The goatherds’ observation that “This gentleman must have a few vacant chambers in his head” (page 439) comes at the end of part 1 of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (first published 1605, translated by Edith Grossman 2003). Yet, that is exactly the thought I had as I began the novel. Why, oh why, is this story of this madman amusing? Why am I supposed to find his bossy relationship with peasant Sancho Panza to be a story of true friendship?
As I continued reading, I began to see that Cervantes is doing something quite interesting. He’s providing an echo to the contemporary novels of chivalry, and he’s questioning what is real in all novels. He isn’t trying to convince anyone to change, and he doesn’t necessarily disapprove of the chivalric novels. He’s making fun of those who take fiction seriously, including his own. Is this satire or irony or sarcasm? I struggle to place it. I’ve read the definitions for each in my Harmon and Holman’s Handbook to Literature (8th edition) and I cannot decide.
This post contains thematic spoilers.
The beginning of the novel was the most difficult for me. My thought is that Cervantes wanted to start the novel with humor. For me, the excrement jokes, the frequent beatings, and Don Quixote’s rudeness to Sancho Panza made it not amusing but rather intolerable. I probably would have quit reading had I not known I’m leading the book club discussion on the novel next week. (Before I began reading, I knew that Amanda had disliked the book for some of the same reasons, so I wonder if I my reading was colored by that knowledge. Or was it just that bad?)
At any rate, after I got passed some particularly annoying adventure sequences in the beginning (I do not like adventure books), I began to like the commentaries on what is real. Don Quixote’s perspective, of course, is the most prevalent. Here is one of his explanations to Sancho. (I would apologize for its long length, but it is Cervantes’ fault. This is why the book is 900+ pages.)
[Did it occur to you that] all things having to do with knights errant appear to be chimerical, foolish, senseless, and turned inside out? And not because they really are, but because hordes of enchanters always walk among us and alter and change everything and turn things into whatever they please, according to whether they wish to favor us or destroy us; and so what seems to you a barber’s basin seems to me the helmet of Mambrino, and will seem another thing to someone else. It was rare foresight on the part of the wise man who favors me to make what is really and truly the helmet of Mambrino seem a basin to everyone else, because it is held in such high esteem that everyone would pursue me in order to take it from me.. …” (page 195)
I occasionally wondered what Don Quixote really thought. Did he really see a helmet, or did he imagine he saw a helmet? Did he know he was acting mad, or was he truly insane? On one occasion, someone asks him why the things in the inn all seem different to him only. His reply is this.
“I imagine that everything in [the castle] is subject to enchantment” (page 392).
That word, imagine. He’s responding, saying why. But maybe he is aware that he is imagining. He found life boring and dull before, and now he wants to experience a more exciting life. Imagining life more exciting is one way to accomplish that. I imagine we all may say that phrase when we want to explain something. But really, it’s describing what we want to see, is it not?
Cervantes seems to comment on life as a story of chivalry and adventure. Don Quixote meets people with stories to tell, and these side stories are when I started to like the novel. First, the goatherd tells of the wild man who lives in the mountains. Then Dorotea tells her story. We hear the story of the “Man Who Was Recklessly Curious.” We hear the goatherd’s story. Then the priest and the barber and Dorotea herself don masks and costumes and act out a story in order to lure Don Quixote home. There are so many stories in the story in the latter half of part 1. These stories were not likely to really happen; if the events happened, they were different than the tellers tell. Each story we hear seems slightly exaggerated by the tellers.
I cannot put it into words. For some reason, Cervantes’ inclusion of these stories made the novel less ridiculous. It’s like Cervantes was pointing out that by telling a story, by default it becomes an exaggeration and an adventure.
As I finished part 1 of Don Quixote, I was struck by how narrators are always unreliable in telling a story. What is really going on in Don Quixote’s head? Is he insane or pretending? The narration is biased and we cannot know. Don Quixote is obviously not a true book: novels are fiction by definition. Don Quixote himself holds his beloved novels to be true, but does he truly? We know better reading Don Quixote, and it makes for an amusing romp.
Despite my dislike for some of the adventures, by the end of part 1, I’m impressed with Cervantes’ creation. There are lots of questions on “what is real” that remaind to be answered and discussed.
Off to read more.
What did you get out of part 1 of Don Quixote? What is it really about? Or is it just mindless entertainment? Am I mistaking ridiculousness for meaning here?
A note on translation: I’m reading the Edith Grossman translation (2003 by HarperCollins) and it is excellent. She includes footnotes to explain plays on words, historical context, and Spanish-to-English translations that make a difference in meanings to the story. It’s wonderful, and I think the next best thing to reading it in the archaic Spanish (which I won’t ever do…).