University of Washington
|-Ruth Benedict (290)|
It seems that the hardest lesson for readers to
learn from Cervantes' «El licenciado Vidriera»
is that the protagonist of the story is not the
suffering title character, but rather the
healthy youth whose name is Tomás. From
the age of eleven and for about eleven years
he calls himself Tomás Rodaja; two years or
more later he assumes the surname Rueda.
Tomás is known as
«hermano licenciado Vidriera» (55) for less than
a tenth of his life, an anomalous tenth that no one could have
anticipated, the tenth that we remember but he does not, the only
tenth during which Tomás does not learn, grow, engage others,
and nourish friendships and mature1.
The present study is
respectfully dedicated to the memory of the sane and exemplary
Tomás who dies famous in Flanders and forgotten in his home-
Studies of «El licenciado Vidriera» customarily begin by
conceding that the tale is, while peculiarly attractive, an enduring
source of perplexity for even its most experienced readers. This «is
not the most satisfactory of the Novelas ejemplares», E. C. Riley
observed in 1976,
«yet it has enjoyed a certain popularity and more
critical attention than many of Cervantes's novelas» (189). That
popularity is more certain today and interpretive efforts in the last
quarter-century of the millennium accumulated at an awesome
pace and intensified, polarizing on several issues, and hardened
with some frequency into charges against the tale's author, and
against his protagonist, and against the tale itself2.
fractious debate, I concede and even assert that «Vidriera» is a
pebble among gemstones and demonstrably the least satisfying of
Cervantes' collected stories. Furthermore, I propose to reveal and
examine the source and cause of readers' dissatisfaction and much
misdirected criticism, namely the story's narrator and his narration. It is time to expose the narrator's limitations and bias and to
label clearly what he did and what he did not do, and to account
for his grievous errors of commission and omission. In the full
accounting readers find ourselves implicated. The narrator has led
us astray, and we cannot complete an adequate study of this
matter without facing a moral moment. Shall we continue to
accede to the narrator's invitation to join him in the crowd that
goads and applauds the unfortunate Vidriera, or shall we instead
choose to side with the attractive and gifted protagonist, Tomás,
and his author?3
What appears at first reading to be the story of an
eccentric becomes, when seen rightly arranged, an inversion of
that: it is an eccentric story. More precisely, «El licenciado Vidriera» is a tale of inverted, concentric, and persistently contagious
eccentricity that its narrator so skews in his telling that the story's
social and political implications are obscured and stand in need of
the reordering that Miguel de Cervantes left as readers' work.
Bibliographical data suggest that among the dozen Novelas ejemplares «El licenciado Vidriera» is the second most studied and possibly the second most frequently read4. It also is the least —8→ absorbing of the tales, the least well told. Some interpreters have conceded as much, and most of these have coupled the concession with apologetic explanations of one kind or another, alleging causes outside the text in the author's biography, psychology, or literary and cultural history5. This defective story (so long as we choose to view it as such) shares its remarkable blemish with a distinguished precursor work admired by Cervantes. «Vidriera» is, like Lazarillo de Tormes, one of those disconcerting and oxymoronic aesthetic objects (of which Spanish letters appear to have a disproportionate number) that most insult our critical categories: it is a «flawed masterpiece», a text at once objectionable and irresistible. Although it appears misshapen and will not reveal the «unity» scholars long have been accustomed to seek and treasure, «Vidriera» attracts more energetic attention than many better shaped texts. It has beguiled readers young and old, multitudes of them, and scholars, many scores of them, over many generations, and we have yet to recognize and name its guile.
As a first step in search of an improved understanding, let us recognize the insufficiency of the story. Then we shall look within the imagined world for its cause and consequences. There we shall —9→ discover several interrelated orders of eccentricity and observe their linkage to outlying and ongoing eccentricities around us. I shall suggest that we remain in our time and our world, as Vidriera was in his, captives of his crowd and that we, unwary readers, are manipulated unwittingly by the crowd's scribe and publicist, the fictional narrator. It is in that sense and for that reason that I claim that «El licenciado Vidriera» is a tale of concentric, collective, and enduringly contagious eccentricity.
We begin by recollecting the story, the narrated events.
1.) The precocious eleven-year-old Tomás, who has adopted the surname Rodaja, charms two gentlemen students who take him as their servant to Salamanca, where he serves them loyally and becomes their companion. He earns their trust, they sponsor his studies; he is a brilliant student and furthermore he earns the esteem of all who come to know him. After eight years his friends reward Tomás's steadfast service and friendship with a grant sufficient to sustain him for three or four additional years of study and travel. (These nineteen years of accomplishments are compressed into 5.15% of the narrative, a bare 486 words among the text's 9400.)
2.) Tomás befriends a captain named Valdivia and accompanies him and his troops to Italy. After characteristically avid, perceptive, and intense study of that cultural scene, the youth accompanies his friend up the Spanish Road to Flanders. Then, fulfilled by this traveling fellowship, he returns to Spain and completes his studies and graduates with honors in Law. He is about twenty-two years old. (This phase of continental travels contributes four times as much as the first phase, or 21.81%, to the narrative.)
3.) Tomas's fraternity brothers induce him to come along with them to visit a lady who is no lady. He goes along but he declines to go in. The woman scorned conspires with another, a superstitious morisca, to force the will of Tomás with a potion, but he is poisoned instead.
After six months he recovers his health but not his mind. For two years he meanders about Salamanca and then Valladolid, the Court, under guard. Calling himself the Glass Graduate, he dresses oddly, he claims he is breakable, and he fends off throngs of aggressively curious idlers with an inexhaustible tirade of bromides —10→ and jests. The crowd and the narrator deem these utterances witty and wise and better entertainment than merely stoning and poking the unreasoning buffoon. (The two years of Tomás's dementia contribute a disproportionate 66.59% to the narrative6
4.) A skilled and charitable Hieronymite friar interrupts and nurses the invalid back to mental health. Adopting a new surname, Rueda, and appropriately dressed for work, Tomás attempts to practice his profession at Court. He is admirably schooled in humane letters and the law, well and broadly educated by travel, and tested and proven by adversity. He remains witty with words, but now Tomás Rueda also is reasonable; he thinks before he speaks and therefore he is overqualified and unattractive. At the age of twenty-four he is forced to negociate a mid-life crisis and undertake a hazardous passage; as there is no market for his mind, he will be a soldier. Rejoining his friend Captain Valdivia in Flanders, he excels in his alternative profession and leaves this world famous for his prudence and valor in soldiering. (The unnumbered years that run from the restoration of Tomás's reason and his rejection at Court to his honorable end contribute a slim 6.38% and conclude the narrative.)
That is Tomás's story, which is the account of a good life of
accomplishment, accommodation, and perseverance culminating
in a good death. But that is not the story that the fictional narrator
of «El licenciado Vidriera» chooses to tell. Our narrator is scarcely
interested in the loving and beloved son and the splendid student
and engaging youth who
«de todo género de gentes era estimado
y querido» (44). The narrator concedes more attention, but not
much more, to his protagonist's study abroad in the European
theaters of the Spanish Empire, where he acquires a sound grasp
of the geography, ethnography, politics, and artistic and religious
culture of the lands and the great cities that he visits.
Neither is the narrator interested in detailing the fame that the resourceful and adaptable Tomás Rueda achieves at the end, once —11→ again on the margin of the Empire. Where, and for how long, and just how did the lawyer-become-soldier exercise the prudence and demonstrate the valor that won him renown? Did Tomás end a foreshortened life abruptly in battle or did he achieve the fulfillment we wish for him? Did he ever reveal his family name and birthplace, honoring them with his fame, as he set out to do? Did he revisit his home and family, and did he perhaps marry there or in Flanders and have children? Or was Tomás deprived, first by social ostracism and then by narrative oversight, of the rewards and satisfactions enjoyed by so many others of Cervantes' protagonists who are less accomplished and no more deserving or engaging than he is: the charming but spoiled underachievers and college dropouts of «La ilustre fregona7» and «La señora Cornelia», the developmentally challenged Rodolfo of «La fuerza de la sangre», the valiant but slow-maturing Ricardo of «El amante liberal» and don Juan de Cárcamo of «La gitanilla», to name a few.
Conventional matters of plotting and of representing the
integrity of a protagonist's life do not distract the narrator of this
story from pursuing his objective. He will produce an anthology,
«The Best of Vidriera», for the entertainment of readers who he
assumes share the values of the approving crowd and his own
enthusiasm for Vidriera's quick wittiness that is all the better
entertainment for being quick wickedness. The narrator focuses
narrowly on this matter and imposes on his readers to focus also
on a brief span in Tomás's life, an involuntary moratorium that is
deeply inconsistent with the continuities (of aspiration, discipline,
engagement, development, performance, and accomplishment)
that give coherence and a heroic outline to the stretches of years
extending backward and forward from the edges of his madness.
The narrator's concern for his protagonist scarcely extends beyond
those two years during which Tomás is clearly and explicitly not
himself; he is out of his mind:
«sólo le sanaron la enfermedad del
cuerpo, pero no de lo del entendimiento» (53).
Because of the fluid efficiency with which the narrator pushes
through the preliminaries (youth, education, travel, betrayal) to
reach the main events, and because of the single-mindedness with
which he then sets down his litany of drolleries, one discharge
after another until he has accumulated ninety-seven of them, the
narrator's readers are left no room or reason to question their
Real readers too are offered an easy treat that requires little
more thought than Vidriera (speaking
grandísima agudeza de ingenio», 53) gave to its concoction. We
need only accept a place in the crowd and attend again to «The
Best of Vidriera», which a satisfied audience applauded then and
we are invited to relish today.
Before we accept our assignment, at the very least we ought to
sample our abundant data to learn what it is about Vidriera's
verbalizing that makes it, in the judgment of the fictional narrator-editor-anthologizer, as suitable for his readers' attention as it had
been gratifying for the multitude who crowded around to provoke
the crazed Tomás and to be amused at his expense,
«por oírle reñir
y responder a todos» (55).
Once the narrator has dispensed with the preliminaries that
detain him so briefly, he associates himself closely and uncritically
with his subject, summarizing when not quoting his sayings, and
interrupting the succession of observations only four times. After
the first ten he informs readers that such witticisms circulated
widely in retellings and came to the notice of
«un príncipe o señor
que estaba en la Corte» (56) also described as
«un gran personaje
de la Corte», who summoned the jester and subsequently prized
and protected his oddity,
«gustó de su locura» (57). After thirty-seven discharges the narrator intervenes again to remind us that
Vidriera went about town under guard, was given no respite and
was threatened constantly by juveniles (63). After forty-one he
reminds us that Vidriera was always hard pressed by a crowd of
eager auditors (64). Finally, after the ninety-seven, the narrator
records this startling summary judgment about his favorites and
the innumerable others that go without recounting: while Vidriera
looked crazy and had some crazy habits, whenever he spoke,
anyone would judge him one of the sanest of the sane. The words
invite quoting, for they say much about the narrator's sensitivity
Two matters here call for comment.
«Como queda dicho» reminds us that the narrator is repeating himself. At the beginning
of the series, as here again, he defined the mad youth's craziness
in terms of appearances that today might not draw more than a
side-long glance on our college campuses and at summer arts fairs:
he wears a loose gown tied at the waist with a cord and he goes
about barefoot; he is a vegetarian, he drinks only fresh water, with
his hands; fearful of falling objects, he walks in the middle of the
street and he prefers to sleep outdoors, he fears thunderstorms as
well, and he doesn't like people crowding him. Let us concede that
his ways are strange, but understandably and acceptably so, given
the mistreatment that precipitated his psychosis and the mistreatment he receives subsequently whenever he ventures forth:
«Cercáronle luego los muchachos, pero él con la vara los detenía....
Los muchachos, que son la más traviesa generación del mundo, a
despecho de sus ruegos y voces, le comenzaron a tirar trapos, y
aun piedras, por ver si era de vidrio, como él decía» (54). Perplexed
friends keep him locked away; the prince tracks him with a guard,
lest he be poked and pelted with garbage excessively; but his
effective defense for two years is his way of speaking9.
It is not, says the narrator at the moment of summing up, that Vidriera was simply quick and witty, but that the narrator and anyone else would believe -closing their eyes to the evidence of his madness- that their fool was as sane a being as one could hope to find in the Court. Is there in all literature a more confused invocation than this of the Truth that «appearances deceive?» Cervantes, well out of sight overhead, but helping us along at this critical juncture, peppers his narrator's phrasing in these last two pages of the story with five uses of cuerdo(s), the only appearances of this word in the text. The iterations constitute a forceful clue about how we are to align the narrator and other characters in relation to each other and to their readers:
1. In the passage just quoted the narrator takes Vidriera to be mad but his dicta to be wise advice.
2. Immediately following the above the narrator rushes over
Tomás's recovery (to which I shall return) to record the following
assessment of his protagonist's changed behavior upon his return
«con dar tantas muestras de cuerdo como las había dado de
loco, podía usar su oficio y hacerse famoso por él» (73). The context
makes clear that this is the judgment not of the narrator but of the
good Hieronymite who effected the cure. It confirms for us that
Tomás is whole again, sane in body and mind, and ready to reengage the world.
3. Scarcely fifty words later the youngsters who had enjoyed
tormenting the madman consider renewing their assault on the
apparently transformed object of their curiosity:
«¿Éste no es el
loco Vidriera? A fe que es él. Ya viene cuerdo. Pero también puede
ser loco bien vestido como mal vestido: preguntémosle algo, y
salgamos desta confusión.». The evidence, in their view, tends to
confirm the Hieronymite's judgment and contradict the narrator's:
«Ya viene cuerdo», 'he appears now to be sane'. «But if we are
lucky», they mean to say, «he will turn out to be as mad now,
despite appearances, as he was before». The snotnosed kids know,
and the Hieronymite knows, and Tomás (now reborn and
renamed Rueda) knows, what the narrator never learns: that
Vidriera was out of his mind and his words were diseased.
4. The restored Tomás Rueda is himself again and not who he
appeared to be for a time. He is unscarred by the interlude that
fascinates the narrator; he has no memory of the unreason of his
«Por las cosas que dicen que dije cuando loco, podéis considerar las que diré y haré cuando cuerdo».
5. For the love of God, Tomás pleads futilely, don't abandon
me now that I am sane and able:
«no hagáis que... lo que alcancé
por loco, que es el sustento, lo pierda por cuerdo» This appeal and
Tomás's assurance that from now on he will make sense -
responderá mejor de pensado»- come as great disappointments
to the crowd of more than two hundred persons of all sorts (
turba a la redonda»), which soon dissolves.
We must be more attentive than the narrator if we are to draw the appropriate conclusion here. From these iterations of cuerdo and the characters' associated attitudes we see that Tomás, and the pursuing youngsters, and the charitable Hieronymite, and the crowd, indeed everyone but the narrator, acknowledge that Tomás was sane before and is sane again and that Vidriera was insane but left no mark on Rueda. Vidriera's in(s)anities (improvised, spontaneous, unreasonable) owe something (but not much) to his previous study but nothing at all to Tomás's admired and admirable entendimiento, which is disconnected for these two years. Within the imagined world only the narrator confuses Vidriera's blather with wisdom, and not even the narrator thinks to argue that the madman's words are practically applicable to solving the problems of his world.
Brief examination of a few of the narrator's treasured Vidriera memorabilia will enable us to characterize their kinds, their range of subjects, opinions, and tones, and their organization. For present purposes we will review the first ten exchanges that the —16→ narrator-editor chose to include as representative of the uncounted number from which he culls ninety-seven favorites. These are notions that he invites us to accept as meaningful, worthy of recollection, formally admirable, entirely acceptable in tone and substance, and even exemplary.
1. Vidriera has good reason to scold the youngsters who
pursue him about town, trashing and stoning him. He turns on
them one day and calls them
«porfiados como moscas, sucios como
chinches, atrevidos como pulgas» (55), which in my opinion is not
a clever or memorable put-down. He adds an allusive metaphor,
recalled from his studies or his travels, that those street urchins
could not understand and that requires a footnote in modern
2. He rebuffs a New Christian woman with the assertion that she and her kind, and her offspring, are more miserable and pitiable for their defects than he is for his11.
3. He then calls that woman's husband a fool (and perhaps hints that he is a cuckold as well) when he attempts to come to her defense.
5. When he is asked (
«Preguntóle uno que») how a husband
should react whose wife had left him for another man, Vidriera
recommends giving thanks to God for disposing of his enemy. Her
reappearance, he adds, would be true and lasting evidence of the
6. How should a man treat his wife in order to maintain peace and quiet? Give her whatever she needs for ordering her household, but never let her order you.—17→
7. A youngster asks how to gain his freedom from the father who often whips him. The reply: children are honored by their fathers' whippings, whereas public floggings bring dishonor.
8. Loudly and indeed wittily Vidriera hurls public insults at
both a boastful Old Christian and a known New Christian as they
file through the doorway into a church:
«Esperad, domingo, a que
pase el sábado»12.
9. How fortunate are schoolmasters, especially if their little angels are not snotty-nosed brats!
10. As for alcahuetas, procuresses, the ones to worry about are not those across town, but rather your next-door neighbor ladies.
The prince who heard reports of these sharp saws or others of similar kind judged that they deserved broadcasting at Court. What is your opinion of them, reader? Three of the ten (1, 7, 9) attack dirty, snotty-nosed youngsters who are regulated by good beatings and public scorn. Three (2, 3, 8) expose New Christians to ridicule and public humiliation. Five of the ten (2, 4, 5, 6, 10) denounce women (prostitutes, procuresses, shrews, housewives), imposing masculine authority on the home, the market, the neighborhood, all public space including the licenced houses of prostitution. And seven of the ten (2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10) equate honor with favorable public opinion, and dishonor with besmirched reputation.
The above targets of Vidriera's wit and the crowd's scorn
reappear along with dozens of others in the crowded catalog of
ne'er-do-wells that the narrator flashes before our eyes for our
edification and entertainment. Listing them would be tedious; this
space is better devoted to taking note of some common characteristics and denominators of the group13.
First of all I observe that, in
the manner of 14, and 78 above, twenty-four entries in this
compendium finger individuals in the crowd, isolating them from
their neighbors and subsuming them into categories, professional
or social, that define them beyond all doubt. These categories hold
Vidriera's and the crowd's interest briefly (for a dozen words or so
or up to a paragraph or two), the individuals do not. They are
secured categorically and have no recourse to defense or discussion; their personality is effaced before it can register in the text.
Occasionally, as in 5 and 6 above, the problem faced by an
individual is said to be solvable by the application of a categorical
remedy. Very often, in fact in fifty-eight instances (including item
10 above), categories of being -occupations and social ranks- are
taken up and defined «purely», without reference to any individual, present or alluded, of the mentioned types. We learn what
flatterers are like and shoemakers and puppeteers, swordsmen,
duennas, and many others.
«Todos los mozos de mulas tienen su
punta de rufianes.... Éstos, y los marineros y carreteros y arrieros,
tienen un modo de vivir extraordinario y sólo para ellos» (61), a
way of life that Vidriera then specifies briefly for each of these
Some acrid discharges give off the smell of Quevedo's ink. As
many as eighteen are more or less intensely crafted verbal conceits,
often after the fashion of Quevedo's conceptismo and even on
occasion anticipations of Gómez de la Serna's greguerías. But the
group that (along with the categorical determinations just mentioned) seems to me especially to invite comment are the nine
instances of what I shall call polarizing reduction. A short series of
sayings treats poets and poetry, asserting that poets are either
necios or venturosos; poetry is estimable, but poets are not; bad
poets are infinite in number, the good are so few as to go unnumbered; a good poet deserves esteem, bad poets are
«la idiotez y la
arrogancia del mundo» (5759). (At which extreme, one wonders,
would Vidriera place the able poet Cervantes who -while judging
two of his sonnets praiseworthy- viewed himself as
en desdichas que en versos» [Don Quijote, I, 6] and lamented that
he labored in vain
«por parecer que tengo de poeta / la gracia que
no quiso darme el cielo» [Viaje del Parnaso, I, 2627]). Good painters
imitate nature, bad ones vomit it (60). Ecclesiasticus and Vidriera
praise good doctors; Vidriera echoes Quevedo in cursing the bad
«No hay gente más dañosa a la república» (62).
What kind of wisdom is this? Now and again we hear amid
trivialities an echo of Erasmus (but no more than an echo: no
positive models, no exhortations to walk the walk, to correct
categorical wrongs and institutional deficiencies and individual
cases of injustice). The denunciation of failures of so many kinds
reminds some readers of philosophical cynicism; but the cynics
were angry, Vidriera is not; they sought to disturb, he entertains;
they searched for virtue, he meanders aimlessly. Occasional traces
of Latin authorities recall Tomás's Salamanca schooling, but they
are a few scraps torn from contexts for decorative or pedantic
effect, and most are clichés14.
But the clear majority of items on this
list are no more than mean-minded, if oft-repeated, bad-mouthing,
scarcely elevated above coarse and shallow prejudice by sporadic
infusions of verbal and conceptual wit. Once an attentive listener
in the crowd complains that Vidriera has overlooked a target
prominent on everyone's hit list:
«¿Qué es esto, señor Licenciado,
que os he oído decir mal de muchos oficios y jamás lo habéis dicho de
los escribanos, habiendo tanto que decir?» (69). To which Vidriera
«Aunque de vidrio, no soy tan frágil que me deje ir con la
corriente del vulgo, las más veces engañado». He is self-deluded.
From the beginning of the series to its end and for the duration of
his madness, Vidriera seldom resists going with the flow of
common ridicule and vilification, which his enthusiastic following
(among whom our narrator is prominently positioned) take to be
Vidriera is the aggrieved party, mistreated successively by the crowd that holds him at bay and by the narrator who recreates that original mistreatment and by the latter's readers who treasure his wit. I shall make two points in the protagonist's defense before turning to examine the intermediary who stands between the first persecutors and modern apologists, the thoroughly unreliable narrator. Then we shall search the text and its outskirts for more credible means of interpreting the history of Tomás, who was for the interim of his psychosis the focalizing reflector of his community's unworthy values and opinions.
We ought not forget that Vidriera lacks the faculty of reason.
Following an unhappy accident (his poisoning) and while
unreasoning and unreasonable, he becomes the involuntary and
celebrated voice of his community. Oddly, he is during that time
both non compos mentis and primus inter pares. The narrator makes
us aware of the radical discontinuity in his protagonist's experience, but that same narrator and many citizens who ought to have
known better discount the significance of this disconnect. Our
significant stylistic clue (not unlike that other one, the narrator's
topsy-turvy application of cuerdo to describe nonsense) will be the
narrator's confused use of the word entendimiento, in a phrase, his
misunderstanding of understanding. It is a key word, of course, for
describing Tomás's excellence, and in its essential sense (i. e., for
naming that faculty of the soul that conceives of things and
compares and judges them, and induces and deduces other things
from those it knows)15
it is put to use at three key points in the
narrative. The superb young university student Tomás Rodaja is
characterized as having an entendimiento as exceptional as his
At the other extreme of the text we learn that the
Hieronymite who took charge of Vidriera's cure
«le curó y sanó, y
volvió a su primer juicio, entendimiento y discurso» (73), which is
textual evidence as clear as a narrator could pen of the consistency
of Tomás before and after, and the disruption of his identity and
his reasoning during, the awful hiatus that fascinates the narrator.
The third appearance of entendimiento buttresses the lesson of these
two, for it appears at the boundary moment that marks the
beginning of Tomás's separation from himself. It is accompanied
in a single page by the fourth and fifth appearances of entendimiento, and the arresting iteration tells us more than the narrator and
Salamanca's most learned on-lookers are able to grasp.
After six months the poisoned Tomás, reduced to skin and
bones, rose from his bed, but
«sólo le sanaron la enfermedad del
cuerpo, pero no de lo del entendimiento, porque quedó sano, y loco
de la más extraña locura que entre las locuras hasta entonces se
había visto» (53). Tomás lost his mind; lack of entendimiento means
crazy, as crazy as you will ever see. In the very next paragraph we
learn that when this unfortunate is not on the floor howling, fainting, and pleading to be left alone, he rants something that catches
the attention of the curious:
«Decía que le hablasen desde lejos, y
le preguntasen lo que quisiesen, porque a todo les respondería con
más entendimiento, por ser hombre de vidrio y no de carne». For the
sake of science (
«Quisieron algunos experimentar si era verdad lo
que decía») the dons of Salamanca ask him «many difficult things» which the madman answers
«espontáneamente con grandísima
agudeza de ingenio», to the amazement of even the learned
professors of medicine and philosophy. Who would have thought
that in such a sick soul
«se encerrase tan grande entendimiento que
respondiese a toda pregunta con propiedad y agudeza?»
And who would have thought that the author's point, so
clearly made at this turning point through the clashing senses of
a single essential word, would leave so many readers of this text in
the same state of confusion as those first letrados and profesores?
Tomás lost his ability to exercise reason, to judge, to compare, and
to learn (
«induci[r] y deduci[r] otras [cosas] de las que ya conoce)»17.
He did not lose his memory and the wealth of assimilated
culture stored there, which is his entendimiento in the subordinate
and ordinary sense of lo que ya tenía entendido, the knowledge he
had accumulated before he lost his mind. The curious and the
learned are dazzled by his recall of the stuff he had stored away in
years of memorizing and rote learning, together with all the other
stuff he had seen and heard in daily living and in his travels:
anecdotes, proverbs, witty mots, common sense, and how much
else that until this moment -but no longer- his reasoning faculty
had been able to weigh, sift, compare, organize, apply or discount,
judge, keep in mind or push back out of the way into his preconscious. Now and for two years his judgment is impaired, but not
his memory. Vidriera will be splendidly entertaining in the
estimation of the many who prize his impromptu cleverness,
ingenious wit, and ability to hit nails on the head. But he will not
be equipped to engage again in a thoughtful exchange until the
last recorded page of his history, for, as Avalle-Arce puts it,
antiguo ser lo único que permanece es su saber acumulado»18.
Upon Tomás's recovery, when he draws a crowd one last time, he
assures listeners that if he was good while improvising, he will be
better now that he again is able to reason:
«veréis que el que os
respondía bien, según dicen, de improviso os responderá mejor de
A perplexed throng encircles the newly recovered Tomás
«ya viene cuerdo» but who -many were hoping- still
might turn out to be a
«loco bien vestido» (73). Impertinent
youngsters, a new generation of empiricists, propose the same
experiment the educated elite of Salamanca had tried two years
«preguntémosle algo, y salgamos desta confusión» (73).
Rueda fails the test -by speaking reasonably- that Vidriera had
passed with his unthinking nitwittedness. The crowd (
legislador que llaman vulgo», Don Quijote, I, Prologue) now
renders its verdict by turning away from the young Solon, and
along with them the narrator loses interest in his subject. One
hundred words later Rueda dies in Flanders and is forgotten.
A second point in Vidriera's defense: as the tormented object
of others' aggressive curiosity, he did not freely propose to
entertain; he found himself at the center thanks to the pushing
and prodding of the crowd that gathered about him in a daily
siege soon encouraged by a prince and supervised by a hired
The crazed Tomás discovered out of fatigue and exasperation, barely in time to save his life from beatings and abuse, that
when he summoned his wits and turned to face the crowd, he was
able to quiet and control it with a counterattack made from the
stuff that flowed without thinking from his
«felice memoria» and
poured undisciplined by reason from his mouth. Sticks and stones
had hurt his bones, but with words they never beat him20.
following two years and torrents of aggressive verbiage provide
readers of this story as clear an illustration as literature offers of
what Kenneth Burke calls
«language as symbolic action»,
«language as equipment for living», language as
Vidriera is hard pressed, hemmed in, attacked, until he learns to
respond with words that hold off the others.
«Por estas y otras
cosas que decía de todos los oficios, se andaban tras él, sin hacerle
mal y sin dejarle sosegar» (63). This strategy masks the speaker
from his persecutors, for he is not, after all, speaking his mind; he
is protecting his injured inwardness from view and maintaining a
life-preserving impasse (but no solution to this plight). His
inquisitors are content to interrupt their hounding and instead to
applaud Vidriera for reflections that are not his but theirs. The
famous sayings of Vidriera are monstrous visions of their community that his neighbors imagine together while reason sleeps.
The narrator who conveys all this to us sides with the crowd
and applauds what they celebrated and records it for the entertainment and edification of readers of their kind. He writes for readers
who will share his fascination with the mad wise man Vidriera and
who require no more than a profile sketch of the Tomás who
disappoints him and the crowd by regaining his sanity. The
narrator cannot escape some charges that cannot be lodged fairly
against the protagonist: Tomás while he is Vidriera reacts without
rhyme or reason to the haphazard provocations launched from the
crowd; the narrator is free to order and analyze the barrage but
fails to do so21.
He chooses, organizes, and edits his selection of
ninety-seven exchanges -selected how, from among how many
hundreds?- in the most primitive fashion22.
In his work of remembering
the anatomy of the body politic that Vidriera and his
public interactively dismembered, the narrator imposes no order -thematic, topical, or formal- on the material he recollects. His
artless work of composition reflects and indeed reproduces the
original chaotic crowd scene with unwitting fidelity. Whatever
comes back to the narrator's mind and flows from his pen at the
moment of recollection replicates the disjointed sequence of
provocations and verbal reflections that the narrator and crowd
found entertaining and memorable back then23.
There are no faces
in the crowd, there is no expression on Vidriera's face; there are no
conversations or discussions or disputes; neither protagonist nor
narrator ever needs to pause in order to insert an
de decir» into an argument, for there are no arguments. In this
remarkable record of two years that fills two thirds of the narrative,
there is no teaching, there is no learning, there is no dialog; no one
is affected for longer than a good laugh by anything said -excepting of course those in the crowd who are shamed by
exposure and reduced to the unworthy categories that say all that
needs to be said about them. The narrator, tacitly endorsing both
the crowd's behavior and Vidriera's reactionary responses, neither
recalls nor says anything constructive or consequential24.
The narrator is unreliable according to all the tests narratologists apply to measure the credibility of narration and narrative25.
«The main sources of unreliability», says Rimmon-Kenan, who is
here writing generally,
«are the narrator's limited knowledge, his
personal involvement, and his problematic value-scheme». Our
narrator's knowledge and involvement are confined almost
entirely to a small and uncharacteristic segment of his protagonist's life, bits of which he recalls approvingly and without
empathy for his subject. His interest does not extend to clarifying
Tomás's origins nor to conveying to his readers the basis of the
fame the young man acquired in his exemplary life and death in
The narrator's value-scheme seems perfectly consistent
in its ethical insensitivity with that of the crowd that both torments
Vidriera and cheers his aggressive dismemberment of the community».
«A narrator's moral values are considered questionable if they
do not tally with those of the implied author.... However...the
values (or 'norms') of the implied author are notoriously difficult
to arrive at» (101). And is there in all fiction an author who did
more than Miguel de Cervantes to interest his readers in the
matter of narrators' reliability and to correct readers' «natural» (that is, naive, unaware) identification of narrators with their
authors? The close association, in the present instance, of the
narrator with the anxious and mean
«rueda de la mucha gente
que...siempre le estaba oyendo [a Vidriera]» (64) and also the
narrator's indifference to organizing his recollections and fitting
«con propiedad y agudeza» (54) into the history of Tomás,
distinguish him radically from his author27.
«may indicate a gap between the norms
of the implied author and those of the narrator: when the facts
contradict the narrator's views...; when the outcome of the action
proves the narrator wrong...; when the views of other characters
consistently clash with the narrators...; and when the narrator's
language contains internal contradictions». Each of these conditions is represented in «El licenciado Vidriera». We have seen how
the narrator's contradictory use of cuerdo and entendimiento points
to his shallow understanding of the function of understanding. Do
not the facts of Tomás's early life expose as prejudiced and myopic
the narrator's discounting of all that happened before the mad
Vidriera's mean raillery drew him into the circle of anxious citizens
for whom he speaks? The end of the story is realized, in the
narrator's view, when he and the crowd lose interest in the
recovered Tomás Rueda; the outcome of the protagonist's history,
however, is the achievement of a dignified and honorable end and
fame. That end, the narrator must believe, will interest his readers
no more than it interests him; it is merely the disappearance
another soldier lost in Flanders. The fame that Tomás earned -for
prudence and valor!- on the edge of the Empire has no historian;
it was and it remains today insignificant when measured against
the fame achieved by the crazy Glass Graduate at Court.
Evidence of the clash, which Rimmon-Kenan mentions, between the narrator and other characters is exceptionally significant in the case of «El licenciado Vidriera». To examine it we must proceed parabolically and allow a broad focus including all the text and more, for readers of Cervantes' tale as well as characters within it will be implicated in this discussion.
The protagonist was Tomás for many years, then he was
Vidriera for a short period, and then he was Tomás again for the
remainder of his time. Vidriera lived isolated at the center of an
impersonal and formless, daily-reconstituted crowd that taunted
and pelted him until he learned to hold it off with words. He, no
less than the turba, was controlled by a guard whose role it was to
safeguard and thereby prolong the give-and-take; he was a prince's
object of amusement28.
He was betrayed, albeit unwittingly, by the
pack of college buddies who took him along to visited the vindictive
lady who subverted him deliberately. He was poisoned by a
superstitious, conniving morisca. So-called friends, uncomprehending, kept him locked up for a long time (54) before releasing him
to wander unattended and attract pity and abuse but no treatment.
The doctors and professors of Salamanca were amazed by the madman, but that was as far as their concern and competence extended. Friends in need are friends indeed. All of those just
mentioned fail the test of friendship. And so Vidriera is tracked
and harassed by youngsters and badgered by the many who
resemble a certain
«muchacho agudo que... le apretaba mucho con
preguntas y demandas» (65). Fortunately this does not complete
the census of characters who touch and are touched by the
protagonist of «El licenciado Vidriera».
After two years, a good and generous and competent person,
a Christian truly moved to charity, breaks into the circle, rescues
Vidriera from it and extracts Tomás from the bondage of madness.
About this person we know almost nothing, because the narrator -who resents this interruption of the spectacle- chooses to tell us
only that he is a friar of the Order of Saint Jerome who
gracia y ciencia particular en hacer los mudos entendiesen y en
cierta manera hablasen, y en curar locos» (73). For Heaven's sake:
a gifted and trained, disciplined, patient, selfless and effective
nurse of mutes and madmen! Who would have expected it! Indeed
this good man
«tenía gracia» and shares it: the rescue of Tomás is
just this side of a miracle, as the recovered patient himself will
proclaim, in reasonable, infinitely generous, and humble terms, in
that last, very packed, page of our text.
«Sucesos y desgracias que
acontecen en el mundo por permisión del cielo me quitaron el juicio,
y las misericordias de Dios me le han vuelto»29.
In the third year of
his affliction Tomás found and was found by a true friend. The
narrator, spare with words where his and his implied readers'
interests are not engaged, wastes only two sentences, a single
paragraph, on this decisive turning point in his protagonist's life.
If we could intrude into the narrator's study to assist him in revising his story, we would urge him to correct this slight and —30→ others as well, and in so doing enable those interpreters of this tale who regard Tomás as a loner, and alienated, as estranged, as friendless, to emend their readings. The fact of the matter is that our text shows, even in the sketchy evidence that is all its narrator has given us, that Tomás makes more friends, more real friends, and forms more time-tested friendships than any other character in the eleven other stories included among the Novelas ejemplares30. And he gives as good as he gets.
Young Tomás, self-surnamed Rodaja, is as engaging as he is
He does not curry favor, he earns it
«sirviendo a sus amos
con toda fidelidad, puntualidad y diligencia» (44), while excelling
in his studies.
«Y como el buen servir del siervo mueve la voluntad
del señor a tratarle bien, ya Tomás Rodaja no era criado de sus
amos, sino su compañero». There is no irony in this declaration; it
expresses the durable mutual fidelity that replaces an initial
relation of servitude with companionship. Vidriera later will suffer
without a friend for two years, but Rodaja's early relationships,
which are constructed out of his virtues and his friends' recognition of his worth, endure well beyond his eight years of study.
They are framed and accompanied by confirmatory evidence that
extends as far as Tomás became known:
«se hizo tan famoso en la
universidad por su buen ingenio y notable habilidad, que de todo
género de gentes era estimado y querido». This young man is not
a bookworm nor an obsessive nor a narrow-minded intellectual;
his successes are acknowledged far and wide, and they awaken no
jealousy. Finally these friendships are perfected in the appropriate
fashion that the wealth of Tomás's gentlemen friends makes
possible. They do not pay him off and dismiss him; rather they
affirm and project their friendship across space and time by
extending support to their friend so that he can do what he and
they know he longs to do, which is to complete his education:
«corteses y liberales, se la dieron [licencia para volverse a Salamanca], acomodándole de suerte que con lo que le dieron se pudiera
sustentar tres años». This is a model of fruitful friendship,
unhedged by social and economic distinctions, space, and time,
that speaks well of all its parties.
When subsequently Tomás is befriended by the charitable friar
who cures him of the malady that is Vidriera, the Court does not
join in to reward their favorite image-maker with any of the
esteem, love, and security of employment that as a youth he
earned and enjoyed in Salamanca. Tomás is able, nevertheless, to
count on another true friend in need, the good Captain Valdivia,
who like the Hieronymite is a Christian who lives his faith32.
Valdivia, a gentleman who proved the quality and constancy of his
friendship years earlier, reemerges to give literal form to the
concept of the lifelong friend. The last words of the story erase all
doubts about the matter:
«la vida que [Tomás] había comenzado a
eternizar por las letras la acabó de eternizar por las armas, en
compañía de su buen amigo el capitán Valdivia, dejando fama en
su muerte de prudente y valentísimo soldado».
This is a friendship like Tomás's others, disinterested, carefully
nourished over some years by both parties, who are drawn to each
other and are respectful and supportive of each other's ways. They
join up on the road, they converse about this and that, each is
attracted by the qualities shown by the other. So much does
Valdivia say so well that Tomás is drawn toward the life his new
friend describes. So delighted is the gentleman by the student's
«ingenio y desenvoltura» ('agile mind and outgoing manner') that
he offers to make Tomás his company's flag bearer. Since all that
we learn about both of these characters speaks to the excellence of
their character, we read this offer as the soldier's honorable
response to his accurate assessment of the youth. Tomás ponders
and then decides on his course not
improviso» as will be Vidriera's way of reacting (53, 74), but rather
«de pensado», as Rueda's practice will be (74). The narrator
«la discreción de nuestro Tomás Rodaja comenzó a
titubear y la voluntad a aficionarse a aquella vida», as the soldier's
life is described by the attractive and reliable captain (45).
Furthermore, when Valdivia proposes the European tour, Tomás
«haciendo consigo en un instante un breve discurso
de que sería bueno ver a Italia y Flandes y otras diversas tierras y
«breve discurso» ring warning bells for
the reader; but when we imitate Tomás by giving careful
consideration to the way he makes his decision and to the
circumstances, and then study his consequent action, we are
reassured. Tomás makes the right decision at this juncture for right
reasons in the right way. He is right to think, as countless students
have thought and think, that a period of study abroad (in his case
a sort of «roads» scholarship funded by his liberal and grateful
Salamanca friends) will broaden and deepen his understanding,
and so it does. He decides to undertake the tour understanding it
to be part of his professional formation (for a period of time that
would not prevent him from
«volver a sus estudios»), on terms that
affirm his vocation and cement his new friendship, and win the
further respect and support of the captain. The latter congratulates
him in a light phrase that contains much praise, some knowing
irony (about the profession of arms), and no sarcasm:
tan escrupulosa...más es de religioso que de soldado; pero como
quiera que sea, ya somos camaradas»33.
When later they part, the soldiers for the Piedmont, Tomás for
Rome, Naples, and other parts, it is with the hope and expectation
that they will meet up again to travel the Spanish Road together
(48). Tomás is as good as his word and, resisting the temptation to
linger in Venice (which
«casi le [hacía] olvidar de su primer
intento» 51), he rejoins Valdivia's company, where
«fue muy bien
recebido de su amigo el capitán, y en su compañía y camarada
pasó a Flandes» (51). And there too he does what he had designed
to do, and when that is accomplished, he confirms our reading of
his prudent original resolve:
«habiendo cumplido con el deseo que
le movió a ver lo que había visto, determinó volverse a España y a
Salamanca a acabar sus estudios, y como lo pensó lo puso luego
por obra». If later the narrator, out of his fascination with Vidriera,
tries our sympathy, for this moment at least we ought to embrace
him. He explains, without intending to do so, that Tomás did all
that he did for good reason, consistent with the ambitious but
reasonable master plan that motivated him when he was eleven
years old and throughout his Salamanca years, and motivates him
still when he is about twenty-two. His thinking and his actions are
consistent, and the latter are guided over time and space by
thinking that is ever worthy and carefully considered. And they
win him constant and worthy friends wherever he goes. His
comrade Valdivia in Flanders accepts Tomás's decision to depart
«con pesar grandísimo» and
«le rogó, al tiempo de despedirse, le
avisase de su salud, llegada y suceso». Tomás promises to write.
Now, these are friends indeed. Much like those others who file
from the inn of Juan Palomeque amid repeated abrazos and other
touching expressions of their mutual respect and their shared
concern for the health of Don Quixote (I, 47), Tomás and Valdivia
pledge to document and develop their affection really and
symbolically in messages conveyed through exchanges of letters,
affirming thereby and maintaining over space and time the bonds
of their friendship while they pursue separate courses.
How sad it is that when these friends meet again, it is as a
consequence of the rejection and exile from Court of an idealistic,
exceptionally gifted and attractive, and determined young hero.
Let us conclude this effort to flesh out Tomás's friendships with
another act of imagination that will span the gap that the narrator
neglected to bridge for us. Let us imagine how deeply it must have
consoled Tomás on his return to Flanders to embrace his steadfast
friend, to converse with him again with
«ingenio y desenvoltura», and then to validate his friend's estimation of his worth, living and
dying a prudent and valiant soldier34.
What a shame it is that the
narrator did not see clearly enough to add to his narrative at least
a corrective afterword, reassessing his story from the perspective
that Miguel de Cervantes makes available to readers who side with
Had the narrator been able to call upon Francisco de Quevedo
for assistance in penning a rectification, we know precisely what
advice he would have received regarding its appropriate
sentiment, tone, and political vision. In the year 1604, plausibly the
year of composition of «El licenciado Vidriera», Quevedo -who
then was twenty-four years old, which is Tomás's age as well when
he recovered his sanity, and who was as brilliant and precocious
as our new friend- was living in Valladolid, the Court, where
Miguel de Cervantes too lived at that time and Tomás too at that
age. Both Quevedo and Tomás were corresponding then with
esteemed friends abroad, Tomás with the Spanish captain in
Flanders and Quevedo with the distinguished Flemish humanist
Justus Lipsius. Cervantes has left us no access to Tomás's letters
and his state of mind, but here is some of what Quevedo wrote, at
the same age and from the same Court, assessing the real historical
crisis and the relation of the center of the Empire to the periphery
where the fictional Tomás soon after found fame and an early
«De mi España», writes the disillusioned young Quevedo,
«¿qué diré que no sea con gemido? Vosotros sois presa de la
guerra; nosotros del ocio y de la ignorancia. Allá se consumen
nuestros soldados y nuestros recursos; aquí somos nosotros los que
How many of us readers can match in our experience the
number and quality of Tomás's sustained, generous, productive
friendships: the many students for many years in Salamanca; the
good captain in Spain, Italy, and twice in Flanders; and God's able
agent, the ministering friar who repairs the break in Tomás's life.
Does the text not make clear that Tomás is alone only during that
small fraction of his years in which the badgering crowd surrounds
him? Tomás is alienated only while he is insane,
autoconocimiento» (Avalle-Arce, Deslindes 63). He is healthily
centered and engaged, and steadily developing toward
individuation and exemplary integrity except while he is the
captive of a prince and the crowd and under guard at Court.
His strength of character is overwhelmed only for a while and by a motley conspiracy, in which the indiscriminate desire of his immature college friends cooperates with the devouring appetite of a dissolute woman and the poisonous impertinence of her coconspiratrix, abetted by chance. Betrayal does not ruin Tomás, but it leads -as we have seen- to a terrible test, a crisis of involuntary mortification, from which he is brought forth essentially intact and with blessed amnesia. If we see this episode and the total design of Tomás's life in the way Tomás Rueda himself does (in that paragraph of the last page in which he addresses the crowd and attempts to set their understanding straight), we must conclude that the narrator and his project and —36→ the resulting narrative are aberrant, whereas the protagonist is not. Tomás is simply a victim of the sort Ruth Benedict describes, one whose native responses are not esteemed by his community, including its scribe. Focused from that perspective, which Cervantes grants Tomás and also puts into our minds, overriding the narrator's shortsightedness, the untold story of Tomás is a celebration of the protagonist's free will, progressive self- realization, discernment, purposeful resourcefulness, adaptability, personal dignity, and estimable attainments. In contrast with Tomás's history is the story the narrator prefers to tell and the crowd helps write, and which the narrator expects his readers to relish36. It is a trivial tale and a disservice to Tomás and his friends and his readers.
On which side of this abyss do we stand? Shall we be counted
among Tomás's friends or in the faceless crowd? Some texts,
Rimmon-Kenan reminds us, are ambiguous as to their narrative
reliability and make a decision such as this one impossible,
«putting the reader in a position of oscillation between mutually
exclusive alternatives» (103). This is not such a text, even though
interpretative practice suggests otherwise. While the alternatives
are mutually exclusive, the narrative is not ambiguous and we
have no need to oscillate. The narrator stands with the crowd and
listens obsessed to Vidriera, whose repartee is largely reflections of
the community's prefabricated views, renewed by a fool's formal
novelties. The products of Vidriera's hard-edged back-and-forth
volleying are celebrated by the turba at courtside, who are
comforted and confirmed by a madman's representation of their
cultural inheritance of pre-cast values and decided opinions. On
our other hand we have testimony (fragmented but formed into a
pattern over space and time) about Tomás's wholesomeness from
a series of witnesses, all of whom are more reliable than our
narrator, and we have the evidence of the protagonist's life-long
habit of good choices and consistent and coherent action.
The insufficiency that I claimed for «El licenciado Vidriera» in my opening can be felt and measured by contrasting the fictional narrator's principal work, his anthology of «The Best of Vidriera», with the untold story of Tomás's principal work. The brilliant youth overcomes an episode of madness and achieves fame thanks to his resourcefulness, his valor and his prudence. The narrator is interested only in what he mistakenly takes to be his subject's words of wisdom. It appears that we have to acknowledge and consider two eccentrics of different magnitudes and the relation between them. One is the Glass Graduate, who is crazed for a while, and the other is the narrator, who made the madman famous forever by recollecting and editing his discharges, mostly of venom.
This eccentricity is contagious as well as poisonous from its
start (from Salamanca
«las nuevas de su locura y de sus respuestas
y dichos se extendió por toda Castilla» ). What the narrator
anthologizes previously had entertained multitudes at Court, from
a prince down to unruly youngsters. If they prized Vidriera's
banalities but turned their backs on Rueda, were the first receivers
not also eccentric, even while they were representatives of the
values and opinions of the center, the Court, the heart of the
Empire? As Lázaro de Tormes observed, the writer writes not for
himself alone, for it is hard work, but for one or another kind of
remuneration. Implicitly our narrator writes hoping to share his
entertainment with as many readers as he can attract, and he
conveys the further implication that he expects that as far and for
as long as his text circulates, it will find and gratify like-minded
readers: outlying, latter-day eccentrics who missed the show but
will buy the book.
We must ponder the implications of the spread of the fictional narrator's appeal into our world, where after nearly four centuries the ranks of admirers of this text have swelled until they number in the hundreds of thousands spread over the globe. How are we to distinguish ourselves from the narrator and the crowd and the implied readers within the imagined world? How are we to protect ourselves from this contagion of eccentricity, which on each concentric level (radiating from Vidriera to the crowd, and via the narrator to his readers, and into our midst) operates without —38→ recourse to reason and recapitulates the individual and collective disfunctionality that is the core of Vidriera's vision of the society around him that he endures, reflects, and dismembers in his meanminded tongue-lashing?
The answer to this last and most urgent question -how are we to save ourselves?- lies in seeing and responding, as the author would have us see and respond, to the striking incongruity for which his narrator is responsible. On one hand we behold the cartoon outline of Tomás's well-conducted life and his exemplary fame, which, going unrecorded and unstudied, faded before it returned across the Spanish border and never made it back to Court. On the other hand, and in our face, we have the manic interlude (representing less than ten percent of the protagonist's life) to which the narrator devotes a full two thirds of his narrative, thus winning for the mindless Vidriera a fame that is well on its way to becoming eternal37. Do we align ourselves with Miguel de Cervantes, who sought repeatedly in his art to teach us to be wary of the coercive authority of narrators, or will the incurious and inattentive narrator of this tale continue to beguile us with the wicked witticisms that were a demented adolescent's desperate defense against the madding crowd?
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