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With the exceptions of Dorotea and Zoraida, the women in the First Part of Don Quixote are weak-willed, subservient creatures who rely on their husbands as masters. However, even Dorotea ingratiates and humiliates herself in order to win back Fernando’s affection. Zoraida, on the other hand, at first stands out as the one seeming exception to this model, since she has the will to steal from her father in order to run away from home with the captive.
Zoraida, or Maria if you prefer, is “a female figure who is half Moor (the body) and half Christian (the soul)” and “enters into self-imposed exile from her home culture in order to actualize a hidden and purportedly European self” (Garrett 141). Zoraida abandons her father on a deserted island in the process of actualizing her quest for the Christian world (Garrett 141).
As a Moor, she can step outside the bounds of the conventional roles governing the lives of Cervantes’s women. However, Zoraida speaks only once, and then it is in animated revision of her name: “No, Zoraida no: Maria, Maria!” (Cervantes 353). Renamed Maria, Zoraida’s Moorish identity would be replaced by a Christian ideal of feminine chastity, but her muteness symbolizes her lack of power. Therefore, even though her ethnicity and religious passion make her unusual and suggest that she might serve as the model for a new kind of woman in the novel, she remains as much an object as the other female characters.
The Captive’s Tale highlights a woman’s role in “modern” Spain. From the first, Zoraida is represented as an object unable to demonstrate a sense of self. In contrast to the captive, who actively interacts with the inn’s guests and defines himself as part of their community, Zoraida is passive and mute and distanced. She becomes visible to her new companions only after the captive translates for her for a specifically Christian audience. The success of Zoraida’s cross-cultural journey depends on the captive. (Garrett 142)
Zoraida enters Cervantes’ text as a literal representation of a romantic damsel-in-distress. Her arrival follows Dorotea’s impersonation of Princess Micomicona, an imaginary construct devised by the priest and the barber to put an end to Don Quixote’s misadventures (Garrett 142). A once great lady, the princess is said to require a knight’s service to restore her and her family from the tyrannous hold of an “overgrown giant” (Cervantes 274).
In an interesting parallel, Zoraida, having become herself a reduced and vulnerable woman, provides a real-life mirror to the princess. A willing expatriate from her home culture, Zoraida enters the story after having been relieved by pirates of her bangles, pearls, and rubies, and appearing a materially impoverished Christian convert (Garrett 142). Her freedom depended on betrayal, and after that betrayal she lost her economic and discursive power. In the end, all that she retains is her allure as a Muslim woman seeking a new homeland.
Where the imaginary Micomicona is protected by the madly romantic Don Quixote, Zoraida is protected by the Christian captive. Together, Zoraida and the captive arrive at the inn as realistic figures of a modern Christian knight and his chastely silent lady.
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Zoraida represents the potential for women’s centrality at the same time she reveals the limits of women’s access to power. Both in terms of economics and discourse, she is contained after offering herself up for exchange. In Cervantes and the Material World, Carroll Johnson suggests that “Zoraida journeys from linguistic and economic empowerment in protocapitalistic Algiers to voicelessness and poverty in feudo-agrarian Spain, where the old order triumphs and Zoraida is promised, at best, a position as a second-class morisca citizen” (126).
Cervantes used masculinist literary models to shape his novel, but he engaged in an entirely new kind of literary activity that reached out to a growing reading population by “positioning Zoraida at the center of the discussion of race, class, and difference in early modern Spain” (Vollendorf 322). Zoraida cannot upset any genre, for hers is the quintessential historical narrative of conversion, displacement, and silence.
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