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SP4: Modern Spanish Culture and History

This paper is available for the academic year 2018-19.

Sp4 offers an overview of Spanish culture from the late eighteenth century to the present. Each of the paper’s thematic units will situate a range of cultural production—literature, cinema, visual materials (painting, etchings, cartoons, photography), and state legislation—within its cultural, social, and political contexts. Deploying a patently historical focus, Sp4 will require students to develop knowledge of major events and central figures in modern Spanish culture while considering artistic representation as an index of the times in which these artists lived and worked. While the historical component of the paper will be emphasized in lectures, seminars, and supervisions, students will be required to engage a number of intersecting fields (literary studies, cultural studies, and cinema studies) over the course of the academic year. 

The Darker Side of Modernity    This unit examines the historical processes through which Spain—the largest modern empire in world history—experienced a precipitous decline in global position throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Forced to surrender colonial possessions in Europe (1701-1714) and Latin America (1808-1833), Spain became a colony itself (un estado satélite) under Napoleonic rule from 1808 until 1813. Facing accusations of barbarism and religious fanaticism, however, the Spanish not only lost the vast majority of their imperial holdings from 1701 to 1833, they found themselves written out of narratives centring on the ostensibly rational spirit of a modern and enlightened Europe. Following recent trends in postcolonial theory, we will problematize terms like ‘modern’ and ‘modernity,’ re-casting them as European constructs designed to occlude their often-overlooked counterparts, ‘colonial’ and ‘coloniality.’ Accordingly, students will be asked to engage artistic works that grapple with the influence of the Scientific, Industrial, and French Revolutions in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Spain while considering what Walter Mignolo calls the darker side of modernity (imperial expansion, colonialism, the slave trade, etc.). We will examine Spain’s displacement from ‘modern’ Europe and the ways in which a specific group of Spanish artists—all of whom spent significant periods abroad—deployed Romantic imaginaries to respond to the intellectual and philosophical project enshrined by le siècle des Lumières in France and Aufklärung in Germany.

(Post-) Imperial Fictions  As the nineteenth century wore on, Spain found itself embroiled in a series of bloody civil wars (1833-1840; 1846-1849; 1872-1876) that divided the nation along ideological lines. Confronted with an ever-shifting socio-cultural landscape—from the decay of the Ancien Régime to the rise of the bourgeoisie—writers endeavoured to map out the contours of Spain’s national identity, employing realist fiction as a forum for critical deliberation. Nevertheless, the spectres of imperialism proved difficult to suppress, and a number of artists found themselves wrestling with the legacy of Spain’s colonial entanglements. This unit—obligatory for all students sitting the exam in Sp4—focuses on questions of identity within and beyond the Iberian Peninsula and in Spanish colonies in the Philippines, Cuba, and Morocco. Opening up discussions regarding what Edward Said has described as literature’s ‘worldliness,’ we will challenge assumptions that the construction of a national culture in modern Spain was somehow detached from colonial pursuits that have endured well into the twenty-first century. Students will be required to write on Benito Pérez Galdós’s landmark novel Tormento using references from other lectures to bolster their reading of the socio-political fissures—both in the peninsula and abroad—that transpired as a result of the Hispano-Moroccan War (1859-1860), the Glorious Revolution of 1868, the Spanish-American War (1898) and the subsequent Desastre of 1898, which purportedly signalled the death knell of the Spanish empire. NB: this topic is obligatory for the exam.

España invertebrada    Spain’s defeat at the hands of the United States in the Spanish-American War of 1898 not only marked the immediate loss of colonial possessions in the Pacific (the Philippines and Guam) and Caribbean (Puerto Rico and Cuba), it prefigured a national crisis that would forever change the course of Spain’s modern history. Wrestling with the political and culture impasse produced by the Disaster of 1898, a number of artists began proposing highly distinct methodologies for Spanish regeneration in the early twentieth century. In their works these writers staged conflicting—and highly ambivalent—representations of post-imperial Spain. Using José Ortega y Gasset’s España invertebrada (1922) as a point of departure, this unit examines how Spain’s imperial losses resulted in the fragmentation of Spanish culture within the peninsula. Exacerbated by decades of Carlist conflict, the emergence of separatist movements in Catalonia, the Basque Country, the Canary Islands, and Galicia, and the naval thrashing of 1898, by the beginning of the twentieth century Spain—in Ortega’s words—had lost its backbone. The consequences of such cultural and political disorientation, as we will explore, ultimately led to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the installation of the Francoist dictatorship (1939-1975). Students will be asked to analyse Spain’s immediate post-1898 reality in various literary-historical forms (the essay, poetry, and theatre) before proceeding to an examination of the Second Republic (1931-1936) and the Civil War. 

From Dictatorship to Democracy    This unit centres on the nearly 40-year dictatorship helmed by Francisco Franco, his death in 1975, and Spain’s Transition to democracy. We will open by considering juridical documents produced in the first two decades of Franco’s regime, and how they stand in opposition to the 1931 Constitution drafted during the Spanish Republic (1931-1936). Tracing the adroit political machinations of a dictatorship aligned with Fascist powers before and during World War II (1939-1945), this topic not only explores the violence and oppression so often associated with franquismo, it also addresses the regime’s efforts to integrate Spain within the European Recovery Program after the fall of the Axis Powers. With one eye on Franco’s ever-shifting political agenda, students will read two novels written during the dictatorship, which—through the filter of realist fiction—represent the reality of life under Francoism. In the second half, we will focus on the final years of the regime, examining Spain’s Transición to democracy in films by two of Spain’s most important directors. All four texts featured in this unit adduce highly fraught portraits of domestic life during and after Francoism, leading us back to the Ley de Principios del Movimiento Nacional (1958). To what extent, we will ask, does Franco’s vision of a patriarchal society undergirded by the Catholic Church differ from the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paradigms we examined earlier in the academic year?

NB: Many key texts can be found online for free at or or



Lectured material:

Francisco de Goya, Caprichos (1798) & Los desastres de la guerra (1820)

José María Blanco White, Bosquejo del comercio de esclavos, Capítulos I-II (1814)

Mariano José de Larra, “Literatura” & “El día de Difuntos de 1836” (1836)

José Zorrilla, Don Juan Tenorio (1844)



Lectured material:

Benito Pérez Galdós, Tormento (1884) (two lectures are devoted to this text)

Emilia Pardo Bazán, “La exangüe” (1899) and “Vampiro” (1901)

José Rizal, “Como se gobiernan las Filipinas” (1890)

José Martí, “Nuestra América” (1891) and cartoons from the Spanish-American War (1898)



Lectured material:

Antonio Machado, Campos de Castilla (1912)

Ramón del Valle-Inclán, Los cuernos de don Friolera (1921)

Agustí Centelles with Francesc Català-Roca and Robert Capa (photography)

Pablo Neruda, Tercera residencia (1947)



Lectured Material:

Carmen Laforet, Nada (1945)

Ana María Matute, Primera memoria (1959)

Carlos Saura, Cría cuervos (1976)

Pedro Almodóvar, Entre tinieblas (1983) and ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto?! (1984)


Preparatory reading: 

You are strongly encouraged to read as many texts as possible from the reading list over the summer vacation. At a minimum, however, please prepare Benito Pérez Galdós’s Tormento before arriving in Michaelmas Term. We also ask that you read Matute's Primera memoria prior to the start of Lent Term.


Teaching and learning: 

Teaching is provided through 16 lectures (4 hours on each topic) and four introductory seminars (1 for each topic). Students receive 8 fortnightly supervisions (plus revision support in Easter term if offering the exam). You are expected to attend all classes for the paper. In supervisions you should expect to look at all the topics.

All students enrolled in Sp4 will be asked to prepare a brief presentation in Spanish (5-7 minutes) in Michaelmas and an abbreviated essay in Spanish (1,000-1,500 words) in Lent to reinforce contact with the target language.

For full reading list, please see Sp.4's Moodle page. The enrolment password can be collected from the paper coordinator.


Assessment is by 3-hour examination in which candidates answer three questions, in each response making reference to at least two texts, films or artists. Examination candidates must must provide one answer to the topic (Post-) Imperial Fictions.

This paper is also available for examination by Long Essay.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Bryan Cameron (paper co-ordinator)