My Understanding of Don Quixote

NOTE: I read the Tom Lathrop English translation of this book. The translation is very readable, and full of interesting footnotes to give context. Quotes in this post come from the Ormsby translation, because I don’t have my edition handy.

I’ll start this post by talking about a different  book—The Odyssey.

I was assigned to read this book in a class in middle school and one in high school, and never finished it either time. Every other reading assignment in high school I completed, but not The Odyssey. Part of it was that I was in eighth and ninth grade when it was assigned. Another part was that the book is terrible if read just as a book. The characters are flat, the story is convoluted and repeatedly drags itself out in cheap, illogical ways, and though the writing can be striking at times, it’s translated from a poem written in ancient Greek over two thousand years ago, so I imagine a lot of the poetry is lost. It’s only interesting as it relates to all of western literature following it, which a ninth grader, even one who’s a precocious writer, has no grasp of.

Don Quixote is not as inaccessible as The Odyssey, but it is still a flawed work. The most important thing it contains which The Odyssey doesn’t is relatable characters. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are realistic, and even have distinct voices. While some of the other characters blur together, and all speak in the same formal style as don Quixote, Sancho Panza and don Quixote are enough to engage a reader on a basic level, with no need for historical context. In addition to this, Don Quixote has the advantage of humor, something that transcends the dry, formal writing style and meandering plot.

If I read this book as just a book, I would say that I enjoyed the episodic style except where the plot completely derailed into repetitive romance stories that had nothing to do with the main characters, and that the book was bloated, but contained an interesting through-line. I’d criticize the almost complete lack of visual descriptions. I would say I adored the main two characters but that there were many secondary characters who seemed redundant, and could’ve been merged into one character. I would say that the handling of Sancho’s character arc was smooth and natural, while don Quixote’s was a bit more jerky and sudden. I’d critique the ending as fitting though too abrupt. Overall I’d like the book, though I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wasn’t a big reader.

But I didn’t do that. I read the book knowing it is considered the first modern novel, knowing that everything I’ve read and written has been influenced by this book. I read it knowing that Cervantes wrote the book at the height of the Spanish Empire, and the height of its excess. I read it knowing that it was parody of chivalric romances, the popular genre of the day. I read it knowing it was blazing it’s own path through uncharted literary territory. With that in mind, I loved the book.

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On the most basic level, the humor of the novel is still amusing four hundred years later. Sometimes it was a mental image that was tickling, and sometimes it was a retort from Sancho or don Quixote that made me burst out laughing. Those were the two main sources of humor for me—the dissonance between don Quixote’s fantasy and the mundane reality, and the banter between Sancho and don Quixote. The two form a classic  straight-man-funny-man duo, with Quixote funny and Sancho straight. Interestingly, the roles are sometimes reversed, and don Quixote becomes the intellectual, noble foil to the bumbling, low-brow Sancho.

The pacing isn’t always great, but for the episodic meat of the book it works well. The adventures are fully realized, and mostly short, with some variation in length to add weight to certain scenes and characters. The overarching story is rather straightforward, and it works well for the book.

On a more high-brow, but still text-based level, the development of themes in this book is thorough and satisfying. There are a lot of them, but it’s clear which ones are the main thrust, and which are just interesting diversions confined to specific episodes. The book is so long because Cervantes is covering a vast array of issues. With the exception of the over-abundance of love stories at the end of the first book, the chapters rarely feel like useless filler. Cervantes deals with gender, race, religion, career choices, writing, history, war, the inquisition, chivalric romances, class, love, justice, romanticism, governance, and, at the forefront, the conflict between fantasy and reality.

That conflict is what people love about Don Quixote, and for good reason. Cervantes explores many shades of the issue. It isn’t simply that Sancho embodies mundanity, and Quixote embodies fantasy, and the two clash throughout the whole book. Sancho actually begins to buy into Quixote’s fantasy, as do many characters by the end of the book. They all want to believe, and Cervantes even gives the impression that this is true for Quixote too—that perhaps he isn’t sure that he’s a true knight errant. There’s one line which I find fascinating, describing don Quixote’s thoughts after he encounters the Duke and Duchess—two characters who play into Quixote’s delusions, and set up fake adventures for him for their own amusement: “That was the first day that he thought and believed himself to be a true knight-errant and not a make-believe one…” Quixote isn’t purely mad, he still has doubts that he really is a hero like the ones he’s read about.

What people downplay, or perhaps forget, is that don Quixote doesn’t just die at the end. He’s not Cyrano de Bergerac, swinging his sword in his final moments of life. Don Quixote realizes he’s been acting like a foolish madman for the past few years, and he dies regretting this. He asks that his niece marry someone who knows nothing of books of chivalry—or if she marries someone who reads books of chivalry, that she forfeit her right to inheritance.

The final paragraphs of Don Quixote are a reminder of the author’s original purpose—”to deliver over to the detestation of mankind the false and foolish tales of the books of chivalry, which, thanks to that of my true Don Quixote, are even now tottering, and doubtless doomed to fall for ever.” No “Impossible Dream” reprisal here.

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So here’s where the meta-reading of the book comes in. The first part of Don Quixote was written in 1605, and the second in 1615. The Spanish Empire stretched from western Europe to the Americas to the Philippines, but for all its glory, its subjects lived in terrible conditions. The empire was flooded with gold from mines in South America, but had no real manufacturing capabilities. They were militarily overextended, and hardly paid soldiers anything. Miguel de Cervantes lived in this world of glory and decay, and was a soldier, held captive in North Africa for five years. After he was ransomed and returned to Spain, he began his literary career. He wrote Don Quixote as a parody of the most popular form of entertainment of the day—chivalric romances. These books were clichéd, idealized tales of the past, centering on a static, heroic protagonist.

Knowing Quixote is a reaction to these books, and Spanish society as a whole, is of course interesting. While I enjoyed that aspect of it (especially because a lot of the social problems of the day are still problems now) what I enjoyed more was finding the blueprints in the novel that would be used by later fiction for the next four centuries.

One thing I found interesting was the episodic structure of the story. For some reason, serial story-telling has passed out of novels and into other forms of media, such as television and comic books. Of course plenty of books are composed of a series of chapters, but each chapter isn’t a standalone. So it’s interesting to see this style executed in literary form, with several individual chapters making up a larger arc. There are also recurring characters as well as ones who appear for only one episode, and there are some stories that are so long they’re broken up into multiple chapters. At one point, the chapters alternate between Sancho’s adventures in governance and don Quixote’s adventures at the Duke’s palace.

Again, the length of the book is what allows it to do this. While a book (or TV show for that matter) written today may use one of these styles, Cervantes runs the gamut, just like he does with his protagonist.

The Quixotic character is of course one seen throughout literature, as is the Panzan counterpart. In Don Quixote, the character is explored much more thoroughly. Take Cyrano de Bergerac for instance. Cyrano is a riff on Quixote, but a very tightly controlled one. He is intelligent, and a dreamer, and stands by his idealism right to the very end. George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men are another riff on the two, though much more tragic. Sancho even repeatedly brings up his dream of governing an ínsula, just as Lennie repeatedly dreams of his rabbit hutch. In Don Quixote though, Cervantes takes the two characters all over the place. Sancho isn’t just the dumb dreamer with a specific refrain, he’s also a character who achieves his dream and realizes its not all he hoped for. He’s not just a pragmatic foil, he’s also a character who wants to believe. Quixote’s not just a completely incompetent failure, he does have moments where he lives up to his dreams.

Just like with the style of story-telling, Cervantes does a lot with these characters. It’s not necessarily the best execution of the style or the characters, but it is the most complete, and continually fascinating from a writer’s perspective.

Now here’s a final bit of meta-reading applied to the end: Between writing the first and second part of Don Quixote, an apocryphal second part was written and published by someone bearing the pseudonym Avellaneda. Cervantes pokes fun of this within the text of Don Quixote, but the influence of the spurious sequel  is even more pronounced in the final chapters.

After don Quixote is defeated, and promises to return home and hang up his lance, the last five or so chapters are noticeably shorter than the ones preceding them, as if Cervantes were rushing to get the book finished. The ending is rather abrupt, and the whole book is closed with a paragraph warning people not to write a third Quixote, and declaring Cervantes’ goal achieved. The end of the first part contained six poems eulogizing don Quixote, whereas the end of the second part has just one short poem, followed by the aforementioned paragraph.

Perhaps Cervantes was rushing, because he died just a few months after the book’s publication. So while it’s a tragic, touching end to the story, on another level it seems like the last desperate moments of a writer determined to finish their story the way they intended. Rather than leaving don Quixote open to carry on his quest, Cervantes slams the book closed as hard as he can. It’s a very sudden, grim wake-up call after a book filled with fun, ridiculous adventures, and a wake-up call to his readers to stop living in an idealized version of the past.

The book already invites the reader to examine not just the story but the author of it as well, being framed as a book written by Cervantes from the translation of a Moor from the original tale written in Arabic by Cide Hamete Benengeli. So that provides another level on which to enjoy Don Quixote—the story of the man who wrote the words, who claims at the end that he is “proud to have been the first who has ever enjoyed the fruit of his writings as fully as he could desire…”

This is only my musing interpretation of it though, knowing a little bit about Cervantes’s life and a little bit more about being a writer. That’s what all of this is: my reading of Don Quixote. The book is big and complex enough that I’m sure everyone who reads it will come away with something different. This is just what I came away with. As I said a ways back, I loved this book. While I read for entertainment (engaging characters, surprising plots, original worlds, etc) I also read for understanding. I love books that make me see another point of view, or help me appreciate the impact of a historical event. Don Quixote is definitely entertaining, but what it excels at (both as a work of literature and as an artifact) is the wealth of understanding it contains, ready to be sought out and interpreted by the reader.

The best thing I can say for a book is that I want to re-read it, and I want to re-read Don Quixote more than once, and understand it in new ways each time.

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