Places: Celestina

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Comedia de Calisto y Melibea, 1499; revised edition, 1502, as Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea (English translation, 1631)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Tragicomedy

Time of work: Fifteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Spain

*Spain. CelestinaAlthough the novel makes no specific mention of where it is set, it is clear that its setting is in Spain during the fifteenth century, when it was written. The author, Fernando de Rojas, was a converso (a Jew who publicly converted to Christianity) and therefore a member of a group that was treated with suspicion and subjected to public humiliation. Although the novel was approved by the Inquisition’s censors because it offers, on the surface, a straightforward account of the wages of sin, its bitterly ironic denunciation of all forms of hypocrisy and pretense is hard not to associate with what Rojas presumably experienced personally.

Tradition has it that the story takes place in Spain’s university town of Salamanca, where Rojas himself studied. Indeed, a walled garden there is known as the Garden of Melibea–a place that figures in the novel. However, these traditional associations are of little consequence in understanding the novel, except perhaps to note that its popularity may be seen as an indication that its views were widely shared in Spain.

Celestina is a strongly moral work, and each place in it is presented in a moral light. These places include the garden, the street, and the various private abodes of the characters. The difference between the public declaration of the street and private desires expressed in private is emphasized by a central literary device in the novel, which (except for short summaries at the beginning of each chapter) consists entirely of the speech of the characters. The novel’s frequent use of asides and soliloquies allows the reader to see what the characters are saying only to themselves as well as what they say to one another.

When characters appear in public areas, such as the street, they speak with two voices. One is the public voice, which tends toward elaborate courtesies and big promises. The other is the voice of the aside and of talking to oneself. This voice often offers an immediate cynical reinterpretation of what has just been said, or, in the case of the love-struck Calisto, who talks to himself as he walks down the street, is cause for gossip among onlookers.

It is behind closed doors that people are at their frankest, and the novel is filled with incidents of doors being closed in people’s faces, visitors coming to the doors of houses asking to enter or pass along messages, and speech being passed through closed doors. In private areas, Calisto and Melibea hatch plots with their servants and converse or pass along information to Celestina, the go-between and title character.

Although Celestina is an old woman without the education that has benefited the young nobles whom she seeks to illicitly unite, she is by far the novel’s ablest rhetorician. She is the personification of hypocrisy, always ready with the high or low speech and argument that will be to her tactical benefit in her greedy pursuit of financial reward for helping the two young rich people achieve their goal. Fittingly, she is killed at home, the place of her plots, cons, and conspiracies.

Garden of Melibea

Garden of Melibea. Place where Calisto first sees Melibea. It is no mistake to associate this garden with the biblical Garden of Eden, for in the first moments that Calisto sees Melibea, his love is at its purest. It will soon be corrupted by the urgencies of his lust and the impatience of his pride, making him ineligible for a return to the edenic state of a lasting union there with Melibea. She, too, will fall short, for similar reasons, of the innocence required of an inhabitant of Eden.

The garden also clearly represents the earthly ideal of romantic, courtly love. In the tradition of courtly love, all that is pastoral and natural is pure and uncorrupted and stands in favorable contrast to society and the city, where deceit, greed, and corruption flourish behind respected facades. In Celestina, this traditional comparison is most richly explored.

The garden is also an oasis in which the lovers may speak to each other directly and honestly, in marked contrast to all the other locations in the novel, where speakers’ true aims and desires are usually base rather than loving and sugar-coated rather than plainspoken. In this sense the garden retains an element of the romantic ideal and offers an indirect attack on the hypocrisy of Spanish society, and thus, by implication, its program of enforced religious correctness.

Stairs

Stairs. Calisto falls to his death on some stairs. They may be symbolized as the place between two places, neither heaven nor earth, where it is difficult to keep one’s balance. He is a flesh-and-blood man who tries to achieve an ideal courtly love. He fails, falling into lust, sin, and death.

Tower

Tower. After Calisto’s death, Melibea shuts herself away in a tower, and she soon leaps to her death. The tower has long been a symbol of an affected removal from the nitty-gritty of ordinary life, as for example the ivory tower of academia. In this respect, Melibea’s retreat to the tower may be seen as an attempt to remove herself from her desires and her pain. She does not succeed, however, and succumbs to her despair, which is itself a mortal sin, and commits suicide.

Towers are also symbols of patriarchy and social organization, as represented in church towers and modern skyscrapers, which embody the most central and powerful institutions of a city. In this regard, Melibea’s attempt to live in the tower may be seen as an attempt to make herself again a part of her society instead of its willing outcast. Her failure to live by society’s rules, however, in particular its sternly enforced rule of female chastity before marriage, makes this impossible.

BibliographyBarbera, Raymond. “No puede creer que la tenga en su poder.” Romanic Review 28, no. 1 (January, 1991): 105. A concise article in English that treats the relationship between the characters by developing the sentence that serves as the article’s title. Describes the role of ambiguity in Celestina.Dunn, Peter. Fernando de Rojas. New York: Twayne, 1975. Provides a detailed summary of each act in Celestina followed by a helpful commentary. Acquaints the reader with literary evaluation by discussing the genre, antecedents, characters, and structure of the work.Gilman, Stephen. The Spain of Fernando de Rojas. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972. Portrays the life of Fernando de Rojas. Depicts the difficult circumstances that his Jewish family, converted to Catholicism, had to face in Spain.Martin, June Hall. Love’s Fools: Aucassin, Troilus, Calisto, and the Parody of the Courtly Lover. London: Tamesis Books, 1972. Explains the late medieval tradition of moralistic satire. Shows how Calisto exemplifies the parody of courtly love.Simpson, Lesley Byrd. Introduction to The Celestina, by Fernando de Rojas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. The introduction to this translation by Simpson situates the work in literary history. Gives a brief synopsis of the plot and a character analysis.
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