Ruth Fine On:
The Force of Blood by Miguel de Cervantes
It is almost unthinkable that in the 17th century, in the midst of the Counter-Reformation era in Spain and the universal submission to the Catholic dogma, a writer would dare to deal with a subject as charged as the rape of a young lady, and to imply that it is a phenomenon of clear social injustice that serves the dominant social and religious system. This writer is no other than Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the author of the masterpiece “Don Quixote of La Mancha”, who published in 1613 a collection of 12 short novellas that were a complete innovation in the literature of his time, and heralded the characteristics of the genre for the following centuries. Indeed, Cervantes—as he himself made sure to emphasize—was the first to write in the Spanish language such short novellas, which also constituted an innovation outside of Spain. But the essential innovation went beyond merely style and structure. According to their titles, the novellas claim to be “exemplary,” to have morals, but not only do they not serve as an example for proper social and moral behavior, but they also do not point specifically to the moral principles the reader ought to follow as a lesson from the stories. Cervantes asks his reader to be an active participant, “to know how to observe closely,” as the author himself explains in the collection’s forward, and arrive at his own conclusions. In this respect, the novella “The Power of Blood” is perhaps the most intriguing and problematic among them all. In a straightforward manner, it tells of the rape of a young woman who belongs to the lowest class of nobility (“hidalgo”), and her helplessness as a woman, as well as the helplessness of her family, in the battle to bring punishment to the rapist, who belongs to the highest rung of nobility—the class of knights, and to right the injustice through the law; a possibility that did not exist at the time of the story. The only solution is silence: to bury the secret and to continue to act in accordance with the conventions dictated by society and the church. Cervantes not only brings the reader into the crime scene and turns him into a witness to the act of rape and to the attacker’s apathy and cruelty, but he also chooses to end the novella in a way that raises wonder and even rejection in the reader. However, the reader who grants Cervantes’s request and knows how to decipher the sharp irony, will understand the piercing criticism of the hypocritical and brutal society that does not leave the victim any other solution but marriage (a miserable one, as the text suggests) to the assailant. What appears in the first reading as a “happy end,” is a far cry from it, if one knows how to “observe closely,” as Cervantes instructs us.