Cervantes: What is it about Titles?

Cervantes: What’s in a title?
Google something like “Importance of book titles” and you immediately get a very good idea of how publishers, authors, and readers stress the impact of titles. Titles are the first words we see of a book; they are its identifier.  They can persuade us to pick the book or reject it.  They can create expectations, challenge us and set us thinking about the content, so that when we read the book we can measure that content against our expectations and experiences.

Cervantes played with titles, and liked to convey contradictory, intriguing or contemporarily relevant messages. For example, when he published his collection of short stories in 1613, he gave it the title of Novelas ejemplares (Exemplary Stories). 

It seems an innocent enough title, but for readers of that time, it would immediately have struck a chord.  The word novela  was borrowed from Italian novella and would immediately presuppose a ribald, entertaining story of the kind popularized by Giovanni Boccaccio and other Italian short story writers. Favourite themes included the salacious adventures of lecherous friars, old or foolish husbands trying to protect their sexually frustrated youthful wives from randy young men, maidens outwitting their chaperones etc.

Cervantes, however, immediately juxtaposes  novelas with the paradoxical adjective ejemplares.  How could a novela be exemplary? Cervantes was aware of possible doubts about the morality his tales and in the Prologue clarifies that they not only entertain but also contain sabroso …fruto (wholesome fruit), a claim supported by others in the preliminary materials preceding the Prologue. It was a way for Cervantes to deflect objections that might arise from the licentiousness associated with the novella.

But as is the case with so much of Cervantes’ writings, there is another possible level to the title.  In the Prologue he proudly claims that he was the first to write novelas in Castilian, in which case ejemplares could well mean that Cervantes saw his stories as models to imitate, examples of how to write original novelas. He claims that he neither imitated nor stole his plots, which might or might not be the case, but readers could measure his claim against their knowledge of prior literature.

Title page of the Novelas ejemplares.

Within the Novelas ejemplares, there are several titles which would have an immediate impact on readers.

The collection opens with La gitanilla (The Young Gypsy Girl). Gypsies have historically been marginalized, mistrusted and  persecuted.  How could a gypsy girl –Preciosa by name– be the protagonist of an exemplary tale? There must be an explanation… and Cervantes provides one.  It turns out that Preciosa was not  a gypsy.  She was in fact kidnapped by them, and was really the daughter of the Chief Magistrate of Murcia. 

What Cervantes has done here is combine the world of romance (the nobility) with the world of every day life (the gypsies), a variation of what happens in Don Quixote. There’s much more to the story, but it sets the tone for the rest of the collection: namely things are not what they appear to be, and conventions are constantly questioned and/or undermined or reworked.

Preciosa’s experience is echoed in La ilustre fregona (The Illustrious Kitchen Maid), a contradictory title if ever there was one. Costanza, the maid, serves at an inn, but it happens that she was left there as a baby by a distinguished lady (gran señora).  Like Preciosa, Costanza comes from a privileged background, and both –at the end of their respective tales— recover their lost status and marry happily.

La española inglesa (The Spanish-born English Girl) would have particular resonance at the beginning of the 17th century.  What would Spanish readers make of a Spanish-born English girl (named Isabel)? Wasn’t Protestant England Catholic Spain’s most bitter enemy?  (Remember the Great Armada of 1588, the sacking of the port of Cádiz by the English in 1587 and 1596!). 

Nevertheless, the picture we have of Queen Elizabeth of England and her Court –where Isabel spends much of her time after being captured by an English nobleman, Clotaldo, during the sack of Cádiz in 1596— is surprisingly sympathetic.

It makes sense, however, if we know that after Elizabeth’s death in 1603 a peace accord was signed and a visit undertaken the following year by a group of Englishmen to Valladolid to examine the possibility of a royal marriage.

The story concludes with another marriage, that of Isabel to Clotaldo’s son, Ricaredo.  When they finally marry and settle in Spain, the situation is ironically reversed, Ricaredo becoming in effect an inglés español (an English-born Spaniard).

Valladolid was the residence of the Court from 1601 to 1606. Cervantes may well have seen the English visitors, since he and his family lived in Valladolid from 1604 to 1606.

The collection closes with El coloquio de los perros (The Conversation of the Dogs) which is framed within another tale, El casamiento engañoso (The Deceitful Marriage). The framing device obviously complicates the narrative level, but the titles alone alert us to something unexpected. Don’t marriages normally suggest harmony (“and they lived happily ever after”!)?  And we know that dogs can’t talk!

The same principle of intriguing or challenging titles applies to some of Cervantes’s dramas too. For example, Los baños de Argel (The Prisons of Algiers) reflects both Cervantes’s captivity in Algiers and the experience of many Christians captured at sea or kidnapped during raids on the Spanish mainland by Berber pirates.

Another play, El rufián dichoso (The Blessed Ruffian) opens in the underworld of Seville. The protagonist, Lugo, is a cardsharp, serves an Inquisitor and is always ready with his sword or dagger.  How can such a man be blessed? By undergoing a religious conversion and becoming saint-like.

The title of El gallardo español (The Valiant Spaniard) contains no contradiction, and in fact suggests the pleasing expectation of seeing a brave Spaniard in action. Our expectation, however, is undermined because the protagonist, Don Fernando, constantly places his sense of honour ahead of the well-being of the town he should be helping protect against Muslim attack. 

Indeed, he is so blinded by his honour that he defects, temporarily, to the enemy. There is no doubt about Don Fernando’s valour, but Cervantes does raise questions about the obsession with honour that plagued Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Of course, Cervantes’s most famous work is Don Quixote, the full title of which is El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha. It’s a lot more challenging title than it appears at first.

Close, Anthony in The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature ed. David T Gies  2009, pp. 201-21