Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1011

I, Juan de Pareja is thematically complex and teems with characters, but its principal themes focus on Pareja. Trevino has said that the novel's theme is that "the difficulties of love across racial barriers can give rise to strong and loyal devotion." Throughout his life, Pareja searches for love, loyalty,...

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I, Juan de Pareja is thematically complex and teems with characters, but its principal themes focus on Pareja. Trevino has said that the novel's theme is that "the difficulties of love across racial barriers can give rise to strong and loyal devotion." Throughout his life, Pareja searches for love, loyalty, and the feeling of belonging—of having a home. When small, he gives his affection to his first mistress, a woman who dresses him up like a doll and treats him like a beloved dog. Having known no better life, Pareja responds with devotion. As he matures, Pareja's emotional life becomes more sophisticated.

When Pareja journeys from Seville to Madrid, where he will live with his new master, Velaquez, he must earn his keep by working for a muleteer. At the hands of Carmelo the muleteer, he is horribly mistreated; he is starved, forced to steal, and beaten mercilessly. He learns that slaves are less than mules to their owners, that they are property without rights. But then Velazquez becomes Pareja's master and treats him with sympathy. A somewhat aloof man who is always absorbed in his art, Velazquez is hard to get to know; his relationship with Pareja evolves slowly over decades. This evolution in the relationship of two men constitutes the main focus of the book.

Juan de Pareja is a sensitive and loving person. When first in the Velazquez household, he forms friendships with the family's two daughters, adopting them as if they were his own sisters. His master and mistress quickly learn to trust him. Although he is lonely, he accepts his role as a slave and devotes himself faithfully to the well-being of the Velazquez family.

It is Pareja's powerful artistic impulse, however, that elevates the story above other tales of the self-sacrifice of a noble but unappreciated servant. As a child, he often decorates his mistress's letters with drawings; when exposed to Velazquez's genius, he yearns to be a painter, too. Unfortunately, it is against the law in Spain for a slave to learn any of the arts; he may be a craftsman but never an artist. Thus, Pareja learns to properly prepare paints and painting surfaces, as well as the many techniques for adjusting the light that falls on a model and for arranging the setting for a painting, but his master tells him that he cannot be taught how to actually paint what he sees. Pareja's desire to be an artist overwhelms him, and he sells the one object that means the most to him—his mother's earring—in order to buy paints and brushes. He practices in secret, learning from watching his master. Eventually Pareja can tolerate the deception no longer and shows his paintings to both Velazquez and King Philip. The developing relationship between master and slave leads to suspense because Pareja risks terrible punishment. As the two men's respect and affection for each other grows, Velazquez finally realizes that Pareja has risen above his station in life to become a valued friend and extraordinarily capable assistant. Velazquez then frees Pareja.

In the history of Pareja and Velazquez, Trevino finds the basis for a story of a love that transcends racial prejudice and the inherent cruelty of slavery. She concludes that Pareja's unusual strength of character enables him to overcome the oppression of slavery to become a successful painter whose works now hang in major art museums. Pareja is a complicated character, so well-rounded that he seems alive. His complex mind is deeply involved in the major issues of his time, and these issues transform Pareja's experiences into universal problems and ideas that have meaning for people of all times. For instance, Pareja yearns for freedom because he dreads the insecurity all slaves must face: "will I be sold some day?" His fears of being unloved and abandoned reflect common concerns.

Cruelty is a significant theme in the novel. Pareja is abused because he is a slave, and he learns that men sometimes commit acts of awful cruelty in the name of art. Although his noble master believes that art should always be truthful, Pareja learns that there can be no substitute for a good heart when making artistic judgments. When he and Velazquez visit Master Medina, who is famed for his religious sculptures, they learn that Medina has achieved the realistic expression of the crucified Christ by actually crucifying a condemned prisoner and copying his expression as he died in agony. This cruelty makes a mockery of the idea of "truth in art" by ignoring the truth of human suffering. Medina disregards the meaning of the crucifixion and of Christ's suffering, that people should treat each other with kindness. Similarly, slavery makes a mockery of a society's pretensions of justice.

Religion and suffering are linked throughout I, Juan de Pareja. Pareja's fate depends almost exclusively on his owners' whims, and the church provides his sole source of security. He occasionally has trouble maintaining his faith during trying times, but Pareja always repents for his doubts and finds solace in reminding himself that Christ also suffered.

One of the exceptional aspects of I, Juan de Pareja is the vividness of its secondary characters. Brother Isidro, for instance, appears for only a few pages at the start of the book, but Trevino gives life to this trustworthy and caring soldier who gives up his military career when a religious experience inspires him to dedicate his life to serving the poor. Carmelo, the muleteer, is alive with malice and greed. Dona Juana de Miranda, a sickly but loving woman, exhibits the devotion to her husband Velazquez that Pareja eventually develops. The king of Spain is a vital, moving character who displays touching affection for Velazquez; his actions profoundly affect the lives of Velazquez and Pareja. Another historical figure, the painter Bartolome Esteban Murillo, not only offers Pareja religious comfort but offers unconditional friendship that is undisturbed by the racial and social prejudices of his day. Among these interesting characters move dwarfs, artists, servants, and tradespeople, some comic, others tragic, but all vividly portrayed.

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