CHALLENGING PATRIARCHY IN MARIA DE ZAYAS’S “NOVELAS”
The virtual archival exhibit Wise and Valiant: Women and Writing in the Spanish Golden Age, curated by Ana M. Rodríguez-Rodríguez in collaboration with the Cervantes Institute and the National Library of Spain, acknowledges that women writers of the Spanish Golden Age continue to be forgotten. These writers addressed issues like domestic violence, femicide, and gender inequality — all still pressing issues today. They should be read now more than ever. This exhibit is an urgent answer to a much larger problem: the need to establish women writers of the Spanish Golden Age in the literary canon. It is an occasion to connect texts from this period with contemporary discourses on race, gender, and social inequalities in order to bring these texts back to life.
Among these obscure figures is the Spanish writer María de Zayas y Sotomayor. Between 1637 and 1647, Zayas wrote a series of novelas critiquing the traditional Christian model of marriage. The novelas consist of short stories that are told within a frame narrative that unfolds over two volumes: Novelas amorosas y ejemplares (1637), translated as The Enchantments of Love: Amorous and Exemplary Novels, and Desengaños amorosos (1647), translated as The Disenchantments of Love. Zayas represents marriage as an impediment to women because it limits them to just being wives. During the seventeenth century, women faced multiple grievances, and both married and unmarried women had to fend for themselves without the resources to survive — let alone succeed — in society. Zayas’s community held women, regardless of marital status, accountable for the misdeeds of men and family members as their society failed to protect them from dishonor. As a result, Zayas demonstrates the rigid, often absurd, and contradictory nature of gendered norms in her fiction.
For Zayas, the dysfunctional marriages she portrays unveil the hypocrisies of a patriarchal society that claims to defend women but instead leaves them legally vulnerable and easily preyed upon.
In Zayas’s story from Novelas amorosas “La fuerza del amor,” translated into English as “The Power of Love,” the main character, Laura, addresses men’s inadequacies in attending to women’s rights:
Why, vain legislators of the world, do you tie our hands so that we cannot take vengeance? Because of your mistaken ideas about us, you render us powerless and deny us access to pen and sword. Isn’t our soul the same as a man’s soul? If the soul is what gives courage to the body, why are we so cowardly? If you men knew that we were brave and strong, I’m sure you wouldn’t deceive us the way you do. By keeping us subject from the moment we’re born, you weaken our strength with fears about honor and our minds with exaggerated emphasis on modesty and shame. For a sword, you give us the distaff, instead of books, a sewing cushion.
For Zayas, the dysfunctional marriages she portrays unveil the hypocrisies of a patriarchal society that claims to defend women but instead leaves them legally vulnerable and easily preyed upon. In reality, women were often raped, battered, and murdered by their male suitors, fathers, and husbands. Zayas explores this issue in her story “Too Late Undeceived,” from Desengaños amorosos, in which the protagonist, Elena, is falsely accused by her Black maid, La Negra, of having an affair with her own cousin. The maid’s actions are motivated by Elena’s discovery that La Negra is in fact the one pursuing her cousin. A relationship with a nobleman was not acceptable for a maid, especially not for a Black woman. To save herself from punishment, La Negra redirects her guilt on to another defenseless woman, Elena.
Although this story highlights the complex nature of racial and class issues, these women both ultimately pay for the misconduct of others. Elena’s husband, Don Jaime, informed of her supposed deceit by La Negra, declares his wife an adulteress and decides to enslave her in a cage. She is chained and forced to eat scraps off the floor until her body begins to decompose; she eventually dies. Ultimately, her husband realizes that his wife was innocent when the maid falls ill and confesses her misdeeds, after which Don Jaime murders her. Don Jaime becomes ill, goes mad, and dies of guilt. This story fits a trend in Zayas’s fiction that presents us with different, but seemingly inevitable, fates for women: in most cases they die but in some cases, if they are lucky, they survive their abuse. Zayas’s literary survivors opt to enter the convent as a safe space from all the ills of the world and as a means to receive a formal education.
Like Iago, Laura unconsciously loses herself to become 'other.' This becoming-other is the exploration of the dark side of the Good Wife; it is the unpredictable nature of subjectivity that allows women to transgress their gendered norms.
The protagonist of “The Power of Love” meets this latter fate. Laura is desperate to alleviate her suffering and to save her marriage as her husband has found a new love interest. However, he beats her bloody every time she confronts him:
Overcome by an infernal rage, he rushed over to her and struck her so violently that the white pearls of her teeth, bathed in the blood shed by his angry hand, looked instead like red coral. Not satisfied with this, he drew his dagger, ready to free her from the yoke as burdensome to him as it was to her.
Laura fears that she will die at the hands of her husband. She resorts to asking an enchantress to create a love potion intended to lure her husband back to the loving man he had promised to be. The enchantress tells Laura that she must find “hairs from the head and beard and the teeth of a hanged man.” For Zayas, it is unconscionable for a “Good Wife” to make such a choice and explore the world of witchcraft. Therefore, Zayas emphasizes that love is Laura’s driving force, which dominates over reason and leads Laura to lose herself in this process.
In Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt explores alternate identities through an analysis of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. Greenblatt writes that “Iago has the role-player’s ability to imagine his nonexistence so that he can exist for a moment in another and as another.” He continues, “the imagined self-loss conceals its opposite: a ruthless displacement and absorption of the other. Empathy . . . may be a feeling of oneself into an object, but that object may have to be drained of its own substance before it will serve as an appropriate vessel.”
Like Iago, Laura unconsciously loses herself to become “other.” This becoming-other is the exploration of the dark side of the Good Wife; it is the unpredictable nature of subjectivity that allows women to transgress their gendered norms. Laura must, as Greenblatt describes, drain herself of who she is in order to become a zombie-like figure and explore the humilladero, a dark grave on the outskirts of the city where criminals are hanged. By inhabiting this other and entering the humilladero, she endangers her honor and her soul; according to the Catholic Church, inserting oneself among the dead or those who have not had a proper burial is ungodly. Zayas ensures that Laura is not herself in undertaking these actions, otherwise her soul would be lost. Laura is saved by her brother, who prevents her from sin, and Laura returns to herself, fearful and awestricken that her love was capable of taking her beyond her perceived limitations. Laura, a woman who was only trying to save her marriage, is able to accomplish much more through this process of losing herself. At the end, she is freed from her abusive husband and becomes a nun.
Zayas demands her readers transcend the trap of enchantment and listen to these stories so that women and men alike can learn to build a more harmonious life.
In Novelas amorosas, Zayas employs a frame narrative, inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron, that she continues through the later Desengaños amorosos. Lisis, the main protagonist introduced in the prologue, is meant to wed a nobleman whom she does not love. She invites several aristocrats to her soiree to indulge in the female storytelling experience as a form of eluding her indecision about marriage. This narrative frame, starting with Lisis’s story, allows married women, witnesses, and — in some cases — survivors of domestic abuse to continue the narration by telling their own tragic stories. Laura is one of a few survivors and serves as an example for Lisis. Through Lisis’s point of view, the reader understands that she too should avoid marriage at all costs and disenchant herself from men’s false promises; otherwise, she could end up dead like Elena. Zayas demands her readers transcend the trap of enchantment and listen to these stories so that women and men alike can learn to build a more harmonious life. Desengaños amorosos concludes with Lisis’s decision not to marry. After listening to each woman’s marital experience, Lisis understands that it is her responsibility to educate herself and others about this issue to prevent further misfortunes. The novelas end with Lisis entering the convent, happy for taking matters into her own hands, and choosing a peaceful life with God.
In her work, María de Zayas asserts that women are capable of genuine erudition and she advocates for their access to education. She critiques, through her writing, the a priori norm of patriarchy that imposes inequalities between men and women. Of course, Zayas cannot speak for all women; she formed part of the aristocracy as the daughter of an infantry captain, Fernando de Zayas y Sotomayor. There is not enough information about her life — which contributes to scholars’ fascination — yet it is clear in her writing that Zayas aims to enlighten women about the perils of matrimony. She understood that she could use her courtly status to amplify silenced female voices in her fiction.
During Zayas’s time, women’s place in society was debated throughout Europe. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain, the dominant ideology of femininity was based on the biblical trope of Eve; as her descendants, women were prone to evil, sin, and manipulations that corrupted men. In his prescriptive manuscript De institutione feminae Christianae, the Renaissance humanist Juan Luis Vives asserted that women were especially susceptible to sin and therefore required regulation by men. Female identity was bound by a patriarchal code in which honor was acquired by birth and social nobility. Women were the depositaries of their family’s honor and were held responsible if anyone transgressed the honor code, ultimately becoming scapegoats for men’s bad behavior.
The model woman that Zayas utilizes in her novelas is the archetype of the Good Wife, a figure based on Fray Luis de León’s La perfecta casada (The Perfect Wife), an instructional guide for marriage commonly given as a wedding gift to noblewomen. La perfecta casada was first published in 1583 and then propagated across Europe in 1632, appearing as six different editions. This book dominated the lives of many young noblewomen during the Spanish Golden Age. Zayas utilizes the Good Wife archetype to set married women apart from other women who suffer misfortunes in her stories. They are good wives par excellence, yet their lives take twisted turns as they confront dangerous men. The writing of disenchantment is centered around the representation of married noblewomen who are manipulated by their spouses or other men who court them. Men impose pressures and contexts that leave women no choice but to act of their own accord by transgressing gendered norms.
Reading Zayas today, we find that the problems she addresses within her writing resonate with our current world.
Extensive research has traced feminist advocacy for equal educational access in Spain back to María de Zayas. She was one of many female writers who advocated for reform, but most of these authors were censored and their works lost during their time. Reading Zayas today, we find that the problems she addresses within her writing resonate with our current world. Like Zayas’s novelas, Wise and Valiant: Women and Writing in the Spanish Golden Age educates the audience. As Luis García Montero writes more broadly about the women highlighted in the exhibition, Zayas’s characters, “as survivors of History, and their life conditions at the time[,] provide a more thorough and fairer dimension to our imperfect understanding of the world.”
JEANNY F. FUENTES
Jeanny F. Fuentes was born and raised in the Greater Los Angeles area. She is Latinx from Salvadoran descent. She received her BA in Hispanic studies and psychology from Boston College and completed her MA in Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine, where she is currently a PhD Candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. She studies Golden Age Spanish literature. Her research interests are in women and gender studies, subjectivity and abject positions, death and body politics. Her dissertation explores marital identities in crisis and the dark side of the Good Wife archetype in María de Zayas’s short stories.