(Essentials of European Literature)

Miguel de Cervantes, the great novelist of Spain’s Golden Age (1554-1681), had two ambitions: to compose deathless poetry and to write excellent drama. As a poet, he finally confessed that he was “more experienced in reverses than in verses.” In drama, he was no more fortunate. Despite such confidence that he once signed a contract to supply the finest plays the manager had ever seen or not expect payment, he knew too little about dramatic technique to be successful. Only his short plays continue to be read as “slices of life.” One of the most pathetic titles ever given a book was his Eight Comedies and Eight Interludes Never Performed, which he could publish only because of the fame acquired through the success of Don Quixote de la Mancha.

In his fiction, the story was otherwise. Cervantes, however, remained a nonconformist. Don Quixote de la Mancha was conceived as a parody to laugh out of existence the romances of chivalry, though the last of that lot had appeared nearly half a century earlier. It turned into a deeply human novel that is read today with never a thought of its author’s avowed purpose.

He was also the first writer of short stories in Spain, a form quite different from the ejemplo or instructive story of the early days of Juan Manuel and the Archpriest of Hita. It was the romantic Italian novella that inspired Cervantes. He added the adjective “exemplary,” to indicate that his short fiction contained none of the immorality associated with his Italian models. The modern reader will look in vain, however, for the “useful examples” that he proclaimed them to be.

Of the twelve, some are built on complicated romantic plots that would naturally appeal to a thwarted playwright. Others grew out of his own experiences. Since Spaniards were enjoying tales in which rascally servants satirized the professions of their masters, Cervantes also wrote several picaresque stories, one with dogs as spokesmen. Another deals with a crazy student who believed himself made of glass. In the Exemplary Novels, which reveal a care and attention to style not found in Don Quixote de la Mancha, Cervantes established himself as a master of this genre.

After a preface, worth preserving for the self-portrait of the author, Cervantes presents, in “The Lady Cornelia,” a cloak-and-sword romance close to the Italian school. Courted and betrayed by an Italian duke, the hapless heroine was finally befriended by two Spanish students to whom a servant had delivered her newborn child, as they passed in the darkness. Eventually they arranged a marriage between her and her betrayer. “The Prevalence of Blood” also deals with a child born of violence, whose beauty, along with the virtue and charm of the wronged mother, won the heart of the libertine father seven years later.

Another of the weaker stories in the volume is “The Spanish-English Lady,” about a girl of Cadiz captured by Admiral Howard and carried to England. It, like “The Generous Lover,” set in Cyprus and Algiers, reveals how uninterested the author was in authentic local color. He made no attempt to capture the pomp of the Elizabethan court.

“The Two Damsels” is the adventure story of Theodosia, disguised as a man. On a journey in pursuit of the suitor who had promised to marry her, she was recognized by her brother. Later, the two came upon another masquerading damsel who was searching for the same vanished lover. After adventures among robbers and a visit to the fleet as it was about to sail for Naples, Theodosia found and married her fleeing sweetheart, while her brother comforted the runner-up in this matrimonial race.

In “The Little Gypsy Girl,” a story about idealized Preciosa, Cervantes revealed his ignorance of gypsies. One of...

(The entire section is 1570 words.)