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Don Quixote as Post-Modern

(Novels for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 6,398 words.)