Ana Maria Matute is one of the most significant writers in Spain today. Some of the autobiographic details, especially those of her early life are extremely important, as they influenced her work to a considerable extent. She was born in Barcelona in 1926 in a well-to-do family, but some of the events of her childhood left deep marks on her personality. The most important of these is the Civil War, which is probably the source of one of the most important themes of her writing: the loss of innocence. Also, the lack of affection in her own family where she felt neglected is probably at the root of the isolation and loneliness of the characters in her fiction. Other personal data, like her sickness as a child which endangered her life, shaped the pessimistic view of the world that her work expresses. Usually the autobiographical details are not used directly in her work, but they are still recognizable under the guise of her subjectivity. Sin of Omission is based, for example, on her experience of the Civil War, although indirectly. The short story tackles more than one theme at the same time: first of all, the religious underpinnings are obvious even from the title. It is a story about sin, about right and wrong, about human nature and human life. The title of the story is very significant as it offers the author’s subjective interpretation of the events in the text, which, otherwise are recounted in an objective tone. The author intentionally builds up a slight confusion around the word ‘sin’: according to the sixth commandment in the Old Testament, the sin in the story should be the murder of Emeterio, committed by Lope. The title indicates however that this is not so. The true sin is that of “omission”, therefore a sin which is not related to any performed act but precisely to what has not been done. It is Emeterio’s omission to provide anything else than the strictly necessary material needs for Lope, something which is not unlike murder in a figurative sense.
Thus, the story is a brief overview of an orphan boy’s life, named Lope. The teenager is sent by a distant relative, a cousin of his father to be a shepherd in Sagrado. He is thirteen when the story begins when his mother dies. The story already mentions that he hadn’t been to school for three years, which is one of the “omissions” in the boy’s life. After he had been a shepherd for five years, Emeterio Ruiz Heredia calls him back to the village for a medical control and Lope accidentally meets on of his former school colleagues, Manuel Enriquez. The sharp contrast between the two boys, Lope a shepherd and Manuel a lawyer dressed in an elegant suit, is what generates the conflict of the story and brings it to its climax. Lope sees in the other boy the things that he has been deprived of by being sent as a shepherd in the mountains: a career, the possibility of cultivating his mind and his sensibility. There is a long list of omissions that, even if it is not given by the author, can be intuitively understood by the reader. Emeterio and his family, with a wife that had “ a sharp tongue” and a twenty years old daughter already form a hostile environment for the Lope: “[…] even if he took him in when he became an orphan, without inheritance or trade”, Emeterio and his family didn’t treat him right. The act of sending him as a shepherd to earn his own money, although seemingly a good deed to an orphan boy, is in fact a great injustice. The positive gesture is only done halfway. Emeterio provides Lope with a trade that will help him live and have enough to eat, but for the rest, isolates him and refuses to give him an education even if he is advised to do so by the boy’s former teacher. The attributes that are human in Lope are completely ignored by his foster parent. The isolation in the mountains with only one other shepherd, who is fifty years old and a bit retarded, is symbolic: Emeterio deprives him of human contact exactly at the time that his character and his understanding of life are being formed. The silence of his companion and of his surroundings is very limiting for the boy. It can not be said that a shepherd’s life would be bad for anyone, but for Lope it is, as he has been denied the education and the possibility to open his mind, as the author hints in the dialogue between Emeterio and Lope’s teacher:
“’I have seen the Lope –he said—he was mounting to Sagrado. It’s a pity for the boy.
‘Yes — said Emeterio, cleaning his lips with the back of the hand–.He goes as a shepherd. You know: one has to earn his money. Life is bad.’(Matute, 199)
Emeterio’s limited view of life prevents him from seeing the wrong of sending the boy away as a shepherd. Matute’s main concern here is with human nature: a human being needs more than merely enough to eat or drink, and Emeterio denies these things to Lope exactly when the latter would have to open up to the world. As Jones emphasizes, Matute shows here the contrast between reality and the possibility of the ideal:
“Ana María Matute’s foremost concern is man and human nature, to which she attributes unchanging characteristics conveyed to the reader by fixed literary patterns. The interpretation of the eternal condition of mankind moves from a study of individual situations to a view of history, and both specific characters and the wider perspective of history–and this is history in the sense of private history, not great events–derive from an original notion of time. Time patterns hint at a dark side of life and emphasize man’s unhappiness, loneliness and the difference between the reality of life and ideal possibilities.“(Jones, 283)
The ideal for Lope is never realized, but he senses the omissions in his life when he meets with his former school companion. One of the greatest injustice is thus that of the lack of humanity in the way Lope is treated by Emeterio’s family. Not only is he isolated in Sagrado, but receives no attention or affection from the people surrounding him. As Ordonez pointed out, Matute’s story is pervaded by a pervasive solitude and faulty communication:
“[…] an isolation between the self and others; between the self and itself; pervasive solitude; separation caused by death, divorce and faulty communication.”(Ordonez, 11)
The name of “Sagrado” is itself symbolic as it is the Spanish word for “sacred”, accentuating the religious themes of the story. The scenery described is also significant. The ceiling of the little clay hut where Lope lived and the sheer blue sky are contrasted here: the boy wakes up every day to the monotonous life in the mountains. Although the sky and the sun seem to indicate greatness, the little clay hut in which the two men could only go in by crawling seems cumbersome and suffocating:
“The summits of Sagrado were beautiful, of a deep blue, a terrible, blind one. The sun, high and round, reigned there like an undaunted pupil. In the fog of the dawn, when the humming of the flies and the creaking was not heard yet, Lope used to wake up, with the clay ceiling in front of his eyes. He remained quiet awhile, feeling by his side the body of Roque Mediano, like a breathing bulk.” (Matute, 199)
The author’s description of the roots that the men “hug” when they sleep in the hut is very significant: the verb “to hug” is used intentionally to underline the boy’s utter loneliness and the fact that he is deprived of any human contact. The whole atmosphere seems muffled and heavy, one in which the human shouts are lost, unheard:
“In the same sky, crossing like fugitive stars, the shouts were lost, useless and great. Only God knew where they would fall. Like stones. Like the years. One year, two, five.”(Matute, 199)
The boy suffers in the small, crowded hut, and under the contrasting, great sky that cannot hear the shouts of men. At the end of the story the effect of this heavy silence on the boy is again indicated. When he meets his companion, the boy is at first befuddled by the latter’s elegant clothes and by the fine cigar box he tends to him. He then feels the sharp contrast between them, between their hand and their whole appearance.
The fact that Lope cannot understand what Manuel is saying is very telling: he cannot relate to another human being after having lived for five years in absolute isolation, without talking or thinking or knowing anything about life: “Who could understand what he was saying?”. The words and accents of the other man seem strange and unusual to Lope, who has only been accustomed to silence.
The climax of the story, when Lope, after his encounter with Manuel, picks up a huge stone and hurtles it at his adoptive relative might seem shocking, but in fact, the murder comes almost naturally in the muffled atmosphere of the text. It is recounted as if it were another killing during a war. The actual sin in the story is not this murder but the seemingly innocent omissions in Emeterio’s behavior.
Lope’s crime is very significant as it indicates what other critics have termed as a “moral ambiguity” in Matute’s works:
“While she lost no family or close relatives during the war, one of Ana María’s professors was killed attempting to escape to France. But the constant sensation of loss in her works is the result of a loss much more fundamental and irreplaceable: the loss of childhood, of innocence, of beliefs, of a whole world and the values on which it was based. That moral ambiguity, to which some critics have objected in Matute’s works, is evidently a result of the Civil War.”(Diaz, 145)
The author was immensely affected by the Civil War which made her understand the dreadful part of life- with its murders and horrors at an age when she was still innocent. The war which is in itself immoral and shatters one’s ideas about right and wrong influenced her view of morality, and made her see murder differently. This is why Matute ends chooses to punish the omissions in Lope’s life in a very radical manner. The blame is clearly lain on Emeterio, and the murder is almost unquestioned by the author.
Thus, the war as an autobiographical source seems to be the main factor of influence for the moral attitude the author gives in her story:
“The dominating concern with the Civil War is definitely of autobiographical origin, and where descriptions of the war are offered, they often have an autobiographical basis, as the novelist experienced bombings, witnessed shootings and burnings and other horrors of war.”(Diaz, 111)
There are other autobiographical elements of the author’s life that influence Sin of Omission, as her illness that has brought her in contact the poverty and misery of existence in the countryside:
“[Matute’s] illness at the age of eight was particularly important for her interest in, and understanding of, the Castilian landscape, for she was sent to live with her grandparents during an extended convalescence, thus becoming acquainted with a countryside different from that of her summers, with new aspects of life, with the misery, poverty, and struggle for existence.”(Diaz, 146)
Thus, in Sin of Omission not only morality is questioned, but also human life in general because of the difficulties of material existence that seem other aspects, like spirituality, seem irrelevant. The view on life she gives is extremely pessimistic because it presents the harshness of reality and the hostile environment for man. The focus on childhood and the early stages of life is also symbolic because it focuses on the moment in which the disenchantment takes place:
“An interesting aspect of the question of Matute’s utilization of autobiographical material is her apparent concentration on the early part of her life. The autobiographical elements mentioned heretofore and come from the period ending with the close of the Civil War, and are thus taken from only the first thirteen years of the novelist’s life. From this point on, she uses almost no autobiographical materials.”(Diaz, 147)
This is why the murder done by Lope can be seen differently now: it is a radical gesture meant to symbolize the inadaptability of man to the hostile conditions of life, which is full of “omissions”:
“There is nothing unusual about her marked division between the periods of childhood, adolescence and adulthood, but the transition between these stages is occasioned by a strange timetable. Children grow suddenly when forced to abandon a world of fantasy and accept the harshness of reality. If they cannot adjust to the adult world or refuse to do so, they must die, and the mortality rate for children in these works is exceedingly high. (Jones, 286)