Don Manuel is the titular character of San Manuel Bueno, Martyr, and the primary subject of the story. He is a Catholic priest in a small Spanish village known as Valverde de Lucerna, where he is the most highly respected man. People call him their spiritual father, even a saint, but this brings him neither pleasure and happiness. Despite his religious authority, Don Manuel believes that religion is a necessary falsehood which only brings people comfort in life.
Don Manuel is extraordinarily compassionate and hardworking, qualities that endear him to everyone he meets in the village. He puts all his time and energy towards helping others, be it by reconciling difficult relationships, providing clothing and firewood, threshing grains, or giving spiritual guidance. However, this selfless exterior belies a darker truth; it is revealed that the reason Don Manuel works so diligently is because of his incredible loneliness, and his fear of confronting his own demons. This conflict between selflessness and selfishness makes Don Manuel a compelling character that drives the events of San Manuel Bueno, Martyr.
Another source of conflict within Don Manuel is his difficulty in reconciling his personal religious beliefs with his spiritual role in the village. Though he must feign unwavering belief in the Catholic faith in front of his villagers, Don Manuel detests himself for having to lie about his true beliefs to deceive others. This conflict within Don Manuel is so great it drives him to think of suicide. Ultimately, however, Don Manuel resists his temptation towards suicide, surviving until old age and being remembered forever by his village as a true Catholic saint.
Throughout the nivola, the character of Don Manuel alludes to the biblical Jesus Christ. Like Jesus, Don Manuel becomes a symbol of hope and goodness for the village as a humble, hardworking man who works to lead the people towards a better life.
The primary narrator in this story is Angela Carballino. Though she is more than 50 years old when she writes her memoir, most of the story takes place from the perspectives of younger versions of herself, at the ages of 15 and 24. Her youth plays a key role in her story, as it affects the way she engages and interacts with other characters in her world.
Angela is a deeply emotional character, caring greatly for both Don Manuel and her older brother Lazaro. Because of her youthfulness, Angela is more innocent than both older characters, at first truly believing Don Manuel to be a pious and faithful man. She is the most idealistic character of the three as well, and clashes with Don Manuel and Lazaro as to whether it is truly righteous to do good deeds if they are accomplished through deceit.
Unfortunately, Angela’s realization that Don Manuel is not religious forces her to lose her innocent, idealistic outlook on life, and by the end of the story she is left conflicted as to whose beliefs were correct: Don Manuel's and Lazaro's, or her own. Although she ends up following in Don Manuel’s path and yielding her beliefs for the sake of the village, her perspective allows the reader to understand both sides of the question of faith: how one could grow up believing in a faith tradition, and why would one would sacrifice one’s values for the betterment of the community.
Lazaro Carballino is Angela’s older brother. At the beginning of the story, he is living in the New World (the Americas) and providing Angela’s family with money to support Angela’s education in the city. When he returns, however, he brings certain New World, progressive ideologies with him that propel him into conflict with his family and the rest of the village.
Lazaro comes back to Valverde de Lucerna when Angela is 24 with hopes of taking the family to move to a big city. He’s been convinced while living in the New World that rural life is backward and wants the family to live a more civilized life. When his mother refuses, Lazaro becomes irate, revealing that his time in the New World has turned him atheistic as well.
Lacking belief in God, and having heard about the great power of the local priest, Lazaro is at first skeptical towards Don Manuel. But soon, the two become unlikely close friends, and Don Manuel eventually reveals to Lazaro his greatest secret—he also doesn’t believe in God. Lazaro is shocked, but he comes to believe that in order to be a good priest, Don Manuel’s true beliefs do not matter; only Don Manuel’s actions dictate whether he is a good or bad priest. Adopting Don Manuel’s philosophy that the most important thing is to provide happiness for others, Lazaro takes on Don Manuel’s role as village leader until his own death.
Lazaro’s name is an allusion to Lazarus, the biblical figure who was raised by Jesus from the dead. Like Lazarus, Lazaro is changed by Don Manuel and becomes a devout follower of his mentor.
Angela’s mother is a strong-headed, deeply devout woman and one of the staunchest supporters of Don Manuel. It is implied that Angela’s mother loved Don Manuel even more than her own husband, and she never ceased to talk to Angela about the saintly figure.
Upon her deathbed, her one wish is to see her son Lazaro converted to Catholicism through Don Manuel. Before she dies, Don Manuel convinces Lazaro to tell her that he will pray for her, allowing her a peaceful, contented death. The death of Angela’s mother changes Lazaro, becoming a catalyst for Don Manuel and Lazaro’s close relationship and serving as an example to Lazaro of how a white lie can give happiness to others.
San Manuel Bueno, Martyr Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for San Manuel Bueno, Martyr is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.