Revisionist Criticism Recasts Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The revisionist critical anthology Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz treats the best-known intellectual of colonial Latin America as a writer of woman-centered works who negotiated the strictures placed on her gender and the proscriptions of her Roman Catholic faith.

Summary of Event

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, academics from a variety of disciplines and specialties uncovered protofeminist or even Sapphic tones in the works of women writers who either were ignored by most critics or were dismissed as conservative or conventional by the first waves of feminist scholarship. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, many feminist researchers had lauded only those women writers of the past whose tactics and ideas resembled more modern agendas. Then, with the growing acceptance of feminist criticism and theory within universities, came feminist criticism and theory’s application to seemingly more traditional figures. [kw]Revisionist Criticism Recasts Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1991) [kw]Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Revisionist Criticism Recasts (1991) [kw]Juana Inés de la Cruz, Revisionist Criticism Recasts Sor (1991) Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Merrim, ed.) Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Feminist Perspectives on (Merrim, ed.) Roman Catholic Church;female intellectuals and Publications;Latin American history Mexican history Literature;Mexican [c]Race and ethnicity;1991: Revisionist Criticism Recasts Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz[2060] [c]Literature;1991: Revisionist Criticism Recasts Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz[2060] [c]Publications;1991: Revisionist Criticism Recasts Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz[2060] [c]Feminism;1991: Revisionist Criticism Recasts Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz[2060] [c]Religion;1991: Revisionist Criticism Recasts Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz[2060] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1991: Revisionist Criticism Recasts Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz[2060] Cruz, Sor Juana Inés de la Merrim, Stephanie Schons, Dorothy Lavrín, Asunción Paz, Octavio

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

(Library of Congress)

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was no exception. She had always been appreciated for her intellect, but her Baroque, Catholic, and Mexican background had dissuaded most scholars from seeing her as the first feminist of the Americas. Colonial Latin America did not appear to be a stage for such an independent voice. Despite the pioneering work of Dorothy Schons, first published in 1926 and later reprinted in Stephanie Merrim’s 1991 anthology Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, many critics and historians praised Sor Juana’s exceptional talent without pursuing fully some of the woman-centered messages in her plays, poems, and autobiography.

Octavio Paz’s famous biography Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: O, Las trampas de la fe (1982; Sor Juana: Or, The Traps of Faith, Sor Juana (Paz) 1988) looked at Sor Juana as a woman, but not as a writer; it would take Merrim’s anthology and later her monograph Early Modern Women’s Writing and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Early Modern Women’s Writing and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Merrim) Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Early Modern Women’s Writing and (Merrim) (1999) to complete the academic assessment of Sor Juana as not only a fascinating woman but also a significant and telling writer. This revisionist criticism—joined simultaneously by other scholars and a feature-length film by María Luisa Bemberg in 1990, Yo, la peor de todas Yo, la peor de todas (film)[Yo la peor de todas] —sought to decipher Sor Juana’s often coded and ambiguous imagery and wording to reveal glimpses of the free-spirited intellectual inside the pious nun.

From this scholarship, Sor Juana emerges with a kind of split personality. As Merrim points out in one of her two contributions to the anthology, Sor Juana’s plays always had the same plot and similar characters. Each one of her plays revolves around a woman’s internal struggle, perhaps paralleling the struggle within herself over whether to toe the line or break free from male supremacy. The free spirit in Sor Juana’s dramas, Merrim notes, tends to win in the end, even if she pays a heavy price.

Asunción Lavrín’s essay “Unlike Sor Juana: The Model Nun in the Religious Literature of Colonial Mexico” notes that Sor Juana, unlike her protagonists, eventually submitted to authority unconditionally in her religious crisis of 1693, but not before she pushed the envelope of the permissible in seventeenth century Mexico. Indeed, Lavrín notes how Sor Juana differed from most nuns for most of her life. Lavrín argues that Sor Juana, unlike most of her contemporaries, enthusiastically wrote for an audience, sought the public limelight, was bored with convent gossip and rules, and spoke on topics other than her faith. She did so until 1693, then returned for the last two years of her life to tradition and the acceptable.

Sor Juana commandeered and recast conventional plots and forms to put forth a subversive message. Looking at her outwardly staid “Reply to Sister Philotea” and also her memorable poem “First Dream,” Josefina Ludmer’s “Tricks of the Weak” essay uncovers Sor Juana’s main survival strategies of not letting those in power over her know that oftentimes she knew more than they did. Two other contributors, Electa Arenal and Georgina Sabat-Rivers, connect the soul’s final defeat by the body in Sor Juana’s “First Dream” with the famous nun’s own ultimately unsuccessful efforts to be intellectually unimpaired by temporal and thus male-dominated concerns. Furthermore, in Ester Gimbernat de González’s essay, Sor Juana takes on the male poet’s venerable role of speaking through female characters in some of her love sonnets, but then she confidently breaks with tradition by underscoring that she is not male and yet she is still the one in control.

These literary critics tended to downplay Sor Juana’s religiosity in favor of her reasoning. Like most biographers, Schons and Merrim agree that Sor Juana chose convent life because she believed, wisely, that it was the only life for a woman in the Baroque era that allowed reflection without the pressures and distractions of husband and children. They also agree that she involuntarily stopped her writing and criticism in 1693 due to the heavy-handed overreaction of certain church officials who were both threatened by Sor Juana’s gift for discourse and debate and empowered by the death of her main male patron, the Marquis de la Laguna. To Merrim especially, a conventional return to God had nothing to do with Sor Juana’s decision. Another work, by Pamela Kirk—Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Religion, Art, and Feminism (1998)—takes Sor Juana more seriously as a truly religious figure without obscuring or dismissing her gynocentric, or woman-identified, tendencies.

Significance

While exploring the feminist tones in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s work, Stephanie Merrim and the anthology’s other scholars did not spend much time on analyzing the lesbian “potential” in some of Sor Juana’s passages. For the Sapphic in this genius, one still has to turn to María Luisa Bemberg’s film Yo, la peor de todas. Bemberg depicts a sultry, physical side to the famous nun as the author of passionate verses addressed to her favorite vicereine, who takes on the role of sexual aggressor as well as patron.

The critical feminist scholarship on the life and works of Sor Juana helps to explain how and why she largely spurned and then suddenly embraced (after 1693) the passivity, inactivity, and resignation expected of a nun in seventeenth century Mexico. Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Merrim, ed.) Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Feminist Perspectives on (Merrim, ed.) Roman Catholic Church;female intellectuals and Publications;Latin American history Mexican history Literature;Mexican

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirk, Pamela. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Religion, Art, and Feminism. New York: Continuum Press, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Merrim, Stephanie. Early Modern Women’s Writing and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana: Or, The Traps of Faith. Translated by Margaret Sayers Pedén. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1988.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scott, Nina M. “Sor Juana and Her World.” Latin American Research Review 29, no. 1 (1994): 143-154.

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