Skip to main content

All I Need to Know I Learned from "Don Quixote"

Edward H. Friedman

Don Quixote illustration by Honore Daumier
Don Quixote illustration from the 18th-century artist Honoré Daumier

One of the pleasures of teaching at Vanderbilt is having the privilege of entering into dialogue with outstanding students, colleagues, and other members of the university community, including the many good people who come in and out of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities. The following is a meditation of sorts on that experience.

The study of literature has always been complicated, because fictional texts are complex, rich in ambiguity, and certainly open to interpretation. There is a stability to the printed word and an accompanying instability to analysis, to what one could label the activity of word processing. The discipline (and the art) of rhetoric focuses on the ways in which speakers and writers can manage and manipulate words, and thus ideas and messages. Those who teach writing and communication studies (formerly often called speech) rely on the tools of rhetoric to convey the fine points, and perhaps less-than-subtle points, of their trade. Rhetoric is not far removed from “spin,” and “spin” is a two-way street, dependent on the sender and the receiver of discourse. The poststructuralist enterprise echoed a message borrowed from the rhetoric of classical antiquity: that what we say or write is a function of how we say it, and that every utterance or written word bears an inflection. In the humanities—and, by citing the humanities, I am not excluding other areas of knowledge or other disciplines—we teach our students how to contemplate and analyze multiple forms of speech and writing. That interest in producing good readers, and good listeners, is part of our collective venture.

Recent theory has emphasized what has been classified as the “constructedness” of texts. We train ourselves and our students to discern, scrutinize, describe, investigate, and interrogate formal and conceptual structures, and to note the convergence of form and concept. Instruction in literature often used to be more of an exposition than a practicum, more self-illuminating than interactive. Flashes of professorial brilliance can be wonderful to behold and effective as learning tools, perhaps more subliminally than directly; they are built on finished products. In contrast to product-oriented approaches, the give-and-take method, as it were, is more likely to concentrate on process. An analogue might be the prospect of seeing Al Pacino on stage as Shylock or Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth versus taking an acting lesson
from Mr. Pacino or Dame Judi. Which would be more beneficial? If forced to decide, I know what I would say, but the preferable solution, here and elsewhere, would be to select both/and over either/or, that is, to unite process and product. I would want to understand the “stages” of preparation for performance—the juxtaposition of the director’s vision and the actor’s collaboration and individual style—and ultimately to observe the results of the pre-rehearsal and rehearsal periods. And, as a budding thespian, I would want the expert to assess my personal work and to give me tips for improvement.

The classroom can, and arguably should, lend itself to the dialectics of process and product. Teachers may enjoy sharing the inner workings of their disciplines and of their own research, and presumably this will facilitate the distribution and acquisition of knowledge. To take the theater analogy a step further, one could submit that the classroom is a stage and that we must maintain the attention of—if not entertain—our audiences. At times, I wish that
I were a song-and-dance man, but I cannot sing (in English or in Spanish), and my dancing has gone downhill since I left the Bar Mitzvah party circuit some decades ago. I have had to make up in enthusiasm what I lack in talent, with the goal of encouraging students—for most of whom Spanish is not their native language—to comprehend the material and to find a comfort zone for participation. On occasion having sat in classrooms praying that I would not get called on, I am strong on empathy, but I must note that my students at Vanderbilt have been uniformly excellent in contributing to class discussion and in tackling difficult material with vigor and skill. The students deserve the lion’s share of the accolades, yet Vanderbilt’s dedication to undergraduate education has attuned the faculty to the pedagogical challenges, the rewards, and the potential for creativity in teaching. Learning hardly takes place in a vacuum, and every faculty member ponders on how best to organize classes and to promote student achievement and advancement. We and our students profit from a diversity of instructional strategies and from methodologies that suit a particular target audience.

When I teach literature, I find that I have much in common with the Russian Formalists of the early part of the twentieth century. These critics and theorists highlight texts that proclaim, rather than hide, their status as literature, that flaunt their “literariness.” Literature offers a vehicle for ideas and ideologies and for examination from infinite perspectives, and a literary work is also, and always, an art object, with some type of aesthetic function. Literature has ties to the so-called real world and to literary tradition. It is bidirectional, shifting as its openings and its interpreters allow, and forever mutable. I am drawn to texts that display their fictional identities, their seams, their ambigui-ties, and—conspicuously, almost palpably—their designation of an honored and inevitable place for the reader. Forms of expression, style, and language put the narrative wheels in motion, and, led by the text and their own dispositions,
readers can expand the frame, and insert new frames, as they choose. Texts can become pretexts for limitless readings, contextualizations, and transformations, but they do not cease to belong to the realm of art.

As I think about the origins and growth of the novel, I locate a decisive moment in early modern Spain, in the middle of the sixteenth century, with the publication of an anonymous and relatively brief work of fiction titled Lazarillo de Tormes, commonly described as the first picaresque narrative. The picaresque generally features a first-person narrator from
the bottom rungs of the social latter. The pícaro (or pícara) seeks upward mobility in a rigidly hierarchical society, and the efforts go for naught, although the satire is double-edged, aimed, through ricocheting irony, at the selfincriminating
storyteller and at the hypocrisy and obsession with appearances that dominate social protocol. The picaresque texts of the late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century narratives—which include Mateo Alemán’s Guzmán de Alfarache, Francisco de Quevedo’s La vida del buscón, and Francisco López de Úbeda’s La pícara Justina—are intriguing cultural artifacts on a number of levels, and they are sophisticated cases of literary ventriloquism, in which the author puts words into the narrators’ mouths in a less than subtle manner. Wayne C. Booth’s term the implied author, which refers to signs of the “presence” of the writer in the narrative structure, as an interpretive voiceover, captures the give-and-take quality of the picaresque. Picaresque narrative falls into the category of pseudo-autobiography, so that the refashioning of a “life” into a text is complemented by the subversion of the authority by the creator of the fiction. The reader can see agents of textual production at work—and the author’s usurpation of the narrator/protagonist’s space—as ironic distance presents the story in another light. What may be the most fascinating, and paradoxical, aspect of the discursive battle for control is the protagonist’s ability to project a personality of his or her own; there is a psyche behind the manipulation, pronounced character development despite the high degree of mediation, and a causal connection
between the beginning and the end of the story. Something is going on here that is new and different, and that takes narrative from the stasis of idealistic models to the domain of realism. Significantly, this early instance of realism
includes what might be deemed a metafictional twist, given that the narrators reinvent themselves in their accounts and that the implied authors add, as it were, a third dimension. Narrative realism is born, then, alongside selfreferentiality.
The predominant mode will be one or the other, but realism and metafiction will coexist. The picaresque narratives help
to establish the paradigm, and Cervantes will raise the ante in Don Quixote by multiplying the narrators—and hence the perspectives—and by exploring and exploiting the open spaces revealed in the picaresque.

“Cervantes did not write a theory of a novel. Don Quixote is his theory in practice, a synthetic document on reading, writing, life, and art.”

The errant knight Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza are iconic. They are known to those who have not and may never read the novel, or, actually, the two novels in which they appear, published ten years apart, in 1605 and 1615, but now generally considered as a single unit. The contents of Don Quixote undoubtedly will surprise readers who believe that the windmill episode stands at its center. Part 1 of Don Quixote begins with a prologue in which the author of the manuscript discusses with a friend his reluctance to write a prologue. The friend recommends bypassing the traditional allusions to renowned writers of the past and throwing in anything that occurs to him. There are hefty doses of rebellion, of humor, of parody, and of metacommentary in these first pages, as the act of composition becomes an organizing principle of the narrative trajectory. Writing is, in a word, inscribed into the narrative, and so, obviously, is reading. In a brilliant stroke, Cervantes elects to have the initial narrator—one of a corps of narrative personas—insist that the episodes being recounted constitute the “true history” of Don Quixote, thereby acknowledging and refuting, from the start, the Aristotelian distinction between the objectivity of history and the subjectivity of fiction. The narrator is an advocate of the absolute truth, whereas every sign indicates that truth is relative, at best.

A man whose exact name seems to be in doubt—he is a small landowner and an hidalgo, or lesser nobleman—reads romances of chivalry in his leisure time, and, from that mental exertion, his brain “dries up.” He decides to sally forth as a knight, renaming himself Don Quixote de la Mancha. As soon as he sets out on his quest to right wrongs and to protect damsels in distress, Don Quixote exhibits a sense of his historical role. He imagines his heroic deeds and envisions the chronicle that will record his chivalric feats before an adventure presents itself. His time lapse, here and throughout the text, gives Cervantes the opportunity to play with chronology and with the mechanisms of perception, thought, and expression. Don Quixote’s mind games become the grist for his creator’s exceptionally comprehensive agenda, which moves from the literary past to an anticipated future and from literary territories to the real world and back. At the end of the eighth chapter—with Don Quixote caught in mid-battle with a Basque squire—the narrator
informs the reader that he cannot continue the reporting because he has run out of data. The continuation shows up in the next chapter, when the narrative figure comes across a manuscript in Arabic in a marketplace in Toledo and has it translated into Castilian. The manuscript serendipitously begins where the first section ended. Consequently, the remainder of the “true history” will be transmitted through the intervention of a Morisco translator, who relies on the original by a Muslim historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli, within an atmosphere in which old enmities with the Catholic Spaniards remain. By means of this precociously deconstructive turn of events, Cervantes shows his awareness that much will be lost in translation. He winks at readers and involves them in the negotiation of meaning. He brings them
into the frame, as Diego Velázquez does with an array of spectators a half-century later in his painting Las Meninas, which, not coincidentally, places the artist (amid members of Spain’s royal family) in the work of art.

Along with its nostalgia for—and undermining of—chivalric romance, Don Quixote is populated by characters emblematic of picaresque, pastoral, theatrical, and poetic precedents. The illiterate Sancho Panza is an
exemplum of the legacy of oral culture. Don Quixote’s niece and housekeeper, along with his friends the priest and the barber, evaluate the books in the knight’s library and burn those that they judge to be offensive, in effect, a joint exercise in literary criticism and allegory of the Inquisition. In great proliferation, characters, including a soldier who (like Cervantes) was held captive in Algiers, narrate their stories. A novella (written by Cervantes) is read aloud. There is a debate about the value of histories and biographies as compared with works of fiction. In this profoundly meta- universe, Don Quixote meets a madman and comments on his actions, and shortly thereafter announces that he will imitate the madness of Amadís of Gaul, for him the archetypal knight errant. Part 1 concludes, in essence, when theintercalated tales are completed and Don Quixote promises to return home for a spell, escorted by the priest and the barber, who have taken to the road to retrieve him. The narrator is again short of material, but he vows to keep searching for the rest of the (hi)story.

Much of the reception of Part 2 of Don Quixote rests on an unexpected intrusion into the knight’s history and literary history: the publication in 1614 of a sequel by the pseudonymous Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, whose identity is still unknown. Cervantes likely had written the major portion of his second part when the spurious continuation appeared. He speaks of Avellaneda in the prologue and brings him into the narrative proper as of chapter 59 (of 74). Cervantes’s own plan for Part 2 is nothing if not inspired. The book about Don Quixote has been published. It is a
success, and he is a celebrity. When a character named Sansón Carrasco notifies Don Quixote of public and critical reaction, the knight wonders aloud if there might be a sequel in the making. Don Quixote becomes concerned
about the ability of an Arab historian to transfer his accomplishments to the page. In Part 2, Cervantes replicates the literary critique of Part 1, but now it is Cervantes’s work, and/or Cide Hamete Benengeli’s, that is being appraised.
On the road once again, he encounters readers of Part 1 who know him and his story, and he is in danger of being marginalized by his fame. A devious duke and duchess—avid readers—invite him to their palace, which becomes
a theater in which they make Don Quixote and Sancho Panza their jesters. Relegated to the role of actor in the drama of his hosts, the knight ceases to be a metaphorical playwright and stage director. The altered circumstances threaten to deflate his energy and his drive. He is animated, fortunately, by the discovery that there is a false sequel in print; the bad news puts him on the defensive, and he is ready to do battle. A character from the invasive tome appears in the “real” second part and certifies before a notary that the genuine Don Quixote is the one who stands before him. As if ingeniously scripted by Cervantes, the author is forced to align himself with the Arab historian, whom fate has cast in the role of the “true” historian, therein reconfiguring the irony. Sansón Carrasco poses as an enemy knight in order to
defeat Don Quixote and to force him to return home. Back in his village, Don Quixote has an ex-machina conversion, and he renounces his chivalric persona, dying shortly afterwards. The novel—this one and its successors—does
not die with him, needless to say.

Cervantes did not write a theory of the novel. Don Quixote is his theory in practice, a synthetic document on reading, writing, life, and art. Cervantes recognizes the cultural past—the intertext—and foresees the future of the novel and of theory. He blends realism with metafiction and comedy with serious reflection on perception, perspective, and the nature of truth. Don Quixote provides a mirror to early modern Spain: its push for political and religious unity, its obsession with blood purity and rules regarding honor, its rigid censorship of speech and art, its social and class divisions, its economic woes, its treatment of women and minorities, and its projection of a baroque sensibility, among other elements. The New World, the new science, and a new religious crisis (the Reformation against a Counter Reformation) bring change and increased complexity to society. These are all aspects of Don Quixote’s extended environment, and they are all encoded within the text, in one way or another. A reading of Don Quixote is perforce a
practicum in literature, rhetoric, poetics, history, theology, ethics, race and ethnicity, satire, and the power of the imagination. My stance may seem, well, quixotic, but, trust me, this remnant from early seventeenth-century Spain
covers those things, and more.

We all have our bouncing-off places. Don Quixote, which I have taught thirteen times since I came to Vanderbilt in 2000, is one of mine, and, without a doubt, the main one. Even when it is not on a syllabus or among the texts that I am using for a particular research project, it is present symbolically and emphatically. Whenever I teach a course in contemporary theory, I find myself apologizing for citing Don Quixote too frequently as an example. Because my teaching philosophy,
if I may be so bold as to call it a philosophy, stresses engagement with texts, contexts, and colleagues, recourse to what, for me, is the novel of engagement par excellence seems appropriate. It is my most desired goal for students
to leave my classes feeling that they have learned important subject matter and that they have learned to approach texts—to read—with new insights, critical acumen, and confidence. We all seek method in our pedagogical madness.
As a student, I knew that Don Quixote was special—substantial, intricate, adaptable, dazzlingly comic, deeply serious, inexhaustibly ironic, and so forth—but it dawned on me a bit later that Cervantes’s novel had become my instructor’s manual. I hope that everyone chances upon such a guide.

Edward H. Friedman is Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Spanish and Professor of Comparative
Literature at Vanderbilt University, and director of the Warren Center.