Cervantes' Marcela

[Cross-posted from 400 Windmills]

Read this as a comment on Jason Pettus’s inspiring and wonderfully rich post from 400 Windmills, because it builds on my sense, too, of what he calls “Marcela's wonderfully candid and surprisingly feminist monologue at Grisostomo's funeral.” Marcela tempts us with an answer a perennial question of any literature from another place or time: would there have been a spot for me in this world? What might it have looked like? In A Room of One’s Own (1929) Virginia Woolf comments on the vast gulf between the women in fiction and those whose lives appear in history:
Certainly, if we consider it, Cleopatra must have had a way with her; Lady Macbeth, one wouldsuppose, had a will of her own; Rosalind, one might conclude, was an attractive girl….But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room.
Where Woolf contrasts history with literature, Cervantes crams an analogous contrast into this one episode.

Grisostomo, a nobleman turned shepherd, has died of unrequited love; men from all over, including Don Quixote, attend his funeral, which becomes an occasion to contemplate and reaffirm the values of courtly love. Then she appears, a noblewoman turned shepherdess (and the source of this sudden pastoral vogue among the local gentry), more radiant than ever, with a starkly logical speech:
For if his impatience and rash desire killed Grisostomo, why should my virtuous behavior and reserve be blamed? If I preserve my purity in the company of trees, why should a man want me to lose it if he wants me to keep it in the company of men? As you know, I have wealth of my own and do not desire anyone else’s; I am free and do not care to submit to another. (Grossman 100)
Hers is a moving bit of eloquence. She certainly belongs to a recognizable type of woman—a chaste Diana for whom choosing virtue means renouncing society. Such characters, when they speak, do not become any less idealized, they merely shift the grounds of our idealization: seeming to confirm her own perfection, she dashes all hope of possession; initially idealized for beauty and virtue, she is subsequently idealized for right reason and a kind of weird secular cloistral nature. Moved, the men present still desire to follow her,
Seeing this, Don Quixote thought it an appropriate time to put his chivalry into practice by coming to the aid of a maiden in distress. (101)
This is a wonderful comic deflation of Marcela’s feminist triumph. The text lets her get away into a less confining genre than romance—she disappears into the woods. Nonetheless, no matter how eloquently she show herself unwilling to be cast as “maiden in distress,” for Quixote and the others, there is no other role.