Many critics maintain that the impulse that prompted Miguel de Cervantes (1547 – 1616) to begin his great novel was a satiric one: He desired to satirize chivalric romances. As the elderly Alonso Quixano the Good (if that is his name) pores over the pages of these books in his study, his “brain dries up” and he imagines himself to be the champion who will take up the vanished cause of knighterrantry and wander the world righting wrongs, helping the helpless, defending the cause of justice, all for the greater glory of his lady Dulcinea del Toboso and his God.
As he leaves his village before dawn, clad in rusty armor and riding his broken-down nag, the mad knight becomes Don Quixote de la Mancha. His first foray is brief, and he is brought back home by friends from his native village. Despite the best efforts of his friends and relations, the mad old man embarks on a second journey, this time accompanied by a peasant from his village, Sancho Panza, who becomes the knight’s squire. The Don insists on finding adventure everywhere, mistaking windmills for giants, flocks of sheep for attacking armies, puppet shows for real life. His squire provides a voice of down-to-earth reason, but Quixote always insists that vile enchanters have transformed the combatants to embarrass and humiliate him. Don Quixote insists on his vision of the ideal in the face of the cold facts of the world; Sancho Panza maintains his proverbial peasant wisdom in the face of his master’s madness.
In their travels and adventures, they encounter life on the roads of Spain. Sometimes they are treated with respect— for example, by “the gentleman in green” who invites them to his home and listens to Quixote with genuine interest—but more often they are ridiculed, as when the Duke and Duchess bring the knight and squire to their estate only for the purpose of mocking them. Finally, a young scholar from Quixote’s native village, Sampson Carrasco, defeats the old knight in battle and forces him to return to his home, where he dies peacefully, having renounced his mad visions and lunatic behavior.
While it is necessary to acknowledge the satiric intent of Cervantes’ novel, the rich fictional world of Don Quixote de la Mancha utterly transcends its local occasion. On the most personal level, the novel can be viewed as one of the most intimate evaluations of a life ever penned by a great author. When Don Quixote decides to take up the cause of knight-errantry, he opens himself to a life of ridicule and defeat, a life that resembles Cervantes’ own life, with its endless reversals of fortune, humiliations, and hopeless struggles. Out of this life of failure and disappointment Cervantes created the “mad knight,” but he also added the curious human nobility and the refusal to succumb to despair in the face of defeat that turns Quixote into something more than a comic character or a ridiculous figure to be mocked. Although there are almost no points in the novel where actual incidents from Cervantes’ life appear directly or even transformed into fictional disguise, the tone and the spirit, the succession of catastrophes with only occasional moments of slight glory, and the resilience of human nature mark the novel as the most personal work of the author, the one where his singularly difficult life and his profoundly complex emotional responses to that life found form and structure.
If the novel is the record of Cervantes’ life, the fiction also records a moment in Spanish national history when fortunes were shifting and tides turning. At the time of Cervantes’ birth, Spain’s might and glory were at their peak. The wealth from conquests of Mexico and Peru returned to Spain, commerce boomed, and artists recorded the sense of national pride with magnificent energy and power. By the time Don Quixote de la Mancha was published, the Spanish Empire was beginning its decline. A series of military disasters, including the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English and the revolt of Flanders, had shaken the once mighty nation. In the figure of Don Quixote, the greatest of a richly remembered past combines with the hard facts of age, weakness, and declining power. The character embodies a moment of Spanish history and the Spanish people’s own sense of vanishing glory in the face of irreversible decline.
Don Quixote de la Mancha also stands as the greatest literary embodiment of the Counter-Reformation. Throughout Europe, the Reformation was moving with the speed of new ideas, changing the religious landscape of country after country. Spain stood proud as a Catholic nation, resisting any changes. Standing alone against the flood of reform sweeping Europe displayed a kind of willed madness, but the nobility and determination of Quixote to fight for his beliefs, no matter what the rest of the world maintained, reflects the strength of the Spanish will at this time. Cervantes was a devout and loyal believer, a supporter of the Church, and Don Quixote may be the greatest fictional Catholic hero, the battered knight of the Counter-Reformation.
The book also represents fictionally the various sides of the Spanish spirit and the Spanish temper. In the divisions and contradictions found between the Knight of the Sad Countenance and his unlikely squire, Sancho Panza, Cervantes paints the two faces of the Spanish soul: The Don is idealistic, sprightly, energetic, and cheerful, even in the face of overwhelming odds, but he is also overbearing, domineering Sancho, who is earthy, servile, and slothful. The two characters seem unlikely companions and yet they form a whole, the one somehow incomplete without the other and linked throughout the book through their dialogues and debates. In drawing master and servant, Cervantes presents the opposing truths of the spirit of his native land.
The book can also be seen as a great moment in the development of fiction, the moment when the fictional character was freed into the real world of choice and change. When the gentleman of La Mancha took it into his head to become a knight-errant and travel through the world redressing wrongs and winning eternal glory, the face of fiction permanently changed. Character in fiction became dynamic, unpredictable, and spontaneous. Until that time, character in fiction had existed in service of the story, but now the reality of change and psychological energy and freedom of the will became a permanent hallmark of fiction, as it already was of drama and narrative poetry. The title character’s addled wits made the new freedom all the more impressive. The determination of Don Quixote, the impact of his vision on the world, and the world’s hard reality as it impinges on the Don make for shifting balances and constant alterations in fortune that are psychologically believable. The shifting balance of friendship, devotion, and perception between the knight and his squire underlines this freedom, as does the power of other characters in the book to affect Don Quixote’s fortunes directly: the niece, the housekeeper, the priest, the barber, Sampson Carrasco, the Duke, and the Duchess. There is a fabric of interaction throughout the novel, and characters in the novel change as they encounter new adventures, new people, and new ideas.
One way Cervantes chronicles this interaction is in dialogue. Dialogue had not played a significant or defining role in fiction before Don Quixote de la Mancha. As knight and squire ride across the countryside and engage in conversation, dialogue becomes the expression of character, idea, and reality. In the famous episode with windmills early in the first part of the novel (when Quixote views the windmills on the plain and announces that they are giants that he will wipe from the face of the earth, and Sancho innocently replies, “What giants?”), the dialogue not only carries the comedy but also becomes the battleground on which the contrasting visions of life engage one another—to the delight of the reader. The long exchanges between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza provide priceless humor but also convey two different realities that meet, struggle, and explode in volleys of words. In giving his characters authentic voices that carry ideas, Cervantes brought to fiction a new truth that remains a standard of comparison.
Don Quixote de la Mancha is also as modern as the most experimental of later fiction. Throughout the long novel, Cervantes plays with the nature of the narrator, raising constant difficult questions as to who is telling the story and to what purpose. In the riotously funny opening page of the novel, the reader encounters a narrator not only unreliable but also lacking in the basic facts necessary to tell the story. He chooses not to tell the name of the village where his hero lives, and he is not even sure of his hero’s name, yet the narrator protests that the narrative must be entirely truthful.
In chapter 9, as Don Quixote is preparing to do battle with the Basque, the narrative stops; the narrator states that the manuscript from which he is culling this story is mutilated and incomplete. Fortunately, some time later in Toledo, he says, he came upon an old Arabic manuscript by Arab historian Cide Hamete Benengeli that continues the adventures. For the remainder of the novel, the narrator claims to be providing a translation of this manuscript—the manuscript and the second narrator, the Arab historian, both lacking authority and credibility. In the second part of the novel, the narrator and the characters themselves are aware of the first part of the novel as well as of a “false Quixote,” a spurious second part written by an untalented Spanish writer named Avallaneda who sought to capitalize on the popularity of the first part of Don Quixote de la Mancha by publishing his own sequel. The “false Quixote” is on the narrator’s mind, the characters’ minds, and somehow on the mind of Cide Hamete Benengeli. These shifting perspectives, the multiple narrative voices, the questionable reliability of the narrators, and the “false” second part are all tricks, narrative sleight of hand as complex as anything found in the works of Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, or Jorge Luis Borges. In his Lectures on Don Quixote (1983), Nabokov oddly makes no reference to Cervantes’ narrative games; perhaps the old Spanish master’s shadow still loomed too close to the modern novelist.
None of these approaches to the novel, however, appropriate as they may be, can begin to explain fully the work’s enduring popularity or the strange manner in which the knight and his squire have ridden out of the pages of a book into the other artistic realms of orchestral music, opera, ballet, and painting, where other artists have presented their visions of Quixote and Sancho.Acurrent deeper and more abiding than biography, history, national temper, or literary landmark flows through the book and makes it speak to all manner of readers in all ages.
Early in the novel, Cervantes begins to dilute his strong satiric intent. The reader can laugh with delight at the inanity of the mad knight but never with the wicked, unalloyed glee that pure satire evokes. The knight begins to loom over the landscape; his madness brushes sense; his ideals demand defense. The reader finds him- or herself early in the novel taking an attitude equivalent to that of the two young women of easy virtue who see Quixote when he arrives at an inn, which he believes to be a castle, on his first foray. Quixote calls them “two beauteous maidens . . . taking air at the gate of the castle,” and they fall into helpless laughter, confronted with such a mad vision of themselves as “maidens.” In time, however, because of Quixote’s insistence on the truth of his vision, they help him out of his armor and set a table for him. They treat him as a knight, not as a mad old fool; he treats them as ladies, and they behave as ladies. The laughter stops, and, for a pure moment, life transforms itself and human beings transcend themselves.
This mingling of real chivalry and transcendent ideals with the absurdity of character and mad action creates the tensions in the book as well as its strange melancholy beauty and haunting poignancy. The book is unlike any other ever written. John Berryman has commented on this split between the upheld ideal and the riotously real, observing that the reader “does not know whether to laugh or cry, and does both.” This old man with his dried-up brain, with his squire who has no “salt in his brain pan,” with his rusty armor, his pathetic steed, and his lunatic vision that changes windmills into giants and flocks of sheep into attacking armies, this crazy old fool becomes a real knight-errant. The true irony of the book and its history is that Don Quixote actually becomes a model for knighthood. He may be a foolish, improbable knight, but with his squire, horse, and armor he has ridden into the popular imagination of the world not only as a ridiculous figure but also as a champion; he is a real knight whose vision may often cloud, who sees what he wants to see, but he is also one who demonstrates real virtue and courage and rises in his rhetoric and daring action to real heights of greatness.
Perhaps Cervantes left a clue as to the odd shift in his intention. The contradictory titles he assigns to his knight suggest this knowledge. The comic, melancholy strain pervades “Knight of the Sad Countenance” in the first part of the novel, and the heroic strain is seen in the second part when the hero acquires the new sobriquet “Knight of the Lions.” The first title comes immediately after his adventure with a corpse and is awarded him by his realistic companion, Sancho. Quixote has attacked a funeral procession, seeking to avenge the dead man. Death, however, cannot be overcome; the attempted attack merely disrupts the funeral, and the valiant knight breaks the leg of an attending churchman. The name “Knight of the Sad Countenance” fits Quixote’s stance here and through much of the book. Many of the adventures he undertakes are not only misguided but also unwinnable. Quixote may be Christlike, but he is not Christ, and he cannot conquer Death.
The adventure with the lions earns for him his second title and offers the other side of his journey as a knight. Encountering a cage of lions being taken to the king, Quixote becomes determined to fight them. Against all protest, he takes his stand, and the cage is opened. One of the lions stretches, yawns, looks at Quixote, and lies down. Quixote proclaims a great victory and awards himself the name “Knight of the Lions.” A delightfully comic episode, the scene can be viewed in two ways—as a nonadventure that the knight claims as a victory or as a genuine moment of triumph as the knight undertakes an outlandish adventure and proves his genuine bravery while the king of beasts realizes the futility of challenging the unswerving old knight. Quixote, by whichever route, emerges as conqueror. Throughout his journeys, he often does emerge victorious, despite his age, despite his illusions, despite his dried-up brain.
When, at the book’s close, he is finally defeated and humiliated by Sampson Carrasco and forced to return to his village, the life goes out of him. The knight Don Quixote is replaced, however, on the deathbed by Alonso Quixano the Good. Don Quixote does not die, for the elderly gentleman regains his wits and becomes a new character. Don Quixote cannot die, for he is the creation of pure imagination. Despite the moving and sober conclusion, the reader cannot help but sense that the death scene being played out does not signify the end of Don Quixote. The knight escapes and remains free. He rides out of the novel, with his loyal companion Sancho at his side, into the golden realm of myth. He becomes the model knight he hoped to be. He stands tall with his spirit, his ideals, his rusty armor, and his broken lance as the embodiment of man’s best intentions and impossible folly. As Dostoevski so wisely said, when the Lord calls the Last Judgment, man should take with him this book and point to it, for it reveals all of man’s deep and fatal mystery, his glory and his sorrow.
Plays: El trato de Argel, pr. 1585 (The Commerce of Algiers, 1870); Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses nuevos, 1615 (includes Pedro de Urdemalas [Pedro the Artful Dodger, 1807], El juez de los divorcios [The Divorce Court Judge, 1919], Los habladores [Two Chatterboxes, 1930], La cueva de Salamanca [The Cave of Salamanca, 1933], La elección de los alcaldes de Daganzo [Choosing a Councilman in Daganzo, 1948], La guarda cuidadosa [The Hawk-Eyed Sentinel, 1948], El retablo de las maravillas [The Wonder Show, 1948], El rufián viudo llamada Trampagos [Trampagos the Pimp Who Lost His Moll, 1948], El viejo celoso [The Jealous Old Husband, 1948], and El vizcaíno fingido [The Basque Imposter, 1948]); El cerco de Numancia, pb. 1784 (wr. 1585; Numantia: A Tragedy, 1870; also known as The Siege of Numantia); The Interludes of Cervantes, 1948. poetry: Viaje del Parnaso, 1614 (The Voyage to Parnassus, 1870).
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_______. Cervantes’s “Don Quixote.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001.
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Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on “Don Quixote.” Edited by Fredson Bowers. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.
Riley, E. C. Cervantes’s Theory of the Novel. 1962. Reprint. Newark, Del.: Juan de la Cuesta, 1992.
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Source: Rollyson, Carl. Critical Survey Of Long Fiction. 4th ed. New Jersey: Salem Press, 2010