Foolish Men

by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

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Originally published in Spanish, “Foolish Men” is a translation of “Hombres necios,” the first line of the poem. The original poem utilizes a rhyme scheme of ABBA. The structure is divided into tetrameter quatrains, a Spanish poetic form referred to as the redondilla. Composed of these compact stanzas, the poem flows swiftly as Sor Juana’s makes her case. “Foolish Men” builds from logical inconsistencies to direct accusations, closing with inquiry and a harsh declaration that men are akin to the devil.

There are several distinct literary techniques that Sor Juana uses throughout “Foolish Men.” In the fifth quatrain, Sor Juana employs an allusion to Thais and Lucretia. Thais was a well-known Greek hetaira, a type of prostitute who performed and was considered an artist in tandem with providing sexual services. Thais was closely associated with Alexander the Great and was speculated to have been his lover. Lucretia, on the other hand, was a noblewoman in ancient Rome who was raped. She stabbed herself in the heart after the violent encounter, supposedly to protect her reputation and save herself from further turmoil. These two women are put in opposition by Sor Juana: men seek a Thais in women they pursue yet expect a “noble” Lucretia after sleeping with them. In this allusion, Sor Juana’s speaker emphasizes the unfair foolishness of expecting two different outcomes in pursuit of the same woman. This is also an indication of Sor Juana’s education and status as a scholar. These references to historical figures would not have been lost on her audience, especially since she was well recognized for her intelligence and wit.

“Foolish Men” uses simile and metaphor to depict the self-contradictory men of its title. In the fourth quatrain, Sor Juana’s speaker accuses the typical man of “act[ing] just like a child / who plays the bogeyman / of which he’s then afraid.” This simile paints a powerful picture: it reveals that men create the problems they complain about in their interactions with women. Their fears and judgments are as well-founded as those of a nonexistent bogeyman, meaning without factual reference. Men’s concerns are both self-fulfilling and exaggerated by their own roles. In the sixth quatrain, Sor Juana’s speaker builds on the role men play in their discontent with women. What mind is more strange, she wonders, “than his who mists / a mirror and then complains / that it’s not clear.” In this metaphor, men are the very reason they cannot see things “clearly.” They are the agents of their frustration. Men make women—in this metaphor, the mirror—tainted and unaware of their own volition. They place blame when they should be taking responsibility.

The poem’s speaker utilizes a direct second-person address. Through the use of “you” and “your” throughout the poem, Sor Juana’s narrator appears to be speaking specifically to the foolish men who are the subject of the poem. Direct address connects the audience to the topic and makes the poem all the more personal. Given the impassioned, cutting tone, this poem leaves little room for questions about the intended audience. Phrases like “you incite to ill,” “your censure is unfair,” and “you join world, flesh and devil” are all intended to indict male readers of the poem. Even men who do not read it are included in her critique. These words are hard-hitting and biting. Clearly, Sor Juana’s narrator is fed up with the behaviors she is describing. 

The speaker’s sharp tone and direct address are further developed by the many questions that make up four of the final quatrains. These questions accuse men of blame and sin, all the...

(This entire section contains 778 words.)

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while pointing out their contradictory nature. This technique has the potential to elicit a reader’s response to the questions raised. Fittingly, Sor Juana’s purpose in “Foolish Men” is to communicate the wrongdoings of men and vouch for a change in behavior. By speaking directly to them and inviting a response, Sor Juana can arguably be said to have achieved her purpose. Interestingly, Sor Juana’s narrator never refers to women as “we” or “us.” She groups men together, certainly, yet does not claim to represent all women.

Sor Juana was particularly outspoken in New Spain (present-day Mexico) for her time, especially considering that she was a nun within a branch of the Catholic church. Her assumed role as a nun entailed a preoccupation with spirituality and little else. Thus Sor Juana was simultaneously scolded and praised for her feminist advocacy. Sor Juana was encouraged many times to focus solely on her religious scholarship rather than her feminist or scientific pursuits, eventually leading to her abjuration.

Literary Devices

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Sor Juana does employ several figures of speech to make her point: that foolish men tempt women to sexual sin and then blame those women for their own sins as well as men's own. They "lay / the guilt on women, / not seeing [they're] the cause / of the very thing [they] blame." She uses a simile to say that such a man "act[s] just like a child / who plays the bogeyman / of which he's then afraid." Such foolish men create the very thing they abhor: women who are not virtuous.

Sor Juana employs an allusion when she says that a foolish man "hope[s] to find a Thais" in the woman he courts, but he wants her to be "a Lucretia" after he has slept with her. Thais was a famous Greek hetaera, or companion (like a courtesan), a woman who famously took several lovers. Lucretia lived in ancient Rome and was the virtuous and lovely wife of a nobleman until she was raped by a prince. She asked her husband to avenge her, and then she killed herself. One woman cannot be both a Thais and a Lucretia, and men are "foolish" to expect them to be.

The narrator uses a metaphor to compare such a man to one "who mists / a mirror and then complains / that it's not clear." Here, the woman is the mirror. The man "ruins" her and then is upset when she is "ruined." She also uses a metaphor to compare women's freedom to a bird that flies away when she says, "Your lover's moans give wings / to women's liberty." Having been "spoiled" or "ruined," the woman is no longer free in society; she is lesser or worse than other women.

Finally, the narrator says,

Patent is your arrogance
that fights with many weapons
since in promise and insistence
you join world, flesh and devil.

She uses a metaphor to compare the foolish men's arrogance to a soldier who has lots of weapons with which to defeat women's refusals (while the women, really, have no weapons).

Sor Juana employs several metaphors and other comparisons in order to convey the idea that men foolishly corrupt women and then expect women to be virtuous. She points out the contradictions in this type of behavior as well as the double standards.