La Celestina. Challenge and Innovation.

When La Celestina was first published in 1499, the prevailing literary modes in prose fiction –romances of chivalry, sentimental romances, tales of the Crusades or the fall of Troy etc- reflected the interests and values of the upper classes.

Broadly speaking, a common feature of these works was a lack of realism. Whether dealing with adventure or love, the characters were removed from real life activities and lacked individual features.  In addition, the action of the romances of adventure was set in the past and in distant places, two factors that made it easier to accept the exaggerated adventures of the larger-than-life heroes.

In contrast, La Celestina brings us down to earth with a bang, and challenges the prose fiction in vogue at the time in several ways. In this respect, it is an important transitional work moving us from the order and certainty of the Medieval world to the ambiguity of the Renaissance.

In general terms, for Medieval people God had divided society into three estates: church, nobility, and commoners.  Literature largely reflected the interests of the first two estates, e.g. didactic and epic poetry, romances of chivalry, sentimental tales.  

The world of the common people was ignored since their concerns were of no importance. The radical step that Rojas (and the unknown author of Act I) took was to immerse us in the world of the commoners, and demonstrate not only that they were interesting but that their world could also be a source of serious literature.  How did Rojas do this?

First: Rojas created a world that is clearly contemporary, with street names, references to churches, tanneries, wines, varieties of food (Act VIII).  These, together with a language that is colloquial and peppered with proverbs, all give La Celestina a local flavour.

Second: although the action is predicated on the world of courtly love belonging to the upper classes, the story is quickly “taken over” by the “downstairs” world of Celestina and her companions. Their concerns are not heroic adventures or courtly sentiment but their every day needs. Their battles are not for glory but for food and security, and the rhetoric of courtly love gives way to the pleasures of sex (which is also a source of income for the prostitutes).

Third: unlike the stereotypical protagonists of the sentimental or chivalric romances, Celestina and her companions emerge as individuals, whose self awareness and concept of self worth are radical innovations that signal the Renaissance individual as opposed to the Medieval collective being.

Although amongst lowest of the social ladder, Celestina and her companions are aware of who they are and of their individual responsibility as they make their way in the world. Listen, for example, to the prostitute Areúsa, as she proclaims her independence in a long address to Celestina: “I’ve depended on myself since I became aware of myself. I’ve never wanted to serve anyone else but myself, especially present day women” (Act IX).

Pármeno –initially loyal to his master, Calisto— gives a slightly different slant to the issue of independence when he questions the idea of honour as being inherited through blood or noble birth.  Addressing Calisto, Pármeno observes that “Some say nobility comes from the deeds and lineage of the parents. I say that someone else’s merits will never shine on you if you have no merits yourself.  So don’t take pride in your father’s light… but in your own; that’s how honour is won” (Act II).  

Of course, Sempronio is cynically motivated here by the hope that Calisto will be equally generous in rewarding him as he was in rewarding Celestina, but his sentiments reflect the Renaissance awareness of individual responsibility or self worth.

For those who assert their self worth, anything is possible, as Celestina observes when Melibea expresses doubt that she can talk to Calisto: “Nothing is impossible for those who wish it” “Ninguna cosa a los hombres que quieren hazerla es impossible” (Act X).  

This assertion of individual responsibility and freedom to act challenged the accepted Medieval view of the world governed by the will of God; people now were not only responsible for their actions but also suffered the consequences of –or possibly benefitted from– those actions.

Celestina, for example, clearly benefitted from her understanding of and manipulation of others, but she eventually died because she was blind to her greed and overestimated her control over Sempronio and Pármeno. Sempronio and Pármeno murdered Celestina, and as a result were executed (Act XII). Calisto’s obsession with Melibea made him blind to Sempronio’s (and later Pármeno’s) disloyalty.  Ironically Calisto died because of his loyalty to his new servants, falling off the ladder that had helped him gain access to Melibea’s garden (Act XIX).  At no time in these cases is there any allusion to divine intervention or punishment; the characters act out their own fate.

Fourth: the tendency in the prose or narrative fictions of high society to paint the world simply in terms of good and evil, and the readiness to exaggerate the qualities of the characters (the knight is the “best”, the adversary the “worst”, the lady the “most beautiful”, the courtly lover the “most anguished” etc.) are replaced in La Celestina by a highly ambiguous, unstable world.

The way this ambiguity is achieved is through the characters themselves. They lie, flatter, indulge in gossip, express opinions, and change their minds etc., all human characteristics that form part of a complex society.  Language is manipulated according to their needs.

Thus Calisto’s brazen earthiness when Melibea chides him for tearing at her clothes: “Madam, he who wants to eat the bird first plucks the feathers!” (Act XIX). No fine sentiments here to slow the imperative of sexual gratification. This is brutal, potentially violent, with no aristocratic grace or elegance that might be expected from a courtly lover.

And how brilliantly and seductively does Celestina modulate her language as she weaves her web of deception around Melibea when they first meet in Act IV, quite unlike the coarse language she engages in with her companions.

As a result, there are no absolutes in La Celestina but a reality that is fundamentally problematic, confusing and multidimensional.  This complexity resulting from changing individual perspectives is a problem that Rojas addresses in the Prologue in the form of a question: “Who can explain [men’s] wars, their enmities, their envy, their compulsions and movements, their discontent?”  Who, indeed, can explain these emotions and actions, which we still struggle to understand even nowadays? La Celestina is a remarkable portrayal and examination of these changeable human emotions.

Pleberio’s lament on Melibea’s death at the very end of the book captures brilliantly the problem the real world poses, and his view of the world from his youth to his present situation encapsulates the Renaissance, humanistic challenge to the preordained order of the Medieval world.

Addressing the world (mundo), Pleberio confesses that in his early years he believed the world was governed by order but, he now concludes, it is a labyrinth of errors (“I believed that you (world) and events were governed by some order… Now you seem to me to be a labyrinth of errors” (Act XXI).  The “labyrinth” became a favourite image in the 16th and 17thcenturies to describe the complexity of the world. It is an image that suitably sums up the complexity of La Celestina.

Although the predominant voice in La Celestina is that of the commoner, there is no threat here to the social order. What Rojas (and the original author of Act I) did was permit the voice of the low born to be heard, to express itself.

By portraying commoners who question, change their minds, assert their uniqueness, dissemble, deceive, manipulate, are impulsive, envious and so on, Rojas took a major step towards the novel. Chivalric and sentimental prose fiction did not disappear in the 16th century, but La Celestina prepared the way for fictional prose works such as La lozana Andaluza (1528), Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), Guzmán de Alfarache (1599, 1604), the latter two generally being classified as picaresque novels.

La Celestina was a challenge to the romances of chivalry and sentimental romances and indeed anticipated other challenges that the 16th century raised against the comfort of certainty offered by the Medieval order of things. For example, the rise of Protestantism challenged the authority of Catholicism, the Copernican revolution suddenly subverted the idea of the earth as the centre of the universe, the rebirth of scepticism and the rediscovery of classical, pagan culture offered alternatives to the Christian view of the world, even the discovery of America demonstrated that the world was not what it had seemed to be.

Castro, Americo   La Celestina como contienda literaria (castas y casticismo) Madrid1965

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