The Little Gipsy Girl by Miguel de Cervantes, 1613

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by Miguel de Cervantes, 1613

In Miguel de Cervantes's "The Little Gipsy Girl" (La Gitanilla), the character Preciosa is a treasure among the Spanish Gipsies. As a people the Gipsies have, Cervantes declares, an only too well deserved reputation for thieving, an art learned at an early age and practiced with great expertise throughout their lives. Preciosa, however, is different, and from the outset of Cervantes's story we are led to speculate that this may be because she is, in fact, not of Gipsy stock. In the absence of any other relations, the woman referred to as her grandmother has brought her up since her infancy and has found Preciosa remarkably receptive to all of her teachings.

Preciosa is intelligent and learned quickly that she must live by her wits. Well spoken but affecting the slight lisp expected of Spanish Gipsies at the time, she possesses a charm that is enhanced by her scrupulous avoidance of any touch of vulgarity or indecency. She has a rich store of songs and ballads that she performs to the delight of the people, and she can dance gracefully and play the tambourine. Fortune-telling is another of her skills, a traditional Gipsy practice that is in great demand and that brings in useful cash from a gullible public. She is strikingly beautiful, with golden hair, eyes like emeralds, and a dimple on her chin that sets hearts aflutter. Preciosa is, we soon realize, perfectly capable of looking after herself. She may not yet be quite 15, but no one doubts her when she roundly declares that the life they lead makes Gipsy girls grow up very quickly.

Readers already have a good idea of Preciosa's character when, after a number of brief episodes that have allowed this strikingly attractive girl to display her skills as a street entertainer, she meets a young man who is both rich and well connected. That Juan de Cárcamo should instantly fall in love with her is only natural. Even though an inexperienced girl should be flattered by the attentions of a man of a higher class, any ideas he has of easily conquering her are promptly dashed. Although she is still young, she is not easily taken in, and Preciosa reveals that she is well aware that, though men may be ardent when first they fall in love and are as wildly extravagant with promises as with presents, their passion quickly subsides once it is satisfied. She is resolved to safeguard her virginity, knowing that, should she lose it before marriage, she will be regarded as having forfeited all claims to respect.

Preciosa is, however, attracted to Juan and makes a proposal. First, she wants to find out more about his background so as to obviate any risk of deception. Second, she insists that he join the Gipsies and adopt their way of life for two years so that each can get to know the other's character. Then, at the end of this period of testing, they can consider marriage but, as she insists, only if both of them still really want to. Juan, assuming the alias Andrés Caballer, agrees and wanders across Spain with the Gipsies. Despite seeming to have a lot of money, Juan maintains his disguise until certain revelations are made. When he is arrested for robbery, his true identity is disclosed. It is then revealed that Preciosa is also the child of well-to-do parents. As a baby she had been kidnapped and brought up by Gipsies. Her identity is established when Preciosa's "grandmother" produces trinkets Preciosa had been wearing when she was kidnapped, and it is verified by two physical characteristics—a white mole under her left breast and webbing between the two smallest toes on her right foot. It is also discovered that the accusation of robbery leveled at Juan had been false, and the happy ending comes about quickly.

Told by an anonymous third-person narrator who frequently comments on the action and tends to view events from Preciosa's point of view, though without really penetrating her consciousness, "The Little Gipsy Girl" does not attract attention as an example of well-crafted storytelling. Readers are, perhaps unnecessarily, given hints from the outset that Preciosa is not really a Gipsy girl. Though the success of her stratagem to test Juan's fidelity adds something fresh, the ending is blatantly derived from the classical Latin comedies of Terence and their counterparts in the golden age of Spanish literature. It appears likely that contemporary readers were not expected to take the ending seriously but rather to accept it as a conventional means of concluding the entertainment. The characters, who actually are literary types representative of their class, sex, and age and who do not possess very much by way of individuality, express themselves in distinctly lengthy speeches. Lacking the brisk to-and-fro of everyday conversation, the speeches suggest that Cervantes was somewhat overly influenced by the drama of his time. The ballads in the early pages of "The Little Gipsy Girl" also strike most modern readers as being longer than they need to be for the creation of atmosphere and as a means of displaying Preciosa's skills as an entertainer.

The chief interest of Cervantes's story lies in the depiction of the Gipsies. His sympathy for a group not generally held in high esteem in Spain is noteworthy and appears to have left its influence on later literature, for example, in Victor Hugo's Esmeralda in Notre-Dame de Paris. It is also remarkable that he gave the principal role to a strong, powerful female character. Yet the integrity of the presentation is undermined by two factors. First, though Preciosa owes much to her Gipsy upbringing, we are given to understand that the nobility of her character is the expression of the inheritance she received from her upper-class parents. Second, although she defends Gipsy experiences in stalwart fashion, the story ends with Preciosa leaving this behind as she is reintegrated into the family and society from which she came. Like Juan, though for a longer period, she has mixed with the Gipsies, but her fulfillment comes when she leaves them. The implication is clear and perhaps more disturbing for modern readers than it was in the Spain of Cervantes.

—Christopher Smith