.
Amadeus – a liberal who swore by the liberal constitution the Cortes promulgated – was faced immediately with the incredible task of bringing the disparate political ideologies of Spain to one table. He was plagued by internecine strife, not merely between Spaniards but within Spanish parties.
Following the Hidalgo affair, Amadeus famously declared the people of Spain to be ungovernable, and fled the country. In his absence, a government of radicals and Republicans was formed that declared Spain a republic.
The republic was immediately under siege from all quarters – the Carlists were the most immediate threat, launching a violent insurrection after their poor showing in the 1872 elections. There were calls for socialist revolution from the International Workingmen’s Association, revolts and unrest in the autonomous regions of Navarre and Catalonia, and pressure from the Roman Catholic Church against the fledgling republic.
Although the former queen, Isabella II was still alive, she recognized that she was too divisive as a leader, and abdicated in 1870 in favor of her son, Alfonso, who was duly crowned Alfonso XII of Spain. After the tumult of the First Spanish Republic, Spaniards were willing to accept a return to stability under Bourbon rule. The Republican armies in Spain – which were resisting a Carlist insurrection – pronounced their allegiance to Alfonso in the winter of 1874-1875, led by Brigadier General Martinez Campos. The Republic was dissolved and Antonio Canovas del Castillo, a trusted advisor to the king, was named Prime Minister on New Year’s Eve, 1874. The Carlist insurrection was put down vigorously by the new king, who took an active role in the war and rapidly gained the support of most of his countrymen.
A system of turnos was established in Spain in which the liberals, led by Práxedes Mateo Sagasta and the conservatives, led by Antonio Canovas del Castillo, alternated in control of the government. A modicum of stability and economic progress was restored to Spain during Alfonso XII’s rule. His death in 1885, followed by the assassination of Canovas del Castillo in 1897, destabilized the government.
Cuba rebelled against Spain in the Ten Years’ War beginning in 1868, resulting in the abolition of slavery in Spain’s colonies in the New World. American interests in the island, coupled with concerns for the people of Cuba, aggravated relations between the two countries. The explosion of the USS Maine launched the Spanish-American War in 1898, in which Spain fared disastrously. Cuba gained its independence and Spain lost its remaining New World colony, Puerto Rico, which together with Guam and the Philippines it ceded to the United States for 20 million dollars. In 1899, Spain sold its remaining Pacific islands-the Northern Mariana Islands, Caroline Islands and Palau-to Germany and Spanish colonial possessions were reduced to Spanish Morocco, Spanish Sahara and Spanish Guinea, all in Africa.
The “disaster” of 1898 created the Generation of ’98, a group of statesmen and intellectuals who demanded change from the new government. Anarchist and fascist movements were on the rise in Spain in the early twentieth century. A revolt in 1909 in Catalonia was bloodily suppressed.
Spain’s neutrality in World War I allowed it to become a supplier of material for both sides to its great advantage, prompting an economic boom in Spain. The outbreak of Spanish influenza in Spain and elsewhere, along with a major economic slowdown in the post-war period, hit Spain particularly hard, and the country went into debt. A major worker’s strike was suppressed in 1919.
Mistreatment of the Moorish population in Spanish Morocco led to an uprising and the loss of this North African possession except for the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in 1921. (See Abd el-Krim, Annual). In order to avoid accountability, King Alfonso XIII decided to support the dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera, ending the period of constitutional monarchy in Spain.
In joint action with France, the Moroccan territory was recovered (1925-1927), but in 1930 bankruptcy and massive unpopularity left the king no option but to force Primo de Rivera to resign. Disgusted with the king’s involvement in his dictatorship, the urban population voted for republican parties in the municipal elections of April 1931. The king fled the country without abdicating and a republic was established.
Though the novel ends with the suicide of Villaamil, his will for Spain for better administration and other advocacies are written as M.I.A.U. that stands for Morality, Income Tax, Additional Duties and Unification of the debt (Cohen, 1963: 145). It summarizes his personal wish for the total moral reformation of the government official and rank and file workers; instituting payment of personal income tax by workers; additional tariffs for the products of foreign traders and paying the national debt by consolidating all the provincial needs and paying them only once a year.
To analyze the sociological concept of bureaucracy in the novel, the student writer uses the Weberian Model which concepts are summarized thus: The last century saw the perfection of the bureaucracy — a form of organization that has been enormously successful and is the result of thousands of years of trial and error evolution. Max Weber outlined the key characteristics of a bureaucracy:
- specification of jobs with detailed rights, obligations, responsibilities, scope of authority
- system of supervision and subordination
- unity of command
- extensive use of written documents
- training in job requirements and skills
- application of consistent and complete rules (company manual)
- assign work and hire personnel based on competence and experience
In Miau, principles seem obvious and commonplace. However, they are all inventions — the government offices did not always have these features rather the opposite.
The narrator of the novel, third person omniscient sees bureaucracies as inefficient, slow and generally bad. When don Ramon Villaamil was following up his possible reinstatement, he was totally disappointed to hear false promises that he will get back the position. For Villaamil was already in his retirement when he became a “cesante” or “suspendido” The sudden change in the government suspended all workers which are not their allies, based on favoritism. There would have been no problem had he served for two more months. He can live with his pension to sustain the pretentious and spendthrift lifestyle of his wife Dona Pura, his daughter Abelarda and his sister-in-law who all love to go to the opera house even if they were already begging because Villaamil was already penniless. In Weber’s time, they were seen as marvellously efficient machines that reliably accomplished their goals. And in fact, bureaucracies did become enormously successful, easily outcompeting other organization forms such as family businesses and adhocracies. They also did much to introduce concepts of fairness and equality of opportunity into society, having a profound effect on the social structure of nations.
However, bureaucracies are better for some tasks than others. In particular, bureaucracies are not obviously good in the Spanish government. Officials abuse their authorities. Worst, unqualified officials or even clerks were promoted not on the merits of their work but with the great persons they know in the ministry. There are many instances in the novel when this immoral promotion was practiced…
Then that thankless wretch, that ungrateful scoundrel, who was a clerk in Office when I was Financial Inspector, fourth class, that shameless rogue Who by sheer audacity has got himself promoted over my head and become No less than a governor, that man has the indelicacy to hand me two and a half Pesetas (Cohen, 1963: 15)
He was already asking for assistance from his former clerks when he was suspended. And he concluded in saying that there’s nothing left in the world but selfishness and ingratitude. He added another clerk who was promoted and got increase every year..
“Take that clodhopper Montes, for example, who owes his career to me, Because I proposed his promotion in the central Auditory. Do you know He doesn’t even greet me in the street? He gives himself such airs that not Even the minister…And he’s going ahead all the time. They have just raised him t to fourteen thousand. He gets a rise every year. Nothing stops him. That’s what You gain by flattering and crawling. He does not understand the least thing About administration. All he can do is talk about shooting with the director And about the dogs…”
Almost finding fault because of his misery, Don Villaamil could not do anything but to ask favour to their friends to follow up possible vacant post where he can work again. This was one of the weaknesses of Weberian Model of bureaucracy, he thought that the bureaucracy in his country, Germany, and her flourishing industry can be likened to all other organizations. Weber concluded that all these new large-scale organizations were similar. Each was a bureaucracy. Obviously, Villaamil regarded bureaucracyas a dirty word, suggesting red tape, inefficiency, and officiousness. Bureaucracies can develop these features, especially if authority is highly centralized. The final result for his possible reinstatement which he patiently waited would have to come from one high office down to the provincial office. The red tape was indeed vicious that tremendously affected Villaamil. That of hatred to bureaucrats, the hypocrite clerks, the unworthy workers and the injustice of the government when he said to Victor, his son-in-law:
“Yes, yes. There’s no beating you for bare-faced effrontery. Because you’ve got no shame'(livid with fury and swallowing his Bitterness) ‘you get everything you want. The world is at your feet Promotion at all costs, and devil take the hindmost!” (Cohen, 1963: 73)
With all the bitterness, Villaamil said that he would bear his misfortunes patiently and it never occurred to him that the government will not give his post back again.
Weber’s purpose, however, was to define the essential features of new organizations and to indicate why these organizations worked so much better than traditional ones. Let us examine the features that Weber found in bureaucracies.
Above all, Weber emphasized that bureaucratic organizations were an attempt to subdue human affairs to the rule of reason-to make it possible to conduct the business of the organization “according to calculable rules.” For people who developed modern organizations, the purpose was to find rational solutions to the new problems of size Weber saw bureaucracy as the rational product of social engineering, just as the machines of the Industrial Revolution were the rational products of mechanical engineering. He wrote:
The decisive reason for the advance of bureaucratic organization has always been its purely technical superiority over any former organization. The fully developed bureaucratic mechanism compares with other organizations exactly as does the machine with non-mechanical modes of production( Coser, 1969)
For Weber the term bureaucracy was inseparable from the term rationality. And we may speak of his concept as a “rational bureaucracy” But what were the features developed to make bureaucracies rational? Namely, they are: (1) functional specialization (2) clear lines of hierarchical authority, (3) expert training of managers, and (4) decision making based on rules and tactics developed to guarantee consistent and effective pursuit of organizational goals.
Weber noted additional features of rational bureaucracies that are simple extensions of the four just outlined, To ensure expert management, appointment and promotion are based on merit rather than favoritism, and those appointed treat their positions as full-time, primary careers.
Quite the reverse in the novel, while Villaamil is the most upright, honest, brilliant and obedient to the government, that he even worked in the Philippines when he was still new in the civil service at the age of twenty four but has to return to the mainland because he was suffering from dysentery. In complete contrast, his son-in-law, who married his favourite daughter Luisa, was always promoted even if had questionable transactions in the government. All the allegations against him were dismissed because of his charm and connection. According to the office gossip He is the favourite of the aunt of a high in the government, in short, the woman has a great influence in the government. It is called the petticoat influence. Without the influential woman going to the office, Victor, as a secret lover of the matron, secured his promotion despite his alleged plunder and malversation of government funds.
Similarly, even other officials where Villaamil was working, all the unquestionable officials with their integrity and capacity were easily promoted, while the honest men like him are suspended.
To ensure order in decision making, bureaucracy is conducted primarily through written rules records, and communications. This is vividly described in the novel several times. Rank and file and officials as well are always on their desks for their business transactions, hence, creating the red tape. But, when the officials are out, expectedly, the office workers are not at all working. They are seen talking, eating and even jesting each other. One time when Villaamil visited the office, he saw that the office workers were just talking during office hours. The lame Guillen would even draw caricatures that even Villaamil was satirically attacked with a disgusting description of his poverty. But when Pandora, his friend, the official, arrives the office, hypocritically, workers return to work.
Weber’s idea of functional specialization applies both to persons within an organization and to relations between larger units or divisions of the organization. In the government of Villaamil, work was broken down into many special tasks, and employees were assigned to one or a few such tasks, including the tasks involved in coordinating the work of others. (Such coordination is called administration or management.) Weber argued that such specialization is essential to a rational bureaucracy and that the specific boundaries separating one functional division from another must be fixed by explicit rules, regulations, and procedures. Villaamil never saw it when he was already suspended. But things seemed right when he was still in the post. His honest and contented attitude in work would only allow him to work and work without giving himself in rumour-mongering. As a matter of fact, Villaamil’s proposal with an acronym of MIAU, according to him, was painstakingly conceptualized and studied for ten years. But not for other characters. They were his complete opposite.
For Weber it was self-evident that coordinating the divisions of large organizations requires clear lines of authority organized in a hierarchy. That means there are clear “levels of graded authority.” All employees in the organization must know who their boss is, and each person should always respect the chain of command; that is, people should give orders only to their own subordinates and receive orders only through their own immediate superior In this way, the people at the top can be sure that directives arrive where they are meant to go and know where responsibilities lie. This idea in the novel was tainted with favouritism or nepotism. Their focus is directed to the official and not on their work, hence their patronage for them otherwise, they will not be promoted and will not get a raise in the salary. Victor did this several times by rubbing elbows with the officials by flattering them, or by hooking rich and influential women with his handsome looks.
Furthermore, hierarchical authority is required in bureaucracies so that highly trained experts can he properly used as managers. Rational bureaucracies can be operated, Weber argued, only by deploying managers at all levels that have been selected and trained for their specific jobs. Persons ticketed for top positions in bureaucracies are often rotated through many divisions of an organization to gain firsthand experience of the many problems that their future subordinates must face. Ironically, all this bureaucratic models that Weber conceptualized were not dutifully practiced by all the characters except by Villaamil himself and perhaps Pantoja and the young Cucurbita.
Finally, Weber stressed that rational bureaucracies must be managed in accordance with carefully developed rules and principles that can be learned and applied and that transactions and decisions must be recorded so that rules can he reviewed. Only with such rules and principles can the activities of hundreds of managers at different levels in the organization be predicted and coordinated. If we cannot predict what others will do, then we cannot count on them.
Weber’s concepts of bureaucracy are rational and functional but in reality and in practice, are all idealistic. The people in the system were taught to be machine that would do as they were told. The novel Miau just showed the complete opposite. Because they are all human in the bureaucracy, they are all susceptible to human weaknesses, frailties and disdain for rules.
And with all the irony of bureaucratic system in the novel, our protagonist was totally affected by “the inhuman machine-like character of this bureaucracy”(Soileau, 2006). The effects can be gleaned on economic, physical, psychological, moral and spiritual aftermath that affected and destroyed Señor Ramon De Villaamil.
First is economic. When Villaamil was suspended, he became more conscious of the lack of food to eat on the table, if not the absence of it. It resulted further to humiliating himself by begging to his former clerks and friends in the government. His suspension in the government meant the absence of salary, the absence of money. His only joy, his grandson Luis, was a young witness to his suffering. Meanwhile, his insensitive and hypocrite wife, Dona Pura, would make a way to find food on the table just for the day. According to Villaamil, she loved beautiful things that would make them look rich, beautiful curtains, beautiful study room, that Villaamil’s salary on the first day of the month is already spent on the day it is received. With this economic downfall, his daughter Abelarda and sister-in-law Milagros, together with his wife, called the three Miaus, for they resemble the face of a cat, or pussy-faced, according to Luis’ classmates, would still find time to watch at the theatre socializing with the true rich.
Second is physical. Many of Villaamil’s former colleagues noticed his age, his emaciated face and the sadness he emanated whenever he would visit the office. The suspension totally lost his appetite, aside from the fact there was really nothing to eat, has made his body thin. That according to Dona Pura, he must be smart and elegant if he wanted to get back his post. N the end of the novel, his weak body would always stumble on the rocks of the mountains, on the edges of the table in his house and could not even last to carry his grandson Luis. This terrible effect was felt by his unsuspecting body.
Third is psychological. In the dizzying maze of bureaucracy, his impatience for the reinstatement, his economic and physical crises, indeed, pushed him to psychological abnormality. Many times, he would blame to an unseen evil force, that he suspected, might be behind the reason why he was not reinstated. Several occasions would prove that he would dwell on pessimism and negativism: “Don’t come to me with optimism and tricks. I tell you again and again that I will never get back to work. I have no hope, none.”; likewise he said They won’t give me my job back until the afternoon of the day of judgment.”; Villaamil sank more and more into his pessimism, reaching the extreme of saying ‘We’ll see the sun come up in the west before you’ll see me go back to work.'”; “I didn’t have any illusions and that’s not the way”, said don Ramon, raising his hands almost to the ceiling, “I never had any hope. I never believed that they would give me my job and I will never believe it.”; and, God doesn’t help anyone but the crooks. Do you think I expect anything from the Ministry or from God? Everyone is the same… above and below farces, favoritism.'”. All these he uttered to others but mostly to himself (interior monologue). Since he had no more face to his outside world, even his inside world in the family, he totally lost all control to survive and live.
His lack of moral turpitude on what is good and right interspersed with his personal spiritual connection to God was totally lost in the last two chapters in the novel. It may have been a wry humor in the story but bites one in the conscience when the old, suspended, mad Villaamil was running away from the family and Mendizabal, his neighbour, who were searching for him. He was enjoying, like a child, the hide-and-seek that meant to save him from his final death.
But, it seems that, there is a Dostoyevskian belief in Villaamil that madness is a path to divine inspiration (Cohen, 1963:5). In his majestic figure in the cliff, like Jesus when he was tempted by the devil to throw himself to the depth, he found strength in his new freedom. He was totally detached from reality. He even made a motto for his death which was: “A foul death to the whole universe” ( which in Spanish the initials are MIAU-“Muerte. Infamante.Al Universo”). He enjoyed the idea of not thinking for money anymore; that he would free himself from the pretentious, hypocrite and materialistic Miaus and passed them onto Ponce, the future husband of Abelarda who inherited a great sum from an uncle who just died, that he would not care for the post anymore for better is to be with God. He comforted himself by looking and talking to the birds. Those birds were surviving without to worry on what they would eat and so would he.
And with that false belief if not wrong notion of spirituality (as Luis told him about the apparition that God would get his grandfather) he shot himself… and the shot echoed in the solitude of that dark and deserted place. Villaamil gave a terrible leap, his head plunged into the shifting earth, and he rolled straight down into the gulf. He retained the consciousness only for enough time to say: “well… it did…”
In conclusion, our protagonist, who may also be considered a tragic character, in the maze of bureaucracy where it has favored the people on the basis of favoritism, nepotism, “petticoat influence”, closeness, patronage of the officials, abuse can be seen, if not felt, by Villaamil, his family and his grandson. Villaamil must have been promoted based on his merits, qualifications, honesty and integrity on his work. This abuse, which led to his suspension, affected him economically, physically, psychologically, morally and spiritually and brutally put himself to death.
Cohen, J. M.(tr). (1966). Miau. Baltimore: Penguin Books Ltd.
Coser, Lewis A. and Bernard Rosenberg (eds). Sociological Theory: A Book of Readings.
London: The Macmillan Company.
Gerth, H. H. and C. Wright Mills. (1961). From Max Weber: essays in Sociology.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Soileau, Clany. (2006). Money and Tragedy in the Nineteenth Century Novels.
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