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Novels and Reality: Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote

 

As far as genres go, the novel is a relatively young one. Poetry and drama stretch back to antiquity and beyond, but what is widely considered to be the first novel didn’t arrive on the scene until the Renaissance was starting to draw to its close. This is Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes’ monumental work in both the Spanish and English literary traditions.

Published around the same time that Shakespeare was writing his last plays in England, its importance is not due merely to chronology. You’ll find no shortage of praise for the novel or insight about Cervantes’ influence as the grandfather of the modern novel. Milan Kundera stated, “The novelist need answer to no one but Cervantes,” and Lionel Trilling mused, “It can be said that all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote.” One of these many themes is the nature of the relationship between fiction and reality, the limits between their likeness, and how we relate to the fiction we read. The novel is, at its core, a story about stories.

Don Quixote, né Alonso Quixano, is a character who wants to make himself into a character. So enamored of tales of noble knights and honor and quests, he decides to take this fiction and translate into the realm of his reality. Where the translation is rough, he bends and reinterprets the world around him to fit the preset narrative of the books in his library. Though a man nearing 50 in a Spain where knights and quests are relics of a distant past, he declares himself a knight-errant, Don Quixote of La Mancha, and leaves his home in search of quests and adventure. We the readers are in on the joke. Like other characters in the novel, we see reality for what it is. Dulcinea del Toboso, the Guinevere to Don Quixote’s Lancelot, is just a Spanish country girl. Rocinante the noble steed is nothing more than an exhausted nag. Our knight-errant’s shining armor is just an old, rusty suit he found in his house.

But Don Quixote either cannot or will not recognize the nature of the reality around him. Windmills are fearsome giants, inns are castles, their inhabitants are lords and ladies, prostitutes are princesses. Our knight gains his fame by pursuing his quests in spite of reality. Should anyone try to question him or tell him he is not a knight-errant, he will hear none of it and be on his way, secure in his fantasy. At the close of the first of the novel’s two parts, his fiction-steeped imagination seems to have won out against the reality around him.

I think it is fair to say that most people think of the first part of the novel when they think of Don Quixote. The first part contains the humor and the episodes, like the encounter with the windmills, that most people associate with Cervantes’ creation. Part II, on the other hand, offers a reversal of Don Quixote’s seeming victory over reality.

When we encounter Don Quixote at the beginning of the second part, his fame from Part I has spread. In reality, there was a span of about 10 years between Cervantes’ writing Parts I and II, in which time another author took up the character of Don Quixote in a kind of late-Renaissance/early-modern fan fiction. In the world of the novel, true tales about his exploits have spread thanks to the publication of Part I, but so have false tales based on the fraudulent sequel.

When Don Quixote encounters other characters, they already have a sense of who he is, some based on the true tales and others based on the falsehoods. Don Quixote has actually become a character, but the nature of this character is no longer fully under his control. Now, rather than try to live up to the characters he has revered in chivalric literature, he must live up to the character he himself has created but that others have appropriated.

This proves a much more difficult task; unlike the chivalric literature he had been using in Part I, Don Quixote’s full story hasn’t even been fully written yet. As Part I becomes the object of Part II and the story starts to fold in on itself, Don Quixote’s fantasy also begins to fold in on itself. As a result, Part II is noticeably different in tone; Part I’s levity remains, but it is tinged with something darker. We as readers can sense that Don Quixote’s fantasy beginning to break down, and reality beginning to intrude. He begins to doubt himself and see things as other characters see them: inns are just inns, and peasant girls are not princesses.

His final defeat comes at the hands of another knight-errant, who is, in reality, a man from his hometown who hatched a plot to force Don Quixote out of his madness. As a condition of defeat, Don Quixote must not take up arms for one year, an agreement he is bound to honor by his chivalric code. Shortly after his return, he is taken to his bed with a fever. His companions fear the cause may be melancholy and despair at his defeat. As he is dying, he proclaims that his judgment and sanity are restored and that he now despises his books of chivalry. His time as a knight-errant he renounces as a period of madness. He dies not as Don Quixote, but as Alonso Quixano, reality having finally won the day.

The relationship between the fiction of a novel and the reality of the world around us is a perennial source of inspiration for authors, and in this thematic aspect, Don Quixote looms large in subsequent literature. For example, in Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert’s heroine, Emma Bovary, similarly tries to make fiction into reality by fashioning herself after the heroines of Romantic literature, with even more disastrous consequences. T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock laments that his life cannot be as charged with meaning compared to the great figures of literature.

In her essay, A Room of One’s Own, a meditation on women and fiction and on writing fiction, Virginia Woolf describes novels and fiction more generally as being tied to reality, but lightly and at the four corners, like a spider’s web. Fiction and reality bear a certain likeness to each other, but are not and cannot be exactly the same. Don Quixote shows the truth of this analogy by showing what can happen when we blur the distinctions between the two and try too hard to make them meet.

There are 26 comments.

  1. Member

    A very interesting perspective, both on this novel and on novels and novel writing in general. A story about stories? I suspect that not all novels are quite so self-reflective.


    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series on the theme of “novel.” We still have one date, November 26th, open under that theme as we move towards our December theme of Holiday Traditions and Treats. If you have holiday traditions, holiday treats, or grew up with either and would like to share the tale, you can sign up here for a date in December.

    • #1
    • November 19, 2017 at 4:46 pm
    • 3 likes
  2. Reagan

    I’m always hesitant to acknowledge the great lacunae in my knowledge of literature, but I’ve so enjoyed your post that I want my “Like” to resonate a bit more. It comes from an old brain smiling with gratitude at encountering nuances that it otherwise would have missed :)

    • #2
    • November 19, 2017 at 6:21 pm
    • 5 likes
  3. Member

    I took a class on Don Quixote at the University of MN in th early 80’s. I remember nothing like the detail you describe here unfortunately. But I do remember falling in love with the book because of those intricate depths. And also because my professor clearly was Sancho Panza. Maybe this is my next Audible download when I’m in mourning for having finally finished War & Peace.

    • #3
    • November 19, 2017 at 8:09 pm
    • 3 likes
  4. Member

    KiminWI (View Comment):
    And also because my professor clearly was Sancho Panza.

    That has got to be quite the story.

    • #4
    • November 19, 2017 at 8:46 pm
    • 2 likes
  5. Reagan

    Just read aloud your introductory sentence to my husband. It’s been many years since either of us sat in a college classroom and find your style very engaging. I could PM you, but due to sheer laziness and the sunny notion that you’ll happily comply: Could you tell us a bit more about yourself than what is offered in you profile? (I’ll check it daily to see if my friendly nudge succeeded:)

    • #5
    • November 20, 2017 at 5:38 am
    • 1 like
  6. Member

    I’ve always thought of Don Quixote as representing the arc that is Spain in that time period. The delusions of Philip II and the crash that is Philip III. There is the burning of the books, the Inquisition. The Moriscos. The splendor and the squalor.

    • #6
    • November 20, 2017 at 6:27 am
    • 4 likes
  7. Member

    For an awesome video adaptation, click here.

    • #7
    • November 20, 2017 at 7:22 am
    • 3 likes
  8. Member
    L'Angevine Post author

    Trink (View Comment):
    I’m always hesitant to acknowledge the great lacunae in my knowledge of literature, but I’ve so enjoyed your post that I want my “Like” to resonate a bit more. It comes from an old brain smiling with gratitude at encountering nuances that it otherwise would have missed :)

    Trink (View Comment):
    Just read aloud your introductory sentence to my husband. It’s been many years since either of us sat in a college classroom and find your style very engaging. I could PM you, but due to sheer laziness and the sunny notion that you’ll happily comply: Could you tell us a bit more about yourself than what is offered in you profile? (I’ll check it daily to see if my friendly nudge succeeded:)

    Thank you so much for the kind words! To be honest, I forgot my profile even had a bio section. I’ll get on updating that asap, but to expand a little on what’s already there, I’m a (relatively) recent college graduate (double majored in a great books/liberal arts program and French) currently working in the much more policy-oriented world of survey research/data analysis and consulting. This is why you’ll find me posting about things like Don Quixote: my liberal arts brain needs a new outlet!

    • #8
    • November 20, 2017 at 10:55 am
    • 6 likes
  9. Contributor

    Fine post, glad to see this pop up on Ricochet! Will come back to yack about the book soon.

    Meanwhile: How about poetry? Do you ever discuss poetry?

    • #9
    • November 20, 2017 at 2:54 pm
    • 2 likes
  10. Thatcher

    As the Knight of the White Moon, Sampson Carrasco defeats Don Quixote and restores him to sanity, but does nothing to replace the values that he has deprived him of.

    Maybe just a little romance is necessary.

    • #10
    • November 20, 2017 at 3:09 pm
    • 4 likes
  11. Member
    L'Angevine Post author

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Fine post, glad to see this pop up on Ricochet! Will come back to yack about the book soon.

    Meanwhile: How about poetry? Do you ever discuss poetry?

    Sure! Any poets/poems in mind?

    • #11
    • November 20, 2017 at 6:04 pm
    • 3 likes
  12. Thatcher

    L’Angevine,

    Your treatment of Don Quixote and Cervantes seems very familiar. This is the usual treatment we have always heard and yet for me, there is a paradox. A brief look at Cervantes life doesn’t make him sound at all like a dreamer. His experiences, in fact, are all too real.

    By 1570, Cervantes had enlisted as a soldier in a regiment of the Spanish Navy MarinesInfantería de Marina, stationed in Naples, then a possession of the Spanish crown. He was there for about a year before he saw active service. In September 1571, Cervantes sailed on board the Marquesa, part of the galley fleet of the Holy League (a coalition of Pope Pius V, Spain, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, the Duchy of Savoy, the Knights Hospitaller based in Malta, and others, under the command of Philip II of Spain‘s illegitimate half brother, John of Austria) that defeated the Ottoman fleet on October 7 in the Battle of Lepanto, in the Gulf of Patras. Though taken down with fever, Cervantes refused to stay below and asked to be allowed to take part in the battle, saying he would rather die for his God and his king than keep under cover. He fought on board a vessel and received three gunshot wounds – two in the chest and one which rendered his left arm useless. In Journey to Parnassus he was to say that he “had lost the movement of the left hand for the glory of the right” (referring to the success of the first part of Don Quixote). Cervantes looked back on his conduct in the battle with pride: he believed he had taken part in an event that shaped the course of European history.

    After the Battle of Lepanto, Cervantes remained in hospital in Messina, Italy, for about six months, before his wounds healed enough to allow his joining the colors again.[21] From 1572 to 1575, based mainly in Naples, he continued his soldier’s life: he participated in expeditions to Corfu and Navarino, and saw the fall of Tunis and La Goulette to the Turks in 1574.[22]:220

    On 6 or 7 September 1575, Cervantes set sail on the galleySol from Naples to Barcelona, with letters of commendation to the king from the Duke of Sessa.[23] On the morning of 26 September, as the Sol approached the Catalan coast, it was attacked by Ottoman pirates and he was taken to Algiers, which had become one of the main and most cosmopolitan cities of the Ottoman Empire, and was kept there in captivity between the years of 1575 and 1580.[24] After five years as a slave in Algiers, and four unsuccessful escape attempts, he was ransomed by his parents and the Trinitarians and returned to his family in Madrid. Not surprisingly, this traumatic period of Cervantes’ life supplied subject matter for several of his literary works, notably the Captive’s tale in Don Quixote and the two plays set in Algiers – El trato de Argel (Life in Algiers) and Los baños de Argel (The Dungeons of Algiers) – as well as episodes in a number of other writings, although never in straight autobiographical form.[9] 

    The giant in Don Quixote is the Windmill. This is a symbol of Protestant Holland. Might we imagine that a man of such broad and very real experience be commenting upon the Chivalric code of the middle ages and its new competitor the Protestant ethic? After his military experience, Cervantes had jobs as both a banker and a tax collector. Again not jobs for a dreamer.

    What is Don Quixote about?

    The Zaan district

    One of the most spectacular developments of industrial wind power technology occurred in the Zaan district, a region situated just above Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Although the area is surrounded by water, the potential of water power was limited because the land is as flat as it can be and so the flow of the rivers is low. The wind, on the other hand, is strong. Many of the applications of windmills described above appeared first (and sometimes only) in the Zaan district.

    Windmills zaan district

    It is said that the region was the world’s first industrialized area. From 1600 to 1750, when the Netherlands became an important economical power, around 1,000 windmills were built and operated here (see the map on the left). Mills were given names, just like ships.

    A vital element of the wind powered industry in the Zaan district was the saw mill. Wood was required to construct houses, sluices, ships and of course more windmills. Hand sawing was a very laborious task and windmills greatly reduced the time needed for the process. With hand sawing, 60 beams or trunks would take 120 working days, with wind power this only took 4 to 5 days (see picture below, more here).

    The first sawmill (“Het juffertje” or “The missy”) was built in the town of Zaandam by Cornelis Corneliszoon in 1596. By 1630, there were 83 sawmills north of Amsterdam, of which 53 were located in the Zaan district. The peak was reached in 1731 when there were 450 sawmills in the Netherlands, 256 of them in the Zaan district. Eventually even the crane of these mills, to haul up the timber, was driven by the sails.

    Another early industrial application of wind power in the Zaan district was the production of paper – this was, after all, the era in which the printing press appeared. The first papermaking windmill (“De Gans” or “The Goose”) dates from 1605 and by 1740 there were 40 of them. In the middle of the 17th century, the Dutch paper mill was substantially improved, which enabled it to make whiter paper and make it faster.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #12
    • November 20, 2017 at 7:08 pm
    • Like
  13. Member

    The Audible recording of Don Quixote with George Guidall is excellent, if you’ve been meaning to read the book only to have the demands of reality continually intervene.

    • #13
    • November 21, 2017 at 1:16 am
    • 2 likes
  14. Member

    KiminWI (View Comment):
    I took a class on Don Quixote at the University of MN in th early 80’s. I remember nothing like the detail you describe here unfortunately. But I do remember falling in love with the book because of those intricate depths. And also because my professor clearly was Sancho Panza. Maybe this is my next Audible download when I’m in mourning for having finally finished War & Peace.

    Not to sidetrack the thread, but what did you think of War and Peace? I listened to both that and Anna Karenina, and, even though Anna is supposed to be the greatest novel ever, I liked War and Peace better.

    • #14
    • November 21, 2017 at 2:30 am
    • 2 likes
  15. Contributor

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    KiminWI (View Comment):
    I took a class on Don Quixote at the University of MN in th early 80’s. I remember nothing like the detail you describe here unfortunately. But I do remember falling in love with the book because of those intricate depths. And also because my professor clearly was Sancho Panza. Maybe this is my next Audible download when I’m in mourning for having finally finished War & Peace.

    Not to sidetrack the thread, but what did you think of War and Peace? I listened to both that and Anna Karenina, and, even though Anna is supposed to be the greatest novel ever, I liked War and Peace better.

    War & Peace is supposed to be the greatest novel. All human things are either war or peace. He’s got both!

    • #15
    • November 21, 2017 at 8:00 am
    • 2 likes
  16. Contributor

    L'Angevine (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Fine post, glad to see this pop up on Ricochet! Will come back to yack about the book soon.

    Meanwhile: How about poetry? Do you ever discuss poetry?

    Sure! Any poets/poems in mind?

    Maybe modern poets would be easier to discuss–as opposed to Homer!–are there any American poets you like?

    I’ve long been trying to talk about some Wallace Stevens poems, but it’s hard to find people interested in doing it…

    Auden & Yeats would also be great.

    There are two Frost poems that raise my eyebrow, too: Directive & Birches.

    Seamus Heaney has lots of stuff worth thinking about, the most recent thing to pique my interest being Digging.

    I could think of all sorts of other things in case you like European poets–Szymborska, Milosz, or Rilke or Celan.

    We gotta find some things we both like.

    & of course I could read & talk about Shakespeare or Dickinson any ol’day…

    • #16
    • November 21, 2017 at 8:17 am
    • 2 likes
  17. Member

    I had almost no background in literature but I saw a literature seminar available at a local school. I had recently read Pascal’s Pensees and the next class was on that book so I signed up. That was 2 years ago and I now know something about Brothers Karamazov, Lorca, Rimbaud, Bolano (Savage Detectives), Borges, Goethe’s Faust, Nicanor Parra, a fascinating little book called Tinkers, and many others. We just did the Schooner Flight by Derek Walcott.

    Most of the others in the class are far more knowledgeable than I, but I have brought a fresh perspective as an outsider, and have become one of the best poets in the class. I love that Ricochet has discussions like this.

    • #17
    • November 21, 2017 at 9:03 am
    • 4 likes
  18. Reagan

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    There are two Frost poems that raise my eyebrow, too: Directive & Birches.

    I promise. I was going to mention “Directive.”

    And I’m smiling having just read his “Gathering Leaves” because I was fighting and losing the same battle this morning.

    • #18
    • November 21, 2017 at 10:06 am
    • 3 likes
  19. Member

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    KiminWI (View Comment):
    I took a class on Don Quixote at the University of MN in th early 80’s. I remember nothing like the detail you describe here unfortunately. But I do remember falling in love with the book because of those intricate depths. And also because my professor clearly was Sancho Panza. Maybe this is my next Audible download when I’m in mourning for having finally finished War & Peace.

    Not to sidetrack the thread, but what did you think of War and Peace? I listened to both that and Anna Karenina, and, even though Anna is supposed to be the greatest novel ever, I liked War and Peace better.

    Just curious: When did you listen to Anna? I have this totally scientific theory–by which I mean a personal anecdote, with myself as the one and only experimental subject, of course–that Anna Karenina is basically unintelligible to a younger reader. S/he will either flat-out hate it, or like it because s/he walked away with the wrong message. I re-read Anna a few years ago and totally GOT it–and loved it. I simply could not have read the book properly when I was 18.

    And I actually kinda feel like this is true of many, many great books–even though I teach the Great Books to high schoolers. ;)

    • #19
    • November 21, 2017 at 10:10 am
    • 3 likes
  20. Member

    Layla (View Comment):
    When did you listen to Anna?

    It’s been within the last 6 months. I’m 66.

    • #20
    • November 21, 2017 at 10:13 am
    • Like
  21. Contributor

    Trink (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    There are two Frost poems that raise my eyebrow, too: Directive & Birches.

    I promise. I was going to mention “Directive.”

    And I’m smiling having just read his “Gathering Leaves” because I was fighting and losing the same battle this morning.

    Fun poem about something not so fun. Who’s to know indeed–we do what we can even when we make ourselves ridiculous by the inadequacy of our work. Our attitude to autumn seems to be mocked here. Not unjustly, I don’t think. I taught my nephew, who’s going through existential despair, to sweep the alley in his backyard. Hardly adequate, but it does get the body moving…

    • #21
    • November 21, 2017 at 10:29 am
    • 1 like
  22. Member
    L'Angevine Post author

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Maybe modern poets would be easier to discuss–as opposed to Homer!–are there any American poets you like?

    I’ve long been trying to talk about some Wallace Stevens poems, but it’s hard to find people interested in doing it…

    Auden & Yeats would also be great.

    There are two Frost poems that raise my eyebrow, too: Directive & Birches.

    Seamus Heaney has lots of stuff worth thinking about, the most recent thing to pique my interest being Digging.

    I could think of all sorts of other things in case you like European poets–Szymborska, Milosz, or Rilke or Celan.

    We gotta find some things we both like.

    & of course I could read & talk about Shakespeare or Dickinson any ol’day…

    Ooh, lots of good ideas here. Stevens is great (come for the titles and stick around for the poems). I’ve read a little of Rilke and Milosz. Yes to Auden and Yeats, too. Hölderlin (a bit earlier) is also good. Since I was a French major in college I’ve got a decent footing with some of the major French poets. I’m also a big fan of Hopkins and what I’ve read of John Ashbery (specifically the poem “Syringa” and a few others).

    And yes, Shakespeare and Dickinson are always good options :)

    • #22
    • November 21, 2017 at 11:04 am
    • 2 likes
  23. Contributor

    I should have added French stuff, too–I noticed you’ve done work on that–worth bringing back, so to speak.

    So I’ll write to you & maybe we can start doing some podcasts, what do you say?

    • #23
    • November 21, 2017 at 11:35 am
    • 1 like
  24. Member
    L'Angevine Post author

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    I should have added French stuff, too–I noticed you’ve done work on that–worth bringing back, so to speak.

    So I’ll write to you & maybe we can start doing some podcasts, what do you say?

    Definitely! That sounds great.

    • #24
    • November 21, 2017 at 12:46 pm
    • 2 likes
  25. Member

    I read The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World recently with great pleasure. Also Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote is worthwhile. One gives you an idea of Cervantes circumstances, the other gives you a working genius writer’s appraisal of another*. Nabokov was pretty much a New Critic (read the damn book–carefully–and forget everything else), but he did make the historical observation that 17th Spaniards apparently thought people being beaten with thick sticks was hilarious as all get-out. He also thought you couldn’t read Ulysses without a street map.

    *Nabokov did think the character got away from the author, which you can see in the author’s changing attitude to the crackpot Don in the first chapters. There’s a lot of evidence that careful planning–or attention to what was previously written– is just not part of the book.

    • #25
    • November 21, 2017 at 7:12 pm
    • 2 likes
  26. Contributor

    Nabokov just didn’t understand comedy.

    Let me recommend also Rene Girard for a philosophical-Christian interpretation of the novel. Romantic lie & novelistic truth is the book’s name; it sounds clever in French: Mensonge romantique & verite romanesque.

    • #26
    • November 21, 2017 at 11:02 pm
    • 2 likes