Last Updated on October 28, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 666
Written and published at the turn of the sixteenth century, Celestina is a novel that is largely in dramatic form. While it makes extensive use of dialogue, the work’s large number and great diversity of settings indicate that it was not meant to be staged. The central plot concerns a love story between two young people, Calisto and Melibea, which is doomed from the start because carnal desire is allowed to dominate morality and restraint. Rojas is highly critical of Calisto’s use of Celestina, the title character, to help him obtain his beloved.
The Destructive Power of Desire
The youthful suitor Calisto feels both love and lust for the virtuous Melibea, but he is too impatient to adequately trust in the power of love itself. Rather than go through the proper channels, which would be to court her with her parents’ permission, Calisto begins his relationship with Melibea by asking Celestina, a madam, to convince Melibea to have sex with him. Driven by his bodily desires, he makes rash decisions to seduce Melibea by any means. The corruption of her love, along with Calisto’s unethical behavior, doom their relationship. Once Melibea has surrendered her body to him, she is no longer fit to be a wife to anyone else, and after Calisto dies in an accident, she kills herself. Because she truly loves him in her heart, her grief is one reason for this—but another is her loss of virtue, by which she has sacrificed her reputation and, with it, her future prospects.
Human Susceptibility to Temptation
None of the novel’s characters is totally immune from Rojas’s critical gaze. Melibea’s parents operate more ethically than any of the other characters, but they are far from perfect. Melibea’s mother quite literally opens the door to temptation when, fooled by Celestina’s disguise as a peddler, she invites the procuress into her home. Rojas implies that excessive trust in others combined with ignorance of the world’s evils may together do as much harm as excessive vigilance against them. Celestina, in turn, convinces the innocent virgin, who is not strong enough to resist temptation, to meet Calisto in the garden for an illicit affair. This pattern continues because, once Calisto awakens her sexual desires, she can no longer resist following those urges. While the fact that she was so easily led astray might encourage readers to doubt that she was truly virtuous in her heart, readers of the time period would have believed in the strength of temptation, with its source in the devil’s corrupt power.
The Inherent Immorality of Society
The novel probably owes much of its continued popularity over the centuries to the fact that the unsavory characters are both more numerous and more interesting than the virtuous ones. The fascinating character of Celestina has a vast arsenal of unscrupulous tactics and apparently a complete lack of conscience. She makes arrangements with many of the novel’s characters, apparently with no intention of honoring her commitments, as she reneges on them when a better offer appears. The bite in Rojas’s satire, however, depends on her appearing normal in the vicious society in which she operates. She is no worse than those who surround her, because if she had no ready and willing customers at her brothel, she would quickly go out of business. Rojas presents a society where everything has a price, even a lovely virgin’s honor, and no one is immune to corruption. The minor characters, mainly the servants of Calisto and Celestina, seem to savor their own duplicitous behavior. Sempronio and Calisto’s other servants do not dutifully exhibit loyalty to their master; rather, they seem to do all they can to deceive and swindle him. In return for betraying his master by scheming with Celestina, however, Sempronio is himself cheated by Celestina. Through the actions of even the novel’s minor characters, Rojas provides a window into the pervasive depravity of society as a whole.