History of Literature

Miguel de Cervantes

see also: 

CERVANTES "Don Quixote "

Illustrations by G. Dore


Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra


see also:
  CERVANTES "Don Quixote " Illustrations by G. Dore


Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

born September 29?, 1547, Alcalá de Henares, Spain
died April 22, 1616, Madrid

in full Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra Spanish novelist, playwright, and poet, the creator of Don Quixote (1605, 1615) and the most important and celebrated figure in Spanish literature. His novel Don Quixote has been translated, in full or in part, into more than 60 languages. Editions continue regularly to be printed, and critical discussion of the work has proceeded unabated since the 18th century. At the same time, owing to their widespread representation in art, drama, and film, the figures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are probably familiar visually to more people than any other imaginary characters in world literature. Cervantes was a great experimenter. He tried his hand in all the major literary genres save the epic. He was a notable short-story writer, and a few of those in his collection of Novelas exemplares (1613; Exemplary Stories) attain a level close to that of Don Quixote, on a miniature scale.

Cervantes was born some 20 miles from Madrid, probably on September 29 (the day of San Miguel). He was certainly baptized on October 9. He was the fourth of seven children in a family whose origins were of the minor gentry but which had come down in the world. His father was a barber-surgeonwho set bones, performed bloodlettings, and attended lessermedical needs. The family moved from town to town, and little is known of Cervantes's early education. The supposition, based on a passage in one of the Exemplary Stories, that he studied for a time under the Jesuits, though not unlikely, remains conjectural. Unlike most Spanish writers of his time, including some of humble origin, he apparently did not go to a university. What is certain is that at some stage he became an avid reader of books. The head of a municipal school in Madrid, a man with Erasmist intellectual leanings named Juan López de Hoyos, refers to aMiguel de Cervantes as his “beloved pupil.” This was in 1569, when the future author was 21, so—if this was the same Cervantes—he must either have been a pupil-teacher at the school or have studied earlier under López de Hoyos. His first published poem, on the death of Philip II's young queen, Elizabeth of Valois, appeared at this time.

Soldier and slave

That same year he left Spain for Italy. Whether this was because he was the “student” of the same name wanted by the law for involvement in a wounding incident is another mystery; the evidence is contradictory. In any event, in going to Italy Cervantes was doing what many young Spaniards of the time did to further their careers in one way or another. It seems that for a time he served as chamberlainin the household of Cardinal Giulio Acquaviva in Rome. However, by 1570 he had enlisted as a soldier in a Spanish infantry regiment stationed in Naples, then a possession of the Spanish crown. He was there for about a year before he saw active service.

Relations with the Ottoman Empire under Selim II were reaching a crisis, and the Turks occupied Cyprus in 1570. A confrontation between the Turkish fleet and the naval forcesof Venice, the papacy, and Spain was inevitable. In mid-September 1571 Cervantes sailed on board the Marquesa, part of the large fleet under the command of Don Juan de Austria that engaged the enemy on October 7 in the Gulf of Lepanto near Corinth. The fierce battle ended in a crushing defeat for the Turks that was ultimately to break their control of the Mediterranean. There are independent accounts of Cervantes's conduct in the action, and they concur in testifying to his personal courage. Though stricken with a fever, he refused to stay below and joined the thick of the fighting. He received two gunshot wounds in the chest, and a third rendered his left hand useless for the rest of his life. He always looked back on his conduct in the battle with pride. From 1572 to 1575, based mainly in Naples, he continued his soldier's life; he was at Navarino and saw action in Tunis and La Goleta. He must also, when opportunity offered, have been familiarizing himself with Italian literature. Perhaps with a recommendation for promotion to the rank of captain, more likely just leaving the army, he set sail for Spain in September 1575 with letters of commendation to the king from the duque de Sessa and Don Juan himself.

On this voyage his ship was attacked and captured by Barbary corsairs, and Cervantes, together with his brother Rodrigo, was sold into slavery in Algiers, the centre of the Christian slave traffic in the Muslim world. The letters he carried magnified his importance in the eyes of his captors. This had the effect of raising his ransom price, and thus prolonging his captivity, while also, it appears, protecting his person from punishment by death, mutilation, or torture when his four daring bids to escape were frustrated. His masters, the renegade Dali Mami and later Hasan Paşa, treated him with considerable leniency in the circumstances,whatever the reason. At least two contemporary records of the life led by Christian captives in Algiers at this time mention Cervantes. He clearly made a name for himself for courage and leadership among the captive community. Atlong last, in September 1580, three years after Rodrigo had earned his freedom, Miguel's family, with the aid and intervention of the Trinitarian friars, raised the 500 gold escudos demanded for his release. It was only just in time, right before Hasan Paşa sailed for Constantinople (now Istanbul), taking his unsold slaves with him. Not surprisingly, this, the most adventurous period of Cervantes's life, supplied subject matter for several of his literary works, notably the Captive's tale in Don Quixote and the two Algiersplays, El trato de Argel (“The Traffic of Algiers”) and Los baños de Argel (“The Bagnios [an obsolete word for “prisons”] of Algiers”), as well as episodes in a number of other writings, although never in straight autobiographical form.

Civil servant and writer

Back in Spain, Cervantes spent most of the rest of his life ina manner that contrasted entirely with his decade of action and danger. He would be constantly short of money and in tedious and exacting employment; it would be 25 years before he scored a major literary success with Don Quixote. On his return home he found that prices had risen and the standard of living for many, particularly those of the middle class, like his family, had fallen. The euphoria of Lepanto was a thing of the past. Cervantes's war record did not now bring the recompense he expected. He applied unsuccessfully for several administrative posts in Spain's American empire. The most he succeeded in acquiring was a brief appointment as royal messenger to Oran, Algeria, in 1581. In vain he followed Philip II and the court to Lisbon in newly annexed Portugal.

About this time he had an affair with a young married woman named Ana de Villafranca (or Ana Franca de Rojas), the fruit of which was a daughter. Isabel de Saavedra, Cervantes's only child, was later brought up in her father's household. Late in 1584 he married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios, 18 years his junior. She had a small property in the village of Esquivias in La Mancha. Little is known about their emotional relationship. There is no reason to suppose that the marriage did not settle down into an adequate companionableness, despite Cervantes's enforced long absences from home. Neither is there any special reason to suppose that Catalina was an inspiration or a model for characters in the poetry Cervantes was now writing or in his first published fiction, La Galatea (1585; Galatea: A Pastoral Romance), in the newly fashionable genre of the pastoral romance. The publisher, Blas de Robles, paid him 1,336 reales for it, a good price for a first book. The dedication of the work to Ascanio Colonna, a friend of Acquaviva, was a bid for patronage that does not seem to have been productive. Doubtless helped by a small circle of literary friends, such as the poet Luis Gálvez de Montalvo, the book did bring Cervantes's name before a sophisticated reading public. But the only later editions in Spanish to appear in the author's lifetime were those of Lisbon, 1590, and Paris, 1611. La Galatea breaks off in mid-narrative; judging by his repeatedly expressed hopes of writing a sequel, Cervantes evidently maintained a lasting fondness for the work.

Cervantes also turned his hand to the writing of drama at this time, the early dawn of the Golden Age of the Spanish theatre. He contracted to write two plays for the theatrical manager Gaspar de Porras in 1585, one of which, La confusa (“Confusion”), he later described as the best he ever wrote.Many years afterward he claimed to have written 20 or 30 plays in this period, which, he noted, were received by the public without being booed off the stage or having the actorspelted with vegetables. The number is vague; only two certainly survive from this time, the historical tragedy of La Numancia (1580s; Numantia: A Tragedy) and El trato de Argel (1580s; “The Traffic of Algiers”). He names nine plays, the titles of a few of which sound like the originals of plays reworked and published years later in the collection Ocho comedias, y ocho entremeses nuevos (1615; “Eight Plays and Eight New Interludes”). Fixed theatre sites were just becoming established in the major cities of Spain, and there was an expanding market geared to satisfying the demandsof a public ever more hungry for entertainment. Lope de Vega was about to respond to the call, stamping his personal imprint on the Spanish comedia and rendering all earlier drama, including that of Cervantes, old-fashioned or inadequate by comparison. Though destined to be a disappointed dramatist, Cervantes went on trying to get managers to accept his stage works. By 1587 it was clear that he was not going to make a living from literature, and hewas obliged to turn in a very different direction.

Cervantes became a commissary of provisions for the great Armada. Requisitioning corn and oil from grudging rural communities was a thankless task, but it was at least a steady job, with a certain status. It took him traveling all overAndalusia, an experience he was to put to good use in his writing. He was responsible for finances of labyrinthine complexity, and the failure to balance his books landed him in prolonged and repeated trouble with his superiors. There also was constant argument with municipal and church authorities, the latter of which more than once excommunicated him. The surviving documentation of the accountancy and negotiations involved is considerable.

After the disastrous defeat of the Armada in 1588, Cervantes gravitated to Sevilla (Seville), the commercial capital of Spain and one of the largest cities in Europe. In 1590 he applied to the Council of the Indies for any one of four major crown posts vacant in Central and South America. His petition was curtly rejected. Wrangles over his accounts and arrears of salary dragged on. He seems to have kept some contact with the literary world; there is a record of his buying certain books, and he must have managed to find time for reading. In 1592 he signed a contract to supply six plays to a theatrical manager, one Rodrigo Osorio. Nothing came of this. His commissary work continued, and the litigation came to a head; in September 1592 he was imprisoned for a few days in Castro del Río.

In 1594 Cervantes was in Madrid seeking a new post. He received an appointment that took him back to Andalusia to collect overdue taxes. Although it was in effect a promotion, the job was no more rewarding than the previous one and was similarly fraught with financial difficulties and confrontations. Cervantes was not by temperament a businessman. Probably by mutual agreement the appointment was terminated in 1596. The previous year he had won first prize (three silver spoons) in a poetry competition in Zaragoza. Back in Sevilla, he likely started seriously writing stories at about this time, not to mention a wickedly satirical sonnet on the conduct of the duque de Medina Sidonia, to be followed by one obliquely disrespectful of the recently deceased king himself. Again he met with financial troubles. In the summer of 1597 discrepancies in his accounts of three years previous landed him in the Crown Jail of Sevilla. He was confined until the endof April 1598 and perhaps conceived there the idea of Don Quixote, as a remark in the first prologue suggests:

And so, what was to be expected of a sterile and uncultivated wit such as that which I possess if not an offspring that was dried up, shriveled, and eccentric: a story filled with thoughts that never occurred to anyone else, of a sort that might be engendered in a prison where every annoyance has its home and every mournful sound its habitation?

Information about Cervantes's life over the next four or five years is sparse. He had left Sevilla, and, perhaps for a while in Esquivias and Madrid, later for certain in Valladolid (where the royal court established itself from 1601 to 1606), he must have been writing the first part of Don Quixote. Early versions of two of his stories, "Rinconete y Cortadillo" (“Rinconete and Cortadillo”) and "El celoso extremeño" (“The Jealous Extremaduran”), found their way into a miscellaneous compilation, unpublished, made by one Francisco Porras de la Cámara.


CERVANTES "Don Quixote " Illustrations by G. Dore


Publication of Don Quixote

In July or August 1604 Cervantes sold the rights of El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (“The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha,” known as Don Quixote, Part I) to the publisher-bookseller Francisco de Robles for an unknown sum. License to publish was granted in September and the book came out in January 1605. There is some evidence of its content's being known or known about before publication—to, among others, Lope de Vega, the vicissitudes of whose relations with Cervantes were then at a low point. The compositors at Juan de la Cuesta's press in Madrid are now known to have been responsible for a great many errors in the text, many of which were long attributed to the author.

The novel was an immediate success, though not as sensationally so as Mateo Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache , Part I, of 1599. By August 1605 there were two Madrid editions, two published in Lisbon, and one in Valencia. There followed those of Brussels, 1607; Madrid, 1608; Milan, 1610; and Brussels, 1611. Part II, Segunda parte del ingenioso cavallero Don Quixote de la Mancha (“Second Part of the Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha”), came out in 1615. Thomas Shelton's English translation of the first part appeared in 1612. The name of Cervantes was soon to be as well known in England, France, and Italy as in Spain.

The sale of the publishing rights, however, meant that Cervantes made no more financial profit on Part I of his novel. He had to do the best he could with patronage. The dedication to the young duque de Béjar had been a mistake. He had better fortune with two much more influential persons: the conde de Lemos, to whom he would dedicate Part II and no less than three other works, and Don Bernardo de Sandoval y Rojas, archbishop of Toledo. This eased his financial circumstances somewhat. However, it is apparent that he would have liked a securer place in the pantheon of the nation's writers than he ever achieved during his lifetime—he wanted a reputation comparable to that enjoyed by Lope de Vega or the poet Luis de Góngora, for example. His sense of his own marginal position may be deduced from his Viage del Parnaso (1614; Voyage to Parnassus), two or three of the later prefaces, and a few external sources. Nevertheless, relative success, still-unsatisfied ambition, and a tireless urge to experiment with the forms of fiction ensured that, at age 57, with less than a dozen years left to him, Cervantes was just entering the most productive period of his career.

No graciousness descended on Cervantes's domestic life.A stabbing incident in the street outside the house in Valladolid, in June 1605, led ridiculously to the whole household's arrest. When they later followed the court to Madrid, he continued to be plagued by litigation over money and now, too, by domestic difficulties. The family lodged in various streets over the next few years before finally settling in the Calle de León. Like a number of other writers of the day, Cervantes nursed hopes of a secretarial appointment with the conde de Lemos when, in 1610, the conde was made viceroy of Naples. Once more Cervantes was disappointed. He had joined a fashionable religious order, the Slaves of the Most Blessed Sacrament, in 1609, and four years later he became a Franciscan tertiary, which was a more serious commitment. Students of Cervantes know, too, of some increased involvement in the literary life of the capital in the form of his attendance at the Academia Selvaje, a kind of writers' salon, in 1612.

The next year, the 12 Exemplary Stories were published. The prologue contains the only known verbal portrait of the author:

of aquiline countenance, with dark brown hair, smooth clear brow, merry eyes and hooked but well-proportioned nose; his beard is silver though it was gold not 20 years ago; large moustache, small mouth with teeth neither big nor little, since he has only six of them and they are in bad condition and worse positioned, for they do not correspond to each other; the body between two extremes, neither tall nor short; a bright complexion, more pale than dark, somewhat heavy in the shoulder and not very light of foot.

Cervantes's claim in this prologue to be the first to write original novellas (short stories in the Italian manner) in Castilian is substantially justified. Their precise dates of composition are in most cases uncertain. There is some variety in the collection, within the two general categories of romance-based stories and realistic ones. El coloquio de los perros (“Colloquy of the Dogs,” Eng. trans. in Three Exemplary Novels [1952]), a quasi-picaresque novella, with its frame tale El casamiento engañoso (“The Deceitful Marriage”), is probably Cervantes's most profound and original creation next to Don Quixote. In the 17th century theromantic stories were the more popular; James Mabbe chose precisely these for the selective English version of 1640. Nineteenth- and 20th-century taste preferred the realistic ones, but by the turn of the 21st century the others were receiving again something like their critical due.

In 1614 Cervantes published Viage del Parnaso, a long allegorical poem in mock-mythological and satirical vein, with a postscript in prose. It was devoted to celebrating a host of contemporary poets and satirizing a few others. The author there admitted that writing poetry did not come easilyto him. But he held poetry in the highest esteem as a pure artthat should never be debased. Having lost all hope of seeing any more of his plays staged, he had eight of them published in 1615, together with eight short comic interludes, in Ocho comedias, y ocho entremeses nuevos. The plays show no shortage of inventiveness and originality but lack real control of the medium. The interludes, however,are reckoned among the very best of their kind.

It is not certain when Cervantes began writing Part II of DonQuixote, but he had probably not gotten much more than halfway through by late July 1614. About September a spurious Part II was published in Tarragona by someone calling himself Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, an unidentified Aragonese who was an admirer of Lope de Vega. The book is not without merit, if crude in comparison with its model. In its prologue the author gratuitously insulted Cervantes, who not surprisingly took offense and responded, though with relative restraint if compared with the vituperation of some literary rivalries of the age. He also worked some criticism of Fernández de Avellaneda and his “pseudo” Quixote and Sancho into his own fiction from chapter 59 onward.

Don Quixote, Part II, emerged from the same press as its predecessor late in 1615. It was quickly reprinted in Brussels and Valencia, 1616, and Lisbon, 1617. Parts I and II first appeared in one edition in Barcelona, 1617. There was a French translation of Part II by 1618 and an English one by 1620. The second part capitalizes on the potential of the first, developing and diversifying without sacrificing familiarity. Most people agree that it is richer and more profound.

In his last years Cervantes mentioned several works that apparently did not get as far as the printing press, if indeed he ever actually started writing them. There was Bernardo (the name of a legendary Spanish epic hero), the Semanas del jardín (“Weeks in the Garden”; a collection of tales, perhaps like Boccaccio's Decameron), and the continuationto his Galatea. The one that was published, posthumously in 1617, was his last romance, Los trabaios de Persiles y Sigismunda, historia setentrional (“The Labours of Persiles and Sigismunda: A Northern Story”). In it Cervantes sought to renovate the heroic romance of adventure and love in the manner of the Aethiopica of Heliodorus. It was an intellectually prestigious genre destined to be very successful in 17th-century France. Intended both to edify andto entertain, the Persiles is an ambitious work that exploits the mythic and symbolic potential of romance. It was very successful when it appeared; there were eight Spanish editions in two years and French and English translations in 1618 and 1619, respectively.

In the dedication, written three days before he died, Cervantes, “with a foot already in the stirrup,” movingly bade farewell to the world. Clear-headed to the end, he seems to have achieved a final serenity of spirit. He died in 1616, almost certainly on April 22, not on the 23rd as had been traditionally thought. The burial certificate indicates that the latter was the day he was buried, in the convent of the Discalced Trinitarians in the Calle de Cantarranas (now the Calle de Lope de Vega). The exact spot is not marked. Nowill is known to have survived.

Edward C. Riley

Don Quixote and critical traditions

Cervantes's masterpiece Don Quixote has been variously interpreted as a parody of chivalric romances, an epic of heroic idealism, a commentary on the author's alienation, and a critique of Spanish imperialism. While the Romantic tradition downplayed the novel's hilarity by transforming Don Quixote into a tragic hero, readers who view it as a parody accept at face value Cervantes's intention to denounce the popular yet outdated romances of his time. Don Quixote certainly pokes fun at the adventures of literaryknights-errant, but its plot also addresses the historical realities of 17th-century Spain. Although no proof has been found, it is likely that Cervantes was a converso (of Jewish descent), given his father's ties to the medical profession, the family's peripatetic existence, and the government's denial of his two requests for posts in the Indies. However, the author's nuanced irony, his humanistic outlook, and his comic genius contrast notably with the melancholy, didactic tone attributed to many other Spanish converso writers.

Cervantes's strikingly modern narrative instead gives voice to a dazzling assortment of characters with diverse beliefs and perspectives. His inclusion of many differing opinions constitutes a provision called heteroglossia (“multiple voices”) by the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who deemed it essential to the development of the modern novel. Don Quixote's comic edge illustrates another of Bakhtin's concepts, carnivalization, which favoursthe playfully positive aspects of the body over an ascetic rejection of the carnal. Sancho Panza's rotund shape—his name means “holy belly”—offsets Don Quixote's elongated, emaciated frame, and together they recall the medieval folkloric figures of an expansive, materialist Carnival and a lean, self-denying Lent. Yet, far from depicting illusion and reality as equal opposites, their relationship undergoes constant change: if Don Quixote assumes the lead in Part I, Sancho overtakes his master and secures his own independence in Part II.

The differences between Part I and Part II demonstrate Cervantes's awareness of the power of the printed word. Don Quixote's history began with his obsessive reading of chivalric romances; in Part II, he realizes that his adventures are eagerly read and discussed by others. The knight's visit in Part II to a Barcelona printing shop, where he finds a spurious Part II in press and denounces it as injurious to the innocent reader and to his own rightful authorship (since he stands to lose royalties from its sales), underscores the cultural and economic impact of books of fiction. Despite his own books' popularity, Cervantes earned little from their sales. Nonetheless, his innovative reworkings of literary forms—from the pastoral novel La Galatea and exemplary short stories to the acclaimed novel Don Quixote and his one serious attempt at romance, the posthumously published Persiles y Sigismunda—show just how well Cervantes understood not only the 17th-century marketplace but the social effect of literature.

Importance and influence

Cervantes's influence resonates in the popular term “quixotic” and the immediately recognizable forms of his two major protagonists, whose adventures reappear continually across the cultural landscape in theatre, film, opera, ballet, and even comic books. No study of the novel can ignore the author or his most famous work: the Hungarian theorist Gyorgy Lukács considers Don Quixote “the first great novel of world literature,” while the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes calls Cervantes the “founding father” of Latin American literature. The novel form, according to some late 20th-century critics, has no one originbut began to exist in different countries at different times and for different reasons. Nonetheless, Cervantes's novel, with its innovations to Spanish literature, is outstanding in its creation of a new worldview. It is not coincidental that the writers most influenced by Cervantes—Daniel Defoe, Laurence Sterne, Tobias Smollett, to name only British novelists—initiated radical changes in their own literary traditions.

By illuminating the many differences in and surrounding his world, Cervantes placed in doubt the previous ways of portraying that world, whether those were literary or historical. Indeed, one of Don Quixote's main tenets is that fiction and historical truth are frequently indistinguishable, as both are dependent on the reader's perception. Cervantes's approach is frequently dubbed “dualistic” since he often opted to express diverse modes of thought through the pairing of opposites, as with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the talking dogs of “Colloquy of the Dogs,” or the image of the baciyelmo (“basinhelmet,” as the narrator describes the bright object worn on a distant rider's head). Representing the opposites of reality and illusion, baciyelmois Sancho's brass basin but Don Quixote's gold helmet.

The split depicted within Cervantes's characters—Don Quixote's “reasoned unreason” for example—has sometimes been attributed to the author's intended contrast of reality and illusion (as well as of other opposites). The question of whether the self-proclaimed knight stands for an idealism never fully attainable or for a laughably meaningless madness continues to shadow interpretations of Don Quixote, as it has since its introduction by the German Romantics. Opposition between idealism and realism as a leading theme in Cervantes's fiction, includingthe Exemplary Stories and his plays, remained influential as late as the mid-20th century.

Yet Cervantes was characteristically ambiguous on these issues, and this ambiguity inspired criticism of the later 20th century to reconsider previous judgments on his literary prominence. Translated almost immediately into English, French, and Italian, Don Quixote was viewed primarily as a comic work or a satire of Spanish customs. Ironically, it was the German Romantics, selectively reading Don Quixote as atragic hero, who granted his author world standing. In contrast, 19th-century Spanish academics dismissed Cervantes's accomplishments, even though his style and language set the standard for modern Castilian. Not until the 20th century did the acclaim of foreign critics and Spanish expatriates finally rehabilitate Cervantes in his own country.

When Freudian psychology became popular, it engendered critical interest in the psychological force of Cervantes's fiction. European criticism was predisposed early on toward psychoanalytical approaches, which stressed the Spanish author's duality and ambiguity. From the 1970s, French and American criticism viewed Cervantes as a fragmented character not unlike his protagonists. Both the author and hischaracters have been perceived as psychoanalytical cases, with Don Quixote's madness attributed to his “middle-age crisis” and Cervantes's treatment of several characters to his “subconscious sympathies.” As these critics worked to reveal unexpressed desires, they also analyzed the roles played by women. Feminist and gender studies have increasingly looked to Cervantes for his perceptive approach to portraying the women of 17th-century Spain. Unlike the majority of his contemporaries, Cervantes expressed great empathy toward women. Although he stops short of a “feminist” position, numerous female characters such as Marcela and Dorotea in Don Quixote and Isabela Castrucho in Persiles y Sigismunda speak forcefully in defense of women's rights.

Similarly, criticism in the late 20th century began to focus onCervantes's preoccupations with contemporary economic and historical events. The 1609 expulsion of the Moriscos (converted Moors), the correct governance of Spain's overseas colonies, and the exploitation of African slaves are often considered as covertly polemical topics for Don Quixote's alert readers. The Exemplary Stories and plays have been plumbed for their engagement with political and economic factors. Documented in Don Quixote and Persiles y Sigismunda, Cervantes's knowledge of and interest in theNew World are central to his perception of a different world, one equally as cross-cultural and multilingual as that of the 21st century.

Anne Cruz



Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Don Quixote stands at the head of a long line of fictions of which fictionally itself is the principal substance. Don Quixote has read himself into madness by reading too many books of chivalry,and so sets out to emulate the knights of old, first by getting himself some armour (out of pasteboard) and a steed (a broken down nag), and then by getting himself knighted. He goes to an inn, which he thinks a castle, meets prostitutes whom he thinks high-born ladies,addresses them and the innkeeper, who is a thief, in language so literary that they cannot understand it, and then seeks to get himself knighted by standing vigil all night over his armour. Apart from the burlesque parody of romances of chivalry, the ludicrous transformation of the sacred rituals and spaces of knighthood into their ad hoc material equivalents parallels a similar desacralizing going on Europe at the time.
In all this it is the knowing reader rather than the characters or the action that is the implied subject of address. Indeed, Cervantes here invents the novel form itself, by inventing the reader.
Reading begins with the Prologue's address to (he "idle" reader, and by implication extends throughout the first book, as Quixote's friends attempt to cure his madness by burning his books to slop him reading. In the process we meet readers, and occasions for reading, of all kinds. In 1615, Cervantes published a second book in which Don Quixote becomes not the character reading but the character read as many of the people he meets h.we read Book I and know all about him and his non-reading sidekick Sancho Panza. Indeed this combination of the always already read and the force of perpetual reinvention is what continues to <lf(iw the reader in.

see also:
  CERVANTES "Don Quixote " Illustrations by G. Dore



Type of work: Novel
Author: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616)
Type of plot: Picaresque romance
Time of plot: Late sixteenth century Locale: Spain
First published: El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha, Part 1, 1605; part 2, 1615 (English translation. 1612-1620)

CERVANTES "Don Quixote " Illustrations by G. Dore


One of the best-loved novels of all time, Don Quixote was intended to be a satire on the exaggerated chivalric romances of Cervantes' time. However, the author soars above this purpose in his wealth of fancy and in his irrepressible high spirit as he pokes fun at social and literary conventions of his day. The novel offers a good cross-section of Spanish life, thought, and feeling at the end of the chivalric age as it parades a variegated assortment of minor characters— shepherds, innkeepers, students, priests, and nobles—through its pages. Contrasting characterizations of Don Quixote, the visionary idealist, and Sancho Panza, the practical realist, symbolize the duality of the Spanish character in this essentially humane novel.


Principal Characters

Don Quixote (don kl-ho'ta), possibly a gentle but impoverished man named Alonso Quixano (or perhaps Quixana) of Argamasilla, in the Spanish province of La Mancha. Driven mad by reading many romances of chivalry, he determines to deck himself out in rusty armor and a cardboard helmet and to become a knight-errant. Under the name of "Don Quixote" he will roam the world, righting wrongs. His squire calls him "The Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance." He has moments of lucidity, especially at the end of the novel when a victorious enemy forces him to give up his questing. He returns home, repents of his folly, and dies.
Sancho Panza (san'cho pan'fha), a paunchy rustic at first described as "long-legged." He is persuaded by promises of governorship of an island to become squire and attendant of the knight. He is the best drawn of the 669 characters in this 461,000 word novel. He does get his island, but he abdicates upon news of the approach of a hostile army.
Rocinante (rro-the-nan'ta), the nag that carries Don Quixote on his journeying. His companion is Dapple, the donkey of Sancho Panza.
Aldonza Lorenzo (al-don'tha 16-ran'tho), a sweaty peasant girl of Toboso, whom Don Quixote idealizes under the name of Dulcinea del Toboso; he chooses her to be his Queen of Love and Beauty, the inspiration of his knightly questing.
Antonia Quixana (an-to'nya keha'na), Don Quixote's niece, who by the terms of his dying will can marry only a man who is not given to reading books of chivalry.
Teresa Cascajo (ta-ra'sa kas-ka'ho), also called Juana Gutierrez (hwa'na gootya'rrath), the wife of Sancho Panza.
An Innkeeper, the fat master of a roadside inn which Don Quixote mistakes for a fortress. He dubs Don Quixote a knight.
Andres (an-dras'), an unpaid servant, temporarily saved form a beating in Don Quixote's first attempt at righting wrongs.
Pedro Perez (pa'dro pa'rafh), the curate who burns the knight's library of chivalric romances in an attempt to cure him of his madness.
Master Nicolas (пё-ко-las'), the village barber, who assists in burning the books. Dressed in woman's clothes, he impersonates Dulcinea in an effort to persuade Don Quixote to leave the Sierra Morena.
Cardenio (kar-da'nyo), who meets Don Quixote in the Sierra Morena and tells his sad story.
Dorotea (do-ro-ta'a), another ill-starred wanderer with a melancholic tale. She pretends to be a damsel in distress in order to persuade the knight to go home.
Gines de Pasamonte (henas' da pa-samon'ta), a criminal condemned to the galleys. Don Quixote rescues him and a dozen more from the chain gang, only to be stoned by them.
Two Friars, acting as escort for a noble lady in a coach. The knight believes they are abducting her and attacks the Biscayan squire and the retinue. They beat up Sancho Panza.
Roque Guinart (ro'ka ge-nart'), a man driven to banditry by bad luck. He captures Don Quixote and Sancho. Refusing to be persuaded by them to turn knight-errant, he sends his prisoners to a neighboring bandit and recommends them as entertaining persons.
Master Pedro (pa'dro), the owner of a divining ape and a puppet show whose characters the knight mistakes for real people. He tries to rescue the leading lady.
A Barber, whose shaving basin Don Quixote mistakes for Mambrino's golden helmet.
A Carter, taking caged lions from the Governor of Oran to King Philip. In outfacing one of them, Don Quixote achieves his only successful adventure in the novel.
A Duke and his Duchess, who invite Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to their palace and play jokes on them, such as a supposed ride through space on a magic wooden horse, Clavijero. They make Sancho governor of an island, a village owned by the Duke.
Samson Carrasco (sam'son ka-rras'ko), a neighbor who disguises himself as the Knight of the Mirrors and the Knight of the White Moon. He eventually overcomes Don Quixote and sentences him to abandon knight-errantry and return home. There Don Quixote dies after denouncing knight-errantry as nonsense, never realizing that he himself has been a true knight and a gallant gentleman.

CERVANTES "Don Quixote " Illustrations by G. Dore


The Story

A retired and impoverished gentleman named Alonzo Quixano lived in the Spanish province of La Mancha. He had read so many romances of chivalry that his mind became stuffed with fantastic accounts of tournaments, knightly quests, damsels in distress, and strange enchantments, and he decided one day to imitate the heroes of the books he read and to revive the ancient custom of knight-errantry. Changing his name to Don Quixote de la Mancha, he had himself dubbed a knight by a rascally publican whose miserable inn he mistook for a turreted castle.
For armor he donned an old suit of mail which had belonged to his great-grandfather. Then upon a bony old nag he called Rosinante, he set out upon his first adventure. Not far from his village he fell into the company of some traveling merchants who thought the old man mad and beat him severely when he challenged them to a passage at arms.
Back home recovering from his cuts and bruises, he was closely watched by his good neighbor, Pedro Perez, the village priest, and Master Nicholas, the barber. Hoping to cure him of his fancies, the curate and the barber burned his library of chivalric romances. Don Quixote, however, believed that his books had been carried off by a wizard. Undaunted by his misfortunes, he determined to set out on the road again with an uncouth rustic named Sancho Panza as his squire. As the mistress to whom he would dedicate his deeds of valor, he chose a buxom peasant wench famous for her skill in salting pork. He called her Dulcinea del Toboso.
The knight and his squire had to sneak out of the village under cover of darkness, but in their own minds they presented a brave appearance: the lean old man on his bony horse and his squat, black-browed servant on a small ass, Dapple. The don carried his sword and lance, Sancho Panza a canvas wallet and a leather bottle. Sancho went with the don because in his shallow-brained way he hoped to become governor of an isle.
The don's first encounter was with a score of windmills on the plains of Montiel. Mistaking them for monstrous giants, he couched his lance, set spurs to Rosinante's thin flanks, and charged full tilt against them. One of the whirling vanes lifted him from his saddle and threw him into the air. When Sancho Panza ran to pick him up, he explained that sorcerers had changed the giants into windmills.
Shortly afterward he encountered two monks riding in company with a lady in a coach escorted by men on horseback. Don Quixote imagined that the lady was a captive princess. Haughtily demanding her release, he unhorsed one of the friars in an attempted rescue. Sancho was beaten by the lady's lackeys. Don Quixote bested her Biscayan squire in a sword fight, sparing the man's life on the condition that he go to Toboso and yield himself to the peerless Dulcinea. Sancho, having little taste for violence, wanted to get on to his isle as quickly as possible.
At an inn, Quixote became involved in an assignation between a carrier and a servant girl. He was trounced by the carrier. The don, insulted by the innkeeper's demand for payment, rode away without paying. To his terror, Sancho was tossed in a blanket as payment for his master's debt.
The pair came upon dust clouds stirred up by two large flocks of sheep. Don Quixote, sure that they were two medieval armies closing in combat, intervened, only to be pummeled with rocks by the indignant shepherds, whose sheep he had scattered.
At night the don thought a funeral procession was a parade of monsters. He attacked and routed the mourners and was called the Knight of the Sorry Aspect by Sancho. The two came upon a roaring noise in the night. Quixote, believing it to be made by giants, wanted to attack immediately, but Sancho judiciously hobbled Rosinante so he could not move. The next day, they discovered that the noise came from the pounding of a mill.
Quixote attacked an itinerant barber and seized the poor barber's bowl, which he declared to be the famous golden helmet of Mambrino, and his packsaddle, which he believed to be a richly jeweled caparison.
Next, the pair came upon a chain gang being taken to the galleys. The don interviewed various prisoners and decided to succor the afflicted. He freed them, only to be insulted by their remarks concerning his lady, the fair Dulcinea. Sancho, afraid of what would ensue from their releasing of the galley slaves, led Quixote into the mountains for safety. There they came upon a hermit, a nobleman, who told them a long story of unrequited love. Quixote and the hermit fought over the virtues of their inamoratas. Deciding to do penance and to fast for the love of Dulcinea, Quixote gave a letter to Sancho to deliver to the maiden. When Sancho returned to the village, Don Quixote's friends learned from Sancho the old man's whereabouts. They returned with Sancho to the mountains, hoping they could trick Don Quixote into returning with them. The priest devised a scheme whereby a young peasant woman would pose as a distressed princess. Don Quixote, all but dead from hunger and exposure, was easily deceived, and the party started homeward.
They came to the inn where Sancho had been tossed in the blanket. The priest explained the don's vagaries to the alarmed innkeeper, who admitted that he, too. was addicted to the reading of romances of chivalry. At the inn, Don Quixote fought in his sleep with ogres and ran his sword through two of the innkeeper's precious wineskins. The itinerant barber stopped by and demanded the return of his basin and packsaddle. After the party had sport at the expense of the befuddled barber, restitution was made. An officer appeared with a warrant for the arrest of the don and Sancho for releasing the galley slaves. The priest explained his friend's mental condition, and the officer departed.
Seeing no other means of getting Don Quixote quietly home, his friends disguised themselves and placed the don in a cage mounted on an oxcart. He was later released under oath not to attempt to escape. A canon joined the party and sought to bring Quixote to his senses by logical argument against books of knight-errantry. The don refuted the canon with a charming and brilliant argument and went on to narrate a typical romance of derring-do. Before the group reached home, they came upon a goatherd who told them a story, but because of a misunderstanding the goatherd beat Quixote.
Sometime later the priest and the barber visited the convalescing Don Quixote to give him news of Spain and of the world. When they told him there was danger of an attack on Spain by the Turks, the don suggested that the king assemble all of Spain's knights-errant to repulse the enemy. At this time, Sancho entered despite efforts to bar him. He brought word that a book telling of their adventures had appeared. The sight of Sancho inspired the don to sally forth again. His excuse was a great tournament to be held at Saragossa.
Failing to dissuade Don Quixote from going forth again, his friends were reassured when a village student promised he would waylay the flighty old gentleman.
Don Quixote's first destination was the home of Dulcinea in nearby El Toboso. While the don waited in a forest, Sancho saw three peasant girls riding out of the village. He rode to his master and told him that Dulcinea with two handmaidens approached. Frightened by the don's fantastic speech, the girls fled. Don Quixote, swore that Dulcinea had been enchanted.
Benighted in a forest, the knight and his squire were awakened by the arrival of another knight and squire. The other knight boasted that he had defeated in combat all Spanish knights. The don, believed the knight to be mistaken, challenged him. They fought by daylight and, miraculously, Don Quixote unhorsed the Knight of the Wood, who was Samson Carrasco, the village student, in disguise. His squire was an old acquaintance of Sancho. The don declared the resemblances were the work of magicians and continued on his way. Upset by his failure, Carrasco swore vengeance on Don Quixote.
Sancho filled Quixote's helmet with curds which he procured from shepherds. When the don suddenly clapped on his helmet at the approach of another adventure, he thought his brains were melting. This new adventure took the form of a wagon bearing two caged lions. Quixote, ever intrepid, commanded the keeper to open one cage— he would engage a lion in combat. Unhappily, the keeper obeyed. Quixote stood ready, but the lion yawned and refused to come out.
The don and Sancho joined a wedding party and subsequently attended a wedding festival at which the rejected lover tricked the bride into marrying him instead of the rich man she had chosen.
Next, the pair were taken to the Caves of Montesinos, where Quixote was lowered underground. He was brought up an hour later asleep, and, upon awakening, he told a story of having spent three days in a land of palaces and magic forests where he had seen his enchanted Dulcinea.
At an inn, Quixote met a puppeteer who had a divining ape. By trickery, the rascal identified the don and Sancho with the help of the ape. He presented a melodramatic puppet show which Don Quixote, carried away by the make-believe story, demolished with his sword. The don paid for the damage done and struck out for the nearby River Ebro. He and Sancho took a boat and were carried by the current toward some churning mill wheels, which the don thought were a beleaguered city awaiting deliverance. They were rescued by millers after the boat had been wrecked and the pair thoroughly soaked.
Later, in a forest, the pair met a huntress who claimed knowledge of the famous knight and his squire. They went with the lady to her castle and were welcomed by a duke and his duchess who had read of their previous adventures and who were ready to have great fun at the pair's expense. The hosts arranged an elaborate night ceremony to disenchant Dulcinea, who was represented by a disguised page. To his great discomfort, Sancho was told that he would receive five hundred lashes as his part of the disenchantment. Part of the jest was a ride through space on a magic wooden horse. Blindfolded, the pair mounted their steed, and servants blew air in their faces from bellows and thrust torches near their faces.
Sancho departed to govern his isle, a village in the domains of the duke and duchess, while the female part of the household turned to the project of compromising Quixote in his worship of Dulcinea. Sancho governed for a week. He made good laws and delivered wise judgments, but at the end of a week, he yearned for the freedom of the road. Together he and his master proceeded toward Saragossa. Don Quixote changed their destination to Barcelona, however, when he heard that a citizen of that city had written a spurious account of his adventures.
In Barcelona, they marveled at the city, the ships, and the sea. Don Quixote and Sancho were the guests of Moreno, who took them to inspect the royal galleys. The galley which they visited suddenly put out to sea in pursuit of pirates, and a fight followed. Sancho was terrified. There came to Barcelona a Knight of the White Moon, who challenged Don Quixote to combat. After the old man had been overcome, the strange knight, in reality the student Carrasco, sentenced him to return home. Don Quixote went back, determined next to follow a pastoral shepherd life. At home, the tired old man quickly declined. Before he died, he renounced as nonsense all to do with knight-errantry, not realizing that in his high-minded, noble-hearted nature he himself had been a great chivalrous gentleman.


CERVANTES "Don Quixote " Illustrations by G. Dore


Critical Evaluation

It has been said that Don Quixote de la Mancha is "the best novel in the world, beyond comparison." This belief was, is, and certainly will be shared by lovers of literary excellence everywhere. Miguel de Cerantes' avowed purpose was to ridicule the books of chivalry which enjoyed popularity even in his day, but he soared beyond this satirical purpose in his wealth of fancy and in his irrepressible high spirits as he pokes fun at social and literary conventions of his day. The novel provides a cross-section of Spanish life, thought, and feeling at the end of the chivalric age.
"For my absolute faith in the details of their histories and my knowledge of their features, their complexions and their deeds and their characters enable me by sound philosophy to deduce their features, their complexions, and their statures," says Don Quixote, declaring his expertise in knight-errantry. This declaration affords a key to understanding Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha, for it demonstrates both the literal and the symbolic levels of the novel—and the distinction between those levels is crucial to grasping the full import of the story. The literal level is superficial; it reveals the obvious. The symbolic level, however, probes much deeper; it reveals the significance. In fact, the symbolic level deals, as all good literature must, with values. Thus, Don Quixote's declaration must be considered on both levels, and when set in context, it will lend insight into the novel as a whole.
On the literal level, Don Quixote is eminently qualified by his extensive reading to assert familiarity with the history, the deeds, and the character of virtually every knight whose existence was recorded. Indeed, his penchant for reading books of chivalry is established on the first page of the first chapter of the book. Even his niece and his housekeeper refer frequently to his reading habits. Moreover, the inventory of the don's library, made just before the books were burned, reveals the extent of his collection, and earlier mention of his omnivorous reading leads to the assumption that he had read all of them. Further evidence of Don Quixote's erudition is his ready knowledge of the rules of knight-errantry and his recalling the legend of Mambrino's helmet in connection with his oath of knighthood as well as elsewhere in the novel. Later, after an encounter with Yanguesan herdsmen, there is evidence, in a very lucid and pragmatic statement for a presumably insane old man, of Don Quixote's having read Machiavelli, followed by the don's citation of the misfortunes which befell his hero, Amadis of Gaul.
Other adventures provide internal evidence of Quixote's knowledge about the history of chivalry. A thrashing by muleteers jogs the don's memory to analogies between his plight and similar outrages visited upon the Marquis of Mantua, Baldwin, Abindarraez, and Don Roderigo de Narvaez. After his lance is broken by a windmill, Don Quixote remembers the makeshift tree-limb weapon used by Diego Perez de Vargas when the latter's weapon was broken in battle. At another time, he explains and defends the code of knight-errantry to fellow travelers, citing Arthurian legend, the ever-present Amadis of Gaul, the stricter-than-monastic rules of knight-errantry, and the noble families of Italy and Spain who contributed to the tradition. In fact, incredible as it may seem, just before the don attacks the herd of sheep, he attributes to each sheep a title and an estate culled from his reservoir of reading—or from his overactive imagination. In addition, to rationalize his own designation as the Knight of the Sorry Aspect, he recalls the sobriquets of other knights-errant. In an attempt to inculcate Sancho Panza with the proper respect for his master. Don Quixote even relates biographical incidents from the lives of the squires of Amadis of Gaul and Sir Galaor. Significantly, almost craftily, he mentions that Gandalin. Amadis' squire, was also Count of the Firm Isle—a blatant inducement for Sancho to remain in the don's service. Yet, all in all, on the literal level, Don Quixote's mastery of chivalric lore seems to serve only as a rationalization for his ill luck.
On the symbolic level, more questions are raised than are answered. Quixote claims to have reached a "sound philosophy." But, is reliance on reading alone—as he has done—a valid basis for "sound philosophy," or has the don become so absorbed in his books that he is unable to formulate or express the applicability of his reading? Can literature serve as a basis for understanding reality, as Don Quixote avers? In lieu of a clear-cut answer, Cervantes offers a paradox. Early in the text, Don Quixote learns from Sancho that the Squire has never read any1 histories because he is illiterate; but later, trying to divert the don's attention with a story, Sancho under questioning, admits that although he had not seen the person in question, "the man who told me this story said it was so true and authentic ... I could swear on my oath that I had seen it all." The issues of verisimilitude and credibility are not really resolved in this novel. Consequently, these issues generate further questions about distinctions between reality and fantasy. Sancho represents empirical, commonsensical reality; the don stands for whimsy and unfettered imagination. Whose view of the world is more accurate? Cervantes is ambiguous, at best, about the answer. The question persists, however, as Luigi Pirandello's Henry IV (1922) vividly testifies. Readers are left to ponder this paradox which Emily Dickinson has so succinctly described: "Much madness is divinest sense." Another issue raised on the symbolic level involves the possible immorality of reading "too many" books. Books, in this sense, are a symbol of education, and this facet of Don Quixote de la Mancha may be a veiled protest against the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The literal lesson emphasizes the corruptive power of books (and, therefore, education); however, the symbolic implication—given Cervantes' sympathetic treatment of Don Quixote—is that books and education are liberating influences on the human psyche. Thus, the symbolic purport of Don Quixote de la Mancha may be a parody of the Church's monopoly of literacy in the Middle Ages, with the uninhibited don a reproach to the insensitive, book-burning priest.
To be sure, Don Quixote becomes a tragic figure toward the end of the novel, but not for the failure of his philosophy; rather, it is society's failure to accommodate a deviation from the norm. Herein lies another symbolic level of the novel: society's intolerance of deviance. For Cervantes certainly did not make the don contemptible nor did he treat him with contempt. Such treatment would have been repellent after the tender tolerance of the first part of the story. Despite the satirical thrust of the novel on the symbolic level, the don himself is a sympathetic character throughout the story. Although he strives to push time back, his efforts are depicted as noble. The sympathy he evokes is that popular sympathy for the underdog who defies all odds and is broken in the attempt in contrast to the protagonist who has everything in his favor and succumbs to a surfeit of success.
Cervantes' novel is a complex web of tangled skeins, subject to many more interpretations than those suggested here. Suffice it to say that Don Quixote de la Mancha is unequivocally judged the finest Spanish novel ever written and one of the greatest works in world literature.


CERVANTES "Don Quixote " Illustrations by G. Dore



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