Foolish Men Themes

The main themes in “Foolish Men” are sin versus virtue, inequality in relationships, and guilt and shame.

  • Sin versus virtue: Sor Juana shows how men ascribe virtue to themselves and sin to women, thereby evading responsibility for their actions.
  • Inequality in relationships: The poem considers the inequality women face in their relationships with men.
  • Guilt and shame: The poem argues that guilt and shame are often misplaced, with women bearing more than is fair.

Themes

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Last Updated on July 14, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719

Sin versus Virtue

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A major theme throughout “Foolish Men” is the comparison between sin and virtuosity. This is most prominent in the poem through the discussion of sex and the flaws of men who solicit sex. Sor Juana’s work brings to light the contradictory and inconsistent nature of virtue—specifically, the male perception of it. Since this poem was first written in the 1680s, Christian ideals of abstinence before marriage were especially prominent, emphasizing the role of resistance and temptation. This divide isn’t as stark as it seems, though. Sor Juana’s poem suggests that both women involved in sex work (or sex in general) and the men who solicit sex in any capacity are equally at fault, and in fact men may deserve more of the blame. Society seems to punish women for the same sexuality that men are praised for. “Foolish Men” argues that no single party can be responsible for an interaction between two. Sor Juana seems to be suggesting that it is more sinful to treat women as lesser and as not deserving of respect. It cannot merely be reduced to good and bad: there is overlap.

Sor Juana’s speaker turns this idea of virtue on its head by repeatedly asserting that men are foolish. The ideal of virtuosity is not in line with the behaviors the speaker describes. Men blame women and construe their actions so there is always something to complain about. This is not how people of virtue should behave, yet these men act as if they remain virtuous. By pointing out men’s insistence on virtuosity as foolishness, the poem explores the various, complex ways in which sin and virtue are entwined.

Inequality in Relationships

Sor Juana’s narrator discusses the differences between men and women in relationships. Importantly, the poem does not seem to make women out as being above criticism. This is particularly important in the thirteenth and fourteenth quatrains. The idea that women are not sinners is refuted—it is established that both participants in these sexual encounters are at fault. Women are “solicited,” and men “plead” in passion. Furthermore, “she sins for pay” while “he . . . pays to sin.” In other words, both parties are to blame in a time when religious morals largely dictated acceptable behavior. 

Sor Juana’s speaker does not suggest that women are faultless, even though the poem cuttingly exposes the inadequacies of men. If anything, the frustration within the poem emphasizes a desire for change rather than mere complaining. In pointing out the hypocrisy of men, Sor Juana ultimately exposes the inequality that women experience. This is very much in line with Sor Juana’s outspoken feminist views. Here, Sor Juana’s work is not painting women as angels that counterbalance the “devil” of men. Women are unfairly accused of the things men complain about, yet there is an implication that if men begin to take responsibility for their actions and see women as their equals, these issues can be resolved. Sor Juana appears to represent women as more dynamic than men give them credit for being. Perhaps if this hypocrisy is realized, relationships between men and women will function better for everyone involved.

Guilt and Shame

Guilt and shame are prevalent throughout the piece, and Sor Juana considers how they are misplaced. Men assign unfair guilt to women, all the while making no effort to right their own wrongs. Sor Juana’s speaker condemns men for this, but she does not make women out to be guiltless. She instead adopts a fuller view of humanity concerning women, one in which sin is present in all people, and it becomes more a matter of justified placement. 

“Foolish Men” insists that women have taken on far too much shame, heavily influenced as they are by the self-righteous behavior of men in relationships with them. Men seem to be completely oblivious to the effects of their actions, and women seem comfortable taking on the blame because they are so accustomed to doing so. The poem pinpoints this disproportion and calls for change. By refusing to submit to this unwarranted guilt, “Foolish Men” pushes the guilt back on men. Exposing the shamelessness of men and the burden taken on by women, the speaker draws damning conclusions about the state of the patriarchal society.

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