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Spain’s Downfall Begins

BY THE BEGINNING OF the seventeenth century, it was obvious to those both inside and outside of Spain’s borders that the country was experiencing a profound change; and not for the better, by most accounts: there were a series of national bankruptcies, rampant inflation, a decreasing population, plague, the loss of the Invincible Armada, and revolts from various corners of the Empire. 91) Politicians, moralists, arbitristas (economic reformers; literally, projectors/project planners), and novelists were all putting pen to paper in order to discuss, analyze, and prescribe what they perceived to be Spain’s state of crisis and decline. (2) One of the most famous fictional texts to come out of this conflictive period is Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quijote de la Mancha. The two-part novel is a keen representation of the economic, social, and psychological displacement that was experienced by early modern Spanish subjects as a result of what Jose Antonio Maravall termed “the diphasic schema of a social crisis” (“From the Renaissance” 2). The phenomenon of displacement–conceptualized here as the movement away from a normative subject position to another, alternative subject position–could and did occur (both by coercion and choice) as people reacted to and dealt with the crisis and the absolutist State’s increasingly restrictive response to the expansive tendencies of the sixteenth century. Indeed, Cervantes’s novel is a sustained exploration of the displacement of Alonso Quijano as he attempts to distance himself from the restrictive subject position of hidalgo and create an alternative space in which he can construct himself as an individual. In other words, the normative role of hidalgo available to Alonso Quijano within the dominant discourses of Habsburg Spain (primarily, through blood and lineage) had ceased to produce what Judith Butler terms “a livable life,” a life in which the physical and psychic survival–or both–of the subject is possible. (3) Although Quijano is the wandering subject par excellence, he is not the only character in the text with the dream of distancing himself from an unviable subject position, with the fantasy of being something or someone else.

Did Don look like this?

Much like the famous hidalgo, Dorotea, the dishonored farmer’s daughter whom we first meet in part one, chapter twenty-eight of Cervantes’s novel, also seeks to fulfill her dream of escaping an unlivable subject position. Dorotea herself signals her displacement, which is to say the undesirable change in her subjectivity, when she describes her post-Fernando life as “la vida que ya aborrezco” (1.28:287; my emphasis). In Undoing Gender, Butler notes that once viability is no longer possible within the prevailing social norms, “then it follows that my sense of survival depends upon escaping the clutch of those norms by which recognition is conferred. It may well be that my sense of social belonging is impaired by the distance I take, but surely that estrangement is preferable to gaining a sense of intelligibility by virtue of norms that will only do me in from another direction” (3). Displacement, the chosen and/or coerced estrangement from a recognized subject position, is a survival strategy used by a marginalized subject in order to maintain a sense of self. As a literary concept, displacement can inform our understanding of the material and discursive conditions that both undid Dorotea and enabled her to construct an emergent form of the female individual. (4) Indeed, Dorotea’s presence throughout nineteen chapters of the first part of Don Quijote provides for a well-developed female character who shares a similar fantasy with the protagonist: she wishes to be something other than the ruined maiden that we find wandering in the Sierra Morena.

orotea’s dislocation from chaste maiden to ruined woman allows us to trace the material conditions and the discursive norms that were operating to construct the seventeenth-century female Spanish subject. Furthermore, a sustained analysis of her gender performances permits us to see the breaking points of those norms: the moments where they fail to constitute an intelligible subject, which is to say a subject who is recognized by dominant social norms. Unlike Alonso Quijano, Dorotea ultimately succeeds in locating a new subject position for herself due to her ability to perform the possible: to select, combine, and recombine available discourses in an innovative manner that is non-threatening and, therefore, recognizable, to the established social order. Her eventual success will depend partly on her ability to construct a viable identity from what normative codes had already labeled as an unchaste castoff–and partly on her audience’s ability (and willingness) to recognize her current performance. (5)

Following the theoretical framework for tracking the emergence of the individualized subject proposed by George Mariscal in Contradictory Subjects: Quevedo, Cervantes, and Seventeenth-Century Spanish Culture, I argue that Dorotea, like Alonso Quijano, employs a variety of early modern discourses so as to constitute a possible subject position for herself. By possible I mean that it allows her to avoid further physical and psychic harm and that it allows others to consider her life as viable within the sociohistorical structure of the text. Although Mariscal traces the multiple, and often contradictory, discourses implicated in the construction of the aristocratic male subject, my study continues the work of scholars such as Anne J. Cruz and Rosilie Hernandez-Pecoraro by focusing on the discourses surrounding gender and the female subject. (6) I posit that Dorotea’s success hinges on her decision to select and recombine two diverse discourses of the period: the popular conduct manuals for women and the economic treatises that were appearing in an attempt to remedy the ills of seventeenth-century Spain. Whereas her selection of conduct manuals–full of male-authored prescriptions for performing normative feminine subject positions–is perhaps an inevitable choice, her selection of economic discourses is more inventive. The pairing of the two is ingenious: just as “virtue” in the form of the dignity of one’s works was being used to contest the traditional values of blood and lineage in the normative discourses for men, this debate also had consequences for women–both historical and literary. Throughout her various performances, Dorotea’s combined iterations of the contradictory discourses of blood, lineage, virtue, and gender that were found in the conduct manuals and the economic treatises allow her to resist her triple-marginalization as a woman, as a non-virgin, and as a rich peasant. Her subjectivity, however, is not without Cervantine (Baroque) contradiction and paradox. In order to perform a possible life, Dorotea must be able to act, but she may only act within the parameters of her historical epoch. Her subjectivity (or sense of agency) is proscribed by her material conditions.


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