Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Creation of Masculinity
Catalina’s ability to transform herself into a man and live undetected for more than two decades suggests that gender is constructed, not innate, and that masculinity can be created. Throughout her memoir, from her teen years until her forties, Catalina builds up her masculine façade. She emphasizes only the qualities in herself that would be identified as traditionally masculine, and she omits any characteristics that would be deemed female. Catalina is no longer the victim of violence, as she was as a child and teenager; now she is combative and violent and kills many men. She is boastful and aggressive in a conventionally masculine manner, and her life as a soldier only reinforces these masculine traits. Her training as a warrior also helps her make decisions quickly, without weighing the consequences of her actions.
Her machismo is never more apparent than when she kills one of her fellow lieutenants for calling her a “cuckold,” that is, a man whose wife is sexually unfaithful. This is an insult that is designed specifically to be leveled at a man—and Catalina has embraced her masculine alter-ego so thoroughly that she is willing to kill to defend her male honor. In deciding to dress as a man, Catalina learns how much of traditional masculinity and violent behavior is a construct, for she makes herself into a bold and violent killer by the force of her own determination. After living as a man for more than two decades, there are almost no traditionally feminine characteristics apparent in Catalina’s personality.
The Importance of a Relationship with God
Although Catalina’s relationship with God fluctuates throughout her life, she always sees religion and God as avenues to forgiveness, redemption, and, sometimes most important, rescue. Although Catalina does not appear to be particularly devout, religion infuses her character, and she often credits God for helping her out of tight situations. Yet Catalina turns to God only out of sheer desperation. She visits a church only when trying to escape arrest and imprisonment, and she gives thanks to God only in moments where her life is at risk. Her vision of God seems to be of a benevolent being who allows her to escape punishment for her crimes, which is why she often flees to a church or cathedral immediately after committing a crime, in order to escape retribution. Despite her unwillingness to write about her relationship with God except in crisis, Catalina’s religious beliefs are clearly integral to her character. Her belief that God is responsible for allowing her to escape punishment for her crimes relieves her of guilt and frees her to continue her criminal lifestyle.
The Power of Disguise
Throughout Lieutenant Nun, disguise gives Catalina power. When she leaves the convent, clothing is her disguise and means of changing her gender identity. This disguise and the bravery that donning it requires are the most important factors in her escape, as well as in assuring her safety. Not only does her disguise allow her to camouflage herself as a man, but it also allows her to feel masculine enough to develop a male persona. As a teenager, Catalina explores whether her disguise will fool others. When neither her aunt nor her father recognize her, Catalina risks going back to the convent, where she eludes detection by her mother and, presumably, the nuns and novices with whom she had spent eleven years. Catalina clearly intends this return as a test to bolster her confidence, and she passes easily. Her attitude is as vital to her disguise as her clothing is. Catalina also uses a disguise to change more than just her sex. She changes identities when it suits her and gives false identification many times when being pursued by the law. Catalina views her external identity as fluid, and she uses this fluidity to her advantage.
Catalina’s memoir follows the form of a traditional picaresque novel, a Spanish literary convention that was popular during her lifetime. Traditionally, the Spanish picaresque novel is about a loveable Spanish rogue’s adventures and is often episodic in nature. The rogue often has to live by his wits, has experiences with different social classes, and is usually traveling during the course of the story. Catalina’s memoir differs from the classic Spanish picaresque in two very dramatic ways—she is female, and her memoir is nonfiction (although some critics have questioned the latter). It is possible that Catalina herself was influenced by some of these works, which may explain why her memoir is told in a series of episodes rather than in standard chronological narrative form. As in many picaresque novels, Catalina’s recounting of her trials is often humorous, and although she uses violence to survive, she just as often has to rely on her intelligence.
One of the defining characteristics of Catalina’s story is the fleeting nature of the relationships and events in her life. The people closest to Catalina are often introduced in a few sentences and then never mentioned again. She travels from town to town and country to country, only rarely mentioning the differences between places. Even her social station changes rapidly—she goes from a page to the king’s secretary to a violent street thug, from a soldier to a deserter, and from a worker for the sheriff to a brutal killer. The impermanent nature of the events in Catalina’s life propels her story forward. Her memoir is based on action, not emotion, and what moves the reader from one chapter to the next is the rapid pace of events in Catalina’s life. Catalina’s lack of stability also helps her keep her biological gender a secret.
As Catalina grows older, her violent behavior becomes more and more pronounced as a means of protecting her honor, and these violent episodes trigger most of the action in the memoir. Catalina’s story begins when she runs away from the convent, an event precipitated by a savage beating she receives from one of the nuns. Once Catalina starts disguising herself as a man, the violence escalates: she stabs Reyes and must leave town, and many times she kills men over cards and flees into churches until the furor dies down. Many of the transitional events in Catalina’s story are precipitated by violence, and Catalina clearly feels that in order to maintain her honor she must commit these acts. Honor is extremely important in a society where the representation of public self is far more important than one’s private inner life, and for Catalina, violence and honor are inextricably intertwined.
Though Catalina’s relationship with religion is often tenuous, she regularly turns to churches in times of need. Laws at the time prevented police and other officers from invading the sanctuary of a church, thus allowing criminals a safe haven from arrest as long as they stayed inside the church walls. Though this may well be the only reason that Catalina seeks refuge in churches when she is in desperate situations, her reasoning for seeking sanctuary in a church seems more complex than that. Catalina was raised in a convent, and the priests and nuns were the only family and authority figures she likely encountered on a regular basis. Therefore, it is not surprising that she turns to the church in times of distress. Although she never explicitly mentions her views on specific religious doctrine, Catalina clearly finds some emotional support in the church and what it stands for. To her, the church represents a surrogate family, and she finds relief, both legally and emotionally, within its walls.
Clothing is Catalina’s representation of self, and her ability to change it allows her to change her very identity. Catalina’s original deception depended solely on the boy’s clothes she created for herself, and though two decades of cultivating her male persona have pushed that disguise deeper than skin-level, clothing still represents disguise and the ability to transform. Although Catalina often covers years in single sentences, she nonetheless makes mention of each new set of clothing she receives during her first decade living with a male identity. Her frequent mentions of clothes in these chapters underscore clothes’ importance in this time in her life. Each additional gift of clothing, such as from the half-Indian woman and the vicar, reaffirms Catalina’s male identity and allows her to continue under the pretense. Clothing enables the fluidity of her identity and also publicly reinforces the identity she has chosen for herself.
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