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The Great Chiasmus: Word and Flesh in the Novels of Unamuno

Paul R. Olson

This study views the whole of Unamuno's novelistic works as a great chiasmus in which the ending recalls—with variations—the beginning, and the whole of human life is likewise seen as a structure of chiastic repetitions. The analysis considers the thought of Miguel de Unamuno as expressed in his novels published over the period of nearly four decades, from 1897 to 1933.

The formal analysis is based on his use of the chiasmus, a word that refers to the Greek letter chi (c). The OED defines chiasmus as a grammatical figure "by which the order of words in one of two parallel clauses is inverted in the other." The figure thereby expresses concepts of exchange and reversal, producing a symmetry that creates effects of harmony and equilibrium, lending qualities of gravity and solemnity to the writer's discourse, and also implies a conversion of the temporal dimension of language into a spatial structure, the elements of which can be apprehended simultaneously. This effect of spatialization can also be seen in Unamuno's use of such forms of textual embedding as "the novel within the novel."

On the conceptual level the chiastic structure is implicit in Unamuno's treatment of some major philosophical themes, in which the chiasmus is a means for expressing his paradoxical sense of the interpenetration or actual identity of opposites. In confronting such basic dualities as Being and Nothingness, Idea and Matter, or Mind and Body, Unamuno rejects any metaphysical dualism, such as that of Descartes, which would see the members of each pair as belonging to radically different orders of being. Such binary opposites are typically viewed by Unamuno as freely reversible within a unified reality. He interprets the duality of Word and Flesh in essentially human terms, as a contrast between language and physical reality.

The five core chapters of the study are devoted to close reading and analysis of what may be seen as five stages in Unamuno's novelistic trajectory: the historical novel, Paz en la guerra, which poetically expresses his concept of intrahistoria; Amor y pedagogía and Niebla, to both of which his term nivola may appropriately be applied; the novels of interpersonal conflict in his middle period; the return of the nivola in Cómo se hace una novela; and finally, a return of intrahistoria in San Manuel Bueno, mártir y tres historias más.

"While exploring the chiastic structure through close readings of the individual narratives, Olson's anaylsis also provides an excellent introduction to Unamuno's novels and stories, and is thus an important contribution to a general understanding of his work as a whole. The Great Chiasmus, the culmination of Olson's work in the field, will illuminate the path of any readers, whether newly introduced to or well acquainted with Unamuno's work." — Heather Dubnick, MLN

For the complete review see MLN 119.3 (March 2004): 401-05.

" extensive literary analysis of the classic works of Miguel de Unamuno. Focusing especially on Unamuno's use of the chiasmus, a reversal in the order of words or parts of speech in parallel phrases ('blanca como la nieve y como la nieve fria'), The Great Chiasmus is a meticulous scholarly work which is strongly recommended, especially for complementing the experience and appreciation of Unamuno's writings, whether in their original Spanish or in an English translation." — Midwest Book Review

For the complete review, visit

"Besides [the book's] status as a contribution from one who has for so long been a major contributor in the area, the chief virtue of Olson's work here is the way in which it prompts one to question, and to go back to reread the novels. This can only be good." — Alison Sinclair, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

For the complete review, see Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 82.3 (July 2005): 394-95.

For more reviews, see
Modern Language Review 100.1 (2005): 237-38. (Donald L. Shaw)
Reference & Research Book News 1 Aug. 2003.

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Paul Olson is Professor Emeritus of Spanish at Johns Hopkins University. His studies include works on medieval Spanish and Italian literature, linguistics, twentieth-century Spanish poetry, and the works of Miguel de Unamuno.

1-55753-261-3 Paper $26.95
1-55753-341-5 Cloth $58.95
2003. Vol. 26. viii, 272 pp.