Analyse the shifting narrator in Rinconete y Cortadillo by Cervantes

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Rinconete y Cortadillo is narrated using various techniques that add interest, movement and variety to the story as a whole.

At the beginning of the story all of the information about Rinconete and Cortadillo is given to us by the third-person narrator who is omniscient and descriptive. The boys are described in detail without us yet knowing who they are. They then start a conversation with each other and the next section is made up almost entirely of dialogue in which the narrator steps back and only adds occasional remarks to let us know who is speaking, for example: respondió el preguntado; dijo el mayor; respondió el mediano; preguntó el grande. The narrator does not release the boy’s names until they introduce themselves through their own direct discourse with one another. Rather than more conventional forms of address they are referred to as el mayor, el menor, el preguntado, el pequeño and el mediano, which are based on the observations made by the narrator as an onlooker of the conversation.

Of course the all-knowing narrator knows their names, but he chooses to withhold this information so that it can be given in the first person. The speech is used here to narrate facts essential to the story in a realistic way. This technique is often used by Cervantes in this story and combines the objectivity of a third-person narrative voice with the subjectivity and involvement of a first-person character. The narrator intervenes in the middle of one of Rincón’s speeches:‘“…y entre ellos saqué estos naipes (y a este tiempo descubrió los que se han dicho, que en el cuello traía), con los cuales he ganado mi vida por los mesones y ventas que hay desde Madrid aquí, jugando a la veintiuna”’ p.196.

The narrator interrupts this long speech to inform us of Rincón’s actions. Rincón had been telling us about his past and this intervention brings us back to the present moment, adds action to his words and also reminds us of the presence of a narrative voice other than that of the character. It is as though the narrator is involved in the story and creates an interplay between a live character and himself. After the exchanges and introductions of the boys, which provide us with background and character information, the narrator picks up the thread again and continues with the story in his role as the direct narrator. We are told that the boys embrace and start to play cards. These are silent actions that can no longer be portrayed through direct speech and so Cervantes has to bring back his third-person narrator to relate them to us. The narrative voice also has to pick up to prevent the autobiographical discourse from just suddenly ending or losing interest.

In the story there are also long passages of descriptive narrative, for example when Rincón and Cortado meet the Asturian “basket-boy” in Seville. Here no direct speech is involved. The narrator changes to an information-giving voice that indirectly relates the exact details that the Asturian boy gives about this trade. This is different to the involved narrator we experienced earlier:‘Y preguntándole al asturiano qué habían de comprar, les respondió que sendos costales pequeños, limpios o nuevos, y cada uno tres espuertas de palma, dos grandes y una pequeña, en las cuales se repartía la carne, pescado y fruta, y en el costal, el pan’ p.201.

We are given fact after fact in an unadorned and static manner.

The story soon livens up again as the boys encounter their first customers - the soldier and the student - and we are moved back to direct speech again. The entrance of these new characters into the story creates more possibilities in the narrative and prevents the story from becoming stagnant. The discourse between the student and Cortado is an entertaining episode that adds nothing to the plot and development of the story but is an opportunity for Cervantes to develop a comical conversation that enriches the general atmosphere. After two pages of direct speech the narrator picks up again and summarises the rest of the encounter indirectly:‘Y habiéndose ido el sacristán, Cortado le siguió y le alcanzó en las Gradas, donde le llamó y le retiró a una parte, y allí le comenzó a decir tantos disparates, al modo de lo que llaman bernardinas, cerca del hurto y hallazgo de su bolsa, dándole buenas esperanzas, sin concluir jamás razón que comenzase’ p. 205.

The narrator seems to follow the boys as an interested spectator who then continues to relate to us what he sees and hears.

The next section of the story is a transition between the boy’s world, which is portrayed outside, and the inside world of Monopodio’s cofradía of thieves. The character of Ganchuelo is introduced to achieve this transition, although we do not know that this is his name until Monopodio calls him by it later. He is simply referred to for now as el mozo. Cervantes again uses his characters to introduce themselves and others rather than relating this information to us via his narrator. He goes up to the boys after watching the episode with the student and initiates a conversation with a surprising opening line:‘“Díganme, señores galanes: ¿voacedes son de mala entrada, o no?”’p.206.

In the dialogue that follows, the narrator again steps back and lets the characters tell the story. He just intervenes to tell us who is speaking and to sum up a part of the conversation:‘Y así, les fue diciendo y declarando otros nombres de los que ellos llaman germanescos o de la germanía, en el discurso de su plática, que no fue corta, porque el camino era largo.’ P.207.

This intervention tells us what the characters are doing – walking. They are not just statically standing still and talking. It also adds an element of time and space to the journey to Monopodio’s house. The conversation then continues and we get an introduction to the cofradía by an eye-witness, which will later be developed in the main narrative. The boys question Ganchuelo at first, but as the dialogue continues, they take up the roles of observers, which they keep in the next section of the story inside Monopodio’s house. They listen to Ganchuelo’s explanation of germanía: ‘“Y porque sé que me han de preguntar algunos vocablos de los que he dicho, quiero curarme en salud y decírselo antes que me lo pregunten”’ p.208, discover the religious devotion of the thieves: ‘“lo que sé es que cada uno en su oficio puede alabar a Dios”’ p.207, and also hear the first examples of malapropisms: ‘“Señor, yo no me meto en tologías”’ p.207. These are all things that are reflected and repeated in the next section of the book. Ganchuelo not only takes the boys to the cofradía, he also gives us a taste of what is to come.

As the boys enter Monopodio´s house, the narrative voice becomes descriptive again. The house is described as well as the group of thieves who enter, and then finally Monopodio himself, who then takes over the narrative. He attempts to speak using a high register but ends up using malapropisms:‘“Pues de aquí adelante” respondió Monopodio “quiero y es mi voluntad que vos, Rincón, os llaméis Rinconete, y vos, Cortado, Cortadillo, que son nombres que asientan como de molde a vuestra edad y a nuestras ordenanzas”’ p.212.

Letting the characters continue the narration of the story gives us a taste of the new world in the fraternity of thieves. The character’s indulgence in germanía and malapropisms are humorous and give some variety and change of pace to the narrator’s descriptions. At one point in this section the narrator again makes us aware of his presence, dropping his role as an objective observer:‘Olvidábaseme de decir que así como Monopodio bajó, al punto todos los que aguardándole estaban le hicieron una profunda y larga reverencia’ p.212.

Here the narrator is also using language of high register that would normally be found in the Romances. This seems ironic as it is being used to talk about ugly members of the low-life and not the normal beautiful subjects it is associated with.

In Monopodio’s house we are introduced to some new characters that come in and add their own story to the main narrative. The first example of one of these secondary narratives is La Pipota’s intervention:‘“A lo que he venido es que anoche el Renegado y Centopiés llevaron a mi casa una canasta de colar, algo mayor que la presente, llena de ropa blanca, y en Dios y en mi ánima que venía con su cernada y todo, que los pobretes no debieron de tener lugar de quitilla, y venían sudando la gota tan gorda, que era una compasión verlos entrar ijadeando y corriendo agua de sus rostros, que parecían angélicos.”’ P.220.

La Cariharta’s approach is much more dramatic as she bursts in and tells of how Repolido has beaten her because of a misunderstanding over six reales. Then there is the gentleman who comes to complain about his request for a man to be knifed that had not been carried out correctly. This conversation is reported to us by the narrator but as though it is Cortadillo and Rinconete who hear it and relate it to us:‘Como se habían quedado en el patio Rinconete y Cortadillo, pudieron oír toda la plática que pasó Monopodio con el caballero recién venido, el cual dijo a Monopodio que por qué se había hecho tan mal lo que le había encomendado.’ P.233.

The rest of the conversation is in direct speech as Chiquiznaque justifies his actions humorously using malapropisms:‘“…y hallándome imposibilitado de poder cumplir lo prometido y de hacer lo que llevaba en mi destrucción…”“Instrucción querrá decir vuesa merced,” dijo el caballero, “que no destrucción”’. P233.

These tales spice up the story with inner-stories. They are also all set in another place and at another time, which adds depth and variety the story, exceeding the limits of the straight narration with its essential descriptive matter.

The next episode in Monopodio’s den is the reading of the memoria. Here the narrative changes and we are presented with the words as they appear in the book from which Rinconete is reading. In between the reading of each section there are brief observations made by characters on matters of the fraternity of thieves. This presentation of facts adds interest to the narrative and enlivens the presentation of the information that gives us further insight into this criminal world.

In the closing section of the story the narrator’s tone changes. Throughout the book the picaresque life has been described in a light-hearted and charming way. Here it is suddenly seen as ‘aquella vida tan perdida y tan mala, tan inquieta, y tan libre y disoluta.’ P.240. The narrator is no longer an observer – he has become a moralist:‘Finalmente, exageraba cuán descuidada justicia había en aquella tan famosa ciudad de Sevilla, pues casi al descubierto vivía en ella gente tan perniciosa y tan contraria a la misma naturaleza, y propuso en sí de aconsejar a su compañero no durasen mucho en aquella vida tan perdida…’ p.240.

The narrator’s statements here are quite ironic because the boys are thieves themselves and they therefore belong to the low-life of the cofradía of thieves. The story ends leaving us to speculate what actually happens to Rinconete and Cortadillo as Cervantes chooses not to let his omniscient narrator tie up the story neatly for us. It is as though this episode of the story ends and we will find out the rest in the next episode, which just does not follow.

Rinconete y Cortadillo is narrated by a mixture of third-person observations made by a direct narrator and the characters themselves in first-person direct discourse. This mixture achieves different effects: firstly, we are given sufficient descriptive material to be able to imagine the characters and their setting, and secondly we find out about character’s pasts and tales that add to the adventure as a whole. The lack of action within the fraternity of thieves lends itself to these secondary narratives. Without them we would be presented with much description by the narrative voice but the story would lack depth and movement if we did not have the constant entrances of new characters who tell their own tales. Rinconete y Cortadillo was written to entertain and was probably read aloud to its contemporary audiences who would be entertained by the humorous episodes and less concerned about a specific story-line and ending. I therefore think that Cervantes’s use of a shifting narrator contributes to the entertainment of the work and provides opportunities for a story-teller to perform it to his listeners in more than just one tone of voice.

BibliographyMiguel de Cervantes, Novelas ejemplares I, ed. Harry SieberRonald G. Keightly, ‘The narrative structure of Rinconete y Cortadillo’, Essays on narrative fiction in the Iberian Peninsula in honour of Frank Pierce, ed. R.B. TateJoseph Ricapito, Formalistic Aspects of Cervantes’s Novelas ejemplares