From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
16.1 (1996): 93-96.
Copyright © 1996, The Cervantes Society of America
Often, literary criticism lacks a critical edge, accepting past quasi-canonical interpretations without question. It undoubtedly requires intellectual courage to take on the judgments of revered scholars, a courage that distinguishes Theresa Searss volume. In her study of Cervantess Novelas ejemplares, consisting of an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion all with copious notes and remarkably few typographical errors Sears targets what she considers to be the excesses of Cervantine criticism, critically engaging scholars including Joaquín Casalduero, Ruth El Saffar, Alban K. Forcione and Paul J. Smith. The introduction examines past reception of the novelas and previous attempts to come to terms with their exemplarity. Chapter One begins with a consideration of the prologue of the Novelas, contrasting it with those of the Quixote and the Decameron, and then focuses on the marriage plot novelas. This leads her to the astute observation that in tying the courtly / chivalric / Neo-platonic discourse of love to marriage, Cervantes forges a narrative form that has proven one of the most powerfully satisfying and enduring of literary constructs, permeating both serious and popular fiction, and by means of it Cervantes experimented with and conspicuously altered the novella genre (23). In the second chapter, Sears examines the links between society and narrative. Once again comparing the Novelas to the Decameron, she concludes that in both social order is under siege, and their texts both reflect that crisis and suggest solutions*
* The part indicated
in bold was omitted in the original printing, as noted in
Cervantes 17.1 (1997). -FJ
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for it. For Cervantes, she says, the crisis and its solution
reside in the same place: with the family, in the fathers house
In the most lengthy chapter, Character and Role: From Speech to Silence, Sears proffers some insights into selected novelas; for example, she notes that Estefanías response to Rodolfo only indicates the extent to which women as well as men are implicated in the social system, even when it operates to their express disadvantage (80). In her analysis, she appears to evoke a monolithic Cervantes, one who remained static throughout the process of creation. Early on, she dismisses theories that propose an artistic evolution in the novelas, correctly stating that no reliable chronology exists. Indeed, while we may never know exactly when each novela was written, most scholars agree that they were written over a period of years. Therefore, it seems contrived to extrapolate an unchanging authorial figure who consistently strives to impose the same meaning on each of the pieces. This leads Sears to some questionable generalizations, as in her discussion of Cervantess representation of female sexuality. For instance, she claims that
Cervantes relatively harsh treatment of these figures whose virginity has been somehow shadowed or compromised through no fault of their own provides another reason to question the more positivist [sic] readings accorded his feminine characters, for it links him to a long-standing misogynist tradition in the West (87).
Additionally, she comments [f]or Cervantes, the sexually experienced
woman becomes quite literally obscene (87). An examination of other
Cervantine texts might suggest different interpretations of Cervantess
portrayal of womans sexuality. Moreover, it is difficult to support
the assertion that his treatment is relatively harsh if one compares
the portrayal of sullied women in Cervantess novelas
to that found in María de Zayass works.
Chapter Four briefly examines the Dangers of Desire, concluding that the ideal woman, like Costanza, expresses no desire. . . . Instead, she is led calmly to her enclosed fate, just as her story proceeds inexorably to its close under the auspices of the marriage plot (141). In Chapter Five, The Marriage Plot, she once again compares the novelas with the Decameron, asserting that [i]n contrast, with the loss of the storytelling frame, Cervantes cannot enshrine the possibility of opposing views, and in most cases seems determined to make them impossible (160). She offers El celoso extremeño as the only possible exception to this monologic claim. Even then, she reads the ending of this novela as one that serves . . . to assert control over [the discourse] and in the end, over the reader as well, concluding that rather than incorporating dissent as does Boccaccio, Cervantes moves to stifle it (162). Ultimately, desires supposedly unconquerable force is conquered by the marriage plot (165).
Despite her mention of gendered reading in the sixth chapter, Exemplarity and Ideology: A Question of Authority, Sears does not fully explore the richness that the dynamics of the reading process may engender. As compelling research about reading has demonstrated, many factors combine to influence individual readers responses. Early on in the monograph, however, she
apparently posits a universally hegemonic response among twentieth-century
readers: Our experience of literature, especially after the seventeenth
century, has conditioned us to want (when there is no overt impediment) a
wedding, something that provides a closure signifying emotional, social and
literary order (24). In fact, in her attempt to argue for a contextualized
reading, an arguably necessary corrective to some contemporary readings that
apply theory at the expense of both text and context, she appears to accept
the premise that there exists one authoritative meaning in the
novelas that current literary theories have obscured. She warns against
critical anachronism: The danger lies in ascribing to them
interpretations that their very historically determined nature would forbid,
in the interest of validating an ahistorical version of Cervantes authority
to which we might then submit without doing violence to our own historical
conditioning(182). Nonetheless, another danger lies at the opposite
extreme: we cannot deny the transactional process which engages the reader
with the text. It is precisely this dynamic that Cervantess works exploit
so well, thereby allowing them to remain alive for todays readers rather
than forcing them to languish as lifeless cultural artifacts.
At times, Searss remarks manifest what might be termed intentional fallacies. Although she protests the dangerous conflation of author, text, and reader in Spadaccini and Talenss observation regarding the artists desired goals (9), some of her own prose seems to suggest that she can identify what Cervantes intended or wished when writing, as in the following examples:
Cervantes explicitly means to impose a reinterpretation of the topic of love and desire, one that will not unsettle the social order (86; my emphasis).
No matter how much Cervantes other heroines may protest their freedom, is this not what he wishes for them in the end, that in marriage they should transfer their obedience from parents to husband and satisfy his desire without being aroused themselves? (153; my emphasis)
In the conclusion, Sears states that her study began as an attempt to come to terms with the monotonous sameness of the marriage-plot heroines in the Novelas ejemplares (197). It ends with a brief metacritical consideration of the current state of literary criticism which includes some pithy one-liners: Popular notions aside, deconstruction and other post-modern reading strategies do not serve as a critical license to kill (198). Later, she quips In reading the Novelas ejemplares, the search for, in El Saffars words, the observer in the observed, leads to the tyranny of the tacit and the proliferation of the ironic fallacy (199). While this assertion might hold a certain validity, it also seems that Sears fails to recognize that all critics, no matter how objective they attempt to be, write from a subjective position, a truth that El Saffar readily acknowledged throughout her work. Furthermore, crucial facets of Cervantine discourse would be obscured by her response to interpretations that address the ironic in Cervantes. She apparently dismisses them as mere examples of critical manipulation that supposedly prove that anything that we would prefer not to encounter in a Cervantine text can be converted into its opposite by recourse to irony (199).
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Although such abuses can occur, one cannot deny the import of irony in Cervantes,
given both the sophisticated theoretical apparatus that allow critics to
analyze irony and the cogent studies of Cervantine irony published by Chambers,
Friedman, Parr, Urbina and Zimic, among others.
Overall, although the study at times suffers from cavalier generalizations and a lack of careful stylistic editing, Searss work poses some key questions for Cervantine criticism in general and for feminist approaches in particular. No doubt, the challenge she proffers will result in a lively and long overdue debate regarding the Novelas ejemplares and their place in Cervantess scholarship.
|Amy R. Williamsen|
|University of Arizona|
||Prepared with the help of Sue Dirrim||
|Fred Jehle email@example.com||Publications of the CSA||HCervantes|