In the book we know familiarly as Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes wrote a brilliant, enduring story, one that has survived intact since it was first published in 1605.
Cervantes himself had a fantastic history, a story which could have been written as a novel.
Born in 1547 to an impoverished Spanish doctor, Miguel was better educated than many of his time, although exactly where he was educated is not known. He joined the army at twenty-one.
In 1575, pirates kidnapped Cervantes and his brother and sold them as slaves to the Moors. Originally from Morocco, the Moors were Muslims and were the longtime adversaries of Catholic Spain, which they had once conquered.
History says Cervantes was taken to Algiers. His three or four attempts to escape his slavery were unsuccessful, but finally, he was ransomed in 1580 and returned to Spain.
Upon gaining his freedom, he worked in many clerical capacities, notably as a purchasing agent for the Spanish navy (i.e., the Spanish King). His unfortunate trust in an Andalucían banker with whom he had deposited Crown funds led to his imprisonment for a few months in Seville, after said banker went bankrupt.
It was during his stay in prison that the story of Don Quixote was born. All his life, Cervantes had to work a day job to support himself, writing at night and whenever he had the chance. Prison offered him the chance to spend his entire day writing.
In Don Quixote, Cervantes took many risks with vocabulary. He had as immense an effect on the Spanish language as William Shakespeare did English.
Sayings you might hear every day that were coined by Cervantes:
- By a small sample we may judge of the whole piece.
- Can we ever have too much of a good thing?
- No limits but the sky.
- Why do you lead me a wild-goose chase?
- Thank you for nothing.
- Let every man mind his own business.
- The pot calls the kettle black.
Only in the final ten years of his life did Cervantes achieve literary success, and even then, he struggled to support himself.
Cervantes divided Don Quixote into three sections, each with a different perspective:
The second section (comprising the rest of the First Part) is written as if it were a historical account. Here, Cervantes tells us he’s merely translating the manuscript of Cide Hamete Benengeli. He often breaks the fourth wall, interrupting the narrative to mention Benengeli. He remarks on the “internal inconsistencies” in Benengeli’s manuscript. It is broken into chapters at intervals, and Cervantes records the events of each of Don Quixote’s days.
The third section (which covers the Second Part of the novel) is different. It was written as a traditional novel might be. Emotions, large themes, and strong character development are features of this section. Here, Cervantes has gotten a grip on the story arc and the characters.
It is in this third section that Cervantes himself enters the novel as a character. He casts himself as a synthesis of the fictional Benengeli and Cervantes the author.
This is a morality tale. The character Don Quixote strives to be an example, becoming a knight-errant as a way to force his contemporaries to face their failures. In his eyes, they have abandoned the traditions of morality and the chivalric code.
This conflict between tradition and modern values becomes a stalemate. No one understands Don Quixote, and he understands no one.
Only Sancho, his good-hearted, loyal friend can intercede between Don Quixote and the rest of the world. Yet, Sancho, a modern man of the peasant class (and with his own agenda) has a basic understanding of morality. He alone is able to interpret for Don Quixote, acting as a mediator. Sancho quite often agrees with the morals of his day but then surprises us by supporting Don Quixote’s outdated ethics and chivalry.
Toward the end is where it gets a bit out of hand. The characters are aware of the books that have been written about them. They try to alter the content of subsequent editions. This complicates things mightily. At times, we readers feel as disoriented as the mad knight, unable to tell which plotlines are internal to the story and which are factual.
I believe that disorientation was intentional on the author’s part.
I’ve learned several things from Cervantes’s wonderful story of the mad knight, Don Quixote, but I will explore only two.
First, its clear that minor flaws will be ignored by the reader if the story is compelling enough. It was so wildly popular in its day that it inspired publication of an unauthorized continuation, a true fan fiction written by an unknown writer who masqueraded under the name of Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda.
It’s unclear if Cervantes knew the true identity of the superfan. But he wasn’t amused; indeed, he went to great lengths to write “the true continuation of the story,” mocking and poking fun at the fanfiction in many places in his work.
Second, my belief that charismatic characters and epic conflicts of morality make a great story was reinforced.
Cervantes challenged the notion that social class and worth were entwined. He shows that Nobility of Birth does not necessarily confer wisdom or kindness. In the Duke and Duchess, he gives us thoughtless cruelty, casually delivered purely for its entertainment value. In the peasant, Sancho, he shows us a wise, kind, and thoughtful man. In the shepherds, he gives us philosophers.
I’m not suggesting you have to read modern translations of classic Spanish literature. I do suggest you read something new every day, though. Reading a variety of genres opens our eyes to new ideas and widens our minds.
Reading makes us better writers.
It was this laying bare of the disparity between social class and human worth that made Don Quixote such a revolutionary work in its time. This is also why it endures today as one of the foundations of the Western Literary Canon.
I highly recommend Edith Grossman’s modern translation, which was published in 2003. For those of you who feel you’re too impatient to read literary fiction, this wonderful version is available as an audio book.