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ArribaAbajo Romance and Novel: Idealism and Irony in La Gitanilla

E. Michael Gerli

Georgetown University

La Gitanilla es una obra que la crítica tradicionalmente clasifica como una de las novelas ejemplares «idealizadas» de Cervantes. A pesar de esta tendencia exegética, un escrutinio de los temas, las situaciones, la estructura de la obra revela que hay fuertes notas irónicas que desmienten su concepción idealizada. En ella, Cervantes pinta un mundo idealizado solamente en la superficie. El resultado es una visión problemática de la realidad llena de ambigüedades y dilemas morales. En La Gitanilla hay un desplazamiento estético más hacia la novela moderna, la cual se caracteriza por la representación de una realidad problemática, que hacia la narrativa del romance, género típicamente idealizado.

La gitanilla is traditionally viewed from the perspective of romance. Critics tend to consider it as one of Cervantes' «idealistic» works because it tells a tale of love and adventure; it is organized around a test/quest motif; the characters portrayed are more psychological archetypes than individuals; the resolution is serendipitous, involving chance, coincidence, and sudden recognition; and, finally, because it is related in an elevated verbal style that often lapses into song and poetry. Frank Pierce, for example, best represents this critical tendency when he remarks that La Gitanilla is «a romance in that it illustrates the victory of true love». This thematic judgment leads him to conclude that the work is an «enchanting fantasy... of love and marriage, of constancy and forgiveness»16. Yet, while all of this is so, it is so largely only on the surface. The romance elements singled out by the majority of the critics are usually viewed in isolation and do not take stock of the manner in which they are organized within the work and how they are mirrored in situations which undermine their superficial idealism.

E. C. Riley has recently argued for the comprehensive and pervasive «coexistence in Cervantes's prose fiction of two basic kinds of narrative» -novel and romance- and for «the likelihood that Cervantes did not evolve definitively towards one preferred form but   —30→   to the end of his days was liable to write in either vein or in some combination of the two»17. A close scrutiny of the content and structure of La Gitanilla reveals just such an interaction of both novel and romance. The surface idealism of the story's romance motifs is checked by a subterfuge of irony which establishes a more realistic and essentially ambiguous vision of events. Theorizing upon the nature and development of fiction in early modern European literature, Harry Levin cites the pronounced contrasts characterizing Spanish society during the Renaissance as essential reasons for the appearance and perfection of the novel in Spain. Speaking of Cervantes, Levin believes that his perception of social tension provided him with a unique opportunity for perfecting a type of irony «which plays appearance off against reality and highlights contrast between the ideal and the real» and which is typical of the novel.18

The juxtaposition of the ideal and the real is central to the structure and narrative technique of La Gitanilla. There is in it a kind of situational irony that implicitly sets off words and occurrences against each other while ultimately leaving any judgment of values up to the reader. Contrast, irony and ambiguity seem paramount in the narrator's mind from the outset of La Gitanilla. Playfully alluding to the deceptive nature of appearances and the perils of generalizations, the narrator's diction proves a warning to the careful reader on the nature of the artifice which is about to unfold: «Parece», he says, «que los gitanos y gitanas solamente nacieron en el mundo para ser ladrones»19. As Karl-Ludwig Selig remarks concerning this narrative gambit, the introductory parece serves to distance the «the intense pile-up   —31→   of repeated commonplaces about gipsies» in order to create a «state of non-reality»20. Indeed, from the opening words of the story, the narrative is fraught with misrepresentation and cunning illusion designed to defraud the careless reader while leaving the attentive one with a sense of awe and satisfaction as he discovers the work's intricate complexity, its subtle reversals, ironic contrasts, and parodic nuances.

Although when closely examined the interaction of novel and romance, irony and idealism, are pervasive in La Gitanilla, the phenomenon is most succinctly presented through a discussion of the work's major themes. Contrary to prevailing critical opinion, the major themes of La Gitanilla are neither love, marriage, nor constancy, but moral freedom, spiritual nobility, and honor based on the observance of Christian principles and the exercise of conscience. Under the guise of a romance dealing with love and adventure, Cervantes tells a novelistic tale in which his characters in order to define themselves must contradict the very romance archetypes from which they spring. While they are originally conceived in a romance mold, they simultaneously stress their individuality through action and volition in order to become internally motivated characters who confront dilemmas in manners determined by their particular experience and circumstance. Characters who are expected to perform in a stereotypically literary fashion act in ways that do not conform to the stereotype; the reader's preconceptions are undermined by situations which affirm them only on the surface. While evoking the major elements of romance, in La Gitanilla Cervantes subtly shifts perspective clearly displacing his tale toward the morally ambiguous, highly individualized realm of the novel.

In romance character is archetypically defined and never developed in any real sense. It is often determined by pre-existing conditions surrounding the protagonist's birth. Despite his mysterious origin and apparently low social status, for example, the youthful Amadís proves noble for no other reason than his hidden noble birth. His personality and actions, like those of all characters and actions in romance, are preordained by a providential scheme which determines who he shall be and what he shall do21. Recognizing just such a   —32→   pattern, in La Gitanilla Cervantes deceptively leads the reader into the theme of predetermined character when he announces that the gypsies all seem to have been born in order to be thieves. This sets into focus the complex contradiction which he is about to develop. Although Preciosa is the paragon of gitanerías, she is through her discretion, chastity, and honesty an apparent deviation from the stated norm. Her actions, while at once incorporating the wit and liveliness of a gypsy, do not wholly conform with our expectations that all gypsies are thieves. The clue to her exceptional condition is tantalizingly offered in the narrator's observation that «la crianza tosca en que se criaba no descubría en ella sino ser nacida de mayores prendas que de gitana, porque era en extremo cortés y bien razonada» (p. 4), a statement which, as we shall see, is implicitly denied through action and circumstance at the end of the work. The narrator's comment offering the possibility of Preciosa's concealed nobility leads the reader habituated to the patterns of romance to expect a celebrative ending in which the little gypsy's hidden noble birth shall be revealed and her apparently contradictory virtues justified. However, as the attentive reader notes when finishing the work, this is a false hope deliberately established by Cervantes in order to present a character conceived in individuality who inhabits a world morally much more complex than the world of romance. In the end, Preciosa's noble lineage is indeed revealed, but she proves noble not by reason of her parents' privileged social status, but by virtue of the «cierto espiritillo fantástico» (p. 38) which shapes her values and her actions. She is a character who takes control of her destiny and, while doing so, challenges all preconceived notions the reader might have about her.

In the end, Preciosa's declared patrimony is undermined by the actions of the very ones who are supposed to represent it. The entire episode of her restoration to her «noble» origins must be viewed ironically and in the light of a sequence of images and declarations concerning justice and nobility set down by both her grandmother and the narrator. Preciosa's rejection of the cien escudos offered by Andrés, for example, prompts the grandmother to comment upon the gypsies' use of treasure to bribe the corrupt officers of justice:


¿Cien escudos quieres tú que deseche?... ¿Y si algunos de nuestros hijos... cayere, por alguna desgracia en manos de la justicia, habrá favor tan bueno que llegue a la oreja del juez y del escribano, como destos escudos si llegan a sus bolsas? Tres veces por tres delitos diferentes me he visto casi puesta en el asno para ser azotada, y de la una me libró un jarro de plata, y de la otra una sarta de perlas, y de la otra cuarenta reales de a ocho... Mira niña, que andamos en oficio muy peligroso... Por un doblón de dos caras se nos muestra alegre la triste del procurador y de todos los ministros de la muerte

(pp. 44-45).                

Linked by the ambivalent image of riches, which stands at once as a metaphor for Preciosa (she is repeatedly described as a preciosa perla and a rare piece of jewelry) and the corruptibility and venality of the world that, through the exercise of personal virtue, she transcends, the passage provides a clear prefiguration of the grandmother's encounter with the corregidor. Moved neither by Preciosa's appeals to mercy or to charity that they might free Andrés of the charges of murdering the mayor's nephew, her father is only disposed to listen when the grandmother enters with the coffer containing the jewels Preciosa wore when abducted as a child:

Volvió la gitana con un pequeño cofre debajo del brazo y dijo al Corregidor que con su mujer y ella se entrasen en un aposento; que tenía grandes cosas que decirles en secreto. El Corregidor, creyendo que algunos hurtos de los gitanos quería descubrirle, por tenerle propicio en el pleito del preso, al momento se retiró con ella y con su mujer en su recámara....

(pp. 114-15).                

In the end, then, it is not the gypsy girl's appeals to mercy and justice that move the corregidor and his wife to listen, but the simple prospect of a bribe. The talismans leading to Preciosa's restoration are ironically subverted, suggesting her parents' venality and ignobility while setting into parodic focus one of the venerable motifs of romance -the serendipitous discovery of hidden noble birth. If Preciosa is noble, she is so not by patrimony but by virtue of conscience and her desire to be so. Her parents' respectability proves an illusion which conceals an ignominious reality.

Through the interaction of conscience and resolution, Preciosa forges her own identity, affected neither by the demonic realm of the gypsies nor by the venality and superficiality which shape her parents' world. She is an individual who through her essential freedom breaks down the literary expectations and stereotypes of romance. She possesses an inner spiritual life which sets and determines the course   —34→   of her actions, while she perceives the world as a product of her experience. In short, though conceived from the matter of romance, she belongs to the tradition of idiosyncratic characters who populate the novel. Her virtue springs from within, is shaped by personal conviction, and is grounded in reality.

Preciosa's lover is similarly conceived in irony, paradox, and ambiguity. When he is introduced to us, the narrator relies once again on the effects of appearances and first impressions in order to create false expectations and dupe the careless reader into wrong conclusions. The emphasis lies clearly on the exterior reality. The young man's clothes and his own self-righteous pride provide the only evidence of his worth. He is described simply as «un mancebo gallardo y ricamente aderezado de camino. La espada y daga que traía eran, como decirse suele, una ascua de oro; sombrero con rico cintillo y con plumas de diversas colores adornado» (p. 35).

A cautionary clue to the irony is provided through the narrator's self-imposed limits when he recounts the young man's words upon introducing himself to Preciosa: «Soy caballero, como lo puede mostrar este hábito», he says, while revealing the cross of a military order on his breast. «Soy hijo de Fulano -que por buenos respetos aquí no se declara su nombre», he continues, evoking the same pompous dignity which prevented the teniente from listening to the entirety of Preciosa's recital of the ballad of St Anne, «por no ir contra su gravedad» (p. 17). Parodying the ludicrous sense of self-importance exhibited by the youth, through indirect discourse the narrator has him repeat again to Preciosa his name while mischievously withholding it from the reader in order to underscore the sham of a respectability based on name alone:

Mi nombre es éste -y díjoselo-; el de mi padre ya os le he dicho; la casa donde vive es en tal calle, y tiene tales y tales señas; vecinos tiene de quien podréis informaros, y aún de los que no son vecinos también; que no es tan escura la calidad y el nombre de mi padre y el mío, que no lo sepan en los patios de palacio, y aun en toda la corte

(p. 37).                

However, before his name can ever be revealed, Preciosa's response to his advances compels him to abandon the very identity which confers such honor and adopt the clearly ironical gypsy name of Andrés Caballero. The implication of this onomastic paradox is clear: honor and respectability are not the products of birth or social station. They are the result of the interaction of conscience, will and a natural disposition toward good which all men must discover within   —35→   themselves, as Preciosa implies when responding to Andrés' suit (p. 38). Society's acceptance of a nobility based solely on birth and its ratification in romance are subverted.

The irony of a noble gentleman's transformation into a gypsy named Andrés Caballero is compounded at the end of the story where it is the youth's outward respectability which leads to the restoration of order and to his exoneration of a murder that he did in fact commit. All of which, of course, leaves in precarious doubt La Gitanilla's surface idealism while casting a pall of serious moral ambiguity on the mind of the reader who has not been deceived by the tale's outward conformity to the patterns of romance. It is not until Andrés recovers the talismans of his nobility, the hábito de caballero left back at the inn, that he once again can claim the name don Juan de Cárcamo and ceases to be the «ladrón homicida» (p. 118) to which the judge alludes. The recovery of his habit is accompanied by the recovery of the immunity of privilege. Thus legitimized in the eyes of a society which only speaks of nobility and justice, Don Juan may now marry Preciosa while those who share his prerogatives are free to overlook his crime:

Rompióse el secreto, salió la nueva del caso con la salida de los criados que habían estado presentes; el cual sabido por el alcalde tío del muerto, vió tomados los caminos de su venganza, pues no había de tener lugar el rigor de la justicia para ejecutarla en el yerno del Corregidor

(p. 127).                

Indeed, his desire for vengeance satisfied by «la promesa de dos mil ducados», the dead man's uncle, himself an alcalde, drops the charges, and the treasures of romance are once again ironized and shown to be what they really are -the instruments for the imposition of an order that at its center is essentially corrupt.

The often real dichotomy of nobility and virtue is brought home in a contrast of the songs sung by Preciosa, all of which collectively provide a microcosm of the work's major ideological concerns. In the Romance de Santa Ana, which Rodríguez Marín erroneously labels an «empanada teológico-poética de... escaso mérito» (ed. cit., p. 8, n. 19), Cervantes underlines the possibility of the existence of spiritual nobility amidst rustic simplicity. Indeed, St. Anne's humility and simple origins provide «el estudio / donde vuestra Hija / hizo humildes cursos» (p. 9). She is portrayed as the moral preceptor of the Virgin, who in turn passed on her inner strength to her son. The ballad's major thematic thrust is to state that divinity is humility's reward, for now Anne sits amidst the celestial court:


Y agora a su lado,
A Dios el más justo,
Gozáis de la alteza
Que apenas barrunto

(p. 9).                

The virtuous simplicity of the family of Christ, King of Kings and source of all true spiritual nobility, is contrasted sharply with the pomp and fatuousness of the court of Phillip III, described in Preciosa's ballad celebrating Margarita de Austria's misa de parida. The allusions to the royal family in the latter are not by chance couched in terms of pagan and, specifically, Roman mythology and metaphor evoking images of a corrupt world order that is the antagonist of the Christian ideal. Although Margarita de Austria and her son hold forth the promise of redemption, as Alban Forcione notes22, the hope proves ephemeral since we are constantly reminded through allusions to martyrdom and Christian persecution («En esto se llegó al templo / Del Fénix que en Roma fue abrasado, y quedó vivo / En la fama y en la gloria», [i. e., St. Lawrence], p. 15) of the incompatibility of empire and Christian piety. By pushing ceremony into ostentatious absurdity, Cervantes makes us perceive ironically the moral emptiness of the trappings of authority. The subversion of the scene can be appreciated in the ballad's last verses. Directing her prayers to the Virgin, the Queen, exemplar of virtue amidst a profusion of moral corruption, implores divine guidance for the King, and with this Preciosa notes that:

Acabada esta oración,
Otra semejante entonan
Himnos y voces que muestran
Que está en el suelo la Gloria.

Acabados los oficios
Con reales ceremonias,
Volvió a su punto este cielo
Y esfera maravillosa

(p. 16).                

The vision of a Christian queen who returns to a court which has been implicitly equated to the pantheon of the pagan gods casts an ironic perspective over the figure of Margarita: though a pious woman who embodies virtue, she remains the lone representative of Christian ideals in a spiritually corrupt context.


While the images of the court offered by Cervantes are fraught with moral contradiction, his presentation of the country also portrays a world conceived in conflict and governed by opposition and the deception of appearances. Contrary to the expected Arcadian vision of man's life in community with nature, gypsy life in La Gitanilla projects a picture half-way between the pastoral and the picaresque, half-way between the ideal and infamous polarities of romance. The gypsies' outward bucolic existence is undermined by a counterpoint of jealousy, violence, incest, and carefree delinquency. The reader's initial expectations of perfection are spoiled by the realities of passion, wantoness, and theft. Although explicitly contrary to the world of the court where the thirst for honor governs all human action («No nos fatiga el temor de perder la honra, ni nos desvela la ambición de acrecentarla, ni sustentamos bandos, ni madrugamos a dar memoriales, ni a acompañar magnates, ni a solicitar favores», the gypsy elder informs Andrés, p. 69), gypsy society is far from its wholesome antithesis. Indeed, Andrés places the gypsies into ironic perspective, refusing to embrace their thieving ways, while Preciosa quietly rebels against conformity to their statutes by invoking the most imperative law of all, «la ley de mi voluntad» (p. 71).

Both court and country life in La Gitanilla represent essentially problematical worlds where neither virtue, vice, nor truth are wholly absolute. As Cervantes portrays them, the latter are the consequence of moral choices made by characters who, though they may live in either the court or the country, are virtuous or vicious by reason of their individual selves. As such, Preciosa's and Andrés' restoration to the world of the court provides only a superficial affirmation of their future happiness and raises the possibility of doubt regarding their lasting moral integrity. Indeed, as Julio Rodríguez-Luis implies, Preciosa's liberty, the very source of her spiritual integrity, is denied through the resolution, for as soon as she is transformed into the well-born, well-dressed Doña Costanza, the strong, vigorous and pert little gypsy becomes a silent, submissive and demure member of society who speaks only when spoken to23. Under the guise of a celebrative ending typical of romance, and complete with a return to origins, Cervantes implicitly suggests the existence of enduring perils   —38→   to their freedom of conscience, the very source of their moral virtue. Despite a moralizing ending and the narrator's assurances of a happy resolution, there is no guarantee of the couple's living happily ever after.

In La Gitanilla the plots, characters, landscape, and motifs of romance are ironically subverted through contrast with a subtly crafted vision of a cynical world presided over by the type of petty passion, abuse of privilege, and prosaic venality we associate with the realm of the novel. By means of the interplay of idealism and irony, Cervantes continually points to the disparities between literary norms and the realities of experience. The result is that he constantly defrauds the careless reader while rewarding the careful one with the deep sense of moral ambiguity his work actually portrays. Relying on his reader's familiarity with and expectations of romance, he plays with and subtly destroys our literary preconceptions. For some, La Gitanilla remains an inspirational tale full of moral idealism; for those who perceive its ironic nuances and counterpoints, it is a novel which depicts a world fraught with moral dilemmas and ethical uncertainties. It is, in fact, a complex work of art built upon the interaction of irony and idealism, of reality and fantasy, of novel and romance.