Don Quixote is one of the greatest masterpieces of Western literature. But what does that mean, exactly? What’s great about this book? What wisdom does it have to offer? That’s what I’d like to briefly answer in this blog post. For a fuller answer?—you’ll have to read the book yourself.
Don Quixote satirizes melodramatic books (and people who take such books seriously).
Don Quixote has stood the test of time because melodramatic media have not disappeared since Don Quixote was written. . . . Melodramatic media have only proliferated!
In the time that Miguel de Cervantes was writing Don Quixote (the early 17th century), romantic books of chivalry were big. The romantic novel was not something that had existed until very recently. In medieval and renaissance times, people typically wrote poetry or song—basically, they wrote in verse— when they wished to write about things like love and adventure. This poetry and music was recited or sung before an audience. But in the early 17th century, in Europe, the printing press had been invented, literacy was increasing, and suddenly everyone was writing and reading novels! But, mostly, they were bad novels. Stereotypical novels. Melodramatic, sentimental, overblown, sensationalized novels. Novels in which the hero was a lowborn medieval knight who slayed dragons and impressed a king and was given his daughter in marriage and inherited the kingdom. Who doesn’t love a good rags to riches story?
Well, Cervantes, for one. Cervantes seems to have been annoyed by the same sort of phenomenon that annoys me about Valentine’s Day (see my last post, Thoughts on Valentine’s Day). People tend to get excited by things that are sensationalized, and then they act in ways that are contrary to their own interests. In the case of Valentine’s Day, society has cooked up an elaborate story that seems to be about love, but is really about money. And then you have millions of people freaking out on February 14 every year, either because they don’t happen to have a date, or they bought the wrong gift, or they received the wrong gift. But the reality is, it doesn’t matter whether you have a date on February 14 or not, and it doesn’t matter whether you bought or received a gift. What matters is whether you are giving and receiving love in your life.
In Cervantes’ day, something similar must have been going on in regard to knighthood and chivalry. There was this fascinating history in Europe of knights defending kingdoms and going on Crusades. Then the novelists got ahold of this and ran with it, until the stories about knighthood bore almost no resemblance to the actual experience of being a knight in medieval times. Then you have a bunch of readers who know nothing about the actual history of knighthood, but everything about the novels, and all these men want to be a knight, and all these women want to be a damsel in distress. And everyone is taking the novels seriously, as if they were actual history. Some people actually believed that fire-breathing dragons roamed Europe just a couple centuries before!
So Cervantes invented a character, who renames himself “Don Quixote,” who takes this to an extreme: a ridiculous extreme. Don Quixote reads all the novels about romance and chivalry and adventure, and he decides that there aren’t enough knights in the modern world. (This would be as ridiculous as someone today saying, there aren’t enough telegraph operators in our modern world, and I read about one in a novel who seemed admirable, and so I’m going to be one of those!) This happens in the very beginning of the book Don Quixote. The remainder of the book tells the story of what happens when Don Quixote tries to put his plan—of being a chivalrous knight in the manner of the novels—into effect.
Don Quixote is comedic.
The premise of the novel is, thus, hysterical. Things get even more humorous when Don Quixote talks a neighbor of his into being his squire. Sancho Panza, the squire, is, like his master, one of the most masterful characters ever created in literature. He is equal parts simpleton and clever genius. His running commentary provides much of the comedy of the book. I guarantee, you will be laughing most of the way through this book.
Don Quixote is tragic.
I would like to quote from Harold Bloom’s introduction in my copy of the Grossman Don Quixote (Bloom was a Yale professor and literary critic who recently passed):
“Don Quixote is tragedy as well as comedy. Though it stands forever as the birth of the novel out of the prose romance, and is still the best of all novels, I find its sadness augments each time I reread it . . .”
(Side note: above I used the word “novel” to describe the books being satirized by Don Quixote; here Bloom is saying that Don Quixote itself was the first novel ever written. I didn’t want to use the term “prose romance” above, because this might be confusing. Bloom is using the word “novel” as a technical term, and I was using it more loosely as “a fictional piece of writing in prose, not verse.”)
Interestingly, I also found Don Quixote to be significantly more tragic the second time I read it. Was it the different translation? Was it my increased age?
In any case, there is a large element of tragedy in this book; and it’s the ultimate tragedy, of course: the tragedy of the human condition. Don Quixote has a vision in his head of who he wants to be in the world. He strives to achieve it. He comes close in some ways. But it’s an impossible dream. That’s so sad!
What’s the wisdom of Don Quixote?
As in all great novels, the wisdom is multifaceted. This book shows that it’s wise not to get swept up by sensationalized media: not just bad novels, but also, today, clickbait, Valentine’s Day, and pretty much every message you receive in the modern world. But simultaneously, the book shows that the visionary person is absolutely worthy of respect. It’s impossible not to love Don Quixote for precisely the reason that he’s crazy and unwise: he believes in something and lives his values. So it’s wise to be like Don Quixote in believing in something and living your values. But it’s also wise to be like Sancho Panza and embrace the simple things in life, while compassionately shaking your head and laughing at those who have grandiose ideas and schemes.
Also: no brief description of the wisdom of Don Quixote would be complete without a mention of the brilliance that occurs in the difference between parts I and II. Without giving away any spoilers, I will say that part II offers a completely new take on the situation that comes across as astoundingly modern in its perspective. This book, in many ways, could have been written last week; its philosophical take on the world is that advanced for its time.
This book is so toweringly great that I can’t describe its wisdom in one blog post. Read it yourself, and let me know what you think. I recommend the Edith Grossman translation. See also my posts on her translation in comparison to others (Three Don Quixote Translations: Spanish to English) and on my experiences in reading different translations (Don Quixote: What’s the Best Translation?).
Do you wish you were a knight?