The Ingenious Nobleman Mister Quixote of La Mancha, better known as Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes was published in two parts between 1605 and 1615. This enormously famous work has been called the first modern novel. Many consider it one of the greatest works of literature. This is a big book, the edition that I read was 941 pages long.
This is a work of comedy and parody. It is also many other things. It tells the story of its namesake, Don Quixote. The protagonist is a Spanish nobleman. At 50 years of age, he decides to take to the road to live the life of a “knight-errant.” He sets out accompanied by his “squire,” a local farmer named Sancho Panza. Don Quixote’s mission is to fight injustice and right wrongs while following a strict code of chivalry. As the narrative proceeds, it becomes clear that he is living in a world of delusion (although some critics have suggested that the delusion is a put-on and that Don Quixote actually has a firm grasp on reality). Windmills become giants to be attacked, caravans of travelers become enemy armies to fight, dark and damp caves become entrances to mystical lands, inns become castles and peasant girls become princesses. The story is very episodic. Often, Don Quixote attacks random people that he perceives to be villainous warriors. The targets of his attacks typically fight back, and Don Quixote and Sancho sometimes take beatings. The pair partakes in other amusing and interesting adventures. Other times, Don Quixote befriends various people whose own stories and adventures occupy multiple pages of narrative.
Throughout the book Don Quixote and Sancho bicker, and their exchanges range from hilarious to enlightening. However, it is apparent the two harbor great affection for one another.
So much has been written about this work. Some consider it a critique of the concepts of chivalry and honor. Others consider it a tribute to those ideas. Like some, I think that the theme of this work lies somewhere in between parody and respect for these ideas. At one point, Don Quixote describes his mission,
“a knight I am, and a knight I shall die, if it pleases the Almighty. Some men walk the broad fields of haughty ambition, or base and servile adulation, or deceptive hypocrisy, and some take the road of true religion; but I, influenced by my star, follow the narrow path of knight errantry, and because I profess it I despise wealth but not honor. I have redressed grievances, righted wrongs, punished insolence, vanquished giants, and trampled monsters; I am in love, simply because it is obligatory for knights errant to be so; and being so, I am not a dissolute lover, but one who is chaste and platonic. I always direct my intentions to virtuous ends, which are to do good to all and evil to none”
The above quotation seems to encapsulate the mix of mockery and esteem for such ideas as chivalry and honor. The above is amusing. It also espouses virtues that are commendable.
What I found striking about Cervantes’s book is how modern this 400 year old work seems. Though some of this impression might be attributable to Grossman’s translation, there are universal aspects to this book that are relevant the 21st century.
In particular, I found this story to be hilarious. Don Quixote is constantly interpreting the identity of common people and everyday events as being a part of his fantasy world. These interpretations are amusing, entertaining and creative. The predicaments that he gets Sancho and himself into elicit outright laughter. I find it to be striking that so much of the humor works so well after all of these centuries.
The chemistry between Don Quixote and Sancho is both amusing and endearing. Though there is an ever-present class distinction between the two, the relationship reminds me of a modern one between unequals that is outwardly antagonistic but inwardly warm. The dialogs between the two would fit well into a modern day comedy-drama.
The description of Don Quixote’s “madness” also seems very modern. Anyone who has ever encountered a delusional person would in time recognize a lot in this book’s hero. The people that Don Quixote encounters react in ways that also reminds me of the way modern people react to mental illness. Some respond with anger, others with amusement and more than a few with understanding.
All of this makes this book very accessible to the modern reader. It also makes this work a testament to the fact that many of the things that characterize people are universal.
The above is just a nibble of what this massive book has to offer. I can easily write a series of blogs on this tome. The work is full of philosophy and both overt and underlying themes. One could also write volumes about the characters and their relationships. Thus, I will likely post at least one more entry on this work.
This is a magnificent piece of fiction. At least when it comes to Grossman’s translation, this is also very readable. Despite its status as a canonical classic, it is both entertaining and funny. Though I think that its length keeps people away from it, I would recommend this work to almost anyone who is not put off by its size. This is ultimately, a magnificent work of literature.