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...
(The entire section is 1237 words.)