When I first read Don Quixote, I was too young to appreciate that Cervantes didn’t just poke fun at the empty nonsense of chivalry, he probed and questioned a multitude of social norms and social roles. I also read the book too soon. In the 1950s, before militant feminism entered my life and my world about 10 years later. As a result it was only last night that I discovered a passage that had gone completely over my head as a teenager.
In this episode, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have encountered a group of young men who are mourning the death of one of their number. He died because his love for the beautiful Marcela had not been reciprocated. In the eyes of most of these young men, Marcela was heartless and cruel, using her beauty to torment men. But after pages and pages of prose and verse along the lines of la donna è mobile, the woman in question Marcela appears at the funeral to give her side of the story.
She says it all in the first few lines. Just because a woman is loved for her beauty, that doesn’t mean she has to return the love. There’s nothing wrong with her if she doesn’t. I think that if Cervantes wrote this passage today, he’d be trolled on Reddit and by all the sick incels out there. I realize that one piece of literature is not going to overcome the influence of our sexist culture, but I still think that all young men should study and discuss Marcela’s speech, not to indoctrinate them with political correctness, but because her logic is so powerful. Logic may not prevail over hormones, but it can undermine the institutions that channel those hormones in bad directions.
Here is Marcela’s speech. It’s worth quoting in full.
“Heaven made me beautiful—according to you—so that, in spite of yourselves, my beauty moves you to love me. And you insist that I, in return, am bound to love you back. With the natural understanding that God has given me, I recognize that what is beautiful is worthy of love. But what I don’t understand is that just because a woman is loved because of her beauty, she’s obliged to reciprocate this love. And furthermore, it could happen that the one who loves the beautiful woman is himself ugly, and since ugliness is worthy of being despised, it would be silly for him to say: ‘I love you because you’re beautiful; now you must love me, even though I’m ugly.’ But supposing each one is equally good-looking, it doesn’t necessarily mean that their yearnings will be the same, because not every kind of beauty inspires love—some are pleasing to the eye but don’t overcome the will. If every type of beauty caused love and overcame the will in the same way, everyone’s will would wander about confused and perplexed, not knowing which way to go, because—since there’s an infinite array of beautiful things—yearnings would be equally infinite. And according to what I’ve heard, true love cannot be divided, and must be voluntary and not forced. If that’s true, as I believe it is, why do you want to force me to yield my free will simply because you say that you love me? Tell me—what if heaven, which made me beautiful, had made me ugly instead? Would it have been right for me to complain because you didn’t love me? What’s more, consider this: I didn’t choose to be beautiful—heaven made me that way without my asking or choosing to be. So, just as a snake doesn’t deserve to be blamed for the venom given to it by nature—even though it uses the venom to kill—I don’t deserve to be blamed for being beautiful. Beauty in a virtuous woman is like a distant flame or a sharp sword—the one won’t burn and the other won’t cut anyone who doesn’t draw near. Honor and virtue are adornments of the soul, but without them the body shouldn’t seem beautiful, even though it may appear to be. So, if purity is one of the virtues that must adorn both body and soul to make them beautiful, why should the woman who’s loved for her beauty sacrifice her purity by yielding to the wishes of the man who, for his selfish pleasure only, seeks with all his might and wiles to cause her to lose it?
“I was born free, and in order to live free, I chose the solitude of the outdoors. The trees of these mountains are my company, the clear water of these streams are my mirrors. I communicate my thoughts and share my beauty with the trees and water. I’m the distant fire and the sword placed far away. Those whom I’ve caused to fall in love with me by letting them see me, I’ve enlightened with my words. And if desires are kept alive by hope, since I never gave any such hope to Grisóstomo—or to any other man—you could say that his obstinacy killed him rather than my cruelty. And if I’m reproached because you say that his desires were honorable, and for that reason I was obliged to yield to him, I say that in this same place where his grave is being dug and he revealed the worthiness of his intentions to me, I told him that mine were to live in perpetual solitude, and that only the earth would enjoy the fruits of my chastity and the spoils of my beauty. And, if after having been set right, he hoped against hope, and tried to sail against the wind, it’s no surprise that he drowned in the middle of the sea of his recklessness. If I’d encouraged him, I would have been false; if I’d gratified him, it would have been against my better instinct and judgment. He persisted though he was turned down; he despaired without being despised. Consider now whether I’m to blame for his grief! Let the man I deceived complain, let him despair whose promised hopes were not fulfilled, let him be filled with hope whom I beckon, let him brag whom I’ve welcomed. But let no one call me cruel and murderous to whom I’ve promised nothing, upon whom I’ve practiced no deception, whom I’ve neither beckoned nor welcomed.
“Heaven has not yet ordained that I should love by fate and it’s vain to think that I shall love by choice. Let this general warning be given to each one of those who try to court me for his own advantage—let it be understood from now on that if anyone dies for me, it won’t be because of jealousy or rejection, since she who loves no one cannot make anyone jealous. Discouragement must not be taken for disdain. Let the man who calls me a beast and a basilisk leave me alone as he would something harmful and bad; let the man who calls me ungrateful not serve me; let him who calls me unfeeling shun me; he who calls me cruel, let him not follow me—for this beast, this basilisk, this ingrate, this cruel and unfeeling woman will not seek, serve, know, or follow them in any way. If Grisóstomo was killed by his impatience and bold desire, why should you blame my virtuous behavior and modesty? If I preserve my purity in the company of trees, why should a man want me to lose it in the company of men? I, as you know, am independently wealthy, and I don’t covet anyone else’s fortune. I’m free and I take no pleasure in submitting to anyone. I neither love nor hate anyone. I don’t deceive this one nor court that one. I don’t dally with one nor play with another. Virtuous conversation with the country girls of these villages and the care of my goats entertain me. My desires are bounded by these mountains, and if they ever stray, it’s only to contemplate the beauty of the heavens, the steps by which the soul is shown the way to its first dwelling place.”
I can see that I enjoyed the book for its rolling series of misadventures. Now I’m hoping to find more such gems that I missed the first three times I read Don Quixote.