chapter  20
Challenging the Hierarchies: The Interplay of Romance and the Picaresque in La ilustre fregona
Pages 20

University of Oxford The relationship between the ‘idealistic’ and ‘realistic’ aspects of Cervantes’ work has always presented problems for critics, but in a landmark essay, E. C. Riley made a notable advance in clarifying this vexed issue by advocating the use of the term ‘romance’ to describe the idealistic aspects of Cervantes’ prose fiction.1 The advantage of the term ‘romance’ was that, unlike the vague term ‘idealist’, it helped to identify a recurrent pattern of themes and conventions which characterized a certain traditional mode of story-telling, and this more clearly delineated the boundaries between the two modes of writing which are so evident in Cervantes’ work as a whole. Riley suggested that ‘we consider Cervantes’s romance fiction, not his novelistic, as basic or central to his writing’.2 After all, prose fiction in Cervantes’ time continued to be dominated by romance of various kinds, and other than Don Quixote itself it was the emerging genre of the picaresque which, as Riley pointed out, offered the very few examples that existed at the time of ‘pre-or proto-novelistic features’.3 However, Riley warned against classifying Cervantes’ works according to a simple ‘romance-novel polarity’, the distinction was ‘less stable’, for what made Cervantes’ fiction particularly interesting was its ‘fluidity’, ‘the variegated strengths of the mixture of romance and novel’, the ‘movements’ and ‘transpositions’ from one mode to another within many of the works themselves.4