Discuss the ways in which Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz challenges and transgresses gender norms
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a seventieth-century Mexican proto-feminist, poet, nun, and philosopher who played a crucial role not just in the Mexican literary scene (Zuese, 2015), but also in the larger Spanish Golden Age (Yugar, 2014). She found her voice even as a nun, at a time when women in general and nuns, in particular, were not supposed to be so vocal. Sor Juana was vocal about the intellectual freedom of women at a time when the predominantly male-led authorities question the lace of a woman in society, and especially their intellectual and moral integrity (Schmidhuber, 2015). Her writing of prose and poetry centered on topics of feminism, religion, and love and her criticism of hypocrisy and misogyny of men saw her condemn the Bishop of Puebla, a development that drew the wrath of the Catholic Church and the Spanish Monarchy. However, this did not prompt Sor Juana to reject her desire for intellectual knowledge, and her challenging the Monarchy and Church is therefore seen by many scholars as a representation of her transgressing from her role of a woman to an influencer. By not rejecting her desire for intellectual knowledge, Sor Juana challenges the Spanish Monarchy and Church thus transgressing from her role of woman to influencer.
Juana has gone down in the books of history as one of the most acclaimed female writers of the seventieth century. Her poem El Sueno, has received much acclaim on account of its lyric and personal qualities, not to mention that it also integrates images from mythology, physiology, history, philosophy, and science (Merrim, 1999). She was a passionate defender of the recognition of female intellectual property and for this, Juana has earned the respect and recognition of critics as a significant scholar and poet.
Sor Juana’s literal work both as a playwright and a poet frequently put her at loggerheads with the male aristocrat of the Catholic Church, who viewed her writing as blasphemous, daring, and inappropriate for women (de Valdés, 2010), never mind that she was a nun too. Sor Juana’s distracters were keen on her giving up on her writing and extensive library so that she could dedicate more time towards what they term as more appropriate activities. Even though she eventually succumbed to their demands, by then, she had already accumulated extensive work that reflects her interests in the issue of representation and subjectivity (Perr, 2012). On account of Sor Juana’s exclusive position as a writer of Mexican descent but who was largely based in Spain, this gives her the rare authority to act as a representative of the Golden Age literature in Spain and the Colonial Latin American literature.
Sor Juana's "House of Desires" is an amusing, yet satiric farce of honour and love. This romantic farce entails a sister and brother entangled in a love triangle that also involves four other lovers. The comedy encompasses hidden lovers, duels in the dark, mistaken identities, as well as mischievous servants (Boyle, 2008). The main focus of the pay is on the rivalry butane Dona Ana, who belongs to an aristocratic family, and Don Carlos who comes from an impoverished background but is, nonetheless, virtuous. Don Pedro, a brother to Dona Ana, hatches a scheme to separate Leonor from Don Carlos, her lover. Consequently, Leonor finds refuge in Ana. Ana is also in love with Carlos, but Leonor is not privy to this development. It was a bold testament by Sor Juana that while she was firmly into the activities of the Convent, she was equally aware of the developments in the court, and the larger society, which she sought to portray through her work.
The late seventeenth century when Sor Juana was growing up was characterised by a very robust patriarchal environment. At the time, women could choose from one of these alternatives as they grew up: "the domestic, the courtly, and the monastic" (Peden and Stavans, 1997, p. 24). Sor Juana was somehow involved in all three options. Growing up as a child, Sor Juana was exposed to the domestic setting that her mother established, and she made a decision as a young woman not to be associated with it. Sor Juana also partook in a courtly and affluent world, though she finally declined to partake in it as well. In 1667, Sor Juana entered the San Jose-based Reformed Carmelite convent but only lasted three years. However, she would, later on, join the Covent of Santa Paula and was part of this community till her death. The Covent gave Sor Juana money and her own room. Sor Juana's transition from the court to the convent gave her the flexibility and an ideal atmosphere "to continue to study" and "to accept commissions to write because they enhanced the reputation of the convent" (Kirk, 23). The Convent of Santa Paula was a symbol of a unique woman’s domain. According to Cushing-Daniels, "In Spain and other parts of the Hispanic world in the sixteenth and seventieth centuries, the convent encompassed all of these characteristics: an affinity group or woman's space, the sponsorships of powerful women who supported literary endeavours, and a group of women leaders" (13). Even though the greater Church hierarchy still had a controlling influence on women’s religious communities, they nonetheless, gave accorded women freedom and space from the definitions of other and wife in the family setting. However, any woman who joins these convents was expected to act as a mother or sister to the other nuns and to also act as a wife of Jesus (Weagel, 2005). The Convent gave Sor Juana entry of space to work. There was sufficient room for books and other research materials, not to mention that she now had the tranquillity and silence that she needed to write during her leisure time. Music played a crucial role in the life of Sor Juan and was hence a source of inspiration for her poetry work.
The Spanish Inquisition was a turning point in the Catholic faith as the Queen and King of Spain endeavoured to use Catholicism as a unifying factor of their country. It led to violent, treacherous, and bloody treatment of individuals who failed to conform to Catholicism (Meade, 2010). These developments meant that Sor Juana no longer had the freedom to function as she would have pleased, as she was now liable to suffer severe consequences in case her behaviour or writing was deemed to be too audacious. Moreover, the church was under the management of a masculine leadership that Sor Juana had to obey and they too, created problems. However, Sor Juana was not afraid to openly declare her feminine perspective in her various poems and prose, in which she skillful and strongly criticised the actions of men to blame women for something that they actually caused. In Sor Juana anthology 111, she writes: (silly, you men-- so very adept/at wrongly faulting womankind,/not seeing you're alone to blame/ for faults you plant in woman's mind" ). According to Franco, Sor Juana usually endeavoured to disrupt "the 'natural' association of women with ignorance and men with learning (25).
The House of Desires is on many levels, a depiction of the various intriguing insights that characterized the complex world in which Sor Juana was situated. The employs Respect, Hope, Love, Courtesy, and Deference to establish which among of these virtues, warrants women’s contempt (De La Cruz, 2004). Sor Juana is so adept at controlling the language, themes, and symbolic imagery of the play. In the seventeenth and seventeenth centuries, theatre was a common feature not just in the court and schools, but also in the convents. It paved the way for the development of the Baroque in New Spain. The Barqoue looked up to the new bureaucracies, the Church, as well as their professions, for a place in society. In a sense, the Baroque acted as a construction of expression and this is quite evident in the work of Sor Juana. She relied on her literary work to exercise her wit, intellect, and perhaps not unsurprising, her mischievous humour. It was also an indication of her growing confidence in her intellectual capacity. For example, her writing, ‘Spiritual Self Defence’, seeks to first defy and then dismiss Father Antonio Núñez de Miranda, who was her confessor. Sor Juan is especially critical of her confessor for what she terms as his condemnation of ‘black verses’, on account of her being a woman (Merrim, 1999). While admitting that women are indeed not permitted to study alongside men in public, Sor Juana is nonetheless, perturbed that women should actually be forbidden from studying in private. She questions whether women, like men, also possess rational souls, and if they do, Sor Juana opines that they ought to be subjected to the same privileges as those enjoyed by men in regard to the enlightenment of letters. She questions the very reasoning behind allowing men to enjoy such a privilege even as it seeks to deny women similar treatment.
Sor Juana seeks guidance on how she ought to handle her unwelcome attention and fame and draw parallels between her compliance with the orders of the viceregal court to his individual subjects. This is a clear testament to the space that Sor Juana occupied, in which she is now under constant pressure to alter her writing and nature so that she can be on par with the other women. She laments that even her good handwriting has drawn the wrath of her detractors who state that she writes like a man. It has been a source of unwelcome ‘vulgar celebration and applause’ (Boyle, 2004, p. 14), but Sor Juana maintains that this is a gift that she was born with, and would probably die with. This same spirit inspires her other writing, Leonor. In this case, Leonor is seen and seen, is loved, and loves. However, this is a description that Sor Juana fought so hard to achieve, without success. This is because while she acts as a source of applause, she also attracts prosecution and envy in equal measure.
Oeuvre is yet another example by Sor Juana to showcase her poetic achievements and knowledge. As a nun and a woman, Sor Juana is bound by strict ecclesiastical and societal boundaries. Nonetheless, she sought to circumvent these strict restrictions through her writing, thereby prompting her detractors to view her as rebellious or atypical, while she came across as truly marvelous to those who revered her work. As a result, words like “muse” and “phoenix” have been regularly used to describe her privileged position as perhaps one of the greatest writers of her time (Luciani, 2004). Her active participation in the rhetorical development of her selfhood further points towards the restrictions that she encountered in her negotiation of freedom.
Conventional literacy permitted residents of convent communities such as Sor Juana to represent their writing and reading experiences in vida s or "lives". These assumed the form of short spiritual biographies. Nonetheless, some of the writings were often associated with literacy skills gained through "miraculous" or divinely ordained means. Consequently, women like Sor Juana were now in a position to transgress gender norms, thereby having access to power and knowledge not just within the confines of the convent, but also outside (Hernandez, 2016). Sor Juana endeavoured to negotiate this learning and knowledge space both within the Convent and the wider society as a means of countering the deafening silence enforced by the Catholic Church’s patriarchy. She also demonstrates the manner in which women sought to respond intellectually to both pedagogical and theological issues is evident in other writing by Sor Juana. for example, when her confessor Antonio nunez de miranda criticised her poetic writings, Sor Juana’s initial response was silence, though she soon after responded via several rhetorical questions asking her confessor what he might have done had the Archbishop asked him to write poems. In this way, Sor Juana sought to defend her talent both as a poet and a writer against her confessor's declaration of control.
Sor Juana is a perfect example of the sixteenth and seventieth-century authors, poets, and playwrights, who had to overcome massive barriers in society elected by patriarchal authorities. Her joining the Covent gave Sor Juana the space and solitude that she needed to enhance her readership. While she was still a nun and hence expected to act as a mother and sister to other nuns, as well as a wife of Jesus, she was however quite vocal in her works about the ill-treatment women received at the hands of a male-dominated society. Her wit, intellect, and mischievous sense of humours are quite evident in her work, especially her play The House of Desire. These and other literary works are a clear indication of Sor Juana’s growing confidence in terms of intellectual capacity. This audacity is also evident in her poetry and prose even though she was bound by strict ecclesiastical and societal boundaries. Despite the odds against her, Sor Juana did not abandon her intellectual knowledge, something that fuelled her quest to challenge both the Church and the Spanish Monarchy. This is in itself an indication that she was not only playing her role as a woman but also as an influencer.
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