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Women in the Prose of María de Zayas by Eavan O’Brien (review)

From: Hispanófila
Volume 170, Enero 2014
pp. 156-158 | 10.1353/hsf.2014.0016

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This is the first comprehensive study of gynocentrism in Zayas’ novellas in terms of Gyn/affection (from Janice Raymond’s A Passion for Friends: Toward a Philosophy of Female Affection; London, 1986), the notion that women’s friendships are dynamic, empowering, and transformative, in contrast with patriarchal “hetero-relations.” O’Brien (hereinafter O) synthesizes scholarly work, and integrates an array of feminist theory, using Genette’s terms for the interplay among the various narrative levels in both the Novelas amorosas y ejemplares (1637, possibly composed as early as 1626; hereinafter NAE) and the Desengaños amorosos (1647; hereinafter DA). Her title is somewhat misleading, as O also attends to Zayas’ comedia, La traición en la amistad, along with novellas and comedias by Ana Caro, Mariana de Carvajal, and male authors.

O takes as her point of departure the puzzling assertion of DA’s narrator that its ending is “el más felice que se pudo dar,” given that it is “almost devoid of heterosexual pairings” (6). While the book’s overall structure is thematic, it also traces the arc of both saraos’ frame tale, initiated as healing for Lisis’ lovesickness, and ending with Lisis and other important women from the frame entering the Conceptionist order in the company of the nun Estefanía, thus exiting the social and sexual economy of earthly marriage to treacherously human men. At the same time O details the evolution in the tales from less patriarchal violence against women in NAE to much greater violence in DA.

“Introduction: Zayas’s Prose, a Feminine World” lays out biographical information, and “Women’s Alliances and the Frame ‘Sisterhood’” (1) examines women’s friendships within novellas from each collection. This sets the pattern for O’s analysis, which, in each chapter, considers sets of novellas from both collections. Here, the novellas from NAE portray friendships that are “‘weak,’ opportunistically motivated friendships of only very limited duration” while those in DA’s tales are more “altruistic” and “potent” (10).

Next, “Women’s Perfidy and the Subversion of Sisterhood” (2) analyzes how women betray one another, particularly sisters. The first part of “The Intersection of Gender and Class in Zayas’s Feminine World” (3) examines “patterns of affection and reliance between mistresses and maids” as cross-class relationships, and the novella genre as a “cultural space” in which to think through the formation of the urban nobility. O concurs with previous scholarship that Zayas’ audience is the highest nobility, and that both Zayas’ nostalgia for a more chivalric time and her “insistence on class distinctions” preclude considering her a “protofeminist” (197). Here, O’s analysis would have been strengthened by a more complex idea of the the noble class(es), rather than proceeding as though there were two monolithic social blocs, nobles and nonnoble servants, when in households of the highest nobility and royalty, those who served were often lesser nobles. The next segment, “Cross-Class Transgression and Carnival,” analyzes NAE’s tales which lay out the danger servants pose to their mistresses, and then, in DA, “serving-women’s malicious usurpation of class-based power” (136), using the honor code to incite men to extreme violence.

“Absences/Presence: Mother-Daughter Relationships” (4) takes up “natural” mothers in both the frame and the novellas to show that in the novella, mothers have a “relative primacy” in contrast to their marginalization in the comedia. O’s tentative contention is that women authors “detected the novella genre’s suitability for the depiction of family life, particularly that which involves female relatives” (161). O then analyzes the mothers, all widows, in the frame, to show that they have even greater power and presence. Alas, following her secondary sources, O asserts the disappearance of the mother in medieval literature with the resulting Golden Age formation of the “divided, masculinized subject,” which foreshortens (in non-Renaissance fashion) that foundational dynamic’s deep roots in the initial (pre-Socratic) moments of Western civilization, most notoriously signaled in Aristotle’s dictum that the mother provides only matter, and the father form (thus true being).

The final substantive chapter “Other ‘Mothers’: Surrogates and the Mother of God” (5) takes up surrogate mothers, consistently contrasted to “natural” ones...

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