From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 17.2 (1997): 137-41.
Copyright © 1997, The Cervantes Society of America
REVIEW


Ricapito, Joseph V. Cervantes's Novelas ejemplares: Between History and Creativity. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue UP, 1996. 164 pp.



     The critical trends of the last few decades have created discourses that allow critics to verbalize new theoretical frameworks within which to discuss literature. One of the more recent of these movements, New Historicism, has redirected the task of the literary critic from literary interpretation to cultural analysis. The non-literary elements generally restricted from textually-based approaches such as New Criticism, structuralism, and deconstruction, become essential components of the New Historical agenda. The same critic, however, who may today approach a text through New Historicism, thanks to the critical eclecticism fostered by post-structuralism, may tomorrow elucidate different aspects of the text by using an entirely different approach. It should come to us as no surprise, then, that an experienced critic such as Joseph V. Ricapito blends New Historical criticism with more traditional forms of textual analysis in his effort to continue to unravel portions of seven of Cervantes's Exemplary Novels.
     As the introduction outlines, Ricapito believes firmly that Cervantes takes the material for his stories principally from life, not from literature. For Ricapito, unlike many modern critics, the Exemplary Novels do much more than experiment with and challenge Renaissance notions of mimesis and verisimilitude. He finds his ideas more in line with those expressed in Stephen J. Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980). “The novelas,” states

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Ricapito, “are a glimpse of Cervantes's Spain and include a cataloguing of the social, political, and historical problems of the time” (4). Until Carroll Johnson‘s “‘La española inglesa’ and the Practice of Literary Production” (1988), few critics had attempted a historical reading —as cultural criticism— of the Exemplary Novels, and even works like Johnson's, according to Ricapito, “merely show the need and the place for a ‘readjustment’” to a more appropriate historical interpretation (6).
     In chapter 1, “‘La gitanilla’: At the Crossroads of History and Creativity,” Ricapito documents the presence of Gypsies in the Spanish Peninsula from their arrival in approximately 1425 to their mistreatment during the eighteenth century, paying particular attention to their minority status and the similarity of their situation to that of the Jews and the Moors. Ricapito highlights the rejection by the Spanish socio-political structure of the religious practices, language, marriage ceremonies, and women's roles in Gypsy society. He points out that certain edicts from Phillip II condemned not just the Gypsies, but also anyone “who dressed like them” (12), thus justifying the application of his analysis to Preciosa and Andrés. Ricapito proposes that Cervantes's creation of an idealistic Gypsy society reflects a sympathetic Cervantine view of marginalized and oppressed peoples —especially Jews and conversos— in the Spanish communities of his day. Cervantes, claims Ricapito, sees the social problems of his day and, not content merely to reflect them mimetically, chooses to portray them artistically by transposing the prevalent popular negative view of the Gypsies and creating in its place a positive vision of Gypsy society, allowing, nevertheless, at the same time, glimpses at the pain and suffering that marginalized subjects endure. “Cervantes's skill,” Ricapito concludes, “was unsurpassable inasmuch as he created a second reality, a literary one, removed from the sordid, ugly reality that was attached to the lives and mores of the Gypsies” (36).
     Chapter 2, “Católicos secretos, conversos, and the Myth of the Maritime Life in ‘La española inglesa,’” challenges Johnson's seminal article and posits a “historical and political view [that] goes well beyond Johnson's insistence on the second siege of Cádiz” (39). For Ricapito, the phrase católicos secretos holds the key to the interpretation of the novella. He documents the problems associated with recusancy throughout Queen Elizabeth's reign and makes manifest the real need for secrecy and the real consequences inflicted on Catholics unable or unwilling to cloak their religious allegiances. Ricapito suggests that this text, like “La gitanilla,” manifests a subversive subtext that mirrors the problems of underprivileged groups in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain (53). He argues that, although the text superficially addresses the problems of English Catholics, “the dilemma of Jews and conversos represented for Cervantes and his readership a problem of greater immediacy” (53). Ricapito finds support for his hypothesis in Cervantes's tolerant presentation of the Turks, “who appear less hostile and antagonistic than might have been warranted at the time” (63). Ricaredo, Ricapito points out, grants the Turks their freedom, and it is one of the freed Turks who eventually saves Ricaredo. Chapter 2 also introduces what Ricapito terms “the myth of freedom embodied in the travel on the infinite seas” (64), a myth that can account for the large numbers of sailors, who in spite of the


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risks and peril associated with privateering ventures such as that of Ricaredo, nevertheless, eagerly offered their services. As a final point in this chapter, Ricapito draws an analogy between Ricaredo, the Cervantine character, and Recaredo, the medieval king of the Peninsular Visigoths. Recaredo converted to Catholicism and subsequently, like Ricaredo, became a champion of the “true” faith. He became, explains Ricapito, “a symbol of religious strife, of religious dedication, of personal valor” (68). Ricapito admits that this analogy is not without problems, that Recaredo did, in fact, oversee the forced conversion of Jews. He maintains, nevertheless, that the analogy is important in that it recognizes the connections Cervantes probably consciously made with history.
     Chapter 3, “‘El licenciado Vidriera,’ or ‘La historia de un fracaso,’” emphasizes the novella's blend of history and literature. Ricapito begins by explaining the favored status accorded licentiates with a law degree from the University of Salamanca. Upon their graduation, he informs us, they were granted government posts, important positions in the church, and professorships. He then proceeds to outline the reasons for Tomás Rueda's inconceivable failure: he descends from the working class, he has no influential friends or family, and he may very well have been a converso, (thus linking this novella with the other two). Ricapito demonstrates that only the rich and privileged benefitted from the advantage of a university law degree. He stresses the importance of the possibility that Tomás is a converso, insisting that “[b]eing a commoner or a poor farmer does not seem to be enough [emphasis Ricapito's] to have prevented Vidriera's rise” (81). Ricapito divides the story into three parts. The first, the successful adventures of Tomás as a student, is a manifestation, Ricapito claims, of Cervantes's personal admiration and approval of Tomás's efforts. The second stage, that of the “demented” Licentiate made of glass, reflects Cervantes's own feelings of failure and echoes his own sentiments through the Licentiate's caustic aphorisms. To evaluate this second stage, Ricapito draws from the insights of psychological criticism. In analyzing Tomás's inability to advance beyond student status in society, Ricapito states: “This process of failure could not have had a positive effect on someone who moved in an historical atmosphere not given to allowing the expression of one's dissatisfaction” (90). Tomás's delusional condition represses both his own failures and those of Cervantes, as well. Tomás hides behind his demented condition to unleash his anger and frustrations on society, and Cervantes hides behind Tomás to express through him his own disappointments and inhibitions. The final stage of the story sees Tomás part for Flanders. Ricapito views Cervantes's brief allusion to the war in Flanders as a conscientious objection to “Spain's persistent use of force in the Netherlands” (94, quoted from A. A. Parker). Ricapito concludes that Tomás represents Cervantes's vision of a complete failure: Tomás failed to capitalize on his education, he then failed as a madman to contribute constructively to society, and finally, he died miserably in a “dubious political and religious enterprise” (95).
     Chapter 4, “The Prose of Honor,” examines four different novelle, each of which deals with some aspect of honor. Ricapito suggests that these “honor novellas” were written (1) to compete with the popularity of Lope's honor plays, and (2) to present Cervantes's own vision of “some of the socially


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acceptable uses of honra” (99). In this chapter Ricapito focuses more on the literary and less on the historical. He proceeds with the basic assumption that Lope's presentation of the honra theme tended to “reinforc[e] the public's own basic belief in the efficacy of such a concept as a way of life” (100). The first novella examined, “La fuerza de la sangre,” casts the theme of dishonor by rape in a new light. Rather than condemning the victim to social marginalization, Cervantes grants her an understanding father and mother, and a future mother-in-law who is anxious to rectify the injustices of her son. Ricapito also suggests that the spatial organization of the novella and the emphasis on visual and oral elements serve to indicate a conscious effort by the author to compete with the theater of Lope. In “La señora Cornelia,” Ricapito points out, the characters themselves often make reference to their status as characters in a play. Ricapito sees this novella as a parody of a tragicomedy, for although the characters speak of avenging honor, there is never any real loss of honor, since the Duke's intentions were always honorable. Thus the threat of death and violence evaporates and we are left with “humane, rational, and Christian resolutions,” the type Cervantes espouses (111). Ricapito claims that with “Las dos doncellas” Cervantes goes one up on Lope, introducing two dishonored damsels rather than one. Once again, however, Ricapito sees Cervantes enact a humane, non-violent solution. Ricapito views “El celoso extremeño” as the most extreme case of Cervantes's treatment of the honor theme. Regardless of the extent of Leonora's culpability, according to Ricapito's interpretation of both real and literary honor customs, Carrizales should have killed both Loaysa and Leonora when he found them together in bed. As Ricapito points out, however, even in this extreme situation Cervantes will not sanction “the socially accepted response” and even causes the unprecedented —that the offended husband would tell his widow-to-be to marry her alleged lover.
     The final chapter, “Apologia pro patria sua: Cervantes's ‘La señora Cornelia,’” reframes the novella as Cervantes's defense of the battered spirit of his once proud country. Ricapito suggests that Cervantes may have gained the inspiration for the novella during his stay with Cardinal Acquaviva, for whom, perhaps, he had served as a teacher. In spite, however, of Cervantes's extensive experience with Italian language, literature, and geography, the Italian cities he describes in his tales seem not to reflect faithfully the physical properties of the actual locations. For Ricapito, the “meaning of Italy in ‘La señora Cornelia’ corresponds . . . to a specific historical problem” (124), not to an accurate description of physical details. Ricapito maintains that, at the cusp of the seventeenth century, Spanish culture was on the decline and Italian culture presented an image to be admired. Cervantes reflects this idealization of Italy in his Spanish characters' desires to explore Italy, as well as their desire to learn the language and Italian customs. While Italy was often idealized by the Spanish, Ricapito shows that contemporary Italians looked down on Spaniards and Spanish culture. For the Italians the Spanish were prideful, vain, and ceremonious. He notes Cervantes's depiction of Italian sentiments in the Italian ama's statement that serving Spaniards is the worst she has had to endure. Cervantes, however, was a Spaniard who not only admired Italy, but was also proud of Spanish accomplishments.


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In Ricapito's opinion, the Basque students manifest Cervantes's desire to promote a new understanding of Spanish pride. The Basque characters have all the physical and moral qualities of perfect gentlemen, yet rather than boastfully broadcasting their Spanish origins, they have mastered the Italian language and are capable, when necessary, of dealing with the Italians on an “equal linguistic level” (132). Thus, in Ricapito's view, this novella presents Cervantes's response to Italians who view Spaniards as “vacuous boors, exemplary on the outside but empty on the inside” (134). Cervantes creates a story that gives Spanish readers nostalgic memories both of an Italy they may have visited and of a Spain that no longer exists outside the mind.
     Ricapito's scholarship demonstrates the benefits derived from examining literature and history within the same frame. Ricapito reveres Cervantes's creative abilities and loathes reducing his work to mere mimetic realism. For Ricapito, the Exemplary Novels reflect “a literary creation whose substance is historical in nature and consists of the history that Cervantes lived” (4). Cervantistas will welcome this new approach to the study of the Exemplary Novels.


Eric J. Kartchner
Indiana University


Prepared with the help of Sue Dirrim
Fred Jehle jehle@ipfw.edu Publications of the CSA HCervantes
URL: http://www.h-net.org/~cervantes/csa/articf97/kartchne.htm