Realism, Idealism, and the Transformation of Romance in "La Ilustre Fregona"

By Lewis-Smith, Paul | Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview
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Realism, Idealism, and the Transformation of Romance in "La Ilustre Fregona"


Lewis-Smith, Paul, Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America


"LA ILUSTRE FREGONA" is a strikingly hybrid composition when it is judged by contemporary standards of generic consistency. Building upon the well-worn literary and dramatic themes of long-lost daughters and rebellious sons, and explicitly basing its secondary hero on a real-life Spanish social type, that of the runaway son of nobles who happily settles in the depraved, semi-criminal world of the Andalusian almadrabas, it amalgamates and, on the level of moral characterisation, literally blends the heroic, sentimental, idealist genre that we now call "romance" with picaresque and the entremes tradition. (1) Its crucial source of inspiration as a synthesis of contrasting genres is likely to be the anti-Classical comedia. The latter's influence is clearly detectable in the more polarised forms of romance/comedy hybridism and particularly in the gracioso-like role of Carriazo hijo, the lover of the almadrabas and friend and semi-comic foil of the enamoured Avendano. (2)

One of the things that seem to me to distance the novela from the typical anti-Classical comedia is its narrowing of the traditional sensibility gap between representations of secular life (obras humanas) and their biblical and hagiological counterparts (obras divinas). Although it is not stridently so, when judged by the ideological standards of narrative and dramatic treatments of aristocratic adventure and love, "La ilustre fregona" is unusually theological in conception. It is basically a work that brings together idealism in a romance mode that has been modified by asceticism with the kind of realist outlook on life that informs Aleman's Guzman. It superimposes a Christian perspective on ideal love and matrimony that transcends the idealistic range of both Spanish drama and the romance tradition on a human realism that is anchored ideologically in the doctrine of Original Sin, therefore stressing the negative meaning of moral humanitas. This it does in a self-consistent, logically reserved way that subordinates the idealistic to a realist sense of verisimilitude and does not gamble on a readership that identifies unanimously with the author's conception of what constitutes the ideal. The amatory ideal is gently debunked, the corresponding matrimonial ideal is presented very coyly, and both are distanced from the certain facts of the tale. The novela's internal harmony--its structural "decorum," in neo-Classical language--is Christian and basically realist. The continuity that the novela lacks when viewed from the perspective of Classical decorum and native traditions may be found in the thematic focus on sin, the conceptual association of sin with the realm of the Flesh (materialism, whose lower forms are sensual), the idealisation of spiritual values, and the subordination of literary idealism to realistic constraints.

The fundamental thematic importance of the doctrine of Original Sin in "La ilustre fregona" is increasingly detectable in criticak studies that have appeared in the last twenty years. Whilst Kartchner is more strongly inclined than other critics to regard the novela as a tragic tale, it is, now, widely agreed that "La ilustre fregona" modifies romance traditions in characterisation and does not produce a happy ending that fully conforms to conventional idealistic standards of literary decorum. The rebellious ingredients are normally regarded as forms of social criticism. Whilst not dwelling on the socio-critical vein to be found in previous interpretations, Boyd reflects the broad consensus when he describes the novela as a tale of loss and providential restoration in whose ending there are "troubling shadows." He briefly identifies most of the things that have repeatedly troubled critics. Carriazo padre expresses no contrition for committing rape. Carriazo hijo is not contrite for deceiving his parents, and is not taken to task for almost beating a boy to death in Toledo. Costanza's "wrench with her previous existence, and especially the pain of her departure from the innkeeper's wife, is movingly emphasized," and it is a safe assumption that the foster-parents "will rarely, if ever again, see the girl they brought up as their daughter.

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