Femininity and Gender stereotypes in “The Witch” and “Reply to Sor Filotea De La Cruz”

Femininity and Gender stereotypes in “The Witch” and “Reply to Sor Filotea De La Cruz”

In works such as Sor Juana De La Cruz’s “Reply to Sor Filotea De La Cruz”, readers are provided with two images of women: the public face, and the more private inner workings. The first is the surface image of what women are supposed to be, as portrayed by Sor Juana in her reply to Sor Filotea. On the surface, she appears to be humble and contrite, but through the passionate intellectual arguments made in the letter, and the false piety and remorse, Sor Juana insinuates that there is more to women than meets the eyes. Chekhov works similarly in his short story “The Witch”, with his description of Raissa, the sexton’s wife. Utilizing strong imagery and the metaphorical weather, Chekhov gives the mild, submissive image of a woman, but allows readers to peer inside Raissa’s mind to find a strong, clever person, very different from her outer image.

The first image Chekhov gives the reader of Raissa in “The Witch” plays upon both that submissive side as well as the stronger image of women. The imagery of the lamp could symbolize Raissa herself. It sits on a stool, paralleling the position of its mistress, but also reflecting her inner turmoil. The light flickers “as though timid and distrustful of its powers,” (Chekhov 12) which could be a metaphor for the discontent Raissa feels. After all, she is married to a man who as coarse as he is, does not appear to find any value in her beauty until the very end of the tale. Savely seems to know that the only reason she married him was so she could keep the house and please her father, whereas she enjoys the company of younger men for romantic reasons.

Raissa’s good looks and the way her soul cries out for a man worthy of her delicate softness cause Savely to call her a witch, pinning the cause of the winter storm on his wife, in the same way that he blames her for the same traits that transfix the other men. She is described as having “broad shoulders”, and being in general a “handsome, tempting-looking” person, with “full lips” and a “white neck” (Chekhov 12). That delicate neck inspires awe in the young postman who says ““What a… neck you’ve got!…” (Chekhov 20) And he touched her neck with two fingers [and] seeing that she did not resist, he stroked her neck and shoulders”. Raissa’s neck and shoulders are two contrasting images that symbolize the different characteristics of women. A delicate neck that attracts men, but broad shoulders that can bear any burden life places on them. The contrast is similar to that of her hands with the rough hemp fabric of the sack she was sewing, which can also go to reflect the different qualities placed in value by Chekhov.

While Raissa’s beauty is captivating, beauty without passion is nothing. If the rough sack she is sewing represents the time she spends with her husband, it makes sense that “No desire, no joy, no grief, nothing was expressed by her handsome face … So a beautiful fountain expresses nothing when it is not playing” (Chekhov 12). She feels no passion for him, but when she has “flung it aside”, “the panes were swimming with drops like tears, and white with short-lived snowflakes which fell on the window, glanced at Raissa, and melted….” (Chekhov 12). When Raissa tosses the sack to the side, it’s akin to her tossing the yoke of her marriage and her husband to the side- only then does she feel the passion that melts the snowflakes and calms the storm inside her.

In the case of the sexton and his disapproval of Raissa’s blatant womanhood, it seems as though it takes the attention of another man to bring out his tender side. By contrasting the images of not only the postman and the sexton, but Raissa and her surroundings after the postman leaves, Chekhov implies that the only way Savely can see his wife’s beauty, is through the eyes of another man. “His chest was broad and powerful, his hands were slender and well formed, and his graceful, muscular legs were much comelier than Savely’s stumps. There could be no comparison, in fact” (Chekhov 19) is how the postman is described through Raissa’s eyes, whereas the light illuminates Savely’s “hirsute, pock-marked countenance and glided over his rough matted hair” (Chekhov 12). Yes, the postman is comely, but it is only in comparison to the sexton that he is so extraordinary, perhaps, just as Raissa is beautiful, but when the postman sees her in comparison to her dingy, filthy surroundings, she becomes a creature of supernatural attraction. For Savely, she is part of his everyday surroundings, and he treats her as one would a stool, or another moveable that is there, but merits no special attention. After the young postman leaves, Savely sees Raissa from his perspective, and only then does he touch her gently, Chekhov writing that he “touched her head with his finger… held her thick plait in his hand for a minute. She did not feel it. Then he grew bolder and stroked her neck” (Chekhov 22)

The text, dipping into Savely’s consciousness states that “He no longer doubted that his wife, with the aid of the Evil One, controlled the winds and the post sledges” (Chekhov 22), which makes for the trio that has been connected since time begin: witchery, women and beauty. Folklore, the Church and even popular culture have linked these three, perhaps implying that because men don’t understand all forms of beauty and they don’t understand women, the patriarchy (made of ignorant men such as Savely) alludes whatever is beyond their perception as witchcraft.  When Raissa is crying, “The storm still raged without. Something wailed in the stove, in the chimney, outside the walls, and it seemed to Savely that the wailing was within him, in his ears” (Chekhov 22). Savely does not understand Raissa’s beauty, her misery, or even how her sorrow affects him, so he assumes that she must be a witch.

However, despite or because he doesn’t understand her, he is attracted to her even more, “this mysteriousness, this supernatural, weird power gave the woman beside him a peculiar, incomprehensible charm of which he had not been conscious before… in his stupidity he unconsciously threw a poetic glamour over her made her seem, as it were, whiter, sleeker, more unapproachable” (Chekhov 22). It’s that mysterious charm that leaves the reader wondering, only to be caught off guard with the last sentence of the story, for after his advances are rejected, “The pain in [Savely’s] nose was soon over, but the torture in his heart remained” (Chekhov 22).

On the topic of women struggling to be understood, Sor Juana’s reply to Sor Filotea De La Cruz clearly portrays how she must balance her public and private emotions to adhere to the valued traits women were supposed to display. The public image of Sor Juana as repentant is evident in her letter when she directly addresses Sor Filotea, addressing her as “my most illustrious señora, dear lady” (De La Cruz 157), utilizing her rhetorical skills to play up the innocent and humble women are supposed to portray. She takes the tone throughout her letter, but she displays an intellectual prowess that belies her penitence. Through the strong biblical examples utilized in the letter, she maintains the outer image, while letting her intelligent inner self shine through.

When Sor Juana addresses the manner in which she chose to respond, she says that she considered silence, but she uses Moses as an example, explaining that even though he was slow of speech “after he found himself highly favored of God, and thus inspired, he not only spoke with God Almighty, but dared ask him the impossible” (De La Cruz 159). By doing thus, she plays two purposes, not only elevating Sor Filotea to the level of God, but also making a bold move in paralleling herself with the prophet Moses, who was equally misunderstood and criticized by his own people. However, right after she places Sor Filotea at the highest level possible, she says that “like a second Ahasuerus, you have offered to me to kiss the top of the golden scepter of your affection” (De La Cruz 159), placing the supposedly pious superior nun on the same level as a monarch, implying that she is not as secular as one might expect of a religious figure.

As a polite, but ironically educated retort to the accusations of over-education, Sor Juana protests that:

“How without Logic could I be apprised of the general and specific way in which the Holy Scripture was written? How without Rhetoric, could I understand its figures, its tropes, its locutions? How, without Physics, so many innate questions concerning the nature of animals, their sacrifices, wherein exist so many symbols, many already declared, many still to be discovered?” (De La Cruz 163).

She goes on for the whole page, addressing topics such as Civil law, Architecture and even Music, explaining exactly how important the understanding of those subjects are to the understanding of the Scripture. Throughout her argument, she utilizes repetition to emphasize her point, and pays attention to each point. All of her arguments are backed up with quotes from Scripture, and by doing so, Sor Juana undermines Sor Filotea’s criticism by proving the benefits of her reading. In her letter, Sor Juana expresses her inner convictions on the topic of educated women, while maintaining the public image of pious submission.

Through their actions and stylistic technique in the text, both Raissa and Sor Juana defy the stereotypical descriptions that women of their time were expected to uphold. Chekhov utilizes rich imagery to allow his readers to gaze into the consciousness of the different characters. Through the eyes of the different people in the story, readers can see the contrasts that make Raissa so different. In Sor Juana’s letter to Sor Filotea, readers are made privy to her private struggle through the tone of her letter, while she maintains the public face by using lofty language and specific religious examples to state her points.