This blog post by Bonnie Gasior explores monstrosity and/in the works of two early modern Hispanic women writers.
by Bonnie Gasior
Disclaimer: this post contains no references to flying, three-headed creatures or fire-breathing one-eyed beasts. Or even Medusa, for that matter.
When people, both academics and their non-academic counterparts, hear the term “female monstrosity” used in an early modern Hispanic (con)text, they frequently imagine an observable, physical abnormality in either the (female) characters female writers engender or the authors themselves. While these more traditional types of female monsters do exist in literature of the period (e.g., in classical and mythological references), my research instead looks at monstrosity of the female persuasion as particular deviations from the norm. These abnormalities can manifest in a multiplicity of ways but typically manifest as transgressive behavior from within or outside of the text. When Aristotle asserted that women were merely deformed men, he probably had no idea that his incendiary claim would lay the groundwork for literary feminist scholarship and inform studies on monstrosity in enduring and compelling ways.
Two female authors from the Hispanic tradition—María de Zayas (Spain) and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Mexico)—both wrote in the 17th century, though the latter was only in her first decade of life when the former left this earth. Both women were monsters in their own right, having permeated literary spheres dominated by men at a time when women who spoke up or appropriated the plume were regarded negatively. Today, their texts—from plays to essays to poems—have (successfully) challenged the notion of canonicity, cast light on women’s issues, and secured their rightful place in literature classrooms.
María de Zayas was born in Madrid of noble lineage in 1590 and participated in the poetry gatherings of her day (academias). Other than these scant details, history has revealed little more about her, even after almost four-hundred years. We do know, however, that she maintained a close friendship with another Spanish contemporary female writer, Ana Caro, as other literary publications of the time indicated. The date of Zayas’ death is accepted as 1691, though the last years of her life are shrouded in mystery.
Though both a poet and a playwright, Zayas is probably most recognized for her two riveting short novel collections, inspired by masters of the Italian school, including Giovanni Boccaccio and Masuccio Salernitano on one hand and Miguel de Cervantes on the other: Novelas amorosas y ejemplares (Amorous and Exemplary Novels, 1637) and Desengaños amorosos (Disenchantments of Love, 1647). Both enjoyed a robust readership during the era, as the intriguing storylines figured as the soap operas of their day. In the first, Lisis, a young, aristocratic woman summons her friends to her home to celebrate her pending nuptials and distract her from an unnamed illness. Over the course of several days, men and women take turns telling (long) stories and narrating. In the second installment, Lisis once again gathers her friends for more camaraderie. However, this time, she allows only women to be the storytellers, a decision surely tied to the cancellation of her wedding and subsequent disillusion with her suitor (and most likely, men in general). Both collections are rife with violence, grotesque imagery, and sexual predation.
In what ways, then, is Zayas’s world “monstrous”? One can find monsters throughout her body of work, from her characters to Zayas herself, as her voice destabilizes hegemony through side commentary, in the vein of Bakhtinian heteroglossia (“another’s speech…serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way”). For example, in the 1637 prologue, “To the Reader” of her first collection, she opens by stating, “Oh my reader, no doubt it will amaze you that a woman has the nerve, not only to write a book but actually to publish it, for publication is the crucible in which the purity of genius is tested” (1). She drives home her point by affirming that the blood of males and females is chemically identical, a claim that advocates for gender equality in general. Likewise, Zayas, through her narrators often interrupts with interjections, particularly when women are treated unjustly, as seen here in the novella from the Desengaños, Amar solo por vencer (“Love for the Sake of Conquest”): “Now even gentlemen noted for their gentility, who promise to defend women, get carried away by common public opinion, without realizing that they’re failing to uphold the name of gentlemen and the values they espouse!” (240).
The novella La inocencia castigada (Innocence Punished) from the Desengaños illustrates Zayas’ awareness of and attention to monstrosity, particularly as it affects women. As the title hints, Inés, although declared innocent of adultery, is nonetheless made to suffer an unthinkable ordeal: for six years she is forced to subsist in a living, vertical tomb behind a wall her husband and sister-in-law have constructed and through which only negligible amounts of sustenance are passed. Just as Inés is about to succumb, a female neighbor hears her cries, notifies the local authorities, and denounces Inés’ family. When Inés finally and unceremoniously emerges from behind the concrete partition, the way in which the narrator describes her—lice-infested tresses, maggot-ravaged flesh, excrement-laden body—is unimaginable, if not monstrous. On a more figurative level, Inés’ appearance could furthermore signal the way society viewed women in general. We are informed that time restores everything except for Inés’ eyesight due to long-term exposure to darkness. The symbolism of this particular scene and Inés eventual fate—retreating to a convent—are impossible to overlook and call into question the men of the novel, including Inés’ stalker, the purported insurers of justice, and even her own spouse, all of them monstrous in their own right for their deplorable actions.
The theme of monsters takes an even more personal turn with Sor Juana. In contrast with Zayas, much more can be said about the life of Sor Juana, where monstrosity is at the forefront. The Mexican nun has been portrayed in television shows, movies (I, the Worst of All) and most recently, a 2016 Mexican mini-series titled Juana Inés, though none of these fully or faithfully capture her spirit. For many people familiar with the Hispanic literary tradition, Sor Juana is the embodiment of feminism, having penned poems such as “Hombres necios” (“Foolish Men”) in which she lambasts men’s hypocrisy: “But who has carried greater blame / in a passion gone astray: / she who falls to constant pleading, / or he who pleads for her to fall? (167). Born to a criolla (a descendent of Spaniards born in the New World) mother and Spanish father, Sor Juana was born Juana de Asbaje y Ramirez de Santillana in Nepantla around 1650. Sor Juana was, by all accounts, a precocious child and an autodidact who reportedly was reading by age three and composing poetry at around eight. In 1669, she became a Hieronymite nun and continued her studies behind convent walls, where it was claimed she amassed an extensive library of nearly four-thousand books. Sor Juana’s relationship with the vicereine, María Luisa Manrique de Lara, has been cause for intense speculation as a result of the poetry the former dedicated to the latter, but notwithstanding, the protection Manrique de Lara afforded Sor Juana was instrumental in allowing her to continue to write, particularly toward the end of the seventeenth century, when she had her works published in Spain.
Sor Juana’s acclaimed essay La respuesta a Sor Philotea (The Answer to Sor Filotea, 1691) demonstrates at once how she was both a threatened and threatening individual. Its genesis includes a written critique by Sor Juana of a Portuguese priest’s forty-year old sermon, which was intended to be a private, spiritual exercise; the Bishop of Puebla’s learning of the critique’s existence and subsequently publishing the piece without Sor Juana’s permission, probably to make a spectacle of her; and the “correspondence” that ensued between the two in the form of two epistolary essays.
The Bishop, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, responded to Sor Juana’s critique of the aforementioned sermon with his Carta Atenagórica (Letter Worthy of Athena, 1690), in which he hides behind a pseudonym, Sor Philotea, in order to admonish the nun more slyly for her secular transgressions. Sor Juana, in turn, delivers a rhetorical, reasoned retort, The Answer, which could be read as part biography (“people marveled not so much at my intelligence but my memory and the facts I knew at an age when it seemed I scarcely had time to learn to speak The Answer 51); part self-vindication (“My writing has never proceeded from any dictate of my own, but a force beyond me” 47) infused with humanistic mastery (“Without logic, how should I know the general and specific methods by which the Holy Scripture is written?” 53); not to mention a dose of false modesty (“What understanding do I possess, what studies, what subject matter, or what instruction, save for profundities of a superficial scholar?” 47). Sor Juana at once defends and promotes women’s causes in general, particularly as they relate to the pursuit of and access to knowledge, which, ironically, the Bishop was obviously trying to curtail but failed to do by virtue of the Respuesta’s publication.
The fodder these two early modern female writers offer, in the form of themes, characters, and circumstances, exemplifies the workings of monstrosity. I have argued previously that monstrosity operates in varying ways but often has specific, telltale signs in the context of gender. Ultimately, I see women deemed monstrous (by others) when they overstep their gender roles (Sor Juana as a detractor) or as a form of punishment (Inés’ spell-induced outings). Rendering women monstrous thus exposes them, incites (self)reflection, and in theory is a corrective if not curative measure. In a way, though, those same displays of monstrosity are what best serve a feminist agenda by exposing the mechanisms that so often have and continue to victimize women.
In the spirit of political phenomena such as the Hillary Clinton support group Pantsuit Nation or Trump-inspired pussy hats; cultural ones like the Netflix series Orange is the New Black; and literary examples, such as the Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy, female monsters are more prominent than ever, moving from the shadows toward the spotlight in a world that now champions and celebrates them.
I would like to take this opportunity to invite anyone interested in similar topics to submit an abstract or panel proposal to the GEMELA (Grupo de estudios sobre la mujer en España y Las Américas) conference. Since its inception, the organization has devoted itself to examining the cultural production of women (1300-1800) in Spain, the Americas and Portugal. Our biennial conference has taken place in numerous locations in the U.S. and Latin America, including Portland, Houston, Long Beach (CA) and most recently, San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 2018, we will meet in Reno, NV and welcome scholars whose work dovetails with ours. Please see www.gemelas.org for further information about membership, conferences, newsletters and other relevant details.
**I would like to thank my colleagues, Yolanda Gamboa and Mindy Badia, for their suggestions during the editing process and more importantly, their unwavering friendship.
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Bonnie Gasior is Professor of Spanish and Faculty Athletics Representative at California State University, Long Beach. She is co-editor of Crosscurrents: Transatlantic Perspectives on Early Modern Theater (Bucknell UP, 2006) and the forthcoming Making Sense of the Senses in the Spanish Comedia (Juan de la Cuesta Press, 2017). She is also co-author of a forthcoming third-year literary analysis textbook entitled Redes literarias (McFarland Press, 2017).