The Tale of Marcela

I also considered entitling this “the maiden who annihilated the myth of the femme fatale.” It’s one of the most memorable episodes in “Don Quixote” and I hope I can do it justice. Quixote set it up in his speech about the Golden Age, where he spoke of a time when virtuous maidens could roam free without fear of being accosted by aggressive suitors.

Marcela is advertised as the most beautiful and virtuous maiden in the land, and love of her has driven many men to seek out her love by becoming shepherds or performing senseless acts to win her attention.

The most senseless of these was Grisostomo, who wrote songs in her honor and eventually took his life out of lovesick sorrow. In an act of incredible bravery, Marcela decides to attend his funeral and is greeted with this charge from one of Grisostomo’s friends

“Do you come, O savage basilisk of these mountains, to see if with your presence blood spurts from the wounds of this wretched man whose life was taken by your cruelty?Or do you come to gloat over the cruelties of your nature, or to watch from that height, like another heartless Nero, the flames of burning Rome, or, in your arrogance, to tread on this unfortunate corpse, as the ungrateful daughter of Tarquinus2 did to the body of her father? Tell us quickly why you have come, or what it is you want most, for since I know that Grisóstomo’s thoughts never failed to obey you in life, I shall see to it that even though he is dead, those who called themselves his friends will obey you as well.”

Faced with this vicious emotional attack, Marcela leans back and delivers a devastating, intensely logical explanation and defense of her worldview. It begins:

“I do not come, O Ambrosio, for any of the causes you have mentioned,” Marcela responded, “but I return here on my own behalf to explain how unreasonable are those who in their grief blame me for the death of Grisóstomo, and so I beg all those present to hear me, for there will be no need to spend much time or waste many words to persuade discerning men of the truth.

This is a beautiful rhetorical device she employs — appealing to the higher reason of the men, the supposed advantage that they hold over women. She will then proceed to unclothe them all in their emotional weakness and flaccid intellectual capacity:

Heaven made me, as all of you say, so beautiful that you cannot resist my beauty and are compelled to love me, and because of the love you show me, you claim that I am obliged to love you in return. I know, with the natural understanding that God has given me, that everything beautiful is lovable, but I cannot grasp why, simply because it is loved, the thing loved for its beauty is obliged to love the one who loves it. Further, the lover of the beautiful thing might be ugly, and since ugliness is worthy of being avoided, it is absurd for anyone to say: ‘I love you because you are beautiful; you must love me even though I am ugly.’ But in the event the two are equally beautiful, it does not mean that their desires are necessarily equal, for not all beauties fall in love; some are a pleasure to the eye but do not surrender their will, because if all beauties loved and surrendered, there would be a whirl of confused and misled wills not knowing where they should stop, for since beautiful subjects are infinite, desires would have to be infinite, too.

That’s basically a rhetorical connection between religion and Aristotelian logic, demonstrating why beauty should not compel the beloved to bear the burden of unwanted affection. But it gets better:

According to what I have heard, true love is not divided and must be voluntary, not forced. If this is true, as I believe it is, why do you want to force me to surrender my will, obliged to do so simply because you say you love me? But if this is not true, then tell me: if the heaven that made me beautiful had made me ugly instead, would it be fair for me to complain that none of you loved me? Moreover, you must consider that I did not choose the beauty I have, and, such as it is, heaven gave it to me freely, without my requesting or choosing it. And just as the viper does not deserve to be blamed for its venom, although it kills, since it was given the venom by nature, I do not deserve to be reproved for being beautiful, for beauty in the chaste woman is like a distant fire or sharp-edged sword: they do not burn or cut the person who does not approach them.

I would make a joke here about ridiculous incel men who complain about how sex is withheld from them, but let he without sin cast the first stone, Don’t get me wrong, those guys are a special brand of idiots and fools. But I’m as guilty of all men of believing he is due love from the beautiful in some fashion. It’s a disease of our gender that needs to be reconsidered in every new generation. Marcela has much more to say on the subject, much of it beautiful, but I think you get the gist.

The femme fatale is a Jungian archetype –the seductive female who lures a male protagonist into danger. What the tale of Marcela wisely points out is that men actually need very little luring to take on this danger. They do stupid, ultimately pointless things to impress women they find beautiful without any prompting or even hints of reciprocity. They call it many things, knight errantry is just one of them, and all it does is to imprison women by removing aspects of their freedom.

It’s something to be mindful of, even when motives seem pure.