A Review of 'Don Quixote'

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What can anyone say about Don Quixote that hasn't been said? The book's been around for four hundred years has inspired literary movements from the eighteenth-century picaresque to the most obscure works of twenty-first-century post-modernism and has provided the impetus for critical works by everyone from Thackeray to Ortega y Gasset.

How Should a Reader Approach Don Quixote?

Shakespeare paid Cervantes (his contemporary) the rare compliment of using Quixote as source material for one of his later plays, Cardenio (the play was unfortunately lost.) The novel has been viewed as an allegory for numerous things like Christianity, the Romantic cult of the artist, extreme materialism, and the infinite referentiality of texts. Don Quixote is one of the few books that merits casual references with the definite article ("The Quixote"), and additionally is one of the few books to spawn a universally-recognized adjective ("quixotic"). How does the reader begin to evaluate a novel that has become a cultural monolith?

The simplest way, of course, is just to pay attention to the fact that Don Quixote, four hundred years after its initial publication, is still a hell of a read!

The Ins and Outs of Don Quixote

There are rough patches, yet: the mini-novels that interrupt the narrative of the first part for about a hundred pages would have been easy targets for some modern publisher's blue pencil. The long essays on arms or piety can ring strangely to reader sensibilities while the descriptions are sometimes a vague mess. Sancho Panza's brief solo adventures read like the winners of a "Find-The-Best-Tired-Fable" competition and are best forgotten. And yet the basic story, the basic concept holds up: even the irascible Nabokov, in hisLectures on Don Quixote (intended as a six-lecture trashing of the novel), is forced to admit that there might be something to the central character after all.

It's hard to stay mad at Don Quixote: as frustrating as the plot can be at times. Some archetypal lure lurks within the world of Cervantes's Spain, some magic that draws us in, much like the world of chivalry that continues to draw Quixote himself through the progressively more painful wringer of situations.

Don Quixote: The Basics

The concept of the novel is simple: Alonso Quijano, a landowner from La Mancha, is obsessed with his library of chivalrous books. Driven mad by the inconsistencies of plot, character and philosophy that fill each volume of these seventeenth-century precursors to the fantasy novel, Quijano resolves to restore dignity to the lost profession of knight-errantry. He assembles a rudimentary sword, suit of armor, and horse (the eternally-suffering-and-spavined Rocinante), and sets out into Spain in his quest for glory.

In return for this act of hysterical faith, he finds violent innkeepers, malevolent thieves, cynical shepherds, sadistic nobility, and even (due to Avellaneda's false sequel to the book's first volume, one of the most famous pieces of fan-fiction ever written) an inferior (and, in the novel, invisible) Quixote impostor.

The first few scenes involve Quixote alone against the contemporary world, but before a hundred pages have elapsed Cervantes introduces Sancho Panza, Quixote's gullible, bloated and homily-spouting squire. In conjunction with Quixote, he provides the spark for endlessly bizarre discussions in which Quixote's heightened, insane conception of the world is brought crashing to earth by Sancho's sly pragmatism (discussions which occasionally end with Quixote threatening to pummel Sancho in order to shut him up).

The Original Comic Duo: Don Quixote & Sancho

Once joined together, it's very difficult to imagine Don Quixote and Sancho ever being split apart: the two are the original comic duo, locked into perpetually and mutually exclusive views of the world. Whether Sancho is being asked to give himself hundreds of lashes in order to disenchant Quixote's swineherd love interest, Dulcinea, or whether Quixote is mixing a potion based on olive oil and bitter herbs that will, in theory, cure all of Sancho's Quixote-caused earthly wounds--the Knight and the Squire personifies the thematic conflict that propels the work.

In general, this is why Don Quixote remains one hell of a read--even today. The reader faces, in the same moment, an ideal view of the world (the world as enchanted, antiquated, idyllic) and the brutal facts of the actual world (the world as material, modern, loath to believe in knights.)

Quixote hacks at the belly of ogres in an inn basement and is rewarded by a jet of wine in his face and a hefty bill for damages. He tries to rid the land of giants and is spun, lance-first, by a powerful windmill he spears in the attempt. He attempts to liberate a statue of the Virgin Mary, which he believes to be a damsel in distress, from her captors, and in return is beaten up by priests.

Throughout, Sancho is there to say exactly what the reader is likely thinking--those aren't giants; Dulcinea isn't beautiful; none of this can be real--only to be rewarded with a lecture from Don Quixote about how he is beset by enchanters, who frustrate his every move by replacing the facts of his world, at the last moment, with devil's illusions that bear an uncomfortable resemblance to our own reality. It's a single joke repeated across a thousand pages, and yet it's strong enough to bring a laugh every time.

Measured Madness: Don Quixote

Quixote's insistence on his own reality in the face of innumerable arguments to the contrary, many of which take the form of cat scratches, cracked bones, and missing teeth, makes him an interesting character because we know--or we think we know--that Quixote is just wrong. Yet, despite all of the pain he suffers in pursuit of that wrong, he continues to believe that he's right. So we read on page-after-page, waiting to see how much more the man who believes himself a knight is able to take before he gives in. Whether, in the end, Quixote will give in at all.

Just as Quixote builds his castles from inns and criminal campfires, so we build castles of speculation from what we find in Cervantes's Spain, at once so brutally real and so dream-like, the realm of archetype and myth founded on dreary life. We, like Don Quixote, are driven to hallucinate by what might be, in the end, just a very good story.