Don Quixote—Miguel de Cervantes

[I’m reading this in twelve sections. So far I’ve read one section, and I only have the vaguest recollection of what happens in the novel after this.]

26 March 2018
Chapters 1-14
I’ve been meaning to re-read this for years. The only other time I read it was for a course module on ‘The Heroic and Mock-Heroic’, and it’s clear from the start why it was on the reading list. It’s the great granddaddy not so much of a straightforwardly mock-heroic style, but of an urbane, knowing authorial voice that established a kind of norm for a huge number of later authors. We also find out from the start that there was a well-established literary and publishing scene when Cervantes was writing—so Cervantes wasn’t working in any kind of a vacuum—and more than a hint of what he was kicking against. He refers by name to dozens of romances published in previous decades in the highly satirical Chapter 6, and even as early as the Preface he is inventing a discussion between the self-doubting author and the friend who is happy to tell him exactly what the public wants. So…

…even before Chapter 1, he’s playing metafictional games—the sort of thing that an author like Laurence Sterne loved in the following century. And there’s a separation between the author and his characters that must have been new in the early 17th Century, but in later centuries comes to feel like the norm, at least in literary fiction. In the best fiction of any kind, there is always a kind of unspoken agreement between the narrator and the reader that the world they create might feel plausible, even realistic, but certainly isn’t real. The people who inhabit it are there for us to sympathise with, sure, but are no more real than the characters on a stage. Most authors stay within tight boundaries, even four centuries after Cervantes—there’s little breaking of the fourth wall in 90-plus per cent of novels—but, to change the metaphor, there are things in the author’s kit-bag that can be used if required.

It isn’t just a matter of the reader suspending disbelief. That’s the norm, in all fiction. I imagine those romances that Don Quixote constantly refers to and quotes from to be, for 16th Century readers, similar to the modern fantasy genre: nobody believes any of it is real, but it can be engaging at a plausibly human level if well done. It seems to me that what Cervantes is doing in these early chapters is offering us a character who just doesn’t get this subtle contract between the author and the reader. Instead of suspending his disbelief, Don Quixote believes every last bit of it. It turns the world of 16th and 17th Century Spain into a place he can’t recognise for what it is, because he keeps superimposing a romance interpretation on it all.

At first, we take Cervantes’ presentation of his main character at face-value. Exactly one page in: ‘the poor gentleman lost his mind.’ So, it’s fine for us to believe him to be, more or less, a stock character. He rides off on his old nag of a horse, imagining himself riding a valiant steed, and thinking himself into the mindset of the ‘knight errant’ that he’s decided he must become. He rides through the unpromising countryside in his patched-up old armour, deciding that he needs ‘a lady to love—for a knight without a lady-love is as a tree without leaves or fruit.’ He decides he was once in love with a certain ‘Aldonza’—a name, I read in the notes in my edition, the romance-writers only ever allocated to peasant girls. She, the narrator tells us, ‘never noticed’ him, but now he can make a brave speech and, on the back of that, imagine her as his lady. Speeches are everything to him—and, in fact, it had been ‘such words and phrases’ which, in the sentence I quoted from at the beginning of this paragraph, made him lose his mind in the first place.

That first day, a run-down inn is a marvellous castle, the innkeeper a lordly knight who, Quixote decides, will have the authority to dub him a true knight. The innkeeper, and the young women who are beautiful ladies in Quixote’s imagination, go along with this. To the innkeeper he’s just a joke, and the genuinely heroic vigil he keeps over his armour is no more than the behaviour of a lunatic. But already—and we are still only in Chapter 2—I think Cervantes is holding out the possibility of something more subtle. Quixote might have started off as a stock character, but our narrator can be omniscient when he chooses, and is able to reveal the heroism beneath the slapstick. It isn’t enough, of course, especially in these early adventures, because whilst opening his mind to great vistas of heroism—all, significantly, consisting entirely of words and epic phrases—Quixote is constantly setting himself up for a pratfall…

…which Cervantes is happy to deliver, one after the other. So far, as far as I can remember, nobody has been hurt except Quixote himself and, later, the hapless Sancho Panza. He, a hero-worshipping peasant on Quixote’s own estate, is happy to leave his wife and children to be his squire on whatever fool’s errand his new master can dream up. This doesn’t happen until after Quixote’s first adventure. Soon after being knighted well before the end of his vigil—the innkeeper had quickly tired of the charade—the Don challenges a man beating a farm-lad for his laziness. He decides the boy’s story is true—that the beating is typical of his master’s treatment of him, and that he never pays his wages—and tells the man he will have to cough up some back-pay. (The boy is happy to accept Quixote’s wildly inaccurate arithmetic in his favour.) The man has no money on him but, after roughing him up, Quixote makes him promise to pay, on his honour. Sure, the man says, and the Don leaves, knowing he’s done some good by protecting the weak. The man starts to beat the boy again.

Later the same morning, he’s challenging a merchant he meets on the road for his ‘imperious manner,’ and commands him to agree that ‘there is no damsel more beauteous than the Empress of La Mancha, the peerless Dulcinella of Toboso.’ He means the peasant girl but, for the Don, grand words are everything. The merchant treats him with polite bemusement, playing along with the fantasy. But, he says, and speaks for the other ‘princes’ in his party—really, men off to market like him—he can’t swear such a thing if he has never seen the lady. One thing leads to another, and soon Quixote is charging at him, full-tilt. But Rocinante stumbles—his name translates as ‘Once-a-nag’—and Quixote goes sprawling. He calls out defiantly, and the merchant’s muleteer has had enough of him. He picks up the lance, breaks it in pieces over his knee, and thrashes him with it until the others tell him to stop. Quixote spends the rest of the day making his painful way home.

This is still only the fifth chapter of a 126-chapter novel, and I was beginning to wonder how Cervantes would move things on from here. Quixote is mad, having let his romances blind him to everyday life, and he’s starting to get into trouble. Fine. And? It won’t do for an epic, however satirical, if that’s all there is to it—and of course, it starts to become clear that it’s going to develop, into something more interesting. Not quite yet—the most famous episode in the book is coming up in a chapter or two, when Quixote mistakes windmills for flailing giants and won’t change his mind whatever poor Sancho Panza says—but Cervantes isn’t really presenting us with an incorrigible lunatic. I’ve mentioned games he’s already been playing, and I’ve mentioned the satirical chapter in which we get an insight into his collection of books of courtly romance and…

…the satire is the point. The local priest, not the brightest, decides to burn all the books while the Don is in bed recovering. Or not quite all—some that he recognises he decides to keep, but Cervantes’ original readers would take note of how the priest often fails to recognise genuinely great works, being as likely to throw them on the fire as save a tissue of repetitive nonsense. Unlike Quixote himself, he has no ear for the epic because, basically, he doesn’t care about the language. He makes exactly the kinds of arbitrary judgments the Church was notorious for, and the world is made a poorer place. And, to suit his own purposes, he has the former library bricked up, telling the servants to pretend that a sorcerer spirited it away. He has no interest in enlightening Quixote in any way, just a quick fix.

Except it doesn’t stop Quixote setting out again, under cover of darkness, once he’s recovered some weeks later. But even now that he has the requisite squire he still isn’t quite content. What’s the point of illustrious exploits if there’s nobody to recount the story? Many of the great romances, according to Quixote (and in a note in my text confirming it), heroes were often accompanied by the bard who is supposedly narrating their stories. Now Cervantes plays with this convention—right from the first page he’s been telling this as though collating known facts, down to where Quixote lived—‘in a place whose name I have no wish to call to mind’—and his name before his conversion to knight errantry: ‘Some claim that his name was Quixada or Quexada…’ and so on. He keeps this up from time to time throughout, but at the end of what Cervantes originally signalled to be Part 1 (Chapters 1-8) comes a narrative pratfall. Quixote is in the middle of a sword-fight, when ‘at this point and crisis the author of the history leaves this battle impending, giving as excuse that he could find nothing more written about these achievements of Don Quixote than what has been already set forth.’ Oh dear. And Cervantes takes things to a different level.

The ‘second author’—Cervantes himself, or whoever else the narrator might be—hadn’t wanted to believe that nobody had ever set down the outcome of the fight, but no story comes to light. ‘This caused me a good deal of grief,’ he tells us at the beginning of Part 2, and he describes how he set out in pursuit of the truth. For two pages, describing his search in great detail, he draws a blank. And then an annotation in a book written in Arabic—in frustration, the author has thrust it in the hands of an Arab reader—what? It doesn’t matter. It’s the convolutedness of the story that matters, and we get it. By Cervantes’ time, the trope of supposed sources for the stories was well-used. Some of them might even have been genuine, but we know that isn’t the game our man is playing. We aren’t going to fall into the same errors as Don Quixote, after all.

Enough? Not quite. Before the end of the novel’s original Second Part, there are more episodes. We realise how Quixote’s fixation on a fantasy gets in the way of normal human interaction. He is utterly fixated on himself, however much he might believe he is being of service to others. This is what won’t do. He isn’t a knight in shining armour, he’s a menace. Maybe only he and Sancho get hurt from time to time, but other people have to put up with the antics of a boorish egomaniac. One of the last episodes in this section begins with a meeting with some shepherds. They are kind to both him and his supposed squire, sharing the food and wine they have—Sancho decides it’s OK to eat and drink as much as he likes—but Quixote behaves as though it is no more than his due, and patronises one of the men for his malapropisms. I think we’re really starting to go off him…

…but Cervantes changes the subject. There’s a long subplot, beginning as a story told by this same shepherd, about a funeral that is to take place next day. The dead man is another shepherd, and this sounds like one kind of story, anchored in the real lives of these ordinary people. But it seems that this other shepherd was in love with a beautiful shepherdess, and suddenly we’re in a different kind of narrative. Cervantes seems to have started blurring things, bringing a supposedly real pastoral romance into the harsh world of these working men. But that isn’t it. The shepherd had been a young man, a poetry-lover who had recently inherited a title and great wealth. He had been living as a shepherd only in pursuit of the woman who, the narrator of the story assures Quixote, no man has seen the equal of for beauty. (Pause for time to Quixote to remonstrate. Yeh, yeh.) And it’s all true.

Goodness. But it’s more convoluted than that. The woman is rich too, living the simple life to get away from the suitors who pester her for her looks or her money, or both. The young heir has just died for love of her. He had finally told the woman of his unwavering for her, and she had refused him. His friend, at the head of the funeral cortege, confronts her with her guilt. She is the ‘basilisk’ who has brought about his death, here to gloat over it. She isn’t having any of this, and she speaks two pages of irrefutable good sense. A man’s love for a woman confers exactly zero rights upon him (I’m paraphrasing) and exactly zero obligations on her. She can’t help her supposed beauty, regrets the pain it has brought to so many men, but she has never found any of her suitors attractive. She intends never to marry and, before the end of the chapter, she leaves. The end. The way love works in the pastoral idylls is one thing but, however much time and money you spend on living out the dream, it isn’t reality. Thanks, Miguel. Got it.

And however much I’ve missed, it’s time to read on.