Thesis Christ: The Tragicomedia of Lyla Boyajian

“You know, boy meets girl; boy’s falcon flies into girl’s yard … ”

In this installment of Thesis Christ, we meet Lyla Boyajian, a Spanish senior thesising on La Celestina. La Celestina was written, at least mostly, by Fernando de Rojas in the 1490s. The text centers around two young lovers on Celestina, an old, alcoholic, match-making prostitute and witch. Just from that, one could guess this ends poorly, and you’d be right. Everyone dies, but Boyajian doesn’t mind. “I love books where everyone ends up dead,” she said, “They’re my favorite kind.”

La Celestina is important, Boyajian says, because it bridges the literature of the late Middle Ages with that of the early modern period in Spain. As such it may be the second most important work in the Spanish literary tradition behind Don Quijote.

Rojas claims to have found – not written – the first chapter of his work. Though this was a fairly common trope, it helps close the distance between author and reader. In the prologue, moreover, the author presents himself as a reader in describing this discovery, and he recognizes that each reader will get something different out of it each time they read it. This destabilizes the idea of inherent meaning in the text, and the idea that the author has put one message in that the audience must extract. This destabilization is one of the major topics of Boyajian’s thesis.

Boyajian also examines the question of La Celestina’s genre, which is a hotly debated topic. It is variously considered one of the first novels, but is written like a play without stage directions. It’s just dialogue, so Boyajian compares it to a classical dialogue, such as Plato’s Republic. Indeed, such classical dialogues and orators are frequently referenced by the characters.

Rojas, however, really challenges the classical ideal of a good orator as a rich and  “moral” man. This text is one of the first to have lower class characters, that are actual characters that say distinct and interesting things, who nevertheless use classical rhetoric throughout to get what they want. The kicker is that the most successful orator in the text is the prostitute and witch Celestina, the exact opposite of a classical orator. With all of these characters trying to convince and manipulate each other, the reader has a genuinely hard time seeing what is “true” about the situation.

Rojas also subverts the genre in form. Unlike dialogues, which try to reach some large Truth, Rojas challenges the idea that this can even be reached. At the very end after everyone dies, Pleberio, the father of the girl Melibea, gives a speech that mirrors the Myth of Er at the end of Plato’s Republic. Pleberio, however, cannot find any meaning or God, but instead finds a world in which we have no control over our own fate.

Though it is pessimistic, readers were passionate about the text. Readers wrote in to Rojas, who continuously revised it to suit them, which Boyajian tracks through the editions of the text. Originally The Comedy of Calisto and Melibea, readers complained that, although humorous in places, it was certainly not a comedy, so Rojas changed it to a tragicomedy. The readers then recognized that Celestina was actually the main character, and it began to be called La Celestina. If the readers wanted more love scenes, for example, Rojas would oblige them in a new edition.

Boyajian comments that the “readers saw themselves as capable of authoring” as well. They take the text’s lack of meaning not as a meaningless void, but as a creative space to write their own texts and make their own meaning. Indeed, La Celestina inspired hundreds of related works. This is perhaps because the author did not occupy a place as a “supreme authority” over their text, as the modern author has in some forms. Either way, it marks a grand destabilization of truth within a text.

Boyajian’s thesis promises to be an insightful reading of one of Spanish literature’s most important works. She would also like people to know that thesising can be enjoyable and not stressful. It was clear from the way that she spoke about her thesis that that she loved La Celestina.

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