From Separate Spheres to Unilateral Androgyny: Gender and Sexuality in the Work of Unamuno

Julia Biggane

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Questions of gender identity and gender relations occupy a central position in much of Unamuno’s fiction and drama, and is one of the reasons his work has attracted so much psychoanalytic criticism. Certainly such criticism has been helpful in probing what Jo Labanyi has recently characterised as the ‘very self-aware exploration of masculine anxiety’ in his literary output. It has found less complex material to explore in Unamuno’s rather unvarying representation of female characters, almost all of whom are defined primarily by their drive to reproduce and nurture life as mothers: those who lack or are unable to fulfil this drive biologically are represented as dangerous, anomalous or deeply troubled subjects. While giving due account to the exploration of characters’ gendered psychological and biological drives, the chapter will also be concerned to examine the wider material contexts in which Unamuno’s ideas about gender and sexuality emerged and shifted over his lifetime. Despite the international rise of suffrage movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the growing incorporation of women into the labour market, higher education and the public sphere in the 1920s and the emergence of the ‘New Woman’, Unamuno clung to a Hegelian separate-sphere doctrine. He asserted that women’s fierce maternal affections and family loyalty made them unsuitable for the more disinterested qualities necessary for the higher functions of healthy civil and political life. For much of his career, then, Unamuno provides a highly dichotomised representation of the genders, and the stark incommensurability of male and female experience causes much misery, miscommunication and alienation between his fictional characters. This differentiation becomes partly eroded from the mid 1920s onwards: both in his fictional and non-fictional writing, the figure of an ideal male incorporating feminine qualities (such as maternal care) emerges, particularly in the religious sphere. This should, however, be viewed as a progressive move from a traditional view of radical gender/sexual difference to a more modern model of gender equality: the shift is asymmetrical in that only men are granted this spiritual hermaphodism, and, as the chapter will argue, are shaped primarily by Unamuno’s hostility towards a rising praetorian/proto-fascist cult of hypermasculinity in 1920s Spain, and towards the biologically-based theories of the prominent endocrinologist Gregorio Marañón, whose theories questioned the stability of rigidly binary sexual differentiation. Ultimately, then, the apparent blurring of gender in Unamuno’s later work must be seen as a defensive political move, or an attempt to counter new scientific challenges to sexual differences than any desire to open up possibilities for more equal relations between the sexes.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationA Companion to Miguel de Unamuno
EditorsJulia Biggane, John Macklin
PublisherBoydell & Brewer
ISBN (Electronic)9781787441262, 9781782048220
ISBN (Print)9781855663008
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2014

Publication series

NameMonografias A
PublisherTamesis Books


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