114th Annual Conference - Pasadena, California
Friday, November 11 - Sunday, November 13, 2016

Maids and Mistresses in the Novellas of María de Zayas

Karliana Sakas, Oakland University

Although the aristocratic women of the frame story in María de Zayas' novellas attribute bad behavior to lower-class women in general, and to servants in particular, the narrator Lisis acknowledges that the reality of the situation is that some aristocratic women are “ruines,” or brazenly shameless. Servants, as the agents of their mistresses' desires, are seen as powerful not just in a mimetic sense—because they had “real life” ability to shame their mistresses—but because they represent guilt itself.

Proposal: 

I propose that there is a connection between female desire and servants in María de Zayas’ novellas. Although the aristocratic women of the frame story attribute bad behavior to lower-class women in general, and to servants in particular, the narrator Lisis acknowledges that “si somos buenas, [servants] nos levantan un testimonio, y si ruines, descubren nuestros delitos”—the reality of the situation is that some aristocratic women are “ruines,” or brazenly shameless.

Servants are the agents of their mistresses’ wishes, and are thereby transformed into a symbol of shameful sexual desire. Servants are seen as powerful not just in a mimetic sense—because they had “real life” ability to shame their mistresses—but because they represent guilt itself.

As long as these personal desires ultimately conform to a socially acceptable narrative—marriage among equals—indiscretions are forgiven. This is the narrative path of the first novella collection. However, in the second collection, desires are more dangerous and shameful, and they represent transgressions against social norms that are so significant that the only acceptable ending for women is death or the convent.

Instead of blaming servants (as Lisis does) Zayas asks aristocratic women to undergo a process of personal undeception, or desengaño. Her readers may believe they can hide evidence of dishonorable desires with the help of their servants, but through the tragic fate of the women in the novellas in the second collection, Zayas illustrates that there are fatal consequences for such self-deception.