Irony in la gitanilla

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From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 6.1 (1986): 29-38.
Copyright © 1986, The Cervantes Society of America
ARTICLE | |
Romance and Novel: Idealism and Irony in La Gitanilla
| E. MICHAEL GERLI |
A GITANILLA is traditionally viewed from the perspective of romance. Critics tend to consider it as one of Cervantes' “idealistic” works because it tells a tale of loveand adventure; it is organized around a test/quest motif; the characters portrayed are more psychological archetypes than individuals; the resolution is serendipitous, involving chance, coincidence, and sudden recognition; and, finally, because it is related in an elevated verbal style that often lapses into song and poetry. Frank Pierce, for example, best represents this critical tendency when heremarks that La Gitanilla is “a romance in that it illustrates the victory of true love.” This thematic judgment leads him to conclude that the work is an “enchanting fantasy . . . of love and marriage, of constancy and forgiveness.”1 Yet, while all of this is so, it is so largely only on the surface. The romance elements singled out by the majority of the critics are usually viewed in isolationand do not take stock of the manner in which they are organized within the work and how they are mirrored in situations which undermine their superficial idealism.
     E. C. Riley has recently argued for the comprehensive and pervasive “coexistence in Cervantes's prose fiction of two basic kinds of narrative” —novel and romance— and for “the likelihood that Cervantes did not evolve definitivelytowards one preferred form but
     1 “La Gitanilla: A Tale of High Romance,” BHS 54 (1977), 283 and 294.
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to the end of his days was liable to write in either vein or in some combination of the two.”2 A close scrutiny of the content and structure of La Gitanilla reveals just such an interaction of both novel and romance. The surface idealismof the story's romance motifs is checked by a subterfuge of irony which establishes a more realistic and essentially ambiguous vision of events. Theorizing upon the nature and development of fiction in early modern European literature, Harry Levin cites the pronounced contrasts characterizing Spanish society during the Renaissance as essential reasons for the appearance and perfection of the novelin Spain. Speaking of Cervantes, Levin believes that his perception of social tension provided him with a unique opportunity for perfecting a type of irony “which plays appearance off against reality and highlights contrast between the ideal and the real” and which is typical of the novel.3
     The juxtaposition of the ideal and the real is central to the structure and narrative technique of LaGitanilla. There is in it a kind of situational irony that implicitly sets off words and occurrences against each other while ultimately leaving any judgment of values up to the reader. Contrast, irony and ambiguity seem paramount in the narrator's mind from the outset of La Gitanilla. Playfully alluding to the deceptive nature of appearances and the perils of generalizations, the narrator'sdiction proves a warning to the careful reader on the nature of the artifice which is about to unfold: “Parece,” he says, “que los gitanos y gitanas solamente nacieron en el mundo para ser ladrones.”4 As Karl-Ludwig Selig remarks concerning this narrative gambit, the introductory parece serves to distance the “the intense pile-up
     2 “Cervantes: A Question of Genre,” in Mediaeval and RenaissanceStudies on Spain and Portugal in Honour of P. E. Russell, ed. F. W. Hodcroft, et al. (Oxford: Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature, 1981), p. 70. It is obvious that Cervantes was not familiar with the terminology of novel and romance as we use it today. However, he was aware of two distinct types of narrative fiction: the type he criticizes in Don Quijote for its lack of...
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