Robert Coover has said that Cervantes called his novellas "exemplary" because they represented the different writing ideas he was working on from the 1580s to 1612. Coover claims that Cervantes' stories also "exemplified the dual nature of all good narrative art by attempting to create a "synthesis between poetic analogy and literal history." Jose Ortega y Gasset provides a more developed analysis of the synthesis suggested by Cooover by pointing out how Cervantes experiments with two different kinds of narrative--fantasy stories in which the events are improbable and realistic stories in which hardly anything happens. Randall Jarrell has extended this dichotomy to stories in general by suggesting that in spite of the wide variety of narrative, there are two extremes: "stories in which nothing happens and stories in which every thing is a happening."
However, since fantasy stories derive from the sacred tradition and thus have a highly formalized set of conventions that govern their structure and way of meaning, Ortega points out that the problem with understanding Cervantes' innovation is understanding the nature of "realism"--not the nature of the symbolism that underlies the fantasy/allegorical/sacred tradition. Ortega says that contrary to what the "naivete of our learned researchers suppose, it is the realistic tendency that is in greater need of justification and explanation."
This is, of course, also the claim that Roman Jakobson makes in his famous distinction between metaphor and metonymy, arguing that it is insufficiently realized that the predominance of metonymy underlies and predetermines so-called realism. "Consequently," says Jakobson, when constructing a metalanguage to interpret tropes, the researcher possesses more homogeneous means to handle metaphor, whereas metonymy, based on a different principle, easily defies interpretation." The problem alluded to by Coover and discussed by Ortega and Jakobson is of course the crux of story that E. M. Forster and C. S. Lewis have so famously exposed--the seeming impossibility of the metonymic structure of realistic prose narrative--just one damned thing after another--to serve as a signifier for anything.
Boccaccio's use of "real" characters in exemplum stories may have begun the shift from anecdote to literary fiction, but it is with Cervantes' exemplary stories that this displacement from the metaphoric or allegorical structure of the old fable toward the metonymic structure of realistic narrative marks, as suggested by Clement and Gibaldi in their study of the novella, "an end as well as a beginning in the history of short fiction," a metamorphosis of the novella into "what for want of a better term, we call `the modern short story.'"
However, as Ortega points out, the movement away from metaphor and mythos toward metonymy and realism is not made in a single leap. "The myth," says Ortega, "is always the starting point of all poetry, including the realistic, except that in the latter we accompany the myth in its descent, in its fall." Ortega argues that the collapse of the mythic is the theme of realistic poetry and that reality cannot enter into art in any other way than "by making an active and combative element out of its own inertia and desolation." The means by which Cervantes explores this tension between the poetic and the realistic has, of course, been discussed in great detail in many studies of his masterwork, Don Quixote.
Although Don Quixote may be written in a metonymic style in which the Don seems to exist in the everyday world of reality, the theme of the novel is the secularized version of the old romance, which assumes that true reality does not exist in the everyday world but rather is transcendent. The final twist of Cervantes' great novel is that what was previously taken to be transcendent is revealed to be hallucinatory, existing in the mind of the Don himself--a tactic that shifts the world of the sacred into the purely subjective reality of the individual. As Ortega suggests, in the Renaissance the reality of the adventure is reduced to the psychological.
Jorge Luis Borges also explains how Cervantes straddles this divide between the old transcendent world of narrative and the new immanent world of perspectival or psychological reality by avoiding the transcendent, yet smuggling it back in a new way. Borges says the "supernatural" is revealed in the reflexive nature of Don Quixote, manifested as the result of the basic assumption that reality is not absolute but rather a variety of subuniverses in which the subuniverse of everyday reality is no more real than any other. Even as Don Quixote seems a challenge to the mythic world by its metonymnic method of realism, it posits the world of the marvelous on a more basic level, the truly marvelous realization that the world of everyday reality may also be a fiction. Borges suggests that the shift that takes place in Cervantes establishes a dual mode of narrative that dominates the development of fictional forms ever since.
The paradox is that even as Cervantes' fiction becomes more metonymic, that is, more focused on the everyday world in its detailing of physical events and psychological characters--because its theme is the destruction of the mythic--it comes to be more about itself, more about the apprehension of the everyday world as a fictional construct. By parodying the old notion of the marvelous in the romance, Cervantes lays that notion bare and furthers Boccaccio's discovery of a new basis for the marvelous--one that makes aesthetic or fictional creation rather than religious and transcendent universality the only significant truth.
In Exemplary Novellas, although Cervantes adopts Boccaccio's novella pattern as the foundation for his stories, he shifts the dominant interest from plot to character and thus undermines the old poetic justice pattern and replaces it with a more ambiguous moral pattern of psychological indeterminacy. One of the best examples of this shift can be seen by comparing Boccaccio's treatment of the jealous husband theme in the three stories from the Seventh day with Cervantes' jealous husband story, "The Jealous Hidalgo." The tension between plot and character is so central to Cervantes' novella that each undermines the other and thus foregrounds Cervantes' usual theme of the conflict between reality and fantasy.
Whereas jealousy is the fuel for plot reversals and poetic justice in Boccaccio's stories, for Cervantes jealousy is an obsession that, even as it is personally pathological--compelling its victim to imagine that which is not and forcing him to create a reality that conforms to his fantasy--it is also the psychological equivalent of what was once one of the central sources of the allegorical exemplum and what later becomes one of the driving forces of 19th-century short fiction--a mysterious, inescapable conviction with no empirical basis--what Poe called "The Imp of the Perverse."
"The Jealous Hidalgo" begins in a traditional parable fashion, with echoes of the Biblical prodigal son story. However, Cervantes cues the reader very early that he will not depend on an external parable plot, but rather on the inner life of a character, for the prodigal introduced here becomes pensive, thinking about his past, resolving to change his life. Metaphorically, plot elements in the story, such as the reality of the becalmed fleet, are backgrounded, while the psychological fact that a storm is going on inside the mind of the protagonist is foregrounded. The potentially parable nature of the story is hinted at again when the protagonist is called "the most jealous man in the world." However, that his jealousy is psychologically obsessive rather than metaphorically allegorical is suggested when the mere thought of marriage preys on his imagination and arouses his jealousy even though he does not have a wife of which to be jealous. As Angus Fletcher has argued, the proper analogue to allegory is obsessive-compulsive behavior. The obsessed mind, much like a character in an allegory, seems obsessed by an idea over which it has no control. Cervantes's story marks a point at which a character who formerly would have been an allegorical function of a transcendent theme or a plot function of poetic justice becomes an obsessed character in a story or fantasy of his own making.
No sooner does the Hidalgo say, "I do," than he is seized by the most violent jealousy, even though he has no grounds for it. He then begins his efforts to control reality, to force it to conform to his own obsessions. In a Boccaccio story, the absurd measures the Hidalgo takes--not allowing a tailor to measure his wife but getting a stand-in for her, boarding up all the street side windows of the house, hiring a castrated Negro stableman and female slaves as servants--would all serve merely as comic causes for the inevitable reversal to be played upon him. However, the reader does not laugh when, as her parents release the young bride to her jealous husband, "it seemed to them that she was being taken to her grave."
The bride, only fourteen, still playing with dolls, is restricted to an artificial environment calculated to perpetuate her innocent childhood, in which the "entire house reeked of chastity, reserve, modesty." The husband will not even allow male animals in the house, and the stories the servants tell around the fireplace must be free of all hint of lewdness. At this juncture of Cervantes' tale, things could go either way--toward the comic reversals of a Boccaccio story or toward the tragic inevitability of the obsessed character. However, at the point in the story when the narrator says that for all the husband's precautions it was "impossible to forestall or avoid the calamity he most feared, or, at any rate, to believe it had happened," the narrative goes both ways at once.
For the story to veer toward the Boccaccio mode, the jealous husband must temporarily disappear to allow for plot trickery. Thus, metaphorically, the Hildago "falls asleep" as far as the narrative is concerned, while the young gallant and the typical Boccaccio themes of disguise, cleverness, and the concocting of deceptive schemes are introduced. One of the chief devices in the Boccaccio story is the stratagem of deception, for such tactics are tacit promises that something will either turn out as projected, or, in true peripetea fashion turn out just the opposite of what is planned--which is precisely what plot means in the Boccaccio novella.
In what might be called the Boccaccio section of the story, the narrator notes that much could be said of the way the characters dress and behave, but he abstains from telling all this, for realistic description recedes to the background while the plot/plan energy of the Boccaccio type story takes control. The central motif of pretense replacing reality is announced immediately when the narrator says that the young gallant Loaysa disguises himself so well as a lame beggar that he is a more convincing poor cripple than a real one. Loaysa develops complex plans to counterfeit a key to the young wife's room, convinced in typical Boccaccio fashion that "an elaborate well-planned beginning will assure a good end," and convincing the servant that only cleverness, shrewdness and ingenuity will assure success.
The Boccaccio type story ends when the Hildago awakes and sees his wife in bed with Loaysa and goes to his room to get a dagger to kill them. In the Boccaccio story, such an action would trigger the successful fulfillment of wife/lover schemes and thus conclude with poetic justice for the jealous husband. However, when Cervantes' husband enters his room, he faints with grief and distress and, on awakening, sends for his wife's parents as if he were in a spell. Instead of a comic reversal in which the husband gets what he suspects and thus deserves, the Hildago accepts responsibility in a recognition scene reminiscent of Sophoclean tragedy: "As human diligence cannot forestall the punishment which divine will chooses to lay upon those who do not place in it all their desires and hopes, it is not to be wondered at that I was defrauded in mine, and that with my own hand I manufactured the poison which is doing away with my life." When Carrizales admits, "I myself fabricated the house in which I shall die," he announces a short fiction convention that weaves in an out of the form's history--the concluding recognition of characters that they have been trapped in stories of their own making.
When the young wife tries to explain that she has offended her husband only in thought, not in deed, her tongue becomes numb and she faints; the story ends quickly with the Hildago's death and the wife becoming a nun. The narrator says he presents this episode as an example of how little trust can be put in keys and walls when the will is left free, concluding, "The only thing I do not know is why Leonora did not make more of an effort to excuse herself and convince the jealous husband how guiltless she had been in that whole affair. But confusion tied her tongue, and the rapidity of her husband's death gave her no opportunity to exonerate herself."
The story thus ends with the realization that thought rather than action is most telling and that whereas actions can be explained, thoughts cannot. If the novel, exemplified by Cervantes' Don Quixote begins as a satire or parody of the romance, then the short story, exemplified by his Exemplary Novellas, begins as a tension between the demands of plot, which by its very nature is patterned and exemplary, and character, which by its very nature is unpredictable and realistic. Just as Boccaccio made trivial what had formerly been serious, Cervantes makes serious what Boccaccio made trivial.
Rather than a simple illustration of the foolishness of a jealous husband, Cervantes' story becomes an examination of jealousy as a complex human emotion based on obsessive fantasy. Just as the husband has tortured himself with jealousy over something that does not exist, he dies in grief over an infidelity that did not take place. The confusion that ties the tongue of the wife is a result of the "house" that Carrizales has "fabricated." Because of her artlessness--an artlessness he has encouraged--the young wife has no means to understand the complexities of the events that have occurred. Plotting is beyond her.
Moreover, the end of the story focuses on the problem of how she has offended her husband not in action but only in thought--a problem that exceeds her ability to explain it. The ultimate implication of the story--that thought is as powerful as action and the psychological as powerful as the physical--is the central theme that so fascinates Goethe, Tieck, Hoffmann, and the other German Romantics, who, in the early 19th century take the next important step in the development of short fiction.