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ArribaAbajoMasochisma versus Machismo or: Camila's Re-writing of Gender Assignations in Cervantes's Tale of Foolish Curiosity

Yvonne Jehenson

University of Hartford

Se ha dicho que El Curioso Impertinente de Cervantes constituye la única historia monóglota del Quijote, una que se enfoca en las consecuencias nefastas que acompañan al adulterio. El presente ensayo pone en duda tal aserto, arguyendo que la descodificación de cualquier texto es siempre problemática, que depende de la concepción de la realidad que prevalece en determinado momento. Así, ni el autor y su texto, ni los diferentes lectores del supuesto texto, pueden aislarse de las estructuras institucionalizadas de las cuales provienen. Mi enfoque traslada la lectura de El Curioso Impertinente a la recepción del lector y al proceso de producción textual.

A system of values is never a homogeneous code of abstract principles obeyed by all the participants in a given culture and able to be extracted from an informant with the aid of a set of hypothetical questions, but a collection of concepts which are related to one another and applied differently by the different status-groups defined by age, sex, class, occupation, etc., in the different social... contexts in which they find their meanings.

(Julian Pitt-Rivers, «Honour and Shame,» 39)                


Cervantes's El Curioso Impertinente (El curioso)1 has been called «the only 'monoglot' story in the Quixote», one that both follows «the strict law of Aristotelian verisimilitude» (Martínez-Bonati 281, 62) and constitutes a commentary on the theme of wrongdoing and its consequences, supposedly the thrust of the novel itself (Castro 121). El curioso is a simple story consisting of a husband's desire to test his wife and the tragic consequences that ensue. Anselmo, a young and apparently happy newly-wed, is obsessed with testing the chastity of his faithful wife Camila and insists that his best friend Lotario stage the seduction scene. The plan backfires. Camila and Lotario fall in love and Anselmo dies of a broken heart when he is made aware of the adultery. Camila is immured in a convent, takes the veil, and dies after Lotario is killed in battle.

Anselmo's test positions woman as a man's erotic prop. It is a frequently used topos in antiquity (Murillo, n. 15; Wilson 1987: 16-18). Its prototype is probably to be found in Herodotus, History, Book One, where king Candaules shows his beloved queen naked to his bodyguard in order to prove that he possesses «the fairest woman in the whole world» (Herodotus, 3). Angered by this, the queen has Gyges kill her husband and makes him king instead2. The modern version in the Orlando Furioso (to which an allusion is explicitly made in El curioso), seems even closer to Cervantes's use of the topos. Ariosto gives the reader two contrasting examples. The first is that of the once-happy husband who recounts how, induced by a sorceress, he tests his wife's fidelity and consequently loses her. He explains to Rinaldo that, not content with the positive results of the first test, he tries again in the guise of a rich lover, this time offering her «bright jewels». He succeeds: «She with my wishes, said, she would comply, / If sure to be unseen of watchful eye» (XLIII: 38). As in Herodotus's History, the woman in the Orlando Furioso, once made aware of the trick, repudiates her husband. The second example in the Orlando Furioso presents a magic cup that spills when a deceived lover attempts to drink from it. The happy lover Rinaldo,   —28→   unlike the shamed husband, refuses to test his beloved's fidelity and refrains from drinking. Rinaldo reprimands the foolish husband of the first example by focusing on the weakness of human nature in such cases: «Meseems that thou in tempting her didst fail / More than herself, that was so quickly caught. / I know not, had she tempted thee as much, / If thou, thyself, hadst better stood the touch» (Orlando Furioso XLIII: 49)

A story as linear as this, however, once appropriated by Cervantes, becomes a site of conflicting codes, not unlike those operating in Spain toward the end of the 1560s. The connection between text and practical life is pertinent. As is well known, a once-tolerant Spain with its acceptance of the multicultural heritage of Judaism and Islam, of conversos and moriscos, and with scant experience of heresy, suffers a shock in 1558 when practicing Lutherans are discovered and burned in Valladolid and Seville. A national fear of difference and increased pressure towards homogeneity prompts inscription of the other in discourses that legitimize extreme measures.

Some pressure towards homogeneity had already existed in Spain since the time of the Reyes Católicos. The language of the monarch and his court had become Spanish. In Catalonia and Valencia Castilian was widely used by men of letters and served effectively for political expansion; the humanist Antonio de Nebrija, in the prologue to the Castilian grammar he dedicated to her, reminded Queen Isabella that language was always the instrument of empire. Toward the end of the sixteenth-century, however, the quest for a homogeneity based on religious orthodoxy and on racial purity gains momentum as religious orthodoxy is imposed through a list of heretical practices with which the Inquisition tests its victims, through the Index of forbidden books issued in 1545, 1551 and rigidly imposed in 1558 and 1559, and through the tenets demanded by the Council of Trent in 1563. The pragmatics of 1558-1559 add to these restrictions3. It is primarily the quest for and the statutes on racial purity that become a means of homogenizing Spain4. Already in 1449, a special   —29→   ordinance known as the Sentencia-Estatuto had been passed declaring «that no converso of Jewish descent may have or hold any office or benefice in the said city of Toledo, or in its territory and jurisdiction» (Kamen 1985, 25). In the sixteenth -and seventeenth- centuries, however, the fact of being a converso could be socially damaging, to be a judaizer was fatal. The two best known examples are of course Fray Luis de León who was slandered and incarcerated from 1572-1576 as a suspected judaizer, and Juan Luis Vives. In 1520 Vives's father was arrested as a judaizer and burnt alive in 1524. In 1528 his mother, who had died eighteen years earlier in 1510, suffered a similar fate. She was disinterred and her bones burnt (Kamen 1985, 98). In 1556, Philip II could justify these extreme measures by declaring that «all the heresies in Germany, France, and Spain have been sown by descendants of Jews» (cited in Elliott 1963, 214-215).

In 1567 the last vestige of Spain's multicultural heritage was to disappear. In the only territory left with a sizable minority, Granada, an edict was proclaimed requiring moriscos to learn Spanish within three years. The edict made both the practice of their religion and the use of their language a crime. «The intention behind these measures was to denationalize the moriscos», John Lynch points out, to «make them Spanish Catholics» (I, 227: emphasis mine). The quest for homogeneity, then, permeated the Spanish experience in the sixteenth century5. The perceived existence of «enemies» within and without its borders helped to create a national paranoia that resuscitated the old warrior ethos of the Reconquista and its single-minded goal of unifying Spain, glorified sameness, and celebrated «manly» bonding. The concomitant subjection of the other was simply accepted as the necessary means of establishing Spanish identity6.


Spain's imposition of racial and religious hegemony, however, was always incomplete. As Raymond Williams has emphasized, hegemony is never total. It is continually being «renewed, recreated, defended... resisted, limited, challenged» (Williams 1977, 112-113). In Spain, alternative traditions always existed in practice and even «on occasion managed to prevail against the predominant view» (Kamen 1993, 20). Concern about the presence of Jews, for example, intensified as Portuguese merchants, descendants of those who had been expelled in 1492, entered Spain in large numbers after the annexation of Portugal in 1580. The effort to force the moriscos into submission was a failure (Lynch I, 224-233), and religious orthodoxy proved to be just as difficult to implement. Ecclesiastics bemoaned the lack of religious «purity» among Christians. Referring to the old Christians of the Alpujarras, for example, they discovered that even those who had «not a drop of impure blood in their veins... hardly retain[ed] a few vestiges of the Christian religion» (Lynch I, 230-231). Traces of these contemporary resistances find their way into El curioso. At times they are explicit. The difficult coexistence of Christians and Moors, for example, is the basis of Lotario's complaint to Anselmo that no one can convince the Moors of the truths of the Catholic faith (405). More often, the traces are intangible but pervasive. The isolation of the means of discursive production in El curioso, discloses these conflicting discourses. In spite of its apparently tight geometric structure, the inserted tale is not constituted as a monoglot story but as a composite of divergent voices and narrative strategies ever resisting, altering, renewing, perpetuating and destabilizing the master narrative.

As Don Quijote sleeps and the characters are at leisure in Juan Palomeque's inn, an abandoned valise is brought in by the innkeeper. A strategic location is immediately produced for misreading. The consequent blurring of fiction and history sets the stage for the priest's dismissive judgement of El curioso because of its distance   —31→   from truth categories. The priest finds and rejects, as fictional lies, two chivalric romances; praises a third book, the contemporary account of the war exploits of the Gran Capitán Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba; and decides to read the eight-page manuscript of El curioso which has also been abandoned in the valise7. The gap created by the innkeeper's introduction of the valise becomes a pre-text for the discussion of the truth value of texts, in general, and the subsequent dismissal of the inserted tale, in particular. It does not meet the necessary criteria of the celibate village priest who, ignorant of the topos's diverse uses in antiquity, criticizes its separation from truth categories: it lacks verisimilitude, he claims, for no husband would so test his wife (chapter 35). In Part II: 3, El curioso is again dismissed. This time it is because the contemporary reading public considers it de trop, a tale that has nothing to do with the novel of Don Quijote. The Arabic narrator Cide Hamete also admits defensively that, despite its apparent irrelevance, and bored with the main story, he inserted itas a digression (chapter 44). Modern critics have been no less dismissive in their judgement8.

El curioso's reception history, however, is more diverse than this negative criticism would suggest. If translation is any indication, it seems to have been highly regarded by its seventeenth-century readers. A mere three years after El curioso is published in the Don Quijote, in July 1608, it is translated into French as a separate story by Nicolas Baudoin; three years later, in 1611, Fletcher's The Coxcomb is based on a man «too curious for his own good», Nathaniel Field adapts it for his Pardon for the Ladies (Canavaggio, 242, 246), in 1671 Aphra Behn bases her subplot for The Amorous Prince, or The Curious Husband on it as do Sotherne in The Disappointment in 1684 and Crowne in The Married Beau, or The Curious Impertinent in 1694. It is in 1703, as a result of Nicholas Rowe's dramatic reenactment of El curioso in The Fair Penitent that the conventional association of the name Lotario with that of Don Juan as seducer or rake occurs (Ayala 287)9. Few of the inserted tales in the Don Quijote, then, have elicited such strong and contrary reactions.


It has become a truism that discourse is the agency through which a subject is produced and the cultural order maintained, and in El curioso, agency does seem occupied by an omniscient narrator who transmits dominant cultural codes whereby gender and class relations determine who enjoys the privileges of the symbolic order. The narrator's transcendental signified, however, is contested throughout by the heterogeneity of the tale's narrative strategies and connotative slippages (Derrida 278-80; Barthes 62)10. Of the nine narrative strategies that emplot the story, and upon which this essay focuses, «monoglossia» can be predicated of only three. These are: the narrator's prospective and retrospective strategies, namely, the idyllic discourse with which El curioso begins and the mini-tragedy with which it ends, and, in a more ambiguous manner, Lotario's compilation of moral axioms11. Six of the nine narrative strategies, on the other hand, become sites of contestation and negotiation, providing resistant subtexts that retard its resolution, keep its meanings in flux, and suspend closure.

The first narrative strategy consists of the narrator's «once-upon-a-time-there-was» mode of the fairy / folk genre. Though set in a stylized Florence, a very Spanish tale centers on the proverbial relationship of two orphan friends / brothers whose necessary trial / ordeal is postulated in order to emphasize their virtue and loyalty to each other. The initial idyll suggests a context of stability, of a social order postulated on male bonding and its natural consequence -the subordination of the other. In this harmonious ambience characters are easily defined. One friend, Anselmo, is described as a lover, «más inclinado a los pasatiempos amorosos», the other, Lotario, a pursuer   —33→   «al cual llevaban tras sí los [pasatiempos] de la caza» (399)]. The results are predictable. As initially positioned, Anselmo the lover decides to marry the wealthy, noble, and of course «beautiful» Camila, and Lotario the hunter searches for Anselmo's mate and arranges the match. In the absence of a father figure, it is of Lotario that Anselmo asks approval for his proposed marriage to Camila. It is he who «concluyó el negocio», who reaps Camila's deep gratitude for the marriage (400), and who sets himself up as permanent counsellor in the marital relationship (401).

Beginning with the title, then, La novela del curioso impertinente, the text sets up a high degree of what Michael Riffaterre has called «previsibility». Through connotative slippages, however, meanings become problematized and subject positions realigned. More than a commentary on the theme of wrongdoing and its consequences (Castro 121), El curioso becomes a means of disclosing the fragility of male bonding as Anselmo's perverse scenario debases everyone. It positions Lotario as a john. The latter's love of the chase, extended metaphorically, now inscribes him as the pursuer of his friend's wife. It positions Anselmo as a pimp. Three times in the text, Anselmo is actively involved as procurer. He deliberately absents himself for a week in order to facilitate Lotario's seduction of Camila (416-420); he provides Lotario with the necessary money and jewels to implement the seduction (412, 414-415); and he twice offers to write amorous poems, in Lotario's name, to Camila in order to break down her resistance (413, 421). The perverse scenario positions Camila as a whore who can be bought. Camila's tactical negotiations «between scenes of power», however, will ultimately realign these relationships12. I use tactical in this context within Michel de Certeau's distinction between «strategies» and «tactics». «Strategies» de Certeau associates with the postulation of power and power relationships, «tactics» with its absence. Although tactics are the «art of the weak», he reminds us that they «gain validity in relation to the pertinence they lend to time -to the circumstances which the precise instant of an intervention transforms into a favorable situation...» (38). As we shall see, Camila intervenes at a precise moment in order to transform the text's power structure, thereby witnessing to the effects that «inattention to the communicative aspect of a supposedly powerless figure», can occasion. It is Camila   —34→   whose intervention will ultimately «bring[s] about the redistribution of power in [the text's] formerly stable power relations»13.

The second narrative strategy initiates the connotative slippages that disclose the real disorder that lies beneath the simulated order of the narrator's idyll. It consists of an overt fantasy that embeds a covert and perverse scenario. The conscious product of Anselmo's unconscious compulsion, the fantasy disrupts the initial semblance of order while providing the shaping force of El curioso's narrative (Brooks 13)14. The world of the two men had been initially described as a closed homogeneous idyll: «andaban tan a una sus voluntades que no había concertado reloj que así lo anduviese» (399). No rivalry or secrets mars their friendship. Once sexual difference is introduced with Camila's active participation in the text, however, the fragility of the narrator's pristine idyll is highlighted and so is Anselmo's need to retrieve primordial harmony. Camila becomes a mere pawn. Her duty as «obedient» wife is to submit to her husband at all costs and Lotario as «loyal» friend is to «safeguard» his friend's honor above all.

A desperate tension ensues between Anselmo's covert need to reexperience his initial reassuring sense of fusion with Lotario15, to resist the process of individuation / separation from him16, and Lotario's insistence on boundaries, that is, on the societal, religious, and cultural codes that prescribe the friends' necessary separation and proscribe Anselmo's perverse fantasy. A distraught Anselmo admits that his obsession to prove his wife's chastity (or unchastity?) constitutes a desire so strange and peculiar that he equates it to «la enfermedad que suelen tener algunas mujeres, que   —35→   se les antoja comer tierra, yeso, carbón y otras cosas peores, aun asquerosas para mirarse cuanto más para comerse» (411-412). An astonished Lotario initially rejects participation in an experiment he acknowledges dishonors Anselmo, Camila, and himself, but eventually acquiesces to Anselmo's literal «stage-setting of desire» (Laplanche and Pontalis 28).

An Oedipal triadic scenario ensues uncovering the deceptive façade behind the dyadic idyll El curioso founds on male bonding. Anselmo does not position himself as the passive and helpless child / outsider who is excluded in the erotic performance between two loved ones17. Instead, as producer and director of a composite scenario of secrets and deviousness, he is in charge whatever the outcome. Should Camila falter, Anselmo still wins: Camila's treachery ensures her repudiation by both men and, consequently, the renewal of the bonding Anselmo and Lotario once enjoyed and which Anselmo sorely misses. Anselmo's dishonor remains a secret for his chaste and loyal friend Lotario would never implement the seduction: «que si de ti es vencida Camila, no ha de llegar el vencimiento a todo trance y rigor» (403). He would not disclose it: «mi injuria quedará escondida en la virtud de tu silencio» (404). Anselmo even derives a kind of masochistic pleasure should the outcome be negative. As he admits, «y cuando esto suceda al revés de lo que pienso, con el gusto de ver que acerté en mi opinión, llevaré sin pena la que de razón podrá causarme mi tan costosa experiencia» (403: emphasis mine).

Should Camila not falter, Anselmo's joy is immeasurable. The outcome and the process of the experiment will have already proved to be highly pleasurable. As producer / director / voyeur of the seduction scenes he has staged between Camila and Lotario, Anselmo   —36→   has been vicariously titillated18. As Lotario's alter ego, he has actively participated in the pleasure of viewing Camila's and Lotario's scenes of seduction19. The text itself highlights the interchangeableness of the two friends in contexts suffused with erotic connotations. When Anselmo absents himself to facilitate Lotario's seduction of Camila, for example, he tells Camila «que tuviese cuidado de tratale como a su mesma persona» (416: emphasis mine). And Lotario, in his response to Camila's question (after they have committed adultery) as to whether Lotario knows who Anselmo is, identifies with Anselmo in the equivocal answer: «A ti te conozco y tengo en la misma posesión que él te tiene» (433: emphasis mine)20. Whatever the outcome of the experiment, then, Anselmo returns to the pristine bonding he once enjoyed with Lotario. Should Camila fail, the two friends have each other. If Camila emerges victorious, the pristine idyll of male bonding is still Anselmo's to enjoy. He no longer need test his wife since her unassailable chastity has desexualized the triadic relationship: Anselmo will have obliterated difference, eluded the painful process of individuation / separation from Lotario, bypassed the Oedipal conflict by retaining both Lotario's friendship and Camila's love, and obviated the responsibility of decision making. Consistent with every child's wish and every adult's unconscious fantasy, Anselmo can therefore return to a «never never state» in which, as Louise J. Kaplan has pointed out, «there are no real or significant differences between infantile sexuality and adult sexuality» (128)21.


The third narrative strategy in El curioso consists of Lotario's response to Anselmo. His argument is, by contrast with Anselmo's obsessive strategy, inscribed in a reasoned Renaissance treatise of always already verities from high and low culture: honor codes, biblical and theological postulates, intertextual caveats from Herodotus's History and from Tansillo and Ariosto, Aristotelian truisms and popular maxims on woman's imperfection. Aware that Anselmo's proposal dishonors everyone -Anselmo's wife, Anselmo, and Lotario himself- Lotario nevertheless agrees to participate claiming that it would be less dishonorable for Anselmo if his best friend, and not another, participated in the experiment (412). Despite the insistence on eternal verities and moral axioms in Lotario's treatise, connotative slippages nevertheless make his meanings ambiguous. Positioned as «pursuer» by Anselmo himself, Lotario seems to respond to the subliminal message in Anselmo's covert challenge, even as he repudiates the latter's request. The test, Anselmo has assured him, requires that Camila see herself «requerida y solicitada, y de quien tenga valor para poner en ella sus deseos» (403). If someone else tests Camila, then, that someone has a valor Lotario lacks, consequently making Lotario «de menos valer»22.

It is important to put this challenge in context. It is in Alfonso X's Siete Partidas that the concept of valer más and its opposite valer menos are explained. The words mean to have «greater» or «lesser worth», and as Caro Baroja explains, may be translated as «prestige», «esteem», and as «disgrace», or «disesteem» (88). Disgrace could result from such acts as showing cowardice or breaking one's word. The concepts find literary expression in the novels of chivalry where courage and effort are essential characteristics of the knight, but were principles still very much in vogue in the century in which Cervantes writes as a letter from the «tyrant Aguirre» to a friar representing Philip II shows. In open rebellion against his king, Lope de Aguirre writes that «after faith in God, the man who is no better than another has no worth» (Caro Baroja 94-95: emphasis mine). The subliminal challenge of Anselmo, namely, that Lotario has less worth if another man shows more valor in testing Camila's chastity, does not   —38→   remain unaddressed. In his response to Anselmo, Lotario throws down the gauntlet and reminds him that if innocent Danaës (read: Camilas) exist in the world, so do «golden showers» of Zeuses (read: Lotarios): «que si hay Dánaes en el mundo / hay pluvias de oro también» (409)23.

In the fourth strategy, the actual implementation of Anselmo's scenario, the actors initially play out the roles in which Anselmo has cast them. The men move. They speak to each other. Camila, on the other hand, is moved and spoken by them. The discursive formations that contain Camila are not of course peculiar to her. They constitute traces of the hegemony of early modern society. Obedience constituted the very foundation of the social order. Obedience to God and to his Church: in the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola advocates the concept of «blind obedience» to his followers. To arrive at «complete certainty» he assures them, «this is the mental attitude we should maintain: I will believe that the white object I see is black if that should be the decision of the hierarchical church». [«siquid quod oculis nostris apparet album, nigrum illa esse diffinierit, debemus itidem quod nigrum sit, pronunciare»]. «Obedience to God and the king follows obedience to the Church. As Philip II makes clear, it is the same thing»: «You are engaged in God's service and in mine», he explains to one of his commanders in 1573, «which is the same thing» (Parker 267). Philip implements this notion from the beginning of his reign in 1555 when he informs his ministers that «[I]f it be my pleasure,   —39→   I shall annul, without the cortes, the laws made in the cortes; I shall legislate by edicts and I shall abolish laws by edicts» (cited in Lynch 207).

The trope of gender, then, cannot be understood apart from these cultural realities. The connection between social order and control naturalized discursive formations that «taught very clearly that women should be safely enveloped in a convent or marriage, obedient, chaste, and modestly accepting their place in the social hierarchy» (Perry 1978, 204-206)24. Women who chose to remain unmarried and entered the convent were subordinated in obedience to their confessors. Married women had to obey their husbands. Even prostitutes were subjected to the «padres» in the brothel (Perry 1985, 144-145). Religious and philosophical treatises reinforced the control. The writings of Juan de la Cerda and of Luis Vives set up feminine models for imitation that emphasized chastity, obedience, and silence. Vives even advocated that, like his own mother, a virtuous woman should be steadfast. As example of this steadfastness he proposed the Spartan mothers who «con sus propias manos dieron muerte a sus hijos cobardes» (cited in Bergmann 131). Female representations of the period popularized this control of women in the symbols of the Virgin, the Painted Prostitute, and the Penitent Magdalen. For nuns and married women, the Virgin was set up as the model of chastity and obedience. The Painted Prostitute served two purposes. She provided a necessary symbol of men's «normal» sexual aberrations from chastity. She concomitantly warned women of what «deviance» from socially-sanctioned behavior could mean. The figure of the repentent prostitute, Mary Magdalen, like the Painted Prostitute, was a symbol of the degradation to which disobedience and license reduced women but, unlike the prostitute, the Magdalen signified the humility, abjection, and self-sacrifice that could also «redeem» them (Perry 1972, 204-207).

It is not at all surprising, then, to hear Anselmo assure Lotario that «Camila no tenía otro gusto ni otra voluntad que la que él quería que tuviese» (400), «que no tenía más que hacer que bajar la cabeza y obedecelle» (417). Inscribed in obedience, Camila simply mirrors Anselmo's desire. Positioned as spectacle in Anselmo's and   —40→   Lotario's hom(m)o-sexual narrative, her participation in the men's performance is doomed from its inception25. Just as nothing but good can come to Anselmo from his experiment, so nothing but blame can accrue from Camila's performance in Anselmo's scenario. If Camila relents and is seduced by Lotario, she is a whore, the very position the scenario is testing. She consequently loses everything -husband, honor, and possibly her life26. If she resists and is chaste, she becomes an irresistible sexual object whose resistance the men must overcome. Camila's resistance prompts Lotario to value «cuan digna era de ser amada» (417), and to fetishise «parte por parte, sus estremos de bondad y de hermosura» (417)]27. Camila's resistance maximizes Anselmo's efforts at her seduction: «Hasta aquí ha resistido Camila a las palabras», he pleads with Lotario, «es menester ver cómo resiste a las obras» (414)28.

The fourth strategy, the «stage-setting of [Anselmo's] desire», had begun with the actors playing the roles fixed by Anselmo. After the adultery, and at the moment when a deluded Anselmo believes he has finally achieved the desexualized ménage-à-trois his scenario has inscribed, all positionalities become irrevocably altered. The once-loyal Lotario becomes a «traidor amigo» performing the seduction scenes «sin mirar a otra cosa que aquella a que su gusto le inclinaba» (421, 418), his formerly chaste wife an adulteress thoroughly enjoying the deviousness and excitement of her illicit affair with Lotario, and Anselmo the erstwhile producer-director of the   —41→   charade, converted into «el hombre más sabrosamente engañado que pudo haber en el mundo» (437), now moved and spoken in the lovers' counter-scenario. In a real sense Anselmo achieves exactly that to which he had aspired. Tony Tanner's discussion of the effects of adultery in Madame Bovary, is especially relevant in this instance. Adultery dilutes opposites, Tanner explains, and so «the triumph of adultery [lies] in the destruction of difference» (367). By adulterating defined erotic relations in El curioso among Anselmo / Lotario / Camila, as well as hierarchical differences in class between Leonela and Camila (the mistress is now on the same level as the maid and moreover dependent on her), Anselmo's perverse strategy has de facto obliterated difference.

Three times in El curioso Cervantes postulates a semblance of order only to destabilize it. The first instance occurs in the initial narrative strategy, the dyadic idyll founded on the bonding of the two friends. The idyllic harmony of their friendship had produced a textual stasis that became destabilized by inner and outer factors -Anselmo's obsessive compulsion and his manipulation of Lotario's friendship, and the discursive formations of an honor-code society which inscribed the friends in competitive positions of comparative worth. The second and third instances occur after the adultery has been consummated and the triadic bonding of Anselmo / Camila / Lotario has effected another kind of harmony. In the text's fifth and seventh narrative strategies, violent eruptions disturb the stasis effected by the blissful ménage-à-trois of the adulterous lovers and the deceived husband.

The fifth strategy, the double plot of the affair of Camila's maid Leonela and her lover, consists of a reworking of Plautus's and Terence's decorous version of middle-class comedy, the comedia de capa y espada. Like its Roman model, it too thrives on amorous intrigue, on concealments, deceptions, mistaken identity, disguises. Beneath its light-hearted veneer, however, the comedia de capa y espada is nevertheless based on its society's discursive formations: the men must uphold the honor code and women must remain chaste. If masculine honor is threatened, violence breaks out. Cervantes capitalizes on these generic conventions. The transgression in the double plot converts the harmonious ménage-à-trois of the adulterous couple and Anselmo into something akin to a Calderonian honor play as a jealous Lotario betrays Camila to Anselmo. Lotario mistakenly identifies the man he sees «embozarse y encubrirse con cuidado y recato» (426) (in typical comedia de capa y espada fashion), as Camila's rather   —42→   than Leonela's lover. In a jealous rage, he betrays Camila and warns Anselmo that something is amiss.

The comedia de capa y espada thereby effects a genuine eruption in the text as it jeopardizes the honor of all three characters -Anselmo, Camila, and Lotario, and realigns class and power relationships in the text. The adulterous Camila and her cunning maid Leonela are repositioned. By begging «Leonela no dijese nada de su hecho» (425), Camila binds herself in a blackmail dependency on the maid that parallels that of Lotario vis-à-vis Anselmo. The lover Lotario and his mistress are also repositioned as Lotario again switches allegiances. Initially in collusion with Anselmo against Camila, then in collusion with Camila against Anselmo, he is once again in collusion with Anselmo against Camila. The comedia de capa y espada serves a threefold function in El curioso: it realigns positions, creates spaces for new relationships to emerge, and provides the impetus for the sixth narrative strategy, Camila's abrogation of power. As producer, director, and actor, Camila will reenact a Tale of Cuckoldry, a literal performance of gender, that serves as companion piece to Anselmo's perverse scenario.

Throughout El curioso, and before Camila's parodic performance, an omniscient narrator had transmitted as normal cultural codes whereby gender determined the privileges of the symbolic order and therefore the relations of power in the text: Anselmo's strategy had contained Camila in a plot that mirrored his desire for perfection, and Lotario had tried to contain her in a plot that mirrored his fear for her loyalty. The sixth narrative strategy, Camila's counter-scenario, however, changes everything. She preempts the position of the speaking subjects, Anselmo and Lotario, and literally makes a difference in Nancy K. Miller's sense of feminist difference as constituting a movement between central and marginal positions in the «negotiations between scenes of power» (117). Camila takes the conservative agenda that the narrator had postulated as normal and stands it on its head. In Camila's rewriting of the time-honored conventions of the Boccaccian Tale of Cuckoldry, «masochisma matches machismo», to use Robert Stoller's felicitous expression. She calls attention to the ideological underpinnings of the constructions that have contained her and provides «strategies of subversive repetition enabled by those constructions» (Butler, 147: emphasis mine). Faced with the threat of retribution, the wily Camila employs a tactic that transforms into a favorable situation what could have been, for her, a tragedy (de Certeau 38).


Camila's brilliant performance of masochisma repeats masculinist representations of woman as abnegated, self-sacrificing, and chaste. For the benefit of her husband, she adopts the persona of the chaste Lucretia. «Leonela amiga», she cries histrionically, «¿No sería mejor que antes que llegase a poner en ejecución lo que no quiero que sepas... que tomases la daga de Anselmo, que te he pedido, y pasases con ella este infame pecho mío?» (429), and of a woman willing to kill in order to safeguard her husband's honor. The awed spectators of her performance (Lotario, Leonela), identify her subsequent personae (again for her husband's benefit) as those of a «perseguida Penélope» (430), a long-suffering «segunda Porcia» (435), and «la flor de la honestidad del mundo» (430). Produced by the same constructs as Camila, the recognizable repertoire of ideological references she performs convinces Anselmo.

Camila's quick-thinking, by contemporary standards (and perhaps even for a woman), would have been perceived as discreet and prudent. After all, it was well known that in The Prince, Machiavelli had praised the man discriminating enough to know when to be «the lion», and when to be «the fox» (chapter 18)29. Philibert de Vienne (1547), addressing himself to the ingenuity necessary in those at court, had also reiterated why the ability «to change and transform» oneself was considered an admirable quality: «This facility... is not therefore to be blamed which makes men according to the pleasure of others, to change and transform himself. For in so doing he shall be accounted wise, win honor, and be free of reprehension everywhere: which Proteus knew very well, to whom his diverse Metamorphosis and oft transfiguration was very commodious» (Greenblatt 164: emphasis his). Speculation as to what reception of El curioso's sixth strategy might have been among contemporaries is not as important, however, as is the textual effect of what the narrator calls Camila's «estraño embuste y fealdad» (434), and what Lotario (and the reader) see instead as «sagacidad, prudencia y mucha discreción» (434).

Camila's performance succeeds in altering the very rules that have previously governed her signification. What one critic has said of the «wiles» attributed to Shakespeare's Cleopatra is equally pertinent to Camila. She too provides a much-needed subtext -the contestual and dissenting hint «of another discourse, one which... [is   —44→   meant] to disturb the 'truth' of the patriarchal order» (Evans, 165)30. Camila has deftly usurped the cultural formations that had perpetuated the two friends' discourse of male domination and simply reinscribed them within her narrative of resistance. Her performance, and its reception, demonstrate how directly power and knowledge imply one another (Foucault, 27-8), and how easily gender assignations can be redeployed.

For the third time in El curioso, after Camila's convincing performance, a delusive harmony again permeates the text as the cuckolded husband's deception is now complete (441). As he has done in the first and in the fifth strategies, in this seventh strategy also, Cervantes interrupts the stasis. The récit, the inserted tale of El curioso impertinente is violently interrupted by the main narrative, the histoire of Don Quijote. The histoire, in fact, becomes the récit (Neuschäfer 607) as a sleep-walking Don Quijote slashes the Giant / wineskins in chapter 3531. The incident is patterned generically, as Menéndez Pidal pointed out long ago, on the last chapter of Book II of Apuleius's Golden Ass where Lucius, imitating a giant killer, perforates three wineskins (Murillo 439n). Translated into Spanish by Diego de Cortégana, The Golden Ass was published in Spain in 1525. This strategy serves as a humorous dilatory space and is functional. Since the episode of the comedia de capa y espada and Lotario's subsequent betrayal of Camila, El curioso had begun to take on some of the seriousness of Spanish honor plays. The humorous eruption of the main narrative into the novel's inserted tale provides a needed comic relief, keeping the tenor and the meaning of the tale in a state of perpetual flux. Erotic double entendres are made to serve the same purpose. The bawdy reference of the Innkeeper's wife to her husband's «tail» in this incident is as clever in its double meaning as was Lotario's assurance to Camila in the sixth strategy that he «knows» her (Rodríguez Marín 8, 107). Both strategies serve as disruptive and farcical counterplots to the fears aroused in the characters and the readers (within and without El curioso) by Anselmo's suspicion of Camila's infidelity.


In the midst of the humorous dilatory space, the narrator nevertheless attempts to reimpose dominance and resorts to the rigid codes of conventional tragedy in order to punish the transgressors32. In this, the eighth strategy, the curiosity of Anselmo is seen as his hamartia. A painful meeting with a Florentine messenger constitutes his anagnorisis, and the peripeteia, the tragic events by which the world of this once-happy character has been turned upside down, are explicitly made to serve as catharsis: «Volvió Fortuna su rueda, y salió a plaza la maldad con tanto artificio hasta allí cubierta», the narrator explains to the reader, «y a Anselmo le costó la vida su impertinente curiosidad» (437).

Cervantes, however, once again destabilizes generic affiliations and reading keys, continuing to make it impossible to classify El curioso's location, tenor, or meaning. The ninth and final strategy, emplotted side by side with the tragedy inscribed in the eighth strategy, subordinates to radical doubt the narrator's most powerful position, that is, that some curiosities are deadly foolish, that adultery is wrong, and that both transgressions must be punished.

Admittedly, the curious husband and the adulterous couple all die at the end of the story. But the reader remains unconvinced that El curioso constitutes a commentary on the theme of wrongdoing and its consequences (Castro 121). The reason is that the contradictory genre and tone of self-immolating romance, juxtaposed to the morality and seriousness of the tragic genre, contest the narrator's dominant position. The ninth strategy, which calls for the modern label of melodrama, operates in registers that are not compatible with the narratorial positions taken. A dizzying array of five pulp-fictional topoi riddles the tale with contradictions, undermines the possibility of tragic closure, and emplots El curioso generically in the clichés of conventional romance: intrigue and the threat of disclosure as Leonela the maid promises to tell Anselmo an important secret: «yo te diré cosas de más importancia de las que puedes imaginar» (442); nightly escapades as Camila, the damsel in distress, collects her jewels and money and flees from her enraged and dishonored husband to her lover; coincidence as Camila is saved by her protecting lover and sequestered in a nunnery in which Lotario's sister happens to be prioress; sorrowful farewells as the lovers can no longer be together, for   —46→   Camila's husband is bent on avenging his honor; finally, the most romantic of all topoi, namely, the myth of the «great love lost». Camila is represented at the end as pining away in a nunnery, but not because of guilt (as Leonora in Cervantes's El celoso extremeño had done), nor because her husband has died of a broken heart, but, instead, because of «el ausente amigo» (446). Lotario has fled to join a fighting force acknowledged as the best in the world, that of the Gran Capitán Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba (Murillo 446, n. 23). When Lotario is finally killed, it is not in an ordinary battle, but in the triumphant battle of Cerignola at which the Gran Capitán defeated the Marquis de Lautrec in 1503. The reader is consequently brought back full-circle to the site of El curioso's discovery, to the historical exploits of the Gran Capitán in chapter 32, and to the discussion of truth categories initiated by the priest and in which the reading originated.

The end of El curioso, then, is made to constitute the very «stuff» of romance. It elides the elements necessary to make it either a tragedy or a morality tale33. The reason is two-fold. The «traidor» Lotario (the narrator's label), dies as a hero and Camila, despite her brilliant tactics, remains an object of exchange between the two men. Unlike the women in Herodotus's History and in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso Camila never learns (as they do) of her husband's and of her lover's scheming. She is unaware of the seduction scenes contrived in order to test her, and never learns of her lover's complicit part in them. Even more seriously, the text admits Lotario's betrayal of Anselmo and consequent remorse, but erases the gravity of Lotario's much more serious betrayal of Camila34.

It seems appropriate to focus once again on the connection between text and practical life, and on the serious consequences of Lotario's suggestion of Camila's infidelity to Anselmo. In discussing the concepts of honor and shame in Spain and other Mediterranean societies, Julian Pitt-Rivers has shown how gender-marked the relationships of power are. Honor «delegates the virtue expressed in   —47→   sexual purity to the females», Pitt-Rivers explains, «and the duty of defending female virtue to the males» (45). A man's honor, then, is in the sexual purity of women. But women are weak vessels. In the words of Lotario himself, women have insufficient «virtud y fuerza natural» to withstand temptation (409). And so a man's honor is in precarious hands. However light a woman's indiscretion -be it an innocent but clandestine letter to a former lover, her inability to restrain an unwelcome suitor in his amorous attentions, or even her forcible rape- these acts bring dishonor to the men in her family. Consequently, if social order is to be maintained, a system of values as fragile as that of the honor code demands swift retribution when impugned. The ultimate vindication is physical violence (Pitt-Rivers 29). It is a recourse only too familiar to readers of Calderón's wife-murder plays and a means of social control of women in sixteenth -and seventeenth- century Spain.

Ancient law had permitted the deceived husband to execute his wife and her lover, and Spanish law condoned such public executions. Two cases in point: in 1565, a crowd assembled in Seville in order to see an innkeeper repeatedly stab his adulterous wife and her lover (Perry 1980, 140). In 1624, a wife pleaded publicly with her husband that her life and that of her lover be spared. The husband relented after an hour. «The public spectacle of the begging woman and angry husband», Perry points out, «had been enough to reestablish his honor and her subordinate position» (1980, 142). More often, however, public knowledge of the deceived husband's dishonor was assiduously avoided. In the already-fragile Mediterranean code of honor, disimulo was crucial. The crux of Calderón's play, A secreto agravio, secreta venganza, the concept of disimulo centers on the dilemma of how «to cleanse honor without publicizing dishonor» (Pitt-Rivers 27). The dilemma is resolved once again by executing the adulterous wife -but in secret. This insidious expedient Lotario now proffers Anselmo. Having mistaken Leonela's lover as Camila's, and «muriendo por vengarse de Camila» (426), Lotario actually pronounces her death sentence. «Y si fuera la maldad que se puede temer», he knowingly whispers to Anselmo, «antes que esperar, con silencio, sagacidad y discreción podrás ser el verdugo de tu agravio» (427: emphasis mine).

It simply strains readerly credulity, then, to take the description of Camila's tragic loss of Lotario seriously or to see how the lovers' «wickedness» is punished as the narrator avers. Neither Lotario nor Anselmo is depicted as a tragic hero who has fallen from nobility to ruin; Lotario's actions are no more worthy than are Anselmo's; and   —48→   Camila never repents of the adultery. Lotario's triumphant death and Camila's sublime renunciation of the world (and of life after Lotario dies), in fact, are perceived as obvious clichés of the conventional romance. As Elizabeth Cowie reminds us in her discussion of film conventions, renunciation and / or death are crucial to romance because they ensure the adulterous lovers' allegiance to an «'absolute love', to their 'grand passion' which, in being unattainable, is also unsullied by the banality of marriage» (89)35.

El curioso has invited active reception. Walter Benjamin has reminded us that any grasp of history can never constitute an «eternal image of the past», that the historical fabric is never homogeneous but interwoven, constituting a «time filled by the presence of the now» (262, 261). Paul Ricoeur too has emphasized that, like the historical text, the literary text is always in use, always appropriated in the reading process. The text's deployment of the topoi of melodrama, then, is ultimately more convincing to the twentieth-century reader than is the narrator's dominant moral code, and the clichés of romance that emplot El curioso, provide a more recognizable repertoire of ideological references than do the postulates of an honor-code society. The heterogeneity of the narrative strategies inscribed into El curioso's formal operations, and the connotative slippages that have destabilized its generic boundaries, have defied its reification into a finished product.

But the text ends, and its end serves as sober reinforcement of Raymond Williams's reminder that even alternative forms are tied to the hegemonic, «that the dominant culture... at once produces and limits its own forms of counter-culture» (1977, 114). Despite all her oppositional initiatives Camila nevertheless remains the product of her cultural formations. Neither Virgin nor Penitent Magdalen, she has ceased to be chaste and she has refused to repent. The text inscribes her in a third masculinist representation -that of the whore or Painted Prostitute Anselmo had initially produced in his scenario- and for eternity. The cemetery is the only space a «deviant» Camila can be made to occupy outside of the text.

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