Violating the Harem: Manipulation of Spatial Meaning in Cervantes’ “La Gran Sultana”

By Jessica Boll.

Published by The Humanities Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The word “harem” stems from the Arabic harām, meaning forbidden, unlawful or socially taboo. In the Islamic context, the harem is thus not a sexual space but is instead defined by religious prohibition. Despite this etymological derivation, however, it has historically provoked the imagination of the West to become a site of sin and sumptuousness. Although essentially signifying nothing more than the living quarters of the sultan and his family, the space took on an added quality to imply an erotic brothel consisting of sensual young women yearning to please the Grand Turk. The impenetrability of the seraglio, complete with a multiplicity of gates, doors and guards defending the sacred entrance, served only to heighten foreign curiosity.
It is in this seductive setting that the multiple story lines of Cervantes’ ‘La gran sultana’ ultimately converge. The fates of the characters come together in one of Istanbul’s most famous structures and a space that came to represent the entire exotic East. In addition to framing the narration, the stimulating backdrop of the harem becomes the epitome of spatial manipulation through the multiple transgressive acts that take place within its walls. Conventional signification is manipulated by the inclusion (intrusion) of a man into the historically feminine quarters. The immense power granted by the Grand Turk to Spanish captive Catalina likewise disrupts the established heirarchy and changes the dynamic by destabilizing traditional authority. Finally, the presentation of Spanish song and dance within the harem further undermines the essence of the space. The most Ottoman of Ottoman places, the meaning of this provocative venue is fundamentally contested in an attempt to subvert expectation and demystify the locale. Ultimately, Cervantes violates the harem as part of his overall objective to challenge assumptions and perceived antagonisms that allegedly divided the Early Modern Mediterranean world.

Keywords: Harem, Istanbul, Spain, Cervantes, Early Modern

International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 9, Issue 5, pp.137-148. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 761.855KB).

Dr. Jessica Boll

Instructor, Department of Modern Languages & Literatures, Carroll University, Waukesha, WI, USA

Jessica Ribble Boll is originally from Binghamton, New York. She graduated from the Honors Program at the University of Delaware with a BA in both Spanish and Biology, and had the opportunity to study for two semesters in Granada, Spain as part of her degree program. Upon graduation she moved to China for a year where she taught English and traveled throughout Asia. She then went on for her Masters degree in Spanish literature at Purdue University, during which time she helped direct a summer study abroad program in Madrid, Spain. She received her PhD in May of 2011 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and now teaches at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. Her primary research interests include the polemics of identity, cultural geography and the experience of the city in the Early Modern Mediterranean world. Her dissertation centered upon the representation of Istanbul in Early Modern Spanish literature, and she had the opportunity to live in Istanbul for two summers as part of her investigations.


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