In 1605, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra wrote the first part of his ingenious novel, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, known in English as Don Quixote. Written because Cervantes was in financial trouble and he needed to make some money, Don Quixote met with immediate commercial success.
Indeed, the novel was so popular that in 1614, another writer imitating Cervantes' subject and style published a book called Segundo tomo del ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha. While imitation might be the most sincere form of flattery, Cervantes was not amused. Already working on the second volume of Don Quixote, he wrote into the book a chapter castigating the impostor and denigrating the imitative work. This second volume was published in 1615, and once again met with both critical and popular approval.
Since the seventeenth century, Don Quixote has grown to be one of the most regarded and highly influential novels in the western world. It continues to generate critical study and controversy, and has been called the most important novel ever written, particularly by South American writers. Indeed, important writers such as Michel Foucault and Jorge Luis Borges have both discussed Don Quixote at length.
What is there about the novel that makes it the subject of so many literary studies, centuries after its first publication? Perhaps it is because the novel offers readers nearly endless possibilities for interpretation. As Harold Bloom argues in The Western Canon: "No two readers ever seem to read the same Don Quixote…. Cervantes invented endless ways of disrupting his own narrative to compel the reader to tell the story in place of the wary author."
Further, a number of critics believe that it is the first modern novel. Carlos Fuentes, for example, in a foreword to the Tobias Smollet translation of Don Quixote, tells the reader that for him, "[T]he modern world begins when Don Quixote de la Mancha, in 1605, leaves his village, goes out into the world, and discovers that the world does not resemble what he has read about it."
P. E. Russell, in his book Cervantes, also traces the connections between Don Quixote and the modern novel. Most interesting, however, are Russell's statements concerning how the book is not like the modern novel. For example, he argues that "A parodic or even a more generally comic stance is hardly the norm in the modern novel." Russell continues, "The ambiguity of the book is another feature that we scarcely associate with the modern novel."
The problem, of course, is how to reconcile Cervantes' multi-layered, highly ironic, playful text with the modern novel, which tries to preserve the illusion of the reality of its fictive world. Russell might meet with more success if he were to connect Don Quixote with the postmodern novel, what Russell refers to as "experimental fiction."
Postmodern literature is concerned with narrative and the disruption of narrative; with the connection between naming and reality; and with fiction that self-reflexively calls attention to itself as fiction. By examining each of these in turn, readers may find that Cervantes anticipates the postmodern moment in Don Quixote.
A narrative is, according to The Harper Handbook of Literature, an account of real or imaginary events, and a narrative perspective is the standpoint from which a story is told. A narrative demands a narrator, that is, a teller of the story. While this may seem self-evident, postmodernism has rendered the entire relationship between the narrator and the narrative problematic. Like a postmodernist himself, Cervantes plays with the relationship as well.
As the novel opens, Cervantes introduces himself to the reader through his prologue. Readers thus expect that Cervantes will be the voice narrating the tale. As E. Michael Gerli in his book Refiguring Authority: Reading, Writing, and Rewriting in Cervantes notes, however, "[T]he narrative structure of Don Quijote is exceedingly complex." The voice that opens the novel, introduces the characters, and recounts the action remains consistent for the first eight chapters.
Suddenly, however, Cervantes disrupts his own narrative, and informs the reader that he has been reading from a text that has suddenly come to an end, right in the middle of a battle. This disruption of the narrative throws the...
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[Today], there is scarcely a literature that yields less individual and more insipid works than that of Spain, and there is scarcely a cultured nation—or one that passes for such—where there is such a manifest incapacity for philosophy.
[This] philosophical incapacity which Spain has always shown, as well as a certain poetic incapacity—poetry is not the same as literature—has allowed a host of pedants and spiritual sluggards, who constitute what might be called the school of the Cervantist Masora, to fall upon Don Quixote.
The Masora was, as the reader will doubtless remember, a Jewish undertaking, consisting of critical annotations to the Hebrew text of Holy Scripture, the work of various rabbis of the school at Tiberias during the eighth and ninth centuries. The Masoretes, as these rabbis were called, counted all the letters which compose the Biblical text and determined the incidence of each letter and the number of times each one was preceded by one of the others, and other curious matters of this type.
The Cervantist Masoretes have not yet indulged in such excesses with Don Quixote; but they are not far off. As regards our book, all manner of unimportant minutiae and every kind of insignificant detail have been recorded. The book has been turned upside down and considered from every angle, but scarcely anyone has examined its entrails, nor entered into its inner meaning.
Even worse: whenever anyone has attempted to plumb its depths and give our book a symbolic or tropological sense, all the Masoretes and their allies, the pure litterateurs and the whole coterie of mean spirits, have fallen upon him and torn him to bits or have ridiculed him. From time to time, some holy man from the camp of the wise and shortsighted pedants comes along and informs us that Cervantes neither could nor would mean to say what this or that symbolist attributed to him, inasmuch as his sole object was to put an end to the reading of books of chivalry.
Assuming that such was his intent, what does Cervantes' intention in Don Quixote, if he had any intention, have to do with what the rest of us see in the book? Since when is the author of a book the person to understand it best?
Ever since Don Quixote appeared in print and was placed at the disposition of anyone who would take it in hand and read it, the book has no longer belonged to Cervantes, but to all who read it and feel it. Cervantes extracted Don Quixote from the soul of his people and from the soul of all humanity, and in his immortal book he returned him to his people and all humanity. Since then, Don Quixote and Sancho have continued to live in the souls of the readers of Cervantes' book and even in the souls of those who have never read it. There scarcely exists a person of even average education who does not have some idea of Don Quixote and Sancho.
Cervantes wrote his book in the Spain of the beginnings of the seventeenth century and for the Spain of that time; but Don Quixote has traveled through all the countries of the world in the course of the three centuries that have passed since then. Inasmuch as Don Quixote could not be the same man, for example, in nineteenth century England as in seventeenth century Spain, he has been transformed and modified in England, giving proof thereby of his powerful vitality and of the intense realism of his ideal reality.
It is nothing more than pettiness of spirit (to avoid saying something worse) that moves certain Spanish critics to insist on reducing Don Quixote to a mere work of literature, great though its value may be, and to attempt to drown in disdain, mockery, or invective all who seek in the book for meanings more intimate than the merely liberal.
If the Bible came to have an inestimable value it is because of what generations of men put into it by their reading, as their spirits fed there; and it is well known that there is hardly a passage in it that has not been interpreted in hundreds of ways, depending on the interpreter. And this is all very much to the good. Of less importance is whether the authors of the different books of the Bible meant to say what the theologians, mystics, and commentators see there; the important fact is that, thanks to this immense labor of generations through the centuries, the Bible is a perennial fountain of consolation, hope, and heartfelt inspiration. Why should not the same process undergone by Holy Scripture take place with Don Quixote, which should be the national Bible of the patriotic religion of Spain?
Perhaps it would not be difficult to establish a relation between our weak, soft, and addled patriotism and the narrowness of vision, the wretchedness of spirit, and the crushing vulgarity of Cervantist Masoretism and of the critics and litterateurs of this country who have examined our book.
I have observed that whenever Don Quixote is cited with enthusiasm in Spain, it is most often the least intense and least profound passages that are quoted, the most literary and least poetic, those that least lend themselves to philosophic flights or exaltations of the heart. The passages of our book which figure in the anthologies, in the treatises of rhetoric—they should all be burned!—or in the selections for school reading, seem specially picked out by some scribe or Masorete in open warfare with the spirit of the immortal Don Quixote, who continues to live after having risen again from the sepulcher sealed by Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, after the hidalgo had been entombed there and his death certified.
Instead of getting to the poetry in Don Quixote, the truly eternal and universal element in it, we tend to become enmeshed in its literature, in its temporal and particular elements. In this regard, nothing is more wretched than to consider Don Quixote a language text for Spanish. The truth is that our book is no such thing, for in point of language there are many books which can boast a purer and more correct Spanish. And as regards the style, Don Quixote is guilty of a certain artificiality and affectation.
I have no doubt in my mind but that Cervantes is a typical example of a writer enormously inferior to his work, to his Don Quixote. If Cervantes had not written this book, whose resplendent light bathes his other works, he would scarcely figure in our literary history as anything more than a talent of the...
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There can be no doubt, Don Quixote is the world's greatest and most typical novel. There are other novels which are finer works of art, more exquisite in style, of more perfect architectonic plan. But such books appeal less to the world at large than to the literary critic; they are not equally amusing, equally profound, to the men of all nations, and all ages, and all degrees of mental capacity. Even if we put aside monuments of literary perfection, like some of the novels of Flaubert, and consider only the great European novels of widest appeal and deepest influence, they still fall short of the standard which this book, their predecessor and often their model, had set. Tristram Shandy, perhaps the most cosmopolitan...
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