The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, Part One
by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
Don Quixote is considered by many to be the first example of the contemporary novel-as-we-know-it, though I believe this is much more applicable to “Part Two” than it is to “Part One.” The story is set in the year 1614, shortly after publication of Part One (1605) and just before the publication of Part Two (1615). In this hilarious adventure tale, Don Quixote, a self-proclaimed Knight Errant, with his faithful squire Sancho Panza, set out on a journey to restore chivalry to the world, with a goal of defending the helpless and destroying the wicked. The two foolish men wander throughout Spain and encounter all sorts of bizarre adventures, from giants mistaken as windmills to village taverns mistaken for castles.
Sancho Panza joins Don Quixote in these adventures because he believes that his squireship will bring him riches, or at least the governorship of an isle, as that is what Don Quixote tells him has happened in all the books of chivalry (which must mean it is true!). As for Don Quixote, he claims to be on a quest to make himself worthy of the love of his lady, Dulcinea del Toboso, and he demands that all who would challenge him must proclaim to the world that Dulcinea del Toboso is the most beautiful, most wonderful woman in all of Spain. Of course, Dulcinea del Toboso, like Sancho’s riches and Don Quixote’s texts, is just a fiction.
After numerous adventures, wherein Don Quixote repeatedly proves just how foolish (and dangerous) he is, he and Sancho eventually meet a woman who quickly comes to understand Don Quixote’s “affliction” and uses it to her advantage, pretending to be a royal woman in distress who needs the assistance of a noble knight. What is fascinating is how very sane and, indeed, brilliant Don Quixote can be when speaking about anything other than knighthood and romances. It is only when he is invested in his chivalric adventures (which is most of the time) that he becomes, essentially, a madman. In the end, a priest and barber from La Mancha, who had disguised themselves in order to get in with Don Quixote’s company without raising suspicion, capture Don Quixote and convince him that he has been enchanted; in this way, they manage to bring him home, where they hope to cure his insanity and obsession with fictional tales of knight errantry.
Don Quixote is a parody of the romances of the time. The Renaissance (15th-16th centuries) which, in Spain, had immediately preceded Cervantes’ life and the creation of this novel, gave rise to new discussions about and interpretations of art, morality, identity, and humanism; however, the popular literature of Cervantes’s era continued to be rife with books of chivalry – melodramatic fantasies about the adventures of wandering knights who slay giants, rescue damsels in distress, and battle evil wizards and enchanters. These were highly stylized tales with shallow characters who were playing out the rules of tired, dusty old dramas. In those dramas, the main theme was chivalry: protecting the weak, lauding women, and celebrating brave knights who traveled the world in search of good deeds to be done.
The character Don Quixote is obsessed with these romances and these knights. He truly believes himself to be one of the greatest of knights errant, who must live and die by the code set down in these fictional texts. Through him, Cervantes is commenting on the ridiculousness (and tiredness) of these old ideas. He desperately wanted to bring Spanish Literature into the new age (which, though Cervantes wouldn’t know it, yet, was anticipating the Enlightenment). All is not a joke, however. Cervantes was a soldier and he was deeply devoted to Spain. The country was making great advances in technology and social enterprises, and it was earning a great deal of wealth from its American colonies. Amidst all this change, Cervantes did believe that a code of values (like the ancient codes of chivalry) could be useful for a nation confused by war with England, militarily, and also with the Muslim religion.
One of the most ground-breaking elements of Don Quixote is its narration. The book is narrated by the author, who is commenting on a “true history” as written by a fictive historian called Cide Hamete Benengeli, a Moor who originally chronicled the adventures of Don Quixote. Cervantes as narrator charges himself with translating the original text; thus, he narrates most of the book in the third-person, but does sometimes enter into the thoughts of the characters or into first person, such as when he is commenting on the novel itself or the original manuscript (written by Benengeli). There are three sections to Don Quixote, the first two being in “Part One” and the third being all of “Part Two.” The first section is largely a parody of the contemporary romance tales and is likely what most people think of when they think about Don Quixote. The second part, however, takes a narrative shift toward historical fiction. It proceeds episodically, is not as comedic, and is pulled much more from Cervantes’s life experiences, via third-party tales (not just the narrator telling us what is happening with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, but other characters talking to our main heroes about their own histories and adventures). In these first two sections (or “Part One”) it is Cervantes as narrator who is reporting the entire story, in direct narrative style, but this is something which will change for “Part Two.”
In addition to the interesting narrative choices (which become much more interesting and complex in “Part Two”) there are other major themes and motifs, such as: Morality (old ideas versus new ones); a comparison between Class and Worth (Cervantes’s claim being that one’s class does not necessarily speak to their personal worth – an extremely radical idea for the time); Romance (romantic love being of highest value); Honor (the idea of being personally honorable is lauded, whereas the idea of living up to a lofty, ancient code of honor seems to be mocked and leads to sometimes disastrous consequences); and Literature (there is a raging debate about the need for truthfulness and historical accuracy in fiction, and about how much of literature can/should be expected to be honest and how much of it pure imagination).
Some of the most interesting elements of Don Quixote, are those which are drawn from Cervantes’s own life. His fears, his biases, and his own experiences very much contributed to the themes in the book, even giving him inspiration for the creation of it. Mistrust for foreigners, for example, is a prevalent theme, as is the tension between the Moors and the Catholics. Cervantes and his brother were captured by pirates and sold to the Moors (Muslims), after which they ended up in Algiers. Cervantes tried to escape –three times- but could not get away until he was ransomed in 1580, after which he was able to return to Spain. This experience, in addition to the defeat of the impenetrable Spanish Armada in 1588, by the English, are the backbone of the tale, and make up some of its intermediary tales, such as the tale of the captive (Chapter 34). Many of the battles Cervantes engaged in when he was in the Spanish Army are recounted somewhat in this book, through other characters’ tales, which adds depth and autobiographical history to this fantasy tale.
Ultimately, Part One of Don Quixote is historical fiction disguised as literary parody. It is great fun, for a while, but is, in my opinion, longer than necessary; one could get the point in half the time, though what Cervantes starts to work on in the second section of Part One is definitely a shift away from the pure farce and fantasy of the first section. Cervantes does explore some interesting notions, such as cross-dressing, self-worth, female independence, and the nature of love, all of which are looked at it relatively new ways. For its autobiographical exploration, its historical significance, and its narrative uniqueness, Don Quixote (Part One) is a valuable read, but it is Part Two, in my opinion, which really stands out and, perhaps, keeps Don Quixote in the canon of important classics. Continue to my thoughts on Part Two.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Spanish Literature, Classics, Parody, Comedy, Romance, Morality Novel, Historical Novel.
“And so from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits. He filled his mind with all that he read in them, with enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooing, loves, torments and other impossible nonsense; and so deeply did he steep his imagination in the belief that all the fanciful stuff he read was true, that to his mind no history in the world was more authentic” (32).
“I do not understand why, merely because she inspires love, a woman who is loved for her beauty is obliged to love the man who loves her” (108).
“I do swear, I tell you, that I will keep silent to the very last days of your honour’s life. And please God I may be free to speak to-morrow” (125).
“A knight errant who turns mad for a reason deserves neither merit nor thanks. The thing is to do it without cause” (203).
“They say we ought to love our Lord for Himself alone, without being moved to it by hope of glory or fear of punishment. Though, as for me, I’m inclined to love and serve Him for what He can do for me” (273).
“Love, I have heard it said, sometimes flies and sometimes walks. With one person it runs, with another creeps; some it cools and some it burns; some it wounds and others it kills; in a single instant it starts on the race of passion, and in the same instant concludes and ends it; in the morning it will besiege a fortress, and by evening it has subdued it, for there is no force that can resist it” (304).
“Women have naturally a readier wit for good or for evil than men, although it fails them when they set about deliberate reasoning” (308).
Don Quixote is Book #12 completed for my Classics Club Challenge
Don Quixote is Book #3 completed for my Back to the Classics Challenge 2013
Don Quixote is Book #124 completed for my 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die Challenge