Zayas Y Sotomayor, Maria de

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Nationality: Spanish. Born: Madrid, 1590. Career: Lived in Barcelona during Catalonia's war of secession, 1641-59; shared a home with the poet/playwright Ana Caro de Mallén, Madrid; possibly entered a convent after 1647. Died: c.1661.


Short Stories

Novelas amorosas y ejemplares. 1637; translated by John Sturrock as A Shameful Revenge and Other Stories, 1963; translated by H. Patsy Boyer as The Enchantments of Love, 1990.

Desengaños amorosos. 1647.

Parte segunda del sarao y entretenimientos honestos. 1649.

Novelas completas, edited by María Martínez del Portal . 1973.


La traición de la amistad. mid-1600s.


Critical Studies:

"María de Zayas: Feminist Awareness in Seventeenth-Century Spain" by Carol McKay, in Studies in Language and Literature, 1976, pp. 377-81; "Humor and Suicide in Zayas and Cervantes" by Sandra M. Foa, in Anales Cervantinos, 1977, pp. 71-83; "María de Zayas" in Women Novelists in Spain and Latin America by Lucia Fox Lockert, 1949; "María de Zayas" in Women Writers of Spain: An Annotated Bio-Bibliographic Guide by H. Patsy Boyer, 1986; "Ideological Contradiction and Imperial Decline: Towards a Reading of Zayas's Desengaños amorosos " by William H. Clamurro, in South Central Review, 1988, pp. 43-50; "Dress and Redress: Clothing in the Desengaños amorosos of María de Zayas y Sotomayor" by Amy Katz Kaminsky, in Romantic Review, 1988, pp. 377-91; "Engendering Interpretation: Irony as Comic Challenge in María de Zayas" by Amy R. Williamsen, in Romance Languages Annual, 1992, pp. 643-48.

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Famous in her own lifetime for her short prose works, María de Zayas y Sotomayor occupies a firm place among the productive writers of seventeenth-century Spain. In contemporary studies of her prose, scholars such as Amy Kaminsky, Carol McKay, Patricia Grieve, Susan Griswold, Amy Williamsen, Marcia Welles, Sandra Foa, and Marina Brownlee have debated the appropriateness of the label "feminist" as applied to Zayas. Interpretations range from readings that understand Zayas's stories as means to promote women's speech and to expose male brutality to readings that see her novelas as her contribution to the centuries-old pro-woman/anti-woman debate. It is, however, helpful to focus on how Constance Jordan's notions about early modern culture and literature can serve as a basis for interpreting Zayas's works. Through her consideration of numerous Renaissance texts, Jordan has demonstrated the ways in which an early modern feminist perspective can be described either as relational feminism, with support for the harmonious collaboration of male and female individuals in society, each fulfilling what is his or her natural role in the universe, or as individualistic feminism, with a focus on a human being's capacity to fulfill any number of functions or social roles regardless of gender.

In the dilemmas she created and in the characters she chose to populate her stories, Zayas produced works that encode both approaches. Both her first collection of short prose pieces, published in 1637 and entitled Novelas amorosas y ejemplares, and the second collection, published 10 years later and entitled Desengaños amorosos, were composed in the tradition of the Italian novella, with a frame tale whose characters narrate the interior stories. The first collection is presented as the product of both male and female narrators gathered together over five nights to celebrate Christmas festivities and to cheer their friend and hostess Lisis as she recovers from a fever. The tales are primarily amorous in nature, although, like the stories of the second collection, they do not portray a consistent vision of harmony between the sexes. The second volume is a group of tales supposedly told over three nights as the friends reunite a year later to celebrate the upcoming wedding of Lisis and her fiancé Diego. This time, however, Lisis stipulates that only the women may narrate the stories and that each must present a lesson to the other women about men's trickery and perfidy.

Of the total of 20 tales included in the two volumes, only 2 from the first group—"El imposible vendico" and "El juez de su causa"—end with the celebration of a happy marriage. Indeed, most of the stories end with a highly negative depiction of the possibility of devotion and lasting love between men and women. Some of Zayas's female protagonists suffer torture, depravation, and even death at the hands of vicious husbands and male relatives, as, for example, in "Estragos que causa el vicio," "Tarde llega el desengaño," "La perseguida triunfante," and "La inocencia castigada," all from the second collection. In many of the tales and in the frame tale constructed for the second collection, the majority of the female protagonists opt to enter a convent as a step toward protection from male abuse and toward entry into a community of women. Whereas she presents an amazing array of cases in which women behave well but suffer injustice due to trickery or the faithlessness of the men in their lives, Zayas is careful nevertheless not to commit the essentialist exaggeration of condemning all men in order to praise all women. In fact, some of her narrators make it a point to state that whereas there are evil men there are also good men, just as there are numerous cases of evil women to counterbalance those of good women. Some of the disasters faced by certain of her female protagonists are indeed based on underhanded plots engineered by other female characters.

Zayas thus disrupts a total coherence in the potential bonding of her female characters. The women are presented as separate individuals who must deal with the cultural tendency to see them as a monolithic category because of gender stereotyping. Zayas's presentation is not an optimistic one, since very little evidence is given in her stories that the patriarchal culture will change significantly so that individuals can be judged on their own merits. The final story in the second collection is followed by a particularly clear statement of such sentiments, first on the part of the narrator Lisis, whose narration eventually conflates with that of the transcendent narrational voice to recount and praise the various women of the frame tale who, like several of the characters in the narrated stories, join her in the decision to enter a convent.

Throughout her stories Zayas is careful to maintain a certain consistency in presenting the negative and positive examples of men and women and to avoid creating female characters all of whom are alike and who conspire for a communal goal. In doing so, she provides a model that unsettles the easily proffered category of Woman, which is useful in society's efforts to define and limit what women can and should do. This can be seen, for instance, in the exhortations to women for silence found in commentaries and behavior manuals such as Fray Luis de Leon's La perfecta casada or Juan Luis Vives's Instrucción de la mujer cristiana. The invocations of nature that are embedded in the humanists' treatises on behavior and that inscribe woman's supposed natural inclination toward the social roles of wife and mother move to institutionalize into the discourse of patriarchal authority numerous expositions about how women can fulfill these roles perfectly. The praise directed at women even by their professed and ardent defenders, who argue that the two sexes are equally virtuous, is thus mitigated by conclusions that tend to locate the male or female individually within a range of gender-identified virtues continually directed to social and political roles. Zayas depicts a fictional world in which all such categories are questioned.

A particularly good example of this theoretical and narrative strategy is found in the story "Tarde llega el desengaño," from the second collection. The tale tells of the grotesque circumstances of the young Elena, wife of Jaime, who suffers imprisonment in a narrow cage and lives there sentenced to wear nothing but rags, to eat nothing but scraps from her husband's table, to drink from the remnants of a human skull, and to know that a disgruntled maid who told lies about her to the gullible husband now enjoys the status of mistress of his household. There is a dual focus of the tale's portrayal of desengaño. As a cautionary tale for the women in Zayas's audience, the story reveals how the male protagonist finally learns, at the moment of Elena's death, of both his wife's innocence and of the duplicity of the servant. And the story's interior audience of listeners and its external audience of readers simultaneously do so as well. Through Jaime the tale thus presents the possibility that women are not the only credulous recipients of misinformation. Nor are they incapable of the trickery that some males depend upon for advancement toward a goal, as shown through the characterization of the maid. The two principal women in the story—Elena and the black maid—are separated socially, ideologically, and even physically through the torture that Elena endures. Only in the final sections of the story does the maid, in a moment when her own death seems near, tell the truth and align herself with the other woman, who by this time is dead. Jaime kills the maid in a fit of rage and is thus the murderer of both women. Their ultimate bond is one through their victimization at the hands of the same man. Jaime ends the story completely insane from his overpowering passions.

This narrative ploy and the story-related information suggest the legitimacy of dismissing the essentializing gender constructs that disempower females based on the claims about their weaker and more vulnerable intellectual faculties. Like many other female characters in the Golden Age of Spanish literature, Elena does not enjoy the lasting benefits of being the proper spouse since her husband does not fulfill the moral obligations of being a husband to such a wife. When he hears the maid's false tale, Jaime does not give Elena credit for her virtue. She is cast into the role of a promiscuous seductress and talked about rather than spoken to concerning the charges. The narrational development gives no space to Elena's words, and she is forced into the role that others devise for her. But just as Zayas refuses a single category of women, so too she populates the story with other men who recognize and try to rectify the horror that Jaime and the maid have created. The visitors to his home, to whom Jaime tells the story of Elena's supposed infidelity, do not approve of his methods of punishing her and try to save her in the end. Even Jaime is presented in a differentiated way, since part of the story he tells his guests is based on earlier experiences as a young military officer when he entered into a love affair with a wealthy woman who hid her identity from him during their frequent trysts in the darkness of her palatial home. Her control of the situation and her continuous payments to him of jewelry represent a reversal of the later situation with his marriage to Elena, when it is he who rescues her from penury to become his wife in the household that he strongly controls.

As she presents her material, Zayas's prose works incorporate numerous elements of religious miracles and even of magic. Her counterbalancing realism resides in the recognizable places used as settings and in the contemporary time period. She is consistent throughout in sponsoring a view that society has failed in its responsibility to foster a cultural system in which all citizens benefit from harmonious relational interaction. She is therefore not radical in a call for a female utopia. Instead, she examines the consequences of the corrupted version of the relational model that disadvantages women through essentialist disempowerment.

—Teresa S. Soufas

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Zayas Y Sotomayor, Maria de

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