Review: Miguel de Cervantes’s “Don Quixote”

by Miles Raymer


I read Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote more out of obligation than inspiration. For people who care about the history and possible futures of the novel, Don Quixote is impossible to ignore. So, aided by the encouragement of a close friend and Edith Grossman’s deft translation, I set out with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on a journey so strange that we now have a special word for it: quixotic. And although I couldn’t escape the literary inanition that waylays many would-be Quixote completists, I also discovered one of the most thematically rich texts I’ve ever had the pleasure to explore.

First off, I’d like to draw a sharp distinction between the two claims that are often made about this book: first, that it is the first modern novel, and second, that it is also the best novel ever written. I think it’s safe to say the first claim is absolutely correct. It’s hard to overstate how far ahead of its time this book was. In the early 17th century, Cervantes was playing with brand new ideas and structures––some of which didn’t become popular until two or three centuries later. The book is a masterpiece in that regard, but how often is the first version of a new thing also the best? Almost never, and Don Quixote is no exception. Though it contains the seeds of a groundbreaking literary tradition, my experience was that the text itself is repetitive and boring. The vast majority of the narrative is cyclical rather than progressive, and Cervantes’s antiquated gender politics and weird notions of justice and accounting (both moral and monetary) provide a lot of obstacles for modern readers.

Even so, there is lots to love for people willing to slog through the page-by-page quagmire of goofy witticisms, haphazard conflicts, and tangential asides that dominate Don Quixote. One of the novel’s most striking features is its depiction of a society primed to claw its way out of the Dark Ages and into the first light of modernity. Cervantes straddles the border between the medieval world and what was to come––both a creature of the old ways and a harbinger of something new. In one way, Don Quixote signifies a celebration of medieval rituals and values:

I only devote myself to making the world understand its error in not restoring that happiest of times when the order of knight errantry was in flower. But our decadent age does not deserve to enjoy the good that was enjoyed in the days when knights errant took it as their responsibility to bear on their own shoulders the defense of kingdoms, the protection of damsels, the safeguarding of orphans and wards, the punishment of the proud, and the rewarding of the humble. (464)

Passages like these make it hard to believe that Cervantes didn’t feel at least some degree of nostalgia for the “good old days,” but the full mystique of Don Quixote is more complex. Don Quixote talks endlessly about the nobility of knighthood, and always does his best to fulfill the role of the knight with honor, but his madness bends the results in comic and sometimes quite tragic ways. Quixote is constantly picking fights with inanimate objects and poor people, usually with results that seem far from morally commendable. His blunders are an acerbic assault on the idea that knighthood symbolizes anything beyond the use of brute force to perpetuate one’s personal agenda. Quixote’s tendency to miscarry justice, which is invariably revealed by the clever and unfortunate Sancho Panza, gives the lie to the very nostalgia in which Quixote (and perhaps Cervantes himself) so zealously participates.

There is a parallel here with Cervantes’s writing style. Although he makes liberal use of sonnets and other kinds of verse, Cervantes also plays with style in ways that had little precedent at the time. The conversational tone of his prose was highly innovative, as “great works” were generally supposed to follow a more rigid, poetic structure. Cervantes blew that assumption off its hinges, blazing a new path for what would become the modern novel: “The epic can be written in prose as well as in verse” (413).

Another fascinating element of Don Quixote is its many commentaries on the nature of madness, most notably the dynamic of how a madman can be convincing enough to string others along. Sancho is the most obvious victim (and beneficiary?) of Quixote’s madness, as demonstrated by the observations of two men listening to him speak of his adventures with his master:

The two men were astonished again as they considered how powerful the madness of Don Quixote was, for it had pulled along after it the good sense of this poor man. They did not want to make the effort to disabuse him of the error in which he found himself, for it seemed to them that since it was not injurious to his conscience, it would be better to leave him where he was so that they would have the pleasure of hearing his foolishness. (210)

Quixote and Sancho are mocked constantly, both to their faces and behind their backs. Yet they share a private understanding that proves undeniably touching, and they succeed more than once in convincing whole groups of people to play along with their shenanigans. When we lift this dynamic out of the novel and apply it to real life, we learn something critical about the ways in which we come to identify with those who share the same delusions. The world of Quixote is, some would argue, just like the real world in the sense that no one has a direct claim to “ultimate reality,” so whoever can make the most persuasive case for his or her point of view will prevail.

The more Quixote and Sancho can convince others to play along, the more the line between madness and intelligence becomes blurred:

The two gentlemen were exceedingly happy to hear Don Quixote relate the strange events of his history, and they were as amazed by the nonsensical things he said as by the elegant manner in which he said them. Here they considered him intelligent, and there he seemed to slip into foolishness, and they could not determine where precisely to place him between intelligence and madness. (847)

Quixote and Cervantes become the same entity in passages such as these, for it is the author himself who has cast a fictional spell strong enough to make us wonder about the limits of the “real world”. Elegance of expression can be a key to creating richly imagined worlds, some of which come to affect human life as much or more than the mundane facts of reality. We 21st-century kooks are so submerged in this truth that we barely notice it through the haze of stories that pervade daily life, but Cervantes was there at the beginning; he watched the ocean recede long before the narrative tsunami struck shore.

This refiguring of how we access reality is a monumental stride away from the ideology of absolute monarchy that dominated the Dark Ages. Although it would strain credulity to call the politics of Don Quixote progressive, the prototypes of ideas like freedom of expression, meritocracy, and a newfound concern for the indignities of the laboring class are all present. Sancho is the voice of this new perspective:

I am your vassal, but not your slave; the nobility of your blood does not have nor should it have the power to dishonor and scorn the humbleness of mine; I, a low-born farmer, esteem myself as much as you, a noble lord, esteem yourself. Your force will have no effect on me, your wealth will hold no value for me, your words will not deceive me, and your sighs and tears will not soften me. (233)

This is a far cry from the disgraced peasant groveling before his lord, a stentorian assertion of humanism from a truth-teller who is equal parts fool and wise man. Sadly, Sancho is too far ahead of his time, and suffers greatly during his travels with Quixote. Speaking for the underclass that would not have a true voice until Marx came along more than two centuries later, Sancho promises:

This seems like one dirty trick on top of another, and not honey on hotcakes. How nice it would be after pinches, slaps, and pinpricks to have a few lashes. Why not just take a big stone and tie it around my neck and put me in a well, and I won’t mind it too much since I have to be a laughingstock in order to solve other people’s problems. Let me alone; if not, I swear I’ll knock down and destroy everything, and I don’t care what happens. (911)

Humans everywhere should heed this portentous passage, for the walls of civilization become thin indeed when the the Sancho Panzas of the world suffer too greatly while the rest of us celebrate our good fortune.

There are many other features of Don Quixote I could praise had I the time: its brilliant layers of metafiction, its prescient commentaries on the role of books in society, and even its nauseating forays into the land of dick and fart jokes. It is truly one of the great works, well deserving of its august place in the Western Canon.

Perhaps my favorite parting image is the vanquished Quixote’s eventual return to reason: “After he was defeated he thought with sounder judgment about everything” (922). Failure is an experience we go to great lengths to avoid, and yet it is one of our most effective teachers. If Don Quixote can finally learn to face his failures rather than transmuting them into fantastical triumphs, perhaps there is hope for the rest of us.

Rating: 9/10