Miguel de Cervantes, Pioneering Novelist

Biography

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza statues in Madrid. Getty Images

No name is more associated with Spanish literature — and perhaps with classic literature in general — than that of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. He was the author of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, which is sometimes referred to as the first European novel and which has been translated into nearly every major language, making it one of the most widely distributed books after the Bible.

Although few people in the English-speaking world have read Don Quijote in its original Spanish, it nevertheless has had its influence on the English language, giving us expressions such as "the pot calling the kettle black," "tilting at windmills," "a wild-goose chase" and "the sky's the limit." Also, our word "quixotic" comes from the name of the title character. (Quijote is often spelled as Quixote.)

Despite his immense contributions to world literature, Cervantes never became wealthy as a result of his work, and not much is known about the early parts of his life. He was born in 1547 as the son of surgeon Rodrigo de Cervantes in Alcalá de Henares, a small town near Madrid; it is believed that his mother, Leonor de Cortinas, was the descendant of Jews who had converted to Christianity.

As a young boy he moved from town to town as his father sought work; later he would study in Madrid under Juan López de Hoyos, a well-known humanist, and in 1570 he went to Rome to study.

Ever loyal to Spain, Cervantes joined a Spanish regiment in Naples and received a wound in a battle at Lepanco that permanently injured his left hand. As a result, he picked up the nickname of el manco de Lepanto (the cripple of Lepanco).

His battle injury was only the first of Cervantes' troubles. He and his brother Rodrigo were on a ship that was captured by pirates in 1575.

It wasn't until five years later that Cervantes was released — but only after four unsuccessful escape attempts and after his family and friends raised 500 escudos, an enormous sum of money that would drain the family financially, as ransom. Cervantes' first play, Los tratos de Argel ("The Treatments of Algiers"), was based on his experiences as a captive, as was the later "Los baños de Argel" ("The Baths of Algiers").

In 1584 Cervantes married the much younger Catalina de Salazar y Palacios; they had no children, although he had a daughter from an affair with an actress.

A few years later, Cervantes left his wife, faced severe financial difficulties, and was jailed at least three times (once as a murder suspect, although there was insufficient evidence to try him). He eventually settled in Madrid in 1606, shortly after the first part of "Don Quijote" was published.

Although publication of the novel didn't make Cervantes rich, it eased his financial burden and gave him recognition and the ability to devote more time to writing. He published the second part of Don Quijote in 1615 and wrote dozens of other plays, short stories, novels and poems (although many critics have little good to say about his poetry).

Cervantes' final novel was Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda ("The Exploits of Persiles and Sigismunda"), published three days before his death on April 23, 1616. Coincidentally, Cervantes' date of death is the same as William Shakespeare's, although in reality Cervantes' death came 10 days sooner because Spain and England used different calendars at the time.

Quick — name a fictional character from a literary work written about 400 years ago.

Since you're reading this page, you probably had little difficulty coming up with Don Quijote, the title character of Miguel de Cervantes' famous novel. But how many others could you name? Except for characters developed by William Shakespeare, probably few or none.

At least in Western cultures, Cervantes' pioneering novel, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, is one of the few that has been popular for so long.

It has been translated into nearly every major language, inspired some 40 motion pictures, and added words and phrases to our vocabulary. In the English-speaking world, Quijote is easily the most well-known literary figure who was the product of a non-English-speaking author in the past 500 years.

Clearly, Quijote's character has endured, even if few people today read the entire novel except as a part of college coursework. Why? Perhaps it is because there is something in most of us that, like Quijote, can't always distinguish totally between reality and the imagination. Perhaps it's because of our idealistic ambitions, and we like seeing someone continuing to strive despite the disappointments of reality. Perhaps it's simply because we can laugh at a part of ourselves in the numerous humorous incidents that happen during Quijote's life.

Here is a brief overview of the novel that might give you some idea what to expect if you decide to tackle Cervantes' monumental work:

Plot summary: The title character, a middle-aged gentleman from the La Mancha region of Spain, becomes enchanted with the idea of chivalry and decides to seek adventure. Eventually, he is accompanied by a sidekick, Sancho Panza. With a dilapidated horse and equipment, together they seek glory, adventure, often in the honor of Dulcinea, Quijote's love.

Quijote doesn't always act honorably, however, and neither do many of the other minor characters in the novel. Eventually Quijote is brought down to reality and dies shortly thereafter.

Major characters: The title character, Don Quijote, is far from static; indeed, he reinvents himself several times. He often is a victim of his own delusions and undergoes metamorphoses as he gains or loses touch with reality. The sidekick, Sancho Panza, may be the most complex figure in the novel. Not particularly sophisticated, Panza struggles with his attitudes toward Quijote and eventually becomes his most loyal companion despite repeated arguments. Dulcinea is the character that is never seen, for she was born in Quijote's imagination (although modeled after a real person).

Novel structure: Quijote's novel, while not the first novel written, nevertheless had little on which it could be modeled. Modern readers may find the episodic novel too long and redundant as well as inconsistent in style. Some of the novel's quirks are intentional (in fact, some portions of the latter parts of the book were written in response to public comments on the portion that was published first), while others are products of the times.

References: Proyecto Cervantes, Miguel de Cervantes 1547-1616, Hispanos Famosos