Letters
Fall 2005, Vol. 14, No. 1 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Don Quixote Celebrates Its Four-Hundredth Birthday

by Edward H. Friedman

Edward Friedman

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra published Don Quixote in two parts, in 1605 and 1615. He was in his late fifties and had never had a clear literary triumph. Both books were bestsellers. Don Quixote became a classic, and Don Quixote became an icon. We do not know all the details of Cervantes’s early life. His father was a surgeon, itinerant and by no means well-to-do. It is believed that the son’s education included study with scholars heavily influenced by the works of Erasmus. Cervantes lived for a time in Seville, where he became fascinated with the theater, but when he published eight plays and eight dramatic interludes in 1615, the end of the title bore the words “never presented on stage.” As a soldier in Italy, Cervantes took part in the great naval battle of Lepanto (1571), in which he conducted himself heroically and received severe injuries. In 1575, he set off for Spain with recommendations of the highest order, only to find his ship kidnapped by Muslim enemies. He spent five years in captivity in Algiers. His glorious return to his fatherland denied, Cervantes was to spend the greatest part of his life enduring hardships of various sorts, with little professional or personal success, and with only minor recognition as a writer. Don Quixote changed that, but even this victory was diminished by the publication, in 1614, of a continuation of the novel by the pseudonymous Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, whose identity still eludes us.

Cervantes wrote Don Quixote at a moment in which the novel—or what we call the modern novel—was being developed, and his work played a significant role in that development. Cervantes offers a template for the future novel, be it an example of realism, naturalism, modernism, or postmodernism, in Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere. At the beginning of the seventeenth century in Spain, the major narrative forms that had endured from the previous century were idealistic in tone and theme. They included sentimental, pastoral, and chivalric romance, the most popular examples of which bore the titles, respectively, The Prison of Love, Diana, and Amadís of Gaul. There was a realistic current in Celestina and The Robust Andalusian Woman (both lengthy narratives in dialogue form), the Italian novella (adapted by Spanish writers), and the picaresque mode. The picaresque narrates the lives of antiheroes and antiheroines, often in the first person, offering a view of society from below and a new take on Renaissance humanism, the spiritual confession, and the exemplary biography or autobiography. In his fiction, Cervantes certainly pays attention to this incipient realism, but he establishes paradigms and parameters of his own. His other narrative works include twelve Exemplary Novels, published in 1613, and an “epic in prose,” The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda, published posthumously in 1617.

The procedure leading to publication of Part 1 of Don Quixote was rather complicated. This was the age of the Inquisition, and there was strict censorship of books. Cervantes needed the permission of the Council of Castile and the services of an editor, Francisco de Robles, who became a financial partner, and a printer, Juan de la Cuesta. (Cervantes claimed that others—not he—became rich from the sales of Don Quixote.) Printers usually did not use the original, but a version prepared by an amanuensis. The printers worked, it seems in this case, in a hurry, and within a particular format that forced them to make some changes, such as a redistribution of chapters or sections. One can deduce that some, but definitely not all, of the errors, omissions, and misleading chapter headings were due to the methods used in printing rather than to the mental lapses (or a calculated plan) of the author. The princeps edition stands apart, even from Cervantes’s other publications, for its large quantity of errata. Nonetheless, the book was an immediate success, and within a short span of time there were reprintings (the first two in Lisbon) and new editions. The fact that emendations were made did not completely change the picture with regard to errors, for many were to remain, yet this defect of Part 1 eventually served the self-referentiality of Part 2. It may be noted that the second part itself was hardly error-free. Both volumes of Don Quixote display the same frontispiece, Juan de la Cuesta’s crest with the Latin dictum “Post tenebras spero lucem” [After the darkness, I hope for light]. According to the eminent Spanish scholar Francisco Rico, the easily readable font is atanasia, an offspring of Garamond. The 1605 Quixote has 52 chapters (divided into four parts), and the 1615 Quixote has 74; standard editions of the combined texts contain roughly a thousand pages, often with illustrations that take on a life of their own. The popularity of the books led to continued reprintings and translations. The first English translations, by Thomas Shelton, appeared in 1612 and 1620. There are a number of excellent translations (by the novelist Tobias Smollett, John Ormsby, Samuel Putnam, J. M. Cohen, Charles Jarvis, Walter Starkie, Burton Raffel, John Rutherford, and others), including a recent and much-reviewed version by Edith Grossman, with an introduction by Harold Bloom, and an announced new translation by Thomas Lathrop, a professor at the University of Delaware and the editor of a student edition of the novel. Editions old and new, in Spanish, English, and other languages, run the gamut from the exquisite and ornate to the paperback for under ten dollars. Most academic libraries will have a facsimile edition and a range of editions.

There is something rebellious, even subversive, about Don Quixote, starting with the prologue to Part 1. The speaker is a fictionalized version of the author, who receives a visit from a nameless friend, to whom he explains his predicament: he has written a book, but he feels unprepared to write a formal prologue that would include quotations from the sages in order to prove his erudition. The friend advises him that all he has to do is fill in blank spaces; he can make up whatever he wants, as long as he gets the job done. Although Cervantes directs the prologue to an “idle reader,” one can see from the beginning that Cervantes is striving for an interactive text, highly dependent on the response of the reader. He is also creating distance, by making himself a character and by ceding authority to yet another alter ego, the friend, who does by far more talking than “Cervantes.” Chapter 1 likewise offers surprises. The narrator emphasizes that what we are reading is a “true history,” but his command of the data could make the reader somewhat skeptical. Chronology, for example, is conspicuously off. The narrator has consulted archives, but recent books—including Cervantes’s pastoral novel Galatea, of 1585—are mentioned. One may think of Don Quixote as a self-fashioned knight errant who has adventure after adventure, and, while that is true, the essence of the novel is found more in its commentary about books, as art and as consumer products, than in the imitation of chivalric romance. Stated simply, Don Quixote is primarily a book about books, and thus about reading, writing, and critique. Its protagonist and its story are capable of moving us, but at the same time the novel involves us in the process of its composition.

The hidalgo, or lesser nobleman who becomes Don Quixote, takes to the road as a knight errant in order to insert himself into the world of chivalry. This unique variety of madness results from his reading. The narrator tells us that the gentleman’s brain has dried up after many sleepless nights in his library. Don Quixote takes fiction to be the truth, and the books of chivalry become his models. He wishes to serve humanity by righting wrongs, by defending the defenseless, and by re-creating the values of the Golden Age. He prepares himself for the journey and invents a lady to serve, Dulcinea del Toboso, an idealization of the peasant girl Aldonza Lorenzo. Even before he undertakes his first challenge, he imagines the chronicle that will recount his exploits and hopes that the historian to whom the task falls will represent him accurately. He comes to an inn that he mistakes as—or transforms into—a castle, and the innkeeper initiates a pattern that will recur throughout the novel: he pretends to enter into Don Quixote’s fantasy, thereby accepting the role as owner of the castle and dubbing him a knight. On the chivalric stage that he has invented, Don Quixote functions as actor, scriptwriter, director, and producer, and he counts on those with whom he comes into contact to accept his reality as theirs.

After a drubbing early in Part 1, Don Quixote is lying on the ground badly wounded and, placing himself in a chivalric context, rants about his ill fortune, when a neighbor hears him and delivers him to his home. His niece, housekeeper, the village priest, and the barber, concerned for his welfare, undertake a scrutiny of the library, where they burn those books deemed offensive and tell Don Quixote that this has been the work of evil enchanters. Bibliophiles and critics tend to enjoy these book reviews, which are flavored by the spirit of the Council of Trent and the Counter Reformation. Escape fiction, notably the romances of chivalry, were clearly not part of the program of edification. The burning of the souls that are found wanting is obviously an allusion to the Inquisition, its censorship of books and its fires of punishment. Cervantes seems to have gotten away with this allegory by virtue of the comic and absurdist atmosphere, and perhaps by virtue of the protagonist’s madness. One of the many brilliant touches in the novel is the introduction of the topic of enchantment, for now Don Quixote can use what could be called the enchantment defense whenever he is faced with a realistic explanation of his delusions.

Scholars have surmised that, as Cervantes proceeded in his writing, he realized that he could expand the original design in order to produce an extensive narrative rather than a novella. Don Quixote’s return to his village allows him the opportunity to choose a squire to serve him, with the promise that, in time, the liege will become the governor of an island. Not only an attendant but a dialogue partner, Sancho, rather than the narrator, can interpret reality, and he can supply humor, physical and verbal, as well as an alternate perspective. Sancho is illiterate, so that symbolically he stands for orality, juxtaposed with the obsessive dependence of his master on written culture. Cervantes accentuates the impact of the printing press on the accessibility of knowledge without forgetting the persistence of oral—and, by extension, popular—tradition. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza serve dualism not only through contrast, but also through mutual development and influence. Salvador de Madariaga coins superb terms when he refers to the relationship as the Quixotization of Sancho and the Sanchification of Don Quixote. Both characters grow in the course of the narrative, and, in some ways, Sancho becomes the protagonist, or co-protagonist, of Part 2. The first adventure that involves both the knight errant and his squire is the universally known encounter with the windmills, which Don Quixote takes for giants. The episode is brief, but it allows the astonished Sancho to notify his master of the real identity of the giants and allows the injured knight to blame his ills on the enchanter. More consequentially, it could be argued, it becomes—along with visions of the long and lean knight with his short and portly squire—the chief focus of artists who wish to capture the essence of Don Quixote’s quest, the proverbial tilting at windmills.

Something highly unusual happens at the end of chapter 8 of Part 1. The narrator announces, in the middle of the description of a battle between Don Quixote and a Biscayan, that he has no more information. In the marketplace in Toledo, he happens upon a manuscript in Arabic that turns out to be the history of Don Quixote by the Muslim chronicler Cide Hamete Benengeli, and that narrative begins where chapter 8 left off. What we are reading is the translation of that manuscript by a Morisco (a Muslim convert), with editorial commentary by the narrator. Readers need to recall that during this period the holy war between the Christians and the Muslims continued. The Christians portrayed their enemies as liars (as did the Muslims), and Cervantes is further shaking the foundation of the “true history,” without acknowledging doing so. He is foregrounding the space between the event itself and its expression, by offering a series of distancing devices while insisting on the truthfulness of the account. At this juncture and numerous others, Cervantes replicates the experience, and the ups and downs, of writing and readying a manuscript for publication.

The chapters that follow more often than not have literary bases. The pastoral, the picaresque, poetry, drama, the Italian novella, nonfiction, and aesthetic critique make their way into the plot. When Don Quixote, single-minded in his pursuit of justice, frees a group of galley slaves, he and Sancho flee from the beaten path to the mountains, where they meet new characters and link up with familiar ones at an inn. One of the key features of this lengthy sequence is the shift from adventures to narration proper, to what I would designate as adventures in storytelling. Characters narrate their lives and trials, usually with interruptions, and there are two extended interpolations: the reading aloud of a novella entitled “The Tale of Foolish Curiosity” and the autobiographical narrative (in a double sense, given Cervantes’s imprisonment) of a Christian captive recently escaped from Algiers. On his way home at the end of the first part, Don Quixote meets a canon from the city of Toledo, a man who despises the romances of chivalry and who, together with the village priest, condemns the current state of the Spanish theater, specifically the “new style of writing plays” of Lope de Vega.

Part 2 of Don Quixote has a different air about it. The distinction relates, to a large degree, to the prologue, far less playful than its predecessor and with a speaker who seems to be Cervantes, without the quotation marks. Cervantes responds to the spurious sequel of Avellaneda and to the ad hominem attacks on his age, character, and integrity by the mysterious author, who decries the attack on the theater. He resents being called a maligner of Lope de Vega, whom he damns here with faint praise. At the end of the prologue, Cervantes reveals that, at the conclusion of the authentic second part, he will kill off and bury Don Quixote, in order to thwart further continuations. Allusions to the Avellaneda tome do not reappear in the text until chapter 59, when two guests at an inn show Don Quixote a copy. The sequel comes into several episodes (including a vision of hell, in which devils are playing a tennis-like game with the Avellaneda Quixote in place of balls), but a culminating moment is when Don Álvaro Tarfe, a character from the counterfeit book, meets the real Don Quixote and certifies his legitimacy to a notary.

One can imagine how Cervantes would have reacted to the publication of the “other” continuation; that he was deeply offended is unequivocal. The embarrassment notwithstanding, Avellaneda’s intrusion is like a gift from heaven for the novel. The very falseness of the volume underscores Cervantes’s play with history and fiction and with perspective, perception, and expression. Cervantes perforce must align himself with Cide Hamete Benengeli, the Arab historian, who is now manifestly the author of the “true” history. Avellaneda highlights and amplifies, then, Cervantes’s calculated design of instability, wherein things change at every stage of the narrative continuum. Every new factor forces the reader to reconfigure events and messages, and not even Cervantes himself can outdo his adversary in this regard. Avellaneda likewise affects forever what Frank Kermode has termed the sense of an ending in the novel, since Part 2 is a chronicle of a death foretold complemented by the Christian death of Alonso Quijano, who renounces the books of chivalry and his own misdirected energies.

The most important book in Part 2 is not the Avellaneda continuation, however, but Cervantes’s Part 1. If chivalric romance inspires Part 1, Part 1 inspires Part 2. Don Quixote finds out from the university graduate Sansón Carrasco that a chronicle of his two sallies has been published, and he is concerned about its accuracy when he learns that the historian is an Arab. He wants to know how the book has been received, and Carrasco informs him that it is quite popular, but that critics have disapproved of the intercalated novella, not for its quality, but for its inappropriateness with respect to the question of unity. The discussion covers other flaws, mistakes, and omissions, as well. The dialectics of process and product in Part 1 now more emphatically includes criticism and theory, and Cervantes seems to be testing himself (and Cide Hamete) as to whether he can conform to the critics’ suggestions as he composes Part 2. Since it has generally been assumed that the false sequel did not appear until Cervantes had written most of Part 2, and that he did not heavily edit the completed portion after the appearance of the intrusive text, all of this is pre-Avellaneda, yet it becomes richer and more complex post-Avellaneda.

There is good news and bad news for Don Quixote. The good news is that the chronicle of his exploits has made him famous. The bad news is that people who have read the book know his modus operandi before they meet him, and some of them wish to usurp his authority, his theatrical role. This makes him more passive than in Part 1 (until he hears about the competition, at least), and Cervantes resolves this potential problem by giving Sancho Panza increased control. When Don Quixote wishes to visit Dulcinea, Sancho begins to worry, since he has lied to his master about delivering a letter to her. Sancho resolves the dilemma by stopping a country lass on the road and identifying her as Dulcinea. In a role reversal, it is Don Quixote who can only see the baser element, and he vows to do whatever necessary to “disenchant” Dulcinea. Much of the action of Part 2 places Don Quixote emblematically as spectator in the staged performances of others. The highest point, or lowest, of this inversion takes place at the palace of the duke and duchess, wealthy aristocrats with time on their hands, as well as avid readers of Part 1. They pretend to honor the knight errant, but they treat Don Quixote and Sancho as buffoons. They fabricate obstacles on the theme of chivalry, and they construct an island for Sancho to govern, along with a plot to undo him.

Part 2 opens with a dialogue on the reception of Part 1 and builds its trajectory around reader response. Like Don Quixote in Part 1, Carrasco and the ducal pair take the motif of reading from the abstract to the concrete, and it is their histrionic sensibility that pushes the action forward. Carrasco disguises himself as an opposing knight so that he can compel his defeated opponent not to exercise the art of chivalry for a year, but Don Quixote defeats him on the first try. Later, he is successful, and Don Quixote and Sancho return home, where the disillusionment and the rejection of the romances occur. The adventures of the second part include, among many others, Don Quixote’s descent into the Cave of Montesinos, where in a vision he sees chivalric figures and the “enchanted” Dulcinea; a puppet show that he interrupts in order to do battle with the enemy; a few days with a Spanish version of Robin Hood; and a visit to Barcelona. The death, or deaths, of Don Quixote may provide only the illusion of closure, for Don Quixote has intrigued and baffled readers for four centuries. We feel for Don Quixote, and we analyze him with ironic detachment. There are critical schools of thought and thousands of studies on Cervantes’s masterpiece, but, wonderfully, none can be complete or definitive, because the text keeps exposing new angles of vision and keeps catching us off guard. It makes us look backward and forward, refurbishing the literary and cultural past and shocking us with its precociousness. It is born of nostalgia and prescience, subject to history and to infinite reprocessing. It is as mutable as life and as timeless as true art should be.

• Among the best sources of information on the printing and publication of Don Quixote are Francisco Rico, “Historia del texto,” in Don Quijote de la Mancha, an edition prepared under the direction of Rico (Barcelona: Crítica, 1998), I, cxcii-ccxlii; and Robert M. Flores, in the introduction (in English) to his Cervantes: “Don Quixote de la Mancha”: An Old-Spelling Control Edition Based on the First Editions of Parts I and II (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1988), I, xv-xlii. Three outstanding online resources—for texts, biographical and bibliographical data, illustrations and images, criticism, etc.—are those of the Cervantes Society of America, the Cervantes Project, and H-Cervantes.

Edward H. Friedman is Professor of Spanish at Vanderbilt University. His research focuses on early modern Spanish literature, with special emphasis on Cervantes, picaresque narrative, and the Comedia.


Letters Archive Index

For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.


[ RPW Center for the Humanities | About the Center | Visiting Fellowship Information | Howard Lecture Series | Seminars and Programs | Programs since 1987 ]

[ Vanderbilt University | Site Index | | Help ]


Created by Vanderbilt University Design & Publishing.
Photo credits: Gerald Holly and Vanderbilt University Publications & Design.

Copyright © 2001, Vanderbilt University
URL: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/rpw_center/
Last Modified: Tuesday, 11 October 2005
For more information: rpw.center@vanderbilt.edu