Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1237
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 Cervantes’ avowed purpose was to ridicule the books of chivalry that enjoyed popularity even...
(The entire section contains 1237 words.)
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- Critical Essays
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 Cervantes’ avowed purpose was to ridicule the books of chivalry that 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 many kinds. 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 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 is about the misadventures of an eccentric and a fool. The symbolic level, however, probes much deeper; it reveals the significance of these adventures. In fact, the symbolic level deals, as all good literature does, with values. Thus, Quixote’s declaration is ironic on the superficial level and, in context, on the level of its true thematic message.
On the literal level, 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 is 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 are burned, reveals the extent of his collection, and earlier mention of his omnivorous reading leads to the assumption that he has read all of them. Further evidence of 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. Later, after an encounter with Yanguesan herdsmen, there is evidence, in a very lucid and pragmatic statement for a presumably insane old man, of Quixote’s having read Niccolò Machiavelli, followed by the don’s citation of the misfortunes that 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, Quixote remembers the makeshift tree-limb weapon used by Diego Perez de Vargas when the latter’s primary 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, 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’s 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, 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.” Is, however, 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, for example, literature serve as a basis for understanding reality as Quixote avers? In lieu of a clear-cut answer, Cervantes offers a paradox. Early in the text, Quixote learns from Sancho that the squire has never read any 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 endures. Readers are left to ponder this paradox that 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 censorship in general and the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in particular. The literal lesson emphasizes the corruptive power of books (and, therefore, education); however, the symbolic implication—given Cervantes’ sympathetic treatment of 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 foil to the insensitive, book-burning priest.
To be sure, 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 does not make the don contemptible nor does he treat him with contempt. Such treatment would have been repellent after the 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 back time, his efforts are depicted as noble, although futile. 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.