General Introduction. Miguel de Cervantes: Exemplary Novels
Hidden among the many pages of preliminary matter which prefaced the first edition of Cervantes's Exemplary Novels1 is a short, enigmatic prologue addressed to the reader. It is the most eloquent of all the introductions with which Cervantes
customarily prefaced his works, and its witty and self-confident tone make it a fitting introduction to one of the most original,
entertaining, and provocative collections of short novels in any language.
Cervantes begins his prologue with a characteristic joke at the expense of his publisher: since there is to be no engraved
frontispiece featuring a portrait of the author, he will have to make up for it with a self-portrait in words. He paints a
picture of a mature man, much-travelled and worldly-wise, an old soldier, proud of his record of military service and now,
in later life, beginning to emerge as a literary figure with a growing awareness of his ability, and of his status in the
Having presented his credentials, Cervantes goes on to talk about his collection of twelve short, exemplary novels. He gives
four main reasons why his readers should take them seriously, though not too seriously: they are harmless entertainment, contain profitable examples, each of them is Cervantes's own work, and they all
contain a hidden mystery. These four claims have formed the basis of most subsequent criticism of the collection, and they
continue to fascinate readers and critics to this day.
Though each of the claims is justified, none of them can be taken entirely at face value: the assertion that the stories are
harmless, for example, is an interesting gloss on the amount of sex and violence they contain; and their claim to exemplarity
may seem curiously at odds with the almost complete absence from them of explicit moral commentary. The purpose of this Introduction
is to bring to the attention of the general reader the issues which lie behind the author's sometimes ambivalent and cryptic
comments on the novels. As in Cervantes's prologue, a short biographical section is followed by a discussion of the four main
points made by Cervantes about the meaning and purpose of the Exemplary Novels.
Life and Work
...he learned patience in adversity...
On the evidence of his books, Cervantes's life had all the ingredients of a classic literary biography: poverty, hardship
and rejection. In fact, and in spite of Astrana Marín's monumental 7-volume biography, very little is known for certain about
the life of Spain's greatest writer. It is clear from the works themselves that Cervantes drew frequently on his own lived
experience when writing; rarely does one get a stronger sense of life being transformed into art. But the dangers inherent
in extrapolating a biography from a wide range of works of fiction cannot be over-estimated. We simply do not know how much
of his life Cervantes put into his work, and how much he transformed it in the process.
Cervantes alludes frequently to the formative role of poverty and adversity on his character. Born in 1547 in Alcalá de Henares
to a poor professional family with pretentions to nobility, Cervantes underwent a relatively haphazard education and was largely
self-taught; he studied for a while in Madrid with the Erasmian humanist Juan López de Hoyos, and read widely and - by his
own admission - indiscriminately. Cervantes's originality as a writer is often attributed to the relatively unstructured education
he enjoyed as a youth.
In 1569 Cervantes left Madrid for Italy, and entered the service of Giulio Acquaviva before enlisting in the Spanish army.
He fought under Don John of Austria in the great victory over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571, and lost his left hand, an injury
of which he was inordinately proud ‘since it was collected in the greatest and most memorable event that past centuries have
ever seen'. Other military operations followed, in Corfu, Navarino and Tunis, and during his return journey to Spain in 1575,
he was captured at sea by Turkish corsairs and taken to Algiers. There he spent five years in captivity before being redeemed
by the payment of a ransom in 1580. Cervantes's experiences of military life in Italy, and more especially of prison life
in north Africa, colour a great deal of his writing, and, in particular, several of the Exemplary Novels.
Back in Spain, Cervantes found the life of a ‘returnee' frustrating and disappointing, and his attempts to build a literary
career for himself met with little success in the early years. His first attempts at writing were in the popular genres of
pastoral romance and the theatre. La Galatea appeared in 1585, but he proved to be an untalented practitioner of the one thing
on which pastoral depends heavily for its success - lyric verse. His first attempts at writing plays were only slightly more
successful. An unhappy marriage to a much younger girl and continued financial difficulties forced him to take a post as tax-collector
in Andalusia. He travelled widely and gained considerable knowledge of rural Spain - knowledge displayed most obviously in
Don Quixote - but he was accused of fraudulent accounting and spent at least two periods of time in prison in Seville. There he learned
a great deal about organised crime and the Seville underworld, including germanía, the language of criminals featured in the novel Rinconete and Cortadillo.
In 1605 Cervantes, now settled in Valladolid, published Part I of Don Quixote. Although the work brought few financial rewards,
it was well received in some circles and earned him a place on the fringes of the literary establishment there, and later
in Madrid. The last four years of his life saw the culmination of his literary career: the Exemplary Novels were followed in 1614 by a long allegorical poem, the Viaje del Parnaso; 1615 brought Part II of Don Quixote and the Eight Plays and Eight Entr'actes. His great epic novel The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda was published posthumously in 1617. The prologue to this work, full of inconsequential jesting and self-deprecation, contains
an uncanny prediction of the author's death, on 23 April 1616, four days after it was written.
Cervantes was the most notable of a group of writers emerging in Spain around the end of the sixteenth century who can be
said to be the first practitioners of literature as a profession. Unlike virtually every Spanish writer before him, Cervantes
wrote to make money. That fact alone is an important clue to the kind of writer he was, and to the nature of his success.
In order to make ends meet, Cervantes had to be popular, and, although he was not always successful at what he attempted,
he nevertheless turned his hand to virtually every major literary genre of his day. He did not attempt the verse epic, though
he produced an epic in prose, and although he did not write a picaresque novel in the standard format of the genre, he made
much use of picaresque conventions and low-life settings in other ways. He knew what the public liked and he tried to make
sure they got it.
Cervantes's professionalism has a double significance for the Exemplary Novels. As a collection, the novels illustrate the enormous variety which is characteristic of his work as a whole, and, in particular,
the mixing of features from established and popular genres to create something new and specifically Cervantine. Of equal significance
is the way in which he consistently moves back and forth between two types of genre which at first sight might seem mutually
exclusive: the high romance of the chivalresque, pastoral and Byzantine novels, and his own literary version of everyday life
in contemporary Spain.2
Cervantes's interest in the full spectrum of genres available to him is important in view of the fact that he is widely perceived
as a writer who made his name from debunking romance. The origin of this view undoubtedly lies in the success of Don Quixote. This starts out, admittedly, as a fairly conventional piece of satire. Quixote's hare-brained determination to re-enact
the fantasies of chivalresque literature is shown to be an inadequate and ultimately ridiculous response to the nature of
the ‘real' world. But, as the novel develops, literary issues begin to predominate, and Quixote is increasingly able to make
the world, not himself, look out of step.
Towards the end of Part I, he engages another character, the Canon of Toledo, in a long debate about the merits of novels
of chivalry. The Canon offers some routine criticism of their implausibility, their poor construction and the adverse effects
they can have on impressionable readers, like Quixote himself. But in his reply Quixote makes a strangely compelling case
for the power of fiction over the rational mind, and in the story of the Knight of the Boiling Lake he evokes brilliantly
the ecstasy of reading and of being transported to another world with a reality of its own.
These issues - the persuasiveness of fiction, its pleasurable therapy, and the craft of persuasion required of the author
- lie at the heart of all Cervantes's work, and the Exemplary Novels most of all.
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The Composition of the Exemplary Novels
...I am the first to write novels in Castilian...
Although Cervantes did not apply for a licence to publish the Exemplary Novels as a collection until 1612, there is considerable evidence to suggest that some of them, at least, had been in preparation
since the early 1590s. Two of them, Rinconete and Cortadillo and The Jealous Old Man from Extremadura, had already been collected in a manuscript anthology, the so-called Porras manuscript, now lost, compiled for the Archbishop
of Seville, Fernando Niño de Guevara, around 1604, and both stories underwent considerable subsequent revision by Cervantes
before finally being published in 1613.
Cervantes's interest in the short novel as a separate entity in its own right therefore predates his own use of the form as
an interpolated narrative in a longer work. Part I of Don Quixote contains six such interludes, one of which, Misguided Curiosity, is often considered one of the best examples of the genre, while another, The Captive's Tale, appears to be a heavily autobiographical account of being held hostage in Algiers.
In using substantial narrative interludes in this way, to add variety to the extended romance format, Cervantes was not himself
breaking new ground. Frame-stories like The Canterbury Tales and the Arabian Nights were a commonplace of medieval literature, and were undoubtedly the precedent used by writers of chivalresque and pastoral
romances to build up large-scale narratives. Each time a new character is introduced, questions are asked about their past
history and exploits which give rise to prolonged bouts of autobiography which can be substantial enough to constitute short,
self-contained novels. The writers of picaresque novels also picked up and developed this episodic structure; Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) contains a number of semi-autonomous anecdotes, some of popular origin, and Guzmán de Alfarache (1599) is frequently interrupted by substantial interpolated narratives running to many thousands of words in length.
The essence of Cervantes's claim to originality, however, lies in the way in which he took the form and gave it a life of
its own, liberating it from dependence on a larger structure. In this, his antecedents are Italian rather than Spanish: the
Decameron (c. 1348) of Giovanni Boccaccio, and two collections of stories by sixteenth-century writers, the Novelliere (1554, 1573) of Matteo Bandello and the Hecatommithi (1565) of Giambattista Giraldi Cinthio. Such collections were popular throughout Europe and provided playwrights in several
countries, Shakespeare among them, with handy ideas for plots. Similar collections of anecdotes were published in Spain, but
as Cervantes says in his prologue, they were usually translated or loosely adapted from foreign models; and as he does not
say, but clearly implies, they were artistically vastly inferior to his own work, with thin, single-strand plots and minimal
Cervantes claims that all his stories are his own work: ‘conceived in my imagination, given birth by my pen'. This claim appears
to be largely justified. Much effort has gone into tracking down sources for the novels,3 but little definitive evidence has come to light to suggest that he drew on the work of other writers; indeed, two of the
censors of the first edition comment with approval on the fertility of his imagination and outstanding invention. Nevertheless,
as a professional writer, Cervantes needed to be closely attuned to the tastes of his readership, and his novels have an unmistakably
fashionable feel to them. No one novel may be derived from a particular source in Spanish or Italian, but the novels undoubtedly
share features of plot and ethos with a wide range of popular fiction and drama throughout late sixteenth- and early seventeeth-century
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...they could not provoke anyone into evil thoughts...
The Italianate origins of the short novel become apparent when we come to consider the title Cervantes chose for the collection
as a whole. When he originally applied for permission to publish them, he appears to have done so under the title Novelas ejemplares de honestísimo entretenimiento (Exemplary Novels of the Most Harmless Entertainment).4 We do not know why Cervantes eventually preferred the shorter form, or if, indeed, the choice was his. The change may have
been for reasons of euphony, or perhaps, more likely, in order to project more effectively the antithesis implicit in the
collocation of exemplary and novel - for most contemporary readers, the title Exemplary Novels would have been a striking contradiction in terms.
In Cervantes's day, the term novela (Italian novella) was a recent coining which had not yet acquired any of the respectability which the term ‘novel' now enjoys. Works of prose
fiction were either called simply libro (‘book') or historia (`history'), and a short, self-contained anecdote was called a cuento (‘story'). Novela was rarely used in Spain to refer to a work of fiction before Cervantes's time; when it was, it suggested a low, disreputable
and bawdy narrative in the style of the medieval fabliaux. The anecdotal origins of the novela can clearly be seen in such stories as The Deceitful Marriage.
By calling the novels ‘novels' and then by qualifying them as ‘exemplary' Cervantes was being deliberately provocative; he
uses oxymoron in a similar way in the titles of The Illustrious Kitchen Maid and The English Spanish Girl. He was in effect challenging received opinions about the novella by suggesting that it was capable of greater seriousness
and sophistication than had previously been thought. It is clear that Cervantes was consciously trying to extend the range
of forms available to him, and to break the dominance of the long, episodic chivalresque and pastoral romances and their close
cousin, the picaresque.
Cervantes's abiding interest in the power of fiction, and his talent for exploiting it for his readers' amusement, also made
him more sensitive than most to its inherent dangers. Don Quixote, after all, illustrates how the mind of a gullible reader can be invaded by a potentially destructive set of moral values
embodied in a fictional form. The dangers of imaginative identification with the fictional world, and the vicarious experience
to which this can lead, were much commented on in Cervantes's day.5 In view of these concerns, it is hardly surprising that Cervantes should stress the harmlessness of the novels he is putting
before his public.
In the Exemplary Novels, then, Cervantes was offering his readership a new, more respectable and worthwhile form of narrative which, contrary to
their expectations, would not shock or offend them. And he backed up this assertion by saying that he would rather cut off
the hand with which he wrote them than have anyone come to harm from reading them - no idle promise, in view of what he has
just told us about having lost his other hand in battle.
The importance of entertainment - signalled in that part of the title which was eventually dropped - must also not be overlooked.
Cervantes goes to some length in his prologue to stress the recreational role of literature, specifically likening his work
to a popular pastime, billiards, and going on to suggest that excessive attention to work, and even to serious matters like
religion, is not healthy. This stress on the value of entertainment for its own sake is further underlined by one of the censors
of the first edition, Fr. Juan Bautista, who points out that both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas considered harmless fun
to be a virtue.
In the interests of entertainment, Cervantes consciously cultivated in the novels those popular themes which he knew were
fashionable and which would appeal to his readers. The standard features of high romance are never far away: star-crossed
lovers, journeys, ordeals, reconciliations between long-lost relatives, murder, rape, piracy and transvestite disguise. These
were the stuff of popular fiction and, in particular, of the theatre, with which many of the Exemplary Novels bear a close relationship. Cervantes is also alert to the popularity of the picaresque, and several of the novels exploit
and develop the conventions of this genre, giving him the opportunity to display his wide knowledge and experience of contemporary
Spain and Italy, and the low-life settings which obviously fascinated the mainly professional and upper-class readership for
which he was writing.
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...if you look closely, you will see that there is not one from which you cannot extract some profitable example...
Mere harmlessness, however, was not enough, particularly when the plots of most of these novels turn on such unsavoury topics
as murder, rape and abduction. In these circumstances, the appeal to a ‘profitable example' was not just a piece of conventional
appeasement aimed at disapproving readers, but was an essential feature of Cervantes's determination to raise the level of
complexity and sophistication of the novella form. Hence the claim that the novels are called ‘exemplary' because each one contains a moral, as does the collection as
But, here again, Cervantes appears open to the charge that he is being disingenuous. As far as explicit moral lessons are
concerned, the stories appear to contain none - at least, nothing more than an occasional, very banal gesture towards the
conventional morality of fables. The fabliau-type origin of The Deceitful Marriage, for example, is obvious enough, and in case there should be any doubt, two lines of Petrarch are quoted as a summary of
the story's findings: he who succeeds by deceit will surely fail by it. The English Spanish Girl also has a short codetta to remind us what beauty and virtue can achieve in the face of adverse fortune, though it must be
doubted if Cervantes seriously expects an intelligent reader to accept such a conclusion.
The exemplarity of the Exemplary Novels is, therefore, a good deal more problematic than Cervantes seems to allow at first glance. By inviting his reader to look
for profitable examples which are not explicit, or explicit lessons which are banal or which offend against common sense and
experience, Cervantes is underlining the way in which the ‘delicious and wholesome fruit' has to be extracted by dint of careful
consideration and close reading. This is not always as difficult as it may seem, for the educated reader then, as now, was
perfectly capable of reading between the lines. The censor, Fr. Juan Bautista, had no trouble in finding profitable examples
in both the positive and the negative senses: ‘[the novels] teach us by their examples to flee vice and follow virtue'. The
examples may be there for us either to imitate or to shun, and we do not necessarily have to be told explicitly which is which.
The fascination of the Exemplary Novels, however, lies in the way they show that life is hardly ever a simple matter of black and white. So often, characters are
forced to respond to events and situations which are not of their own making, in ways which at the time may seem perfectly
understandable but which may lead to untold misery or undreamed-of happiness. Human nature - and divine providence - are complex
matters which do not lend themselves readily to clear-cut judgments. Why are Juana Carducha's desperate measures in the face
of overwhelming desire any more reprehensible than Andrés Caballero's (The Little Gypsy Girl)? Why are Carrizales's attempts to preserve his wife's virtue any worse than Loaysa's attempts to destroy it (The Jealous Old Man from Extremadura)? Why are so many wrong-doers rewarded with happy outcomes they do not appear to deserve?
What Cervantes shows is that it is both impossible and undesirable to stick the ‘profitable example' onto the end of the story
as an afterthought; the moral is woven into the fabric of the novel6 and is inextricably bound up not just with the way the tale is told, but also with the way it is read. That is why Cervantes's
most typical stance is non-committal. He illustrates and leaves the reader to conclude; the quest for profit is part of the
pleasure. In this way, it is perhaps better to think of the Exemplary Novels as providing not examples but samples, illustrations of the complexities of life and human nature, showing the kinds of ways in which people are apt to behave
in a given set of circumstances. As a noun, the word ejemplar in Spanish can mean precisely that: a copy of a book, one instance of many, a part which stands for the whole.
But what of Cervantes's many ‘samples' of circumstances and events which manifestly do not happen in real life, when the example
contradicts common experience? What lessons are to be drawn from these? There are three novels in particular which appear
to fly in the face of common sense, and they all concern the redemption of a heroine from circumstances into which she was
placed by a criminal or immoral act. The heroines of The Little Gypsy Girl, The English Spanish Girl, and The Illustrious Kitchen Maid are all young, beautiful, virtuous and noble, and they all help to bring about their own rescue by displaying outstanding
personal qualities in the face of overwhelmingly hostile surroundings. They are all exceptional women, and their beauty and
their virtue draw to them the three men who will redeem them from their alien environment and restore them to the noble, Christian
world from which they were wrongfully abducted.
Such stories - and there are others which, although they do not fit this paradigm exactly, presuppose an equivalent set of
values - pose a number of difficult questions to the reader in search of a profitable example. It is unlikely that anyone
would reasonably conclude that Cervantes is making virtue contingent upon noble birth, or on youth and physical beauty, or
that he is suggesting that integrity and truth to self will inevitably be rewarded. The reader's own experience will always
reply that, in these unlikely circumstances, social conditioning would prove more powerful than innate virtue, and that, even
if a gallant knight did come to the rescue, he would most likely turn out to be a blackguard in disguise.
To these objections, Cervantes would no doubt reply that his heroes and heroines are by definition exceptional - Preciosa
(The Little Gypsy Girl) is the most strikingly beautiful, outstandingly gifted, witty, intelligent, fair-skinned, blonde-haired gypsy Andrés or
anyone else has ever seen - and as such, they are the exceptions that prove the rule. And if we find it so difficult to believe
that a man like Ricaredo (The English Spanish Girl) could make such fervent declarations of love, and mean them, and act on them to the exclusion of all other considerations,
then what conclusions must we draw about the lives we lead and the cynicism with which they are shot through?
The striking, provocative and often far-fetched examples which Cervantes gives us in the more heroic of his novels provide
the reader with a fascinating insight into his own response to the various forms of idealism to which the world pays lip-service
every day. He gives us outstanding examples of heroism and virtue and invites us to consider why we find these examples so
difficult to attain in our own lives and so difficult to accept in those of his characters. The exemplarity of each novel,
then, is that of the collection as a whole, and it lies in the ability of these fictions to provoke thought and invite judgment
about serious issues of moral conduct which are not nearly so distant from our own experience as their escapism might suggest.
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...since I have been bold enough to dedicate these novels to the Count of Lemos, they must contain some hidden mystery which
elevates them to that level...
There is another sense in which the novels are exemplary, one which is tied up with Cervantes's claim that they contain a
hidden mystery: the sense in which the novels are examples of the writer's art. At first glance, Cervantes's rather feeble
joke about the elevation of the sacrament during the mass may strike the reader as in dubious taste. But the mysterious ingredient
which helps to make the novels worthy of dedication to such an eminent patron is a mystery of almost comparable significance
to Cervantes, the mystery of skill, of craft.7
Taken as a whole, the Exemplary Novels constitute an anthology of the many skills which the writer must exemplify, and underlying them all is an implied challenge,
to Cervantes himself as well as to the reader. The task is to extend the boundaries of what is possible in fiction without
losing the reader's goodwill in the process. At a key moment in The Little Gypsy Girl, Andrés, dissatisfied with the poet's explanation of his sudden appearance in the gypsy encampment - he claims to have lost
his way -, tells him that if he must lie, he should do so with a greater semblance of truth. The poet then goes on to give
an alternative, apparently more acceptable, explanation, which is much more fantastic than the first. This exchange illustrates
Cervantes's fascination with making improbable things seem possible, rejecting as too facile events and situations which have
the all too plausible quality of day-to-day reality.
To do this successfully involves stretching the reader's credulity while at the same time maintaining the overall credibility
of the fiction. Cervantes achieves this balance by a skilful mix of two characteristic ingredients: wonder and verisimilitude.
He excites the reader's amazement by offering a string of extremely unlikely ocurrences, while simultaneously ensuring that,
improbable though they may be, they are never quite beyond the bounds of possibility. In order to achieve this sleight of
hand, he prepares each improbable turn of events with such skill that the reader is first intrigued and then captivated; and,
having led the reader often further than he might otherwise have been prepared to go, he never leaves him exposed and stranded
but always brings him back to safety. It is often only when we look back that we see how far we have been led by the power
of the fiction.
This process is most clearly illustrated in the final two stories of the collection, The Deceitful Marriage and The Dialogue of the Dogs. They are linked thematically and formally by the device of presenting the second story as having been written by the protagonist
of the first. Campuzano prepares the ground with a conventional tale of confidence trickery and then persuades his interlocutor,
Peralta, to read an account of a conversation between two dogs he claims to have overheard while recovering in hospital from
a dose of the pox. Campuzano admits many times that the story is incredible, but Peralta's understandable reluctance to believe
it is gradually overcome as he is engulfed in a deepening spiral of implausibility involving magic, witchcraft and reincarnation.
At the end of the story, which marks the end of the volume, Peralta emerges from the reading experience by having to concede
that, even though it was incredible, it was very entertaining and very well done.
Any reader might conclude the same of the collection as a whole, and, indeed, is frequently invited to do so. It is common
for characters as well as narrator to comment on the inherent unlikeliness of the very events in which they are taking part.
The most improbable plots and coincidences are carefully prepared and lovingly presented in the most convincing settings,
usually real places in contemporary Spain; outrageous outcomes are shown to develop with inexorable logic; and all this is
done with the imperceptible craftsmanship of the pickpocket.
A key factor in his success is Cervantes's mixing of genre. Critics have often tried to categorise each of the stories, and
the predominance of one or other genre has been used unsuccessfully as a guide to the date of composition of individual novels.8 In fact, none of the stories is entirely untouched by the imaginative freedom which is characteristic of romance, and none
- even those with plots which are most obviously reminiscent of romance - is entirely divorced from the contemporary world
in which they were written. The Power of Blood opens with a casual stroll on a warm evening in Toledo, The English Spanish Girl is steeped in the religious and political struggles of contemporary Europe, The Illustrious Kitchen Maid is largely set in a well-known inn in Toledo.
This mixture of the palpably real and the improbably fantastic is the essence of the Cervantine trade mark, and it serves
two main purposes. In purely functional terms, the creation of a strong sense of place, not common in European fiction at
the time, provides a kind of anchor for the flights of fancy: a solid foundation on which tall stories can be built with greater
confidence. But descriptions of interiors, dress, the rigging of ships, squares and fountains do not in themselves guarantee
a convincing fiction, and Cervantes would be the first to admit that the greater conviction comes from the inherent truth,
the psychological and moral plausibility of the story.
In broader terms, the purpose of mixing genres lies in the potential to show the spiritual truth which underlies the commonplace
exterior, and in this way the exemplarity and the wonderment are made to work together. What Cervantes is doing in creating
a character like Costanza, for example, a beacon of moral and spiritual probity in a world of decadence and corruption, is
akin to what Velázquez does in pictures like The Drunkards and Vulcan's Forge: both artists bring the mythical world into contact with the real. Like Velázquez, Cervantes imbues the tawdry and the down-at-heel
with beauty and nobility, and shows the human spirit triumphantly at odds with its surroundings. The truthfulness of this
story comes not from its low-life setting, its thieves and prostitutes, but from Cervantes's demonstration that integrity
and steadfastness can not only redeem Costanza, but illuminate the lives of all those with whom she comes into contact.
All the novels in the collection, in their different ways, operate on the reader in a similar fashion. They are intriguing,
compelling and ultimately persuasive if, like Peralta, we are prepared to go with the flow; and if we care to examine the
basis of our own response to them, they are full of profitable examples. Like Costanza, they all have that quality of entertaining
and elevating mystery which makes them shining examples of their kind.
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