La Celestina. Interpretation(s).

Like all great literature, La Celestina works on many levels, and critics are divided over its meaning(s).  The author, Fernando de Rojas, intuited this division in the 1514 Prologue to the Valencia edition of 1514, when he observed that readers “judge it according to their way of seeing things.”  Rojas himself is at pains, especially in the acrostic verses preceding the Prologue, to underline its didactic and moral content.

Taking the traditional image of the sugar-coated pill, his purpose, he claims, is to warn against the vices of love and the use of procuresses and false servants.  Most readers would agree that Rojas achieves that end, but the violent deaths of the main characters —Celestina, Pármeno, Sempronio, Calisto, Melibea— and the desolation of Melibea’s father have persuaded many that there is more beneath the sugar-coated pill.

Some have interpreted the book as a lesson for those who would abandon Christian/ Stoic restraint for the fleeting pleasures of the flesh. Others see in La Celestina the work of a pessimistic moralist for whom life is a constant battle and a lonely existence in an opportunistic world.

This disillusioned view is perhaps best summed up by Melibea’s father, Pleberio, in his lament at the very end of the book, immediately following his daughter’s suicide. From an early age, when he believed the world to be governed by a moral order, a disenchanted Pleberio has come to see it as “a labyrinth of errors, a frightening desert” etc (Act XXI).  Pleberio’s song of despair and hopelessness climaxes with his final words to his dead daughter: “Why did you leave me suffering? Why did you leave me sad and alone in this vale of tears?” There is no answer to these rhetorical questions with which the story ends, but a reminder of the inconclusiveness of everything and the bitterness of life.

But Pleberio’s lament also take us back in a way to the 1514 Prologue, which can be read as a synthesis of Rojas’s reaction to readers’ comments. Although heavily indebted to Petrarch, Rojas presumably selected Petrarch’s ideas as appropriate to his own views.

What strikes us from the very first sentence of the Prologue is the image of hostility: all created things are at war. This idea is repeated with variations like hammer blows, leading to the observation that his book too has been a source of “fighting” (lid and contienda). People cannot agree upon its meaning, nor whether it is a tragedy or not.  But that is not surprising since “life itself is … a battlela mesma vida de los hombres … es batalla.

What Rojas does in La Celestina is give us an example of life as a battle through a study of human flaws. “Who can explain men’s enmities,” he asks, “their envy, their compulsions and movements, their discontent?” 

La Celestina shows that there is no comforting answer to these questions, anymore than there is an answer to Pleberio’s anguished appeals at the end of the book.  This is a very pessimistic view.  There is no reassurance of a divine plan or even divine justice that one might expect from a believing Christian, which brings us to the question: does this pessimism have anything to do with the fact that Rojas was a Converso (a Christian of Jewish origin)?  It is a question that has intrigued readers and divided opinion since the 1950s when two scholars, Américo Castro and Stephen Gilman, weighed in heavily in favour of such an interpretation

Supporters of this view offer several arguments, amongst them: the anonymity of the 1499 Comedia reflects typical Converso fears; the blasphemous imagery used in the language between Calisto and Melibea debases Christian beliefs; both Calisto and Melibea are disinterested in marriage because marriage between a Christian (Calisto) and a possible Conversa (Melibea) was socially unacceptable (the commercial activities of Pleberio are typical of Converso pursuits). 

Proponents of the Converso thesis also argue that the use of a disreputable go-between would not find favour with Conversos, because Conversos were prominent in attacking prostitution as a threat to the family unit (a carry-over of the Jewish prohibition of prostitution).  Above all, the destructive relationships and pointless deaths with no comforting salvation in any afterlife may mirror the alienation and emptiness felt by an individual forced to abandon his religion for another to which he felt no commitment.

The fact that Rojas insisted on his Christian faith in his will, and was buried in a Franciscan shroud is no proof of religious sincerity. Rojas may have been simply carrying out  a practiced rite which could, at the same time, ease matters for his children if they should be subsequently be called upon to prove the purity of their blood.

As strenuously as supporters of this interpretation have argued their position, so too have opponents vigorously counter argued, claiming that there is nothing in the text that betrays a peculiarly Converso attitude.  The Inquisition and church watchdogs certainly did not detect any unorthodox or anti-Christian sentiment in the work, and the question never arose before 1902, which is when Rojas’s Converso background was first identified.   Current thought is leaning away from interpreting the work from a peculiarly Converso stance, but still there is no final answer. Readers will “judge it according to their inclination” was the way Rojas himself so aptly put it (Prologue), and so it has been.

One final point addressed by Rojas in the Prologue is whether the book is a mere play or a tragedy.  As with the question of interpretation, Rojas notes readers’ different opinions: some prefer to call it a play “tragedy” because it ends sadly, others –including the original author of Act I—favour calling it a comedia.  Rojas himself opts for compromise calling it tragicomedia

Some modern readers still debate that question, but others are more interested in the book’s genre.  Is it a play or a novel? The question never occurred to Rojas and his contemporaries because the novel as such did not exist.  Nevertheless, looking back historically many readers maintain that La Celestina does indeed contain important elements that point towards the novel.

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, María Eugenia  Como leer “La Celestina” Madrid 1990
Salvador Miguel, Nicasio  “Melibea’s Garden” in El jardín de Melibea pp. 33-45 Monasterio de San Juan de Burgos 2000
Severin, Dorothy ed.  La Celestina  Madrid  1997