From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 16.1 (1996): 93-96.
Copyright © 1996, The Cervantes Society of America

Sears, Theresa. A Marriage of Convenience: Ideal and Ideology in the Novelas ejemplares. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. 225 pp.

     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 Sears’s volume. In her study of Cervantes’s 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 “Correction,” Cervantes 17.1 (1997). -FJ


94 AMY R. WILLIAMSEN Cervantes

for it”. For Cervantes, she says, “the crisis and its solution reside in the same place: with the family, in the father’s house” (55).
     In the most lengthy chapter, “Character and Role: From Speech to Silence,” Sears proffers some insights into selected novelas; for example, she notes that Estefanía’s 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 Cervantes’s 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 Cervantes’s portrayal of woman’s sexuality. Moreover, it is difficult to support the assertion that his treatment is “relatively harsh” if one compares the portrayal of “sullied” women in Cervantes’s novelas to that found in María de Zayas’s 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, “desire’s 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

16.1 (1996) Review 95

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 Cervantes’s works exploit so well, thereby allowing them to remain alive for today’s readers rather than forcing them to languish as lifeless cultural artifacts.
     At times, Sears’s remarks manifest what might be termed “intentional fallacies.” Although she protests the “dangerous conflation of author, text, and reader” in Spadaccini and Talens’s observation regarding the artist’s “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 Saffar’s 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, Sears’s 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 Cervantes’s scholarship.

Amy R. Williamsen
University of Arizona

Prepared with the help of Sue Dirrim
Fred Jehle Publications of the CSA HCervantes