|Las meninas Diego Velázquez|
Sor Juana was the last great writer of the Spanish Golden Age, but at the same time, she prescribed to another non-peninsular reality, a separate colonial space. Electra Arenal explains how in her writing there is a notable influence of Spanish writers such as Cervantes, Quevedo, Góngora, Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca and the Rennaissance and Barroque literary traditions.
In one of Sor Juana’s poems the Virgin appears as Don Quijote, saving people in distress. Some of her sonnets have been compared to those of Góngora: the title and style of Primero Sueño [First Dream] are inspired by that poet. Lope de Vega’s conceptual games, his tender lyrics, and incorporation of music and dance into theater all find their counterparts in Sor Juana’s works. The enormous influence of Calderón de la Barca can de summarized in her variations of two of his titles: he wrote ‘Los empeños de un ocaso,’ she ‘Los empeños de una casa’: he ‘El divino Orfeo,’ [Divine Orpheus] she ‘El divino Narciso [Divine Narcissus]. (15)
In spite of the fact that her inspiration comes in large part from Spanish literature, Sor Juana becomes a symbol of the New World. Her “exemplary” life, her rejection of reading and writing, and her death lend themselves to a calming narrative used by the Church to illustrate the religious conversion of a controversial nun. In the secular sphere, Sor Juana represents the abundance and potential of the New World (Franco 24).
In Sor Juana’s day it was thought that a woman’s mental capacity was inferior to that of men. In Examen de ingenios para las ciencias [An Examination of Characters for the Sciences], Doctor Juan Huarte of San Juan writes a treatise in which he proposes the adequate instruction for each of various types of people according to the physical and intellectual aptitudes of each type. It is published for the first time in Baeza in 1575 and was reprinted multiple times in Spain and translated into Italian and French during the 16th century. In this text, the predominant notion of women’s limited scholastic capacity is clear. Women were not thought to be able to understand complex topics, to be able to learn languages or to learn anything that required more than basic memorization:Contradictions in La respuesta
Females, due the frigidity and humidity of their sex cannot reach a great depth of talent [ingenio]. We see them talking with some appearance of ability on easy and light subjects, with well-studied and common terminology. But, if they go further into letters, they cannot learn more than a little Latin, and this being the work of memory. It is not they who are to be blamed for this lack of intelligence [rudeza], but the coldness and humidity that made them women; those qualities, as we have already proved, contradict talent and ability. (Huerga 360)
It is in this context, in which very little was expected of women in intellectual terms, in which Sor Juana emerges. From her own narration of her life in La respuesta [The Answer] we know that her Grandfather had an extensive library and that she learned to read just after learning to walk. She taught herself Classic Rhetorical forms, Law, Theology, and Literature. At fourteen she had a friendship with the Viceroyal couple of Toledo and through them Sor Juana wins the admiration of the Viceroyal court of New Spain for her erudition and poetic ability. In 1667 she enters the convent of the Discalced Carmelites of México and two years later she enters the convent of the Order of Saint Geronimo. Sor Juana explains in La respuesta [The Answer] that she did not have a religious calling, but that she preferred the convent to marriage because she did not want to have to give up her intellectual pursuits: “Vivir sola... no tener ocupación alguna obligatoria que embarazase la libertad de mi estudio, ni rumor de comunidad que impidiese el sosegado silencio de mis libros” [Living alone…not having any obligatory chores to hinder my freedom and my study, or the murmur of a community to impede the peaceful silence of my books] (38).