Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The First Global Empire: Philip II
The marriage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1469 unites the kingdom of Spain. After defeating the Moors in 1492, as well as financing the expedition of Christopher Columbus, Spain becomes a global empire. Spain also benefits from an early form of capitalism amongst its merchant classes—a force Spain weakens by deporting its Jewish citizens. The remaining Moors fill the void, however, and Spain flourishes.

Using the influx of wealth from the New World, Spain remains a superpower for more than one hundred years. Consolidated and powerful, leadership is passed to Philip II in 1556. He commands fifty thousand soldiers, the best generals, a navy of 140 vessels, and collects an annual revenue ten times that of England.

In addition, Philip reigns over all of Central America and parts of North and South America; also the Netherlands, several kingdoms in Italy, the Philippines, protectorates in Europe, and the West Indies. The Spanish court is the most splendid, its nobles are the proudest, and its architecture is on display on five continents.

Philip II nearly doubles the size of the empire when he absorbs Portugal and its holdings in 1580 (Portugal regains independence in 1640). However, despite his meticulous attention to detail, Spain's economy begins to decline. Prices skyrocket and wages fail to catch up. Industry, never a strong part of Spain's economy, simply grinds to a halt.

To compound these dire circumstances, wars...

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(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Knights of traditional romances travel through colorful parts of the world, such as China, North Africa, and Asia Minor; they never visit Spain. Yet Don Quixote tries to be a knight in one of Spain's least attractive regions: the treeless, desert-like, underpopulated plain of La Mancha. Far removed from the Spanish centers of power, wealth, and influence, seventeenth-century La Mancha is hardly the place from which to change the world. References to the region are invariably humorous. Don Quixote is famous "not only in Spain, but throughout La Mancha," and Dulcinea, the woman he searches for, is not only "the most beautiful creature in the world, but even the most beautiful in La Mancha." One of the most prominent jokes in the novel, the very name Don Quixote de la Mancha means "stain," exactly what a white knight should avoid.

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Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Cervantes switches between a style of narration that Boccacio employed in the Decamaron—a renowned collection of tales—to a more modern style. Like the Decamaron, Don Quixote is a medieval work wherein characters incorporate novellas, old ballads, and legends. Cervantes combines this style with the chivalric genre. This hybrid style is considered innovative.

Another result of Cervantes's unique style is that his characters have independent, interesting stories of their own. To offset this, Cervantes adds the device of the found manuscript; well into the story, the reader discovers the story is part of a manuscript found in the ruins of an old building. In fact, the history is the work of Cide Hamete Berengena, "the author of our true history."

This clever stylistic device does not change the tone of the narration, which is that of an omniscient, omnipresent, and amused narrator. This duplicity of narration only adds to the overall irony of the work. The characters are aware of being characters in a story that is being delivered by a narrator who is quoting, with liberality, from a found manuscript. In addition, there are other narrative viewpoints mixed into the melange. The potential layering— anticipating later Russian narrative forms—is kept at a minimum by the picaresque.

Don Quixote is a satire on conditions in Spain at the time the novel was written. This is accomplished by rendering Spain's archetype—the knight-errant as...

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Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Such major modern novelists as Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, and Leo Tolstoy have proclaimed Don Quixote as the first modern novel. Exploring many issues relevant to the form of the novel itself, the book questions the rules under which a work of fiction is written. In Cervantes's novel, the narrator's identity is veiled in mystery. Initially, the narrator seems to be Cervantes, but, in the middle of a fight between Don Quixote and a Basque, an "editor" interrupts the narration to explain that "the author of this history left the battle in suspense at this critical point, with the excuse that he could find no more records of Don Quixote's exploits than those related here." Cervantes subsequently relates how he chanced upon an Arabic version of the missing tale among some parchments and old papers being sold off by a young lad in the Aleana of Toledo. Cervantes claims to have had the papers translated back into Spanish from the Arabic. When the story resumes, a certain Cide Hamete Benengeli assumes the narrative voice. This narrative ambiguity anticipates the nineteenth-century novelists' preoccupation with the storyteller's credibility.

In La Mancha, a province of Spain, lived Don Quixote . . . He was a kind man, learned perhaps, and brave for sure, but no one called him wise.
Cervantes tests the limits of fiction even further when it becomes clear that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza know that a book has been written about them. Yet, while...

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Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The violence and insanity in Don Quixote may cause some concern. Don Quixote falls off his horse to be beaten black and blue by an angry mule herdsman; fights a furious battle with a Basque, nearly decapitating his opponent; and suffers an attack by a group of peasants. In fact, these incidents typify Don Quixote's adventures. But the circumstances surrounding such encounters are generally so outrageous that the events become more humorous than unpleasant. For instance, Don Quixote challenges men to duel if he thinks they have slandered the virtue or beauty of Dulcinea, yet he remains unsure of her exact identity. Cervantes depicts such violent scenes in a slapstick style.

Don Quixote's insanity is similarly softened. A fifty-year-old bachelor, he lives in a house dominated by women. His status as a gentleman disqualifies him from participating in any productive activity; to work would mean the loss of his nobility. Thus deprived of his ability to love and to work, he does not fulfill the modern criteria for mental health. Indeed, in psychoanalytical terms, Don Quixote would be classified as "psychotic" and his escape into a romantic fantasy world interpreted as a defense mechanism against external pressures. Cervantes's sensitive literary analysis of madness is generally acknowledged to be the most advanced of its time.

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Harold Bloom, "Cervantes: The Play of the World," in his The Western Canon, Harcourt, Brace, 1994, p. 128.

Jorge Luis Borges, "Partial Enchantments of the 'Quixote,'" in his Other Inquisitions: 1937-1952, translated by Ruth L.C. Simms, University of Texas Press, 1964, pp. 43-6.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, in Don Quixote, translated by Burton Raffel, edited by Diana de Armas Wilson, W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.

Manuel Duran, Cervantes, Twayne, 1974.

Carlos Fuentes, "When Don Quixote left his Village, the Modern World Began," in The New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1986, p. 15.

Carlos Fuentes, "Foreword," in...

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Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1600s: In 1615, 40,000 people demonstrate in favor of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin (which contended that the Virgin Mary was without Original Sin). Once approved, this doctrine becomes a central tenet of Catholicism.

Today: Devotion to Mary is still central to the practice of Roman Catholicism. Around the world there are many holy sites where she is believed to appear to believers.

1600s: As the most powerful nation on Earth, Spain ignores its industrial and agricultural sectors, leading to their eventual decay.

Today: With one of the healthiest economies in the European Union, Spain exports 63% of its industrial production. It is also the...

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Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Don Quixote often argues that things are not always what they may seem. Pick a scene in the novel where this happens and decide what is real and what is apparent.

2. Choose any scene in the novel that makes you laugh. What are the humorous elements in the scene you have chosen?

3. In Part I, chapter 8, Cervantes suddenly breaks off the story in the middle of a fight between Don Quixote and a Basque. Do you find this irritating or thought-provoking? Why?

4. Is Don Quixote a fool or a hero? Is he out of touch with his times?

5. Is Sancho Panza a heartless coward or a clever pragmatist? Why does he stay with Don Quixote?

6. Does Dulcinea really exist?

7. Why...

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Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Comment on the role that the romances of chivalry play in the book.

2. Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, and Leo Tolstoy regarded Cervantes as the father of the modern novel. Why do you think they considered Don Quixote to be so important?

3. Some critics say that Don Quixote is a humorous burlesque of chivalric romances. Others say that it deals with eternal human problems such as destiny, freedom, and fate. Which of these approaches is most valid in your opinion? Why?

4. What evidence is there to suggest that a conflict exists in modern times between "the world of Don Quixote" and "the world of Sancho Panza"?

5. The renowned American critic, Edmund Wilson, once...

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Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Discuss the importance of reading in the novel and in the lives of the characters. Be sure to examine negative, as well as positive, examples from the story.

Don Diego believes that "if the laws and ordinances of knight-errantry had been lost, they would be found in your worship's heart, as in their right repository and archive." What does he mean by this? What is the code of the knight-errant according to Don Quixote? How does this compare with the real code of chivalry?

Find misrepresentations of the Don Quixote character in the media, on film, or in cartoons. Compare these versions with the original character in the book. How has the image of Don Quixote changed throughout time?

Spain's tenure...

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Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The best works to read in conjunction with Don Quixote are The Exemplary Novels, Cervantes's collection of twelve short stories. The author called them "exemplary novels" because "it is impossible not to derive some moral lesson from each of them." Each story illustrates some moral truth and, like Don Quixote, exposes a typical human weakness. "The Jealous Extremaduran," for example, tells of an old man who keeps his young pretty wife locked away for fear that she will commit adultery. By imprisoning his wife, the old man makes his own discomfiture more likely. Many of the short stories follow a similar pattern, and as a whole, they espouse the values of true nobility and virtue, fidelity in love, and honesty in daily...

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Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

In 1984, Universal released a laser disc game called "Super Don Quixote." It was similar to Dragon's Lair, and the gamester was a knight named Don who had to rescue Isabella from a witch. Sancho Panza even tags along but, as one would expect, does little to help.

Don Quixote has been adapted as a ballet many times. Famous dancers, including Mikhail Baryshnikov, have performed in various productions. Rudolf Nureyev choreographed a production in 1973. He also danced the part of Basilio. The Kirov Ballet performed Don Quixote as choreographed by Petopia and Gorsky in 1988. Tatianna Terekhova was the star performer. Nina Ananiashbili starred in a production in 1992.

Don Quixote was...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Cervantes's first book, La Galatea (1684), is one of the few books in Don Quixote's library to escape the fire. The work is a pastoral novel.

Cervantes's Exemplary Novels is comprised of stories that depict examples of exemplary behavior. Some tales, like "Lady Cornelia," are traditional cloak-and-dagger romances. Others are Kafkaesque; "Doctor Glass Case" chronicles the story of a servant boy who gets to attend school. He goes mad when he falls in love, and in his madness he believes he is made of glass.

Cervantes's final novel was completed three days before his death. Published posthumously, Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda is a scathing denunciation of reason and science in...

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For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Auerbach, Erich. "The Enchanted Dulcinea." In Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, translated by William R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974. An excellent survey of the levels of style used in Don Quixote.

Bjornson, Richard, ed. Approaches to Teaching Cervantes' "Don Quixote." New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1984. A very helpful handbook for those teaching Cervantes's masterpiece. Bjornson discusses ways of teaching the novel and includes a comprehensive bibliography.

Close, Anthony. The Romantic Approach to "Don Quixote." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978. A detailed account of how romantic writers, or...

(The entire section is 263 words.)