Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 362
One goal that Miguel de Cervantes had was to make a significant contribution to literature in Spanish. Writing in this language accompanied his objective of confirming the ascendancy of Spanish culture over Italian culture, which had dominated the Renaissance. Cervantes’s success in this area had a lasting effect in the literature of Spain’s Golden Age or Golden Century, the Siglo de Oro, spanning the mid-sixteenth through mid-seventeenth century. He also sought to capitalize on his success with Don Quixote and to prove that he was not limited to a single novel. One theme that underlies the twelve Exemplary Novels—which are actually relatively short, or novellas—is nationalism; Cervantes includes a Preface that lays out his goals in contrasting Spanish novels, which he insists are more moral, to Italian ones, which promote disreputable, even sinful behavior.
Cervantes included numerous themes that had been developed in earlier Spanish fiction, and some of his themes are actually neither very different nor noticeably morally superior to those of the Italians. One important theme is equality through actions and achievements rather than birth. The character type of the pícaro, whose exploits gave their name to the picaresque novel genre, represents this changing modern tendency. This theme is developed through the characters of Rinconete and Cortadillo; the author promised to provide more of these youths’ exploits in a future work, but apparently, he never completed it.
Another theme is deception, which the author uses in “The Lady Cornelia” and “The Two Damsels.” Cornelia is deceived by a villain—who happens to be Italian—and left pregnant and alone. When others intervene on her behalf, the wayward duke must own up to his deception and claim his child as well as make the lady his wife. Deception is paired with disguise as Cervantes recounts how Theodosia dressed as a man in order to find her deceitful lover, and the motif is repeated in her maid’s cross-dressing as a page. Although subterfuge is often necessary to resolve the plot twists, the author implies that had the characters been honest in the first place, they would not have needed subterfuge to bring about the desired ending.