Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Part 1

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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.

via Wikipedia

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?

via Wikipedia

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…).

Reviewed on April 12, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Actually, I didn’t quit this book. I never read volume 2 of the series, but I read the entirety of Part 1 even though I really disliked those parts you mentioned. I was much happier when we got to the section where other people are telling their tales, and after I was done and Jason helped me to understand the significance of the text, I came to appreciate it. I still don’t like it – too Monty Python/Southpark for me – but I’m glad I read it and I understand why it was so significant.

    It’s the first book that really used people as characters rather than archetypes. If you look at old classics, the characters tend to have no personalities as individuals. Those in Don Quixote did, even if they weren’t my favorite kind of characters. Cervantes treated them like people, which is usual and new. That’s why they call this the birth of the modern novel – it changed the way people saw literature. The fact that it’s a comic farce of sorts really doesn’t matter. I’m not sure if the text itself has any great meaning within, and I’m not sure if Cervantes intended it to. Maybe he did, I don’t know. But for me, the big meaning has more to do with the way he revolutionized writing.

    • Amanda » ah, I thought you’d quit, sorry I misrepresented you; I will fix the post above.

      You know, when I was a teenager, I loved Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but um, I think I’ve grown up since then. So yeah, I can definitely see the comparison. Maybe I’d have liked it more if I was still in that ridiculous mind set. As it was, it just was so bawdy, I had a hard time at the beginning getting past the ridiculous and noticing the revolutionary writing.

      I didn’t find the characters as significant as the structure of the stories and the themes of the stories. I see what you’re saying though. I really just don’t like any of the characters though, so it’s a bit frustrating. Ah well, only 500 more pages to go…lol. I do see how he revolutionized writing but it won’t be a favorite for me either.

  • This is one of my favourite novels – top 5 even.

    What with ideas of truth in literature, and the general malleability of truth, books, idealism, attacks on class. A parody traced with sweet tragedy. Our misunderstood hero is complex and purposefully incites in us mixed feelings.

    It’s best read by not taking it too seriously, and yet immersing oneself in its enchantments.

    How many books have inspired their own terms? – quixotic!

    • Monica » Your second paragraph is what we’ll end up discussing in our book group next week, I’m sure. I personally am most interested in the “general malleability of truth.” So fascinating. I am not loving the book, but you’re right, it certainly does have it’s place.

      I always think of Shakespeare when I think of writers who have created their own terms! Cervantes was a contemporary. Interesting how that era was just blossoming with new vocabulary and ideas.

  • I wish my book club would read Don Quixote! I need something to force me to do it. I love the idea of Don Quixote, but in my head it’s all Man of la Mancha, and the book (oh, dear, this is such an embarrassing confession) never lives up to how dashing and brilliant I thought Don Quixote was in Man of la Mancha.

  • I read Don Quixote a few years ago and all in all I enjoyed it very much. I remember I was pleasantly surprised and how I expected reading Don Quixote would be more of a ‘chore’ than it actually was. My thoughts on the first part are here:
    I read the Edith Grossman translation as well and I thought she did a great job, both in the translation and in providing explanations and background in the footnotes.

  • Don Quixote is a fantastic book. Wait until you get to part 2. And the end. I was suprised by the end how much I had grown to care about Sancho and the noble Don. I did not expect the book to make me cry but it did.

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