The story describes two young men named Anselmo and Lotario, who once lived in the city of Florence. Anselmo has a penchant for chasing women, but Lotario is more interested in hunting and sport. One day, Anselmo marries a beautiful girl named Camila. After the marriage takes place Lotario is careful not to visit the young couple too often, so as not to endanger either person’s honor, despite Anselmo’s insistent invitations.
This tale is a story within a story – like the Dorotea/Fernando and Luscinda/Cardenio subplots, it gives the novel a many-layered quality. Unlike the complicated novel that surrounds it, this promises to be a story with a clear moral lesson.
When the two friends are walking around one day, Anselmo confesses to Lotario a strange, nagging desire: to be sure of his wife’s fidelity, he wants Lotario to try to seduce her (and, hopefully, fail). Lotario is shocked by his friend’s request and explains as well as he can that Anselmo should be content to know that his wife always behaves honorably and virtuously, instead of doubting her and risking both her honor and his own. The test could only have two outcomes: Camila can emerge just as honorable a woman as she was previously, or she can be dragged down to vice. Women are fallible, he says, and men should take care to make it easy for them to remain virtuous.
The argument between the two friends comes down to two views of human nature. Anselmo believes that his wife contains some essential core of personhood that dictates all possible actions. This personhood is always, to some degree, latent – always waiting to be expressed more fully. Lotario believes people are always changing; he believes that a difficult situation could very well change the nature of Camila’s virtue, rather than simply test it.
Anselmo admits that his plan is wicked and senseless, but says that nothing else can cure his desire. He tells Lotario that he can trust only him with the plan – any other person would dishonor him. When he sees it is no use arguing, Lotario agrees to his friend’s request, but he secretly plans to deceive him somehow – to satisfy him without dishonoring him or his wife with false advances.
Like the priest and the barber, Lotario decides to deceive his friend in order to help him. In a way, this tendency is the opposite of Quixote’s. Quixote takes care that each present action is honorable, no matter what the consequences; Lotario behaves dishonorably to ensure a positive outcome.
The next day, Lotario comes to his friend’s house for lunch. Anselmo insists on rushing off on some business matter and leaves his friend and his wife alone. Camila is very virtuous and modest, so the two say hardly a word to each other while Anselmo’s gone, but Lotario reports to his friend that he’s begun the courtship process by praising Camila’s beauty. Lotario also agrees to write her sonnets and give her expensive presents, and reports to his friend that Camila has remained virtuous in the face of all this flattery. But one day Anselmo hides and watches the two in his absence; when he observes their cordial silence, he realizes his friend has been deceiving him. Lotario guiltily apologizes and promises to really put the plan into action this time.
At this point, both Camila and Lotario are models of virtue. But Anselmo is not satisfied: he wants to dig deeper into what he imagines to be his wife’s reserves of virtue. In a sense, he is like Quixote, because he thinks that he can reach the truth through lying. But for Quixote, lying (or rather fantasizing) is a way of creating a new truth; for Anselmo, it is a way of reaching back to a preexisting truth.
For convenience’s sake, Anselmo decides to leave town for a week. He tells Camila that Lotario will come keep her company and dine with her while he’s gone, despite her demure objections. Everything goes according to plan; to ensure propriety, Camila asks her maid Leonela to chaperone whenever she and Lotario are in a room together. But despite Camila’s modesty, Lotario cannot help admiring her beauty and wit when he is so constantly in her company, and so he slowly falls in love with her. To her shock, he begins to woo her, so she writes an alarmed letter to her husband.
At the beginning of the story, Lotario is an ideal friend and a perfect gentleman. Here, we see him begin to change; he begins to contemplate seducing his best friend’s wife. He himself is a good example of his own model of human nature – something shifting and changeable, something that is often altered by a person’s circumstances and behavior.