“I was born free, and in order to live free I chose the solitude of the countryside.”

I loved the chapters in Don Quixote about Marcela the “shepherdess” and all the heart-broken “shepherds” who chased her in vain. Then, as now, people couldn’t believe that a woman, especially a beautiful woman, would choose a life of her own instead of marriage. Judging by the fools who wooed her, I’m not in the least surprised at her choice! These well-to-do, supposedly intelligent men, students at university at Salamanca, traded their academic’s robes for shepherd’s clothes as soon as they caught sight of Marcela tending her flock. Were they were attracted more by her beauty or her wealth? Certainly they felt entitled to a shot at both, and were deeply offended (apparently to the point of death for one of them) when she refused them all. If she is such a prize, she must be won by someone, right? No, she insisted on belonging only to herself, and this threw the social order into disorder and madness, bringing much opprobrium upon herself as a result.

If you read my last post on mimetic desire you probably picked up on that dynamic here. First Grisóstomo imitates Marcela by dressing as a shepherd. But what sets him off? He begins to desire after inheriting the second-largest estate in the vicinity—Marcela’s is the only one larger. He must marry her if he wants to be top dog, so he gives chase. All the other bachelors no doubt see that by wooing Marcela they can overleap Grisóstomo in status, so they imitate him with enthusiasm. The chances that any of them really care or desire Marcela for herself are minute, and she seems to know it.  She has no intention of becoming a trophy wife and greatly prefers “the solitude of the countryside” and “the honest conversation of the shepherdesses” to the finery and flattery of society. The fact that the spurned “shepherds” malign her completes the mimetic triangle—the struggle between rivals often ends in the destruction of the object of desire, which reveals the false nature of that desire. Though the shepherds don’t threaten Marcela physically, they do their best to destroy her reputation and go so far as to accuse her of murder.

The comic finale to the section is when Don Quixote threatens anyone who would dare to follow her, and then proceeds to follow her himself, supposedly to offer his assistance to that damsel in distress. As I read in later chapters, his devotion to Dulcinea can lapse at convenient moments, so I have no doubt that his intentions were no more honourable than those of the “shepherds.” (There is much that could be said on the topic of virtue in this book.) Luckily Marcela manages to give him the slip, and Don Quixote’s “adventures” continue, as before, with another bruising.

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