For the Spanish Language Academies’ 2004 edition of the classic Don Quixote, the scholar Martín de Riquer contributed an introductory article (pages lx-lxiii), which is perceptive. I have the temerity to offer a summary, below.
Don Quixote lacks a novel-like plot; and its subject matter can be explained in very few words: a ‘hidalgo’ (minor noble), devoted to reading books about chivalry, goes mad, sets himself up as a knight errant and ventures out from his village three times in search of adventures, until, obliged to return home, he falls sick, recovers his wits and dies a Christian death. For the reader there is no mystery or suspense; it is all clear; and when the hidalgo regains his reason, the story comes to an end.
Don Quixote’s madness leads him to three false conclusions:
- He is only a member of the minor nobility but believes that he is a knight
- He believes that everything he has read in books of chivalry is true
- He believes that it is possible to revive the chivalry of yesteryear in early 17th century Spain.
Let us look at these errors of judgement.
Look at Chapter 3 of the First Part, where the innkeeper supposedly dubs Don Quixote a knight. As the great commentator, Clemencín, has pointed out: the innkeeper dubbed the hidalgo a knight only as a joke; and the law stipulated that such an act disqualified the recipient from being accepted as a knight; other factors working against him are his madness and his poverty.
A commentator, Sebastian de Covarrubias, in his book, Tesoro de la lengua castellana o español, published in 1611, described books about chivalry as “fictitious”. Martín de Riquer notes that historically true accounts should be called “chronicles”. Till recently, however, Castilian Spanish did not have the term “novel”, whereas French and Italian did. He suspects that this lack may have contributed to Don Quixote’s confusion. Whereas French writers could call their fictional stories “romans,” Spanish writers of the 16th and 17th centuries could not: they felt obliged to turn to the terms “history” and “chronicle”, which were applied to genuine histories too.
But Don Quixote, of course, believes that the fictitious stories are true. This is shown, for example, in his long speech in Part One, Chapter 49, where he gives long lists, first of fictional characters and events, and secondly of real people and events, without being able to distinguish between them. The names come from the Crónica de Juan II, Cervantes’s only source on the knights errant of the 15th century. [lxiv] There were numerous knights, indeed, at this time, wandering across Europe, from court to court, seeking adventure – a century before Cervantes put pen to paper to write Don Quixote.
Connected with this world, there were two sorts of book: (a) biographies of knights and (b) fictitious books of chivalry. The latter were modelled on the former. They include the Catalan Tirant lo Blanch (Tirante el Blanco), praised by the village priest, in Part One, Chapter 6.
These fictions can be viewed in a long line of succession that goes back to the works of Chrétien de Troyes (who wrote in verse) and Lancelot and Tristan (in prose). They are characterised by magical elements, and the action is located in exotic and faraway countries and in a remote past.
To really understand Don Quixote, we must recognise that it is not a satire on chivalry or chivalric ideals but a parody of a literary genre in vogue during the 16th century. Because of their gross exaggerations and lack of restraint, the books of this genre make what is heroic and ideal look ridiculous. Don Quixote, indeed, is constructed as a parody, what with its style (archaic and bombastic in places), its crises, its episodes and the very structure of the story.
Cervantes thought that fictional accounts of chivalry were harmful; and in the event, with the publication of Don Quixote, he succeeded in killing them off.
Another success is the fact that Don Quixote has gone beyond Spain and has lasted till the present day, and has been read by people who are not familiar with 17th century Spain.
The overworked idea that Don Quixote represents idealism, and Sancho Panza materialism, contains a grain of truth but is not always valid, for the simple reason that ideals amount to more than the follies of a madman, and because Sancho is attached, not only to the basic things of life, but also to his idea of governing an island and giving orders.
The figure of Don Quixote gains the sympathy of every reader: they feel the bitterness rather than the comedy of his successive fiascos, because he is a good man, loyal and intelligent. But let us not forget that Cervantes gradually takes his hero towards real adventure, in the last days of his third expedition, and then undermines him, and reveals him to be a foolish man, incapable of bravery when circumstances demand it. The only answer is to restore his wits, so that he becomes Quijano the Good, who renounces his dreams of heroism on his deathbed.
The two parts of Don Quixote are different in structure. In the First Part, published in 1605, there are various digressions, which interrupt the flow of the main story. Some of these have nothing to do with the main thread, ie Don Quixote’s own adventures. (Examples are: the Novela del curioso impertinente [The Ill-Advised Curiosity] and the life-story of the captive.) The love story of Cardenio-Luscinda and Don Fernando-Dorotea appears more closely connected to the main story, as these characters take an active part in it and interact with Don Quixote himself. Something similar occurs in the love story of Grisóstomo and Marcela.
If we exclude the digressions from the First Part, it turns out to be much shorter than the Second. The latter concentrates on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and its action is a unity.
Don Quixote’s first expedition has a character distinct from the rest of the book, because Sancho Panza is absent, and with him the dialogues between the knight and his squire. Their conversations are one of the greatest charms of Don Quixote; and they fill many chapters in which nothing at all happens.
All the characters are sharply defined and distinguished. Some are based on real people, others on literary models. Cervantes is able to manage the relationships between them all.
In the Second Part, the First Part is mentioned and discussed by the characters; so too is the unauthorised continuation by Avellanada.
The style of Don Quixote varies, in line with the events: it is “pastoral”, in the chapters devoted to Gristómo and Marcela; it seems to be taken from a Moorish tale, when the adventures of the captive are related; taken from a picaresque novel, in the episode of the galley slaves; and taken from an “exemplary novel” in the Italian style, in El curioso impertinente. There are displays of oratory, with Don Quixote’s long speeches on various themes. There are letters too – some serious, some comic. In the mouth of Sancho Panza, in particular, Cervantes shows his skill in reproducing the colloquial speech of the common people.
Don Quixote has passages with slow, detailed descriptions, but also pages where the action passes speedily and vigorously, full of arguments and fights, giving an impression of disorder and whirl, and the appearance of events taking place in real time. See for example the “events at the inn” in Chapter 16 of the First Part.
Basically, Don Quixote is a funny book. It fulfils the author’s aim (declared in the Prologue to the First Part) to entertain his readers: “to make the melancholy person who reads [the] story laugh, and the mirthful to laugh even more.” It is full of humour, charm, jokes, wordplay and elegant expressions – and irony in the style, eg in the titles of the chapters, in the detailed expositions, and in the unexpected outcomes.