Don Quixote de la Mancha Miguel de Cervantes
Novel published in 1605 (Part I) and 1615 (Part II).
The following entry presents criticism of Cervantes's novel Don Quixote.
Don Quixote de la Mancha is considered one of the masterpieces of world literature. The novel narrates the travels of an insane old man who, believing he is a knight-errant, leaves his village of La Mancha and searches for adventure on the highways and in the villages of seventeenth-century imperial Spain. While the two parts of the novel, published in 1605 and 1615, can be read as a unified whole, they differ considerably in style and approach. The first part is considered by many critics to be a straightforward parody of chivalric romances, while the second part is a more ambitious, self-referential work that involves the reader in an examination of the nature of literature itself. Both parts of the work are rich in humor, social and political commentary, and psychological insight. Some of the major themes that Don Quixote explores are love, imagination, morality, societal norms, class, honor, and the relationship between art and nature. Since its publication, Cervantes's novel has inspired the work of the world's great writers, artists, and composers, including Jorge Luis Borges, William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Henry Purcell, Friedrich Mendelssohn, and Richard Strauss. It remains as popular today as when it first appeared and is admired for its depth and complexity as well as for its appeal as a supremely entertaining story.
Cervantes was born in Alcalá de Henares, a small town near Madrid, in 1547. His father was an itinerant surgeon whose work took his family all over Spain. Despite moving about a great deal, Cervantes received some early formal education in the school of the Spanish humanist Juan Lopez de Hoyos, who taught in Madrid in the 1560s. In 1569, Cervantes traveled to Italy to serve in the household of an Italian nobleman. A year later, he joined the Spanish army. After seeing active duty in Italy and being imprisoned in Algiers for five years, he returned to Spain in 1580. In 1584, when he was thirty-seven, he married a woman twenty years his junior and shortly thereafter obtained a position as a government official in the south of Spain. In 1585, he published his first prose work, La Galatea, a pastoral romance. He then began writing for the theater and composing short stories. By the time the first part of Don Quixote appeared in 1605, Cervantes was a well-known author. The novel was an immediate success, going through six editions in its first year of publication. The work was translated into English and French, bringing Cervantes international recognition. In the years that followed, he published a collection of short stories, a satiric poem, some of his theatrical works, and the second part of Don Quixote. His final prose work, The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda, a Byzantine romance, was completed shortly before he died in 1616.
Plot and Major Characters
Don Quixote tells the story of Alonso Quejana, a Spanish country gentleman who is obsessed by books of chivalry. He spends all his time reading these tales of knights, squires, magicians, and damsels until he goes mad. He convinces himself he is a knight, finds himself a steed (an old nag he calls “Rocinante”), and dubs himself Don Quixote de la Mancha. He also chooses a lady, a country girl named Aldonza Lorenzo who is famed for her skill at salting pork, and gives her the title of Dulcinea del Toboso. He then sets out on his adventures, dreaming of fame and glory. He soon manages to convince a shrewd but illiterate peasant farmer, Sancho Panza, into accompanying him as his squire in return for the promise of a governorship of an island after their brave exploits are over. This story is told in two parts. The first part of the work is a more straightforward narrative that parodies tales of chivalry and romance, as Don Quixote sets out with his squire on a life of glory and chivalric adventures, determined to defend the helpless and destroy the wicked. After his exploits, he is brought home by two of the men from his village who hope to cure him of his madness. The second part of the novel is more complex, as the don learns about the book that has been written about him and his deeds. He and Sancho set out again on a series of adventures, but many of these encounters are staged by characters who know of the pair's previous adventures, and the lines between fiction and reality become increasingly blurred. Once again after his adventures Don Quixote returns home, but his time he renounces the tales of chivalry and is cured of his madness.
The main concern of the first part of Don Quixote is to parody the popular idea of chivalry and romance. Cervantes points out the often comical relationships between chivalry and everyday life, and Don Quixote in his madness serves to illustrate how misguided indeed these romantic notions are. His encounters with other characters also satirize the society in which these characters exist and comment on the codes of behavior reflected by their actions. The character of Don Quixote also reinforces the idea that the old system of morality, the chivalric code, is in disrepair, as nobody except Sancho Panza understands him or his values. Although love is sometimes celebrated in the novel, Don Quixote's devotion to Dulcinea mocks romantic ideals, as the object of his adulation is a woman he has never even seen. A related theme to that of chivalry, and one that was not much written about in Cervantes's day, is that of equating social class with personal worth. Cervantes attacks the conventional idea that aristocrats are respectable and noble. In the second part of the novel, for example, he contrasts the Duke and Duchess's malice with Sancho's compassion, showing the peasant to be wise despite his low social status. Similarly, goatherds and shepherds in the novel exhibit a philosophical cast of mind while aristocratic characters are often intellectually shallow. Among the many recurring symbols in Don Quixote are those that take the form of books and manuscripts. These underscore the importance and influence of literature in everyday life. They also point to the larger theme of the relationship between art and reality. In the second part of the novel, for example, the question of authorship and storytelling is a preoccupation of the characters as well as the narrator. This idea is especially associated with Don Quixote's madness.
Don Quixote was an instant success when it was first published in Spanish, and Cervantes achieved international fame after the novel was translated into English and French in 1606. The work remained popular throughout Europe in the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century, but it was viewed generally as a light entertainment. In England during the mid-eighteenth century, what had previously been regarded as a burlesque tale began to be taken seriously as a more complex work. During the Romantic era of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the figure of Don Quixote was regarded by many as a Romantic hero. Due to the relative neglect Cervantes's novel had been receiving in Spain during the same time, in 1780 a new edition of Don Quixote was commissioned, and with the novel's reissue Cervantes's protagonist was elevated in his homeland to the status of cultural icon. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, critics became interested in the character of Don Quixote as a psychological study. In the later twentieth century, critical attention began to shift away from the figure of the protagonist to the structure of the novel. Many recent critics have been interested in the work's narrative structure, seeing the novel as a prototypical example of a work composed by a highly self-conscious writer, as Cervantes playfully subverts the authority of the text and calls into question the enterprise of literature itself.