The Use of Humor in Cervantes' Exemplary Stories
Miguel de Cervantes
One of the things that characterizes Cervantes’ works and has served to make him such a timeless and popular author is his use of humor. Because of the comic elements, his stories are entertaining and lively to read even while he is trying to convey a moral to the reader. The use of humor can be readily seen not only in the legendary Don Quixote but in his Exemplary Stories as well. Cervantes makes use of satire, puns, irony, malapropism, clever dialogue, situational comedy, and more (Close 70; Iffland 398, 402). The implementation of humor in two of the Exemplary Novels, The Dialogue of the Dogs and Rinconete and Cortadillo, will be examined here.
Both of these novels are multi-faceted satirical critiques of society. The literary form of The Dialogue of the Dogs is similar to dialogues written by Erasmus and Lucian. In his book Cervantes and the Comic Mind of His Age, Anthony Close says that by linking his dialogue to the satiric tradition of Erasmus Cervantes tapped into the precedent of using the dialogue as a genre that serves “as the natural medium for radical, wide-ranging censure of man and society (Close 34). The dog Berganza tells his life story by describing the series of masters he has had throughout his life. Through Berganza’s tale, the reader is made privy to the vices that can be seen “in the political and social sphere, includ[ing] the scathing condemnation of Seville’s municipal authorities and of various types of social parasitism” (Close 44). The reader gets a view of the corruption and iniquity that plagues human society.
The Dialogue of the Dogs is also a satire about worldviews. The other dog, Scipio, represents the stilted worldview which insists that rigid rules must be followed in storytelling. Berganza represents a more liberal and creative way of thinking. Berganza does not feel bound to follow certain rules as he tells his story. Scipio repeatedly tells Berganza to “stop rambling and get on with [his] story” (Cervantes, Exemplary Stories 257). In the introduction to Exemplary Stories, Lesley Lipson says that “Scipio is forever interrupting Berganza’s story to question where it is leading or to comment on its digressiveness or its tendency to moralize” (Cervantes, Exemplary Stories xxviii). Lipson goes on to say that “Cervantes is overtly challenging a literary principle of his age which asserted that fiction could not convince without reflecting empirical reality” (Cervantes, Exemplary Stories xxviii). The novel promulgates Cervantes’ worldview that writers should not be impeded by strict rules that restrict the creative process (Close 44-7). Only Berganza’s tale is recorded, evidence that Cervantes did not think Scipio’s outmoded ideas worth noting.
Like The Dialogue of the Dogs, Rinconete and Cortadillo contains elements of a social satire as well. The reader is treated to a look at corruption, thievery, and debauchery in Seville (Cervantes, Three Exemplary Novels xiv). But the satirical elements in this story, like in The Dialogue of the Dogs, also function on multiple levels. There is a mock-religious satire in the form of Monopodio’s fraternity for thieves. Lipson points out that the novel “draws comic attention to the doctrinal and spiritual ignorance of the common man and the emptiness of religious observance” (Cervantes, Exemplary Stories xx).
Though they are thieves and violate God’s commandment not to steal, Monopodio’s group still perform rites and make a show of their religiosity. The old woman who stole the laundry basket makes a very ironic comment that demonstrates the thieves’ lack of true religious understanding. She says, “may God make all my wishes come true and keep us safe from the powers of law and order” (Cervantes, Exemplary Stories 90). Little does she seem to realize that she is invoking God’s protection from the powers of law and order, of which God is chief. Terrence Hansen relates the superstition that “thieves do not steal on Friday or speak to any woman named Mary on Saturday” (Hansen 28). This is another evidence of the pretense of the thieves’ religion. Saffar says that “Monopodio’s confraternity [is] a scene to be laughed at and commented upon” (Saffar 207).
Example of Cervantes' Humor - Clip from Man of La Mancha based on Don Quijote
Another comic element found in Rinconete and Cortadillo is the use of malapropism. The character Monopodio in Rinconete and Cortadillo typifies the use of this device. In order to sound more erudite, Monopodio, the godfather of the thieves’ brotherhood, tries to appear as if he has a large vocabulary by incorporating big words into his speech. The problem is that in reality he is uneducated and misapplies the words.
Examples of this can be seen throughout Monopodio’s dialogue. One such instance is the scene when Rincón and Cortado are being initiated into the society of thieves. Monopodio is discussing the rites of the group. He says, “it is our custom to have certain Masses said for the souls of our deceased members and benefactors, taking the priest’s stupendous out of what we pilfer, and these Masses…are said to benefit the souls of our departed by way of salvage” (Cervantes, Exemplary Stories 85). The words that Monopodio intended, in the original Spanish, were “estipendio” instead of “estupendo” and “sufragio” instead of “naufragio” (Cervantes, Three Exemplary Novels 222). These are academic terms and not ones with which he would be familiar.
The humor of Monopodio’s malapropisms is increased because Rinconete intentionally misuses the words also in order to mock Monopodio’s mistakes (Cervantes, Exemplary Stories 308). Rinconete even goes so far as to correct solecisms made by Monopodio. In answer to Monopodio’s speech, Rinconete says, “…a prayer of salvage or torment may be said for their souls, or so that adversary day you mention be remembered, with all the customary pump and solitude, unless it is now better observed with poop and solemnity, as you also remarked in your discourse” (Cervantes, Exemplary Stories 85). Monopodio’s ignorance is made to seem even more ridiculous because Rinconete is just a young man and is evidently more knowledgeable than the head of the organization (Saffar 207).
In his article “Folk Narrative Motifs, Beliefs, and Proverbs in Cervantes’ Exemplary Novels,” Terrence Hansen discusses the humorous use of the narrative motif of clever verbal retorts. He points out multiple examples of these in The Exemplary Novels (Hansen 26). In The Dialogue of the Dogs, Berganza replies with a clever retort to Scipio after Scipio gives Berganza an illogical command. Scipio tells Berganza to “shut up and proceed with your story” (Cervantes, Exemplary Stories 267). Berganza quips, “How am I supposed to proceed if I must shut up?” (Cervantes, Exemplary Stories 267).
Cervantes’ stories are replete with episodes of situational comedy (Iffland 406, 21). Rinconete and Cortadillo begins with a comic episode. The two boys meet at an inn and begin addressing each other in a very formal tone. In the introduction to Exemplary Stories Lesley Lipson comments, “The comic note is established in the way their scruffy appearance is at odds with the airs and graces they put on for one another. Language cannot conceal the obvious” (Cervantes, Exemplary Stories xx).
Another comedic situation in Rinconete and Cortadillo involves the thievery of the sexton’s purse. While the duo was working as basket carriers, Cortado stole a purse from the student whose baskets he was carrying. Once the student got home, he realized that his purse was missing. He returned to Cortadillo to inquire about it. In another example of irony, Cortadillo and Rinconete discuss with the student about what evils will befall the thief and how the thief will come to judgment for it one day. Cortadillo also gives the student advice about how to describe the purse so that it may be recovered more readily. During this conversation, the student took out a handkerchief to wipe off his face. Cortadillo began eyeing it and distracted the student with a pointless conversation in order to pilfer the handkerchief. The humor of the thievery increased as the scene progressed because of the guile of Cortadillo. Not only does he steal from a sexton, malign the thief, who is himself, give tips on how to recover the purse, he even goes so far as to steal from the student yet again. The length to which Cortadillo is willing to go makes the scene especially comic (Cervantes, Exemplary Stories 78-80).
There are numerous examples of comic episodes in The Dialogue of the Dogs as well. For instance, the premise of talking dogs is humorous from the outset. What the two canines say can be funny simply because it is coming from dogs, who, under normal circumstances only bark (Cervantes, Exemplary Stories xxvii-xxix; Close 31).
Berganza’s encounter with the witch is also an example of a comic episode. The witch thinks that Berganza is her grandson who was transformed into a dog by another witch. While Berganza is present, the witch decides to have a consultation with the devil. In order to do this, she strips down naked and anoints herself with oils. While she is stretched out on the ground, she passes out. It is late at night and Berganza is left alone in the room with the frightful body of the witch. He becomes afraid of being alone in the room with her, so he grabs her by the ankle and drags her into the courtyard. As day breaks people begin filtering into the courtyard where they spy the naked old woman passed out. The people make all sorts of crazy postulations about how the old woman came to be in this state.
Meanwhile, the witch wakes up surprised to find herself in such a state. The witch begins beating at Berganza who then takes hold of her by the belly and begins dragging her around the courtyard. The townspeople grab sticks and beat Berganza in order to get him off of the woman (Cervantes, Exemplary Stories 288-91). The scene is very humorous because of the farcical confusion Cervantes creates with the preposterous circumstances of the naked witch (Close 50-1).
There are many reasons that Cervantes incorporates so much humor into his works. One of the purposes of these devices is to make the story seem less didactic in tone. Throughout his works Cervantes is trying to convey messages to the reader that would make the work too heavy if they were not presented in a comedic fashion. James Iffland says that some scholars do not think that Cervantes’ use of comedy should be linked with the moralizing that Cervantes does. However, Anthony Close and many others disagree. Close states that “the requirement to sustain the reader’s interest with a well-told story is inseparable from the attenuation of satire’s sting” (Close 37).
Cervantes would not be so popular today if he simply propounded his philosophies to readers without any entertainment value. Few people read boring works. If no one wants to read a work, then the ideas that the author is trying to convey will never come to light. Comedy is Cervantes’ way of, as Close puts it, “sugar[ing] the pill of satire” (Close 32). Thus, Cervantes’ is ensuring himself of a readership. His works are both didactic and entertaining. He uses comedy to soften the blow of the ethical and moral messages of his work. Close talks about the figures of Berganza and Scipio. He maintains that the “two dogs show a capacity, unusual in satirists, to see both sides of a question, laugh at themselves, see redeeming features in the butts that they censure, present them indulgently as harmless crackpots” (Close 45). Though Cervantes may have something serious to say, he does not make the work so serious that it is a chore to read.
Catharsis is another reason comedy is employed. Close discusses “artistic relaxation in general, [which] consists essentially in laughter’s cheering and therapeutic function” (Close 77). Cervantes writes comedies because they make readers feel good. It is beneficial to laugh and enjoy humor in life. Close thinks that Cervantes had an overall humorous temperament. It can be seen in the way he makes light of himself in the prologue of Exemplary Stories. He says that he could have had an engraved picture of himself added to the book but now the world will have to settle with knowing him through the stories instead (Cervantes, Exemplary Stories 3-4). Close talks about Cervantes’ “friendly ethos” (Close 77), which is the way Cervantes portrays himself to readers.
Finally, Cervantes uses humor because, for him, “the skilful and effective telling of a comic story is an end in itself and an art in its own right, requiring the highest qualities of taste, intelligence, wit. It is for that reason, and not merely because he is a writer that tends to think theoretically, that Cervantes has a poetics of comic fiction; the care that it requires in practice is translated into thought” (Close 70). Writing comedy well is a challenge, and one that Cervantes had so perfected that readers four hundred years later still find his works amusing. The value of making a work entertaining is that the work is something that readers will remember.
Cervantes, Miguel de. Three Exemplary Novels. Trans. Samuel Putnam. New York: Viking Press, 1950.
---. Exemplary Stories. Trans. Lesley Lipson. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998.
Close, Anthony. Cervantes and the Comic Mind of His Age. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000.
Hansen, Terrence L. “Folk Narrative Motifs, Beliefs, and Proverbs in Cervantes’ Exemplary Novels.” The Journal of American Folklore 72.283 (Jan.-March 1959): 24-9.
Iffland, James. “Laughter Tamed.” Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 23.2 (Fall 2003): 395-435.
Saffar, Ruth El. “Development and Reorientation in the Works of Cervantes.” MLN 88.2 (March 1973): 203-14.
 Emphasis added.