[This is a post-in-progress in the style of Shmoop, an awesome site for high school students or undergrads who want to learn more about literature with a down-to-earth, fun, and accessible approach. It’s kind of like a fun version of Cliff notes that isn’t about shortcuts, but rather provides food for thought and teaches appreciation for literature].
In a Nutshell
Don Quixote is a novel by Miguel de Cervantes, published in 1605 (Part 1) and 1615 (Part 2). The book is the story of a sometimes delusional, sometimes coherent old man who takes it upon himself to fight the evils of the world and protect the innocent. Don Quixote becomes crazy by reading too many chivalric romances about legendary heroes like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In order to achieve a new golden age of peace and prosperity, Don Quixote sets out from his small village and begins a series of comical misadventures with his squire Sancho Panza at his side. Along the way, he is constantly ridiculed, battered and bruised and accomplishes very little. After many adventures and injuries, Don Quixote returns to his village, where he becomes sane again and dies.
Don Quixote contains more than just this simple plot, however. As Whitman would say, it contains multitudes. In fact, the first volume tells more stories about other characters than it tells about Don Quixote and Sancho. The episodic format of Don Quixote‘s chapters allows the author to jump between several story lines and characters. The novel encompasses all aspects of Spanish society of the time and has something to say to everyone and about everything.
Why Should I Care?
Scholars consider Don Quixote to be the first modern novel. In a sense, it contains all other novels. One scholar even claimed that “all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote” (hover for source). Don Quixote uses a variety of literary devices you may recognize: an unreliable, subjective narrator (or a series of narrators); suspense and cliffhangers; nested narrations (like the play within the play in Shakespeare’s Hamlet); nods to the audience; and realistic dialogue. The stories in the book take on a variety of styles, yet they manage to form a coherent whole. This is the true accomplishment of Cervantes’ novel, in that it takes previous forms and genres like the epic, the novella and the romance and turns them into something more than just a sum of their parts.
A great example of the novel’s modernity is its self-aware take on authorship and publishing itself. In the beginning of the second part of the novel, Don Quixote and Sancho are talking to a local egghead. He asks them about a few consistencies in the first part of the book, which everyone has already read. Don Quixote responds that
the author of this history can’t have been a wise man, but some ignorant, senseless blabberer, who started to write it without knowing what he was doing, letting everything go however it wanted…and that’s how it will have to be with my history: there’ll have to be footnotes before anyone can understand it. (Burton Raffel translation, p. 378)
What’s fascinating about this scene is that the popularity of the first part of Don Quixote is already taken for granted and actually figures into the plot of the second part of the book. It’s kind of like when an actor in a movie looks straight into the camera and says something to the audience. That is, one aspect of Don Quixote‘s modernity is its self-awareness and ability to reflect upon its own status as a literary work. Both the author and reader are already present in the text. Don Quixote the character is worried about Don Quixote the book. Don Quixote the book is, in turn, about literature itself.
Another salient aspect of the novel is the perpetual fight of idealism against the harsh reality of reason. Is Don Quixote truly crazy just because he sees giants instead of windmills, and damsels in distress instead of peasant girls? Sancho Panza’s initially rational character would seem to suggest otherwise, as Sancho becomes more and more taken by the web of fiction Don Quixote spins as the novel progresses.
Don Quixote makes us question what it means to read and write as well as what we see and feel as human beings. Do we yield to authority and call everything by its name, or do we dare to imagine new worlds?