There are few books that influenced literary history. The “Exemplary Novels” by Miguel de Cervantes (author of the well-known “Don Quixote”) is one of them. Published in 1613, this collection of 12 short tales was the first example of the Spanish “novela” form.
At the time, similar collections appeared in Spain but these were usually translations or adaptions from foreign models, with minimal characterization. While also inspired by the Italian model of the “Decameron” (1353) and the French model of the “Heptameron” (1558), Cervantes created a memorable work through his unique storytelling techniques.
Unlike Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” the “Exemplary Novels” read like separate stories, with no overarching plot to connect them. Each novela stands on its own, with different points of view, and begins in the middle of the action (in medias res).
Unlike previous character development in literature, the characters are complex rather than defined by a function: They don’t service the plot. Cervantes steps out of archetypal characters such as the maiden, the hero, or the outlaw. Here, the author creates complex characters that think for themselves. What matters is how the characters respond to unexpected events rather than their daily lives.
The Search for Meaning
Cervantes challenged the notion that the Spanish novela was a low and disreputable work in the style of medieval fabliaux (comic, off-color tales). He proved that the Spanish novela could be capable of both lightness and sophistication, breaking free from established models.
This is particularly present in the moral dimension of the stories. Most often, the novelas don’t have an explicit moral lesson. Instead, Cervantes challenges his readers to unveil the mystery of each tale. Readers have to read between the lines and craft their own opinions based on how the story is told.
This was a completely novel approach, breaking free from established models. Cervantes doesn’t “program” his characters from the start. Instead, he lets them develop and learn from their experiences.
Tweaking Literary Genres
Along with an unusual structure, Cervantes blends several literary genres to form something entirely different. “The Little Gipsy Girl,” the first novela of the collection, follows the story of Preciosa, a wise gypsy girl. She meets Juan de Cárcamo, a charming nobleman. Juan proposes to Preciosa, but is challenged to spend two years as a gypsy to prove his love.
Here, love prevails in an unexpected happy ending. In this story, Cervantes uses themes of chivalrous and courtly love. However, Cervantes uses ironic distancing, stepping away from idealized stories used in previous literature. In “The Little Gipsy,” the reality of love is far from the courtly ideal.
Another innovation on a literary genre comes in “Rinconete and Cortadillo.” In it, two characters from wealthy families want to get to know other social classes. They leave their former lives and socialize with robbers in the lowlands of Sevilla. The tale follows the codes of picaresque literature, based on the picaro figure, a character from the lowlands who uses his wit and craftiness to survive. The genre is shown through a mixture of pathos, conveyed by the expressive punctuation; comedy; and hyperbole, conveyed through theatrical dialogue. And once again, irony is present in an open-ended fashion rather than a traditional picaresque ending.
Cervantes was also inspired by the Byzantine model of love at first sight, as exemplified in the Greek novel “Aethiopica” by Heliodorus. The “Spanish English Lady” novela is the best example of this influence. Two lovers, the secretly Catholic Richard and Queen Isabella, want to wed but are separated by their families. They face political and religious challenges but finally reunite and marry. Beauty and virtue prevail in the face of adversity, yet heavy rhetoric creates distancing yet again.
Finally, we have the pastoral model, which idealizes the shepherd’s way of life in “The Colloquy of the Dogs,” a fantasy-inspired story where two dogs share their opinions on human life, using philosophical and social themes. This is the most unusual tale in the collection, and the author leaves the reader to determine what is reality and what is fantasy.
Over the centuries, critics tried to categorize each of these stories into a set literary genre, but the mixing of forms made this impossible. While each tale is inspired by a longstanding literary tradition and diverse genres, the author created a unique work through his imagination and literary skills.
This was a new approach for short fiction, and it influenced generations of Spanish authors to come. Until the “Exemplary Novels,” Spanish literature was either didactic or escapist. Searching for meaning in fiction was completely novel then. Today, this quest is part of our reading pleasure.