Although the story in La Celestina is based on the passionate desires of a pair of young nobles, Calisto and Melibea, the underworld of the procuress, Celestina, and her companions, effectively overshadows the world of the socially superior young lovers.
La Celestina introduces a new world to prose fiction, one where the voice of the low born makes a dramatic appearance as protagonist. It is the world of here and now, with contemporary street names, the names of churches, references to tanneries, local wines and so on.
This is a world of commercial transactions, of cosmetics and sex, prostitution, murder, corruption, envy, betrayal, recycled virgins and money! It sounds like a modern potboiler, but it is a 15th-century literary tour de force.
Two examples will give a good idea of how perceptive Celestina is to the weaknesses or needs of others.
The first deals with Pármeno, one of Calisto’s two servants. Unlike the corrupt Sempronio –Calisto’s other servant– Pármeno is initially loyal and warns Calisto strongly against Celestina when he sees her at Calisto’s house (Act I). Seeing Pármeno as an obstacle to her plan to serve as procuress for Calisto, Celestina immediately sets out to overcome his resistance (Act I).
She feigns puzzlement and hurt at his attitude, she reminds him that his mother was a friend of hers, that she looked after him after the death of his mother, and that she loves him in spite of what he has said against her. She cajoles him, reproaches him and intimates that his loyalty to Calisto will get him nowhere. She extols the benefits of friendship, something he cannot share with Calisto because of the difference in social status. She offers him her friendship but more important she offers him the favours of one of her “girls,” Areúsa.
Understanding that Pármeno will want to tell someone about his happiness at this prospect, Celestina emphasises again the advantages of friendship, and urges him to look on Sempronio as a friend. Her arguments, of course, are right. Pármeno is won over, he and Sempronio become friends and together help Celestina extract as much as they can from Calisto.
But with all her accumulated experience and cunning, Celestina is not infallible. Even as she calls on the forces of darkness for assistance in her plans to help Calisto (Act III), she suffers momentary doubt about her success.
Alone on her way to see Melibea for the first time, she confesses –in a dialogue with herself- to being anxious. She mulls over the steps she has taken, calls for inner strength and seeks to boost her confidence by recalling the good omens she has noticed on her way to Melibea’s house (e.g. no dog has barked at her, and she has seen no black birds).
She finally falls victim to what has been the driving principle behind her actions, her avarice. Having promised to share with Sempronio and Pármeno the gold chain that Calisto has given her, and overconfident of her hold over them, she reneges (Act XII) and is killed by them
Equally remarkable is how Celestina’s companions, especially the women, are given an authentic voice and –like Celestina– outshine their social superiors as interesting people who have problems and conflicts independent of those that affect their masters. They do sometimes use a highly rhetorical, elaborate language with Classical allusions but there is always an earthy quality that keeps their feet very much on the ground.
What makes Celestina and her circle so interesting is that they are not stereotyped creatures or comical characters or mere tricksters, which is how commoners were generally portrayed.
The dynamics of their relationships as they live out their daily lives are more complex than the lusty needs of Calisto and Melibea. They are aware of themselves as individuals, have opinions of their own, and undergo emotions that we all recognise. They are subject to greed, envy, lust, anger, cynicism, vengeance, fear, cowardice, all part of our human condition.
For example, when Sempronio shows more than a passing interest in Melibea (Act IX), Elicia becomes jealous and she and Areúsa engage in a wonderfully catty exchange in which they tear Melibea`s beauty apart. She’s pretty only because she’s got money and clothes; in fact, her nipples look more like two large pumpkins as if she’s given birth three times, and her stomach hangs like a 50 year-old’s!
The women revel in the freedom they enjoy. Areúsa is a good example. In an enlightening and radical conversation with her companions, she affirms her own identity and her own place in the world, even if she is only a commoner and prostitute: “I’ve depended on myself since I was became aware of myself. I’ve never wanted to serve anyone else but myself, especially present day women” (Act IX).
It is a vigorous declaration of self worth that is new and potentially subversive; she would rather be a prostitute and self-reliant than a maid, and subject to the whims of another. Areúsa, like her companions, is serious in the pursuit of her own ends, her material well being and freedom, expressed largely through sexual liberation.
What is remarkable about La Celestina is how the voice of these socially marginal figures not only thrusts itself into the picture but moves to the fore to occupy more space than the world of their social superiors.
La Celestina depicts an upside down, unstable world that is more interesting than the world of the nobility. Both levels of society share the same preoccupation with sex, but where the affair between Calisto and Melibea parodies the courtly love of the sentimental romance (which belongs to high society), the appetite of Celestina and her companions is robustly business like and down to earth.
By juxtaposing these worlds –the medieval equivalent of our “upstairs/ downstairs”– Rojas moved the world of courtly love into the real, everyday world. In doing so, he produced an original work that –although written in dialogue form– was a major step towards a new genre: the novel.
This new literary voice challenged the established literary canons of the epic, the romances of chivalry and the sentimental romance. In these prose or narrative fictions, the voice is that of high society, the nobility.
These narratives are concerned with what we might call “poetic” events and do not touch on every day concerns. For example, epics tend to deal with the deeds of famous heroes or the destiny of a people. In the romances of chivalry, it is the ongoing battle between good and evil, played out by larger-than-life knights (inspired by their ladies) and their terrifying adversaries. The sentimental romances have little action and are distinguished by their introspective and allegorical nature.
In La Celestina the dominant voice is that of the underworld, and the concerns of the characters centred on every day pursuits: making a living, money, sex. Nothing like it had appeared in prose fiction before –certainly in Spain–, but if popular acceptance is anything to go by, then Rojas was clearly on the right track, because La Celestina became one of the most celebrated books of the 16th century.
Castro, Americo La Celestina como contienda literaria (castas y casticismo) Madrid: 1965
Gilman, Stephen The Spain of Fernando de Rojas: the Intellectual and Social Landscape of “La Celestina” Princeton: 1972
Lacarra, Maria Eugenia Como leer “La Celestina” Madrid: 1990
Maravall, Jose A El mundo social de “La Celestina” Madrid: 1973
Severin, Dorothy ed. La Celestina Madrid: 1997