Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1604
First published: Novelas ejemplares, 1613 (English translation, 1846)
Type of work: Novellas
Cortadillo, another wandering rogue
Preciosa, a gypsy girl
Cipion, a dog
Berganza, another dog
Tomas Rodaja, an insane student
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 Preciosa’s suitors, a rich nobleman who spent two years with the tribe in order to woo her, killed a bully. After all the gypsy men had been taken to jail, Preciosa visited the mayor’s wife to vouch for their innocence. Then came the explanation of her own charm and discretion. The noble lady recognized Preciosa as her own long-lost daughter.
In “The Illustrious Scullery Maid,” one youngster, listing the attractions and adventures offered by various Spanish cities, echoes Cervantes’ own nostalgic reminiscences of an ill-spent youth. The youngster and another wealthy sixteen-year-old went disguised on a journey in search of thrills. They stopped at an inn in Burgos because they had heard of a beautiful servant, Costanza, to be found there. Costanza was so attractive that the young men took jobs at the inn to compete with the son of the mayor for her affection. When the mayor himself came to investigate the scullery maid, he was told that she was really the daughter of a wronged widow who had left her at the inn, with half a chain as identification. Shortly afterward, the father of one of the runaways appeared with the other half of the chain. The other runaway married her, his friend was paired off with the daughter of the mayor, and Costanza’s original suitor had to be content with the sister of Costanza’s husband.
For relief from these romantic cloak-and-sword stories, Cervantes attempted a psychological tale dealing with his favorite theme, an April and December marriage. In “The Jealous Estremaduran,” a seventy-year-old Spaniard, returning with a fortune from Peru, married a fifteen-year-old girl and shielded her so carefully that the air of mystery surrounding her aroused the curiosity of handsome Loaysa. By dressing as a guitar-playing beggar and drugging the husband with a sleep-producing ointment, he was able to enter the house. Although the girl was too noble to be tempted, the husband discovered them and died of jealousy. Before his death, to punish himself for thinking that at his age he could make a young girl happy, he willed his fortune to her so that she could marry Loaysa.
“The Deceitful Marriage,” the most unmoral of these Exemplary Novels, serves chiefly as introduction for a better one. A poor soldier married a fallen woman to reform her. She tricked him and got all of his money, and he ended up in a Valladolid hospital, through whose window he heard and set down “The Dialog Between Cipion and Berganza, Dogs of the Hospital of the Resurrection.” In the same way the picaros often satirized their masters’ callings, Berganza told of the crookedness he had seen. As a pup, at the Seville slaughterhouse, he became acquainted with graft. As a sheepdog, he watched shepherds totally unlike the figures in the pastoral novels, men who killed the best sheep and put the blame on wolves. As the pet of a rich merchant, he mocked the ostentation he witnessed. Later, while helping a constable, he was a party to an agreement by which the students of Monipodio’s school of crime were to fake a fight, thus enhancing the reputation of the police force. Berganza also served a soldier, a gypsy, a miser, a poet, and the company of actors with whom he had arrived in Valladolid. As he ended his autobiography, the dawn was breaking. The other dog promised to narrate his adventures on the following night.
“Doctor Glass Case” provided Cervantes with other opportunities to criticize social conditions of his time. Some students on their way to the University of Salamanca came upon Tomas Rodaja and took him along as their servant. During his spare time, Tomas attended classes and after eight years attained a reputation for brilliance. An unfortunate love affair drove him insane with the delusion that he was made of fragile glass. His agile mind, however, could still supply answers to any question, and people amused themselves by asking his opinions about professions and customs. Asked if he was a poet, for example, he replied: “I have never been so foolish as to be a bad poet, nor so bold as to think I could be a good one.” Questioned how to avoid envying others, he advised: “Sleep, for while you sleep you are the equal of everybody.” Eventually, Tomas was restored to sanity, but no one noticed him then. To make a living, he joined the army. He was killed in Flanders.
Best known of all the Exemplary Novels is “Rinconete and Cortadillo,” an authentic story of customs which influenced Charles Dickens. Pedro de Rincon and Diego Cortado, two fourteen-year-old boys, met on their way to Seville. Since they both boasted of their cleverness and ability as cardsharps, purse snatchers, and general rascals, they joined forces to fleece a mule driver with marked cards. Then they traveled on to the Andalusian capital where, under bad government, crime flourished. To meet competition, the boys enrolled in Monipodio’s school for criminals and were nicknamed Rinconete and Cortadillo. They saw flourishing a crime trust where rich people could hire bullies to beat up their enemies and police could pick up protection money. Only a few of the crimes of these rascals are narrated. Cervantes declared the story already overlong, but he promised a sequel later.
In Exemplary Novels there are stories whose invention and style would have established Cervantes’ reputation among his contemporaries if he had never penned DON QUIXOTE DE LA MANCHA. Some are poetic, some realistic. It would be possible to compile a lengthy list of English and French dramatists and novelists who have drawn upon them for inspiration ever since.