Tuesday 28 May 2024

Don Quixote: “I love him with all my heart”

1/ We generally don’t think about how difficult it is to create a character with contradictions till we come across some bad writing—a book, a film, or a TV series—and think “She wouldn’t act like that!”. Then we pick up Proust or Tolstoy and encounter their characters—full of contradictions but also consistently themselves—and wonder how they achieved it. 

About Sancho Panza, Don Quixote says:  

“At times his naivety is so sharp that it’s curious to wonder if he’s a simpleton or keen-witted. He does mischievous things that condemn him as a rascal, and has an absent-mindedness that confirms him as a fool. He doubts everything and he believes everything. 

Just when I think he’s going to topple into something foolish, he comes up with something wise that raises him to the heavens.” (P.2, ch.32) 

Sancho is full of contradictions—he is a practical man, he is a glutton, he doesn’t have his head in the clouds like Don Quixote, and yet he has never doubted that Don Quixote will make him governor of an ínsula—even other characters wonder if the knight’s madness has infected his brain. 

More interestingly, Sancho is a rustic and an illiterate, his speeches are littered with proverbs and malapropisms, his beliefs are naïve and foolish, and yet we aren’t surprised when he becomes a good governor, as he’s a man of flesh and blood, of common sense, of good heart. 

With Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Cervantes has created the most vivid, memorable, and fascinating pair of characters in fiction. 

I especially love the tenderness for his master in Sancho’s words to the Squire of the Forest: 

“I mean, there’s nothing of the rogue about him. He’s as kind as can be. He doesn’t know how to harm anybody, but does good to all. A child can make him believe that it’s night at noontime, and because of this simplicity I love him with all my heart and I can’t leave him, no matter how many foolish things he does.” (P.2, ch.13) 

They make each other more real—and more lovable—in their love for each other. 

2/ I like that Cervantes includes in his novel the expulsion of the Moors, or the Moriscos, the descendants of Spain’s Muslim population who had been forced to convert to Christianity. Have to read more—I knew nothing. 

Let’s look at the timeline. Spain signed the edict to expel the Moors in 1609. Part 1 of Don Quixote had been published in 1605, in which Cervantes created the conceit that the book was actually based on a manuscript by a Moorish author named Cide Hamete Benengeli. Spain expelled the Moors from 1609 to 1614. Then in 1615, Part 2 of Don Quixote came out, in which Cervantes played more with the Benengeli conceit and also included an episode relating to the expulsion. 

I’m starting to wonder if, apart from parodying some manuscript conceit in chivalry romances, Cervantes had any particular reason for creating the Moorish narrator. 

(It’s funny how I’ve been indifferent to Spain for my whole life but now I’m interested in all things Spanish thanks to Don Quixote). 

Now look at the timeline, in a broader context. Around the time Part 1 of Don Quixote came out in Spain, England was exploding with King Lear, then Macbeth, then Antony and Cleopatra. It’s fascinating. 

I have always been amazed by the fact that Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov were alive and working in the same country at the same time—the first two had great influence on the novel, dividing writers and readers into Tolstoy people or Dostoyevsky people; Chekhov forever changed theatre and the short story. But it’s even more extraordinary that Shakespeare and Cervantes were contemporaries (and died within less than 2 weeks of each other)—everything in English culture traces back to Shakespeare and everything in Spanish culture leads back to Cervantes; the two of them helped shape Western literature and also had monumental influence on the other arts (drama, opera, ballet, painting, cinema). Since I got the Shakespeare bug, I’ve spotted Shakespeare references everywhere, and now I see that everyone has talked about Don Quixote

3/ People say Don Quixote is a madman, but is he madder than the people he comes across on his adventures? Look at them. Is it sensible to burn books? Is it sound to die after getting spurned by a woman? Is it rational to call a woman cruel for rejecting a man, and blame her for his death? Is it sane to kill the man you love in a jealous rage, without letting him speak? And so on and so forth. 

Many of the people Don Quixote encounters are a lot madder, more irrational than he is. 

If other characters in Part 1 beat up Don Quixote and Sancho, many in Part 2 manipulate them and play with their feelings. Does Cervantes have a cruel sense of humour? Or does he depict Don Quixote subjected to such abuses and tortures because life is cruel, and no power of fantasy can save one from such torments? The callousness and cruelty of the Duke and Duchess contrast sharply with the nobility of Don Quixote; and Sancho is clearly a better governor than the Duke is a duke. 

Don Quixote says to Sancho: 

“And just when I was expecting palms, triumphs, and crowns, earned by and deserved through my brave deeds, I find myself this very morning stepped on, trampled, and thrashed by the feet of filthy, vile animals.” (P.2, ch.59) 

I don’t buy the idea that sadness for Don Quixote is a modern invention; I don’t believe that Cervantes laughed at him when he wrote that line.  

4/ Looks like I’m going to have to read The Female Quixote. It was inspired by Don Quixote and in turn influenced Northanger Abbey

Do we know whether or not Jane Austen read Cervantes’s book? 


  1. The Female Quixote has at least one scene that made me laugh so hard I cried. The ending struck me as a little disappointing, but I'm not sure how else Lennox could have gotten her heroine out of her predicament. If Austen read Cervantes, I suppose it would have been in Smollett's translation. I don't find a reference to either in the index to her Letters.

    1. Oh I see. Thanks for checking. I don't have the book with me here.

  2. Replies
    1. Let's do it!
      Not yet though. I have a few books I wanna read first. Some quick reads.

  3. Yes, I particularly agree with 2 of the points you make here, first, that many of the people the Don encounters can be considered more "mad" than he is, and second, that the depiction of the affection Quixote and Sancho have for each other enhances the reader's affection for both. The concept of madness has been contested, to use a word beloved by modern literary critics, throughout history, which stands to reason, since if you define madness as broadly as possible as the failure to distinguish what is real from what is not in the absence of any other impairment, what counts as mad depends on what counts as real, and reality is highly contested as well. As well as social realities of status and identity, there are arguably moral realities, and you can be deluded as to one type of reality while being clear-sighted about the other, as Quixote is. Not only that, but also it may be that the more in tune you are with one type of reality, the harder it is to keep a firm grasp on others.

    I'm trying to think if there is an earlier example of a duo like Quixote and Sancho. They have obviously inspired later ones, such as the already mentioned Holmes and Watson, as well as Jeeves and Wooster. In Roman comedies you have the trope of the servant who is more clued-up than his master, but there the relationship is generally one of conflict rather than co-operation. Can you think of any?

    1. I'll leave that to others to answer as I haven't read a lot of books before the 19th century, let alone before the 17th.
      I can say that there's no such thing in the 11th century The Tale of Genji though.

  4. The immediate predecessor to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is Rabelais's Pantagruel and Panurge, in the 3rd and 4th books of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Panurge is in many ways Panza's opposite (over-educated, for example), but the characters share a similar vitality.

    Prince Hal and Falstaff also make for an interesting if more distant comparison.

    1. Here's a stupid question: Gargantua and Pantagruel is a series of novels, right? So what distinguishes Don Quixote from these books that it is called a modern novel?
      I love the relationship between Hal and Falstaff. The BBC productions from the 80s are wonderful.

    2. Ah okay, Rabelais is on my list. Kind of feel I need to find a parallel translation to do him justice.

      Hal & Falstaff is an interesting one - sort of an anti-hero version, in that ultimately they're bad for each other.

    3. Have you seen the BBC productions from the 80s?

  5. Some of the "first modern novel" comes from the 18th century British use of Don Quixote during the explosion of the new-fangled English novel. As far as Henry Fielding is concerned DQ is the first novel that matters.

    Some of it is just a received idea perpetuated by people who do not know the literary history so well.

    Some is maybe quibbling over the word "modern". Rabelais is "modern" in many ways; so is Utopia. So is Lazarillo de Tormes, to pick a picaresque predecessor of DQ. I think some people mean Cervantes creates psychologically "real" characters, a couple at least, where those other works do not.

    1. Looks like the only way to find out is to read the books that came before Don Quixote, but I have to see what marks it so different from the other long prose fiction books.
      When I read Shakespeare and his contemporaries though, it's clear that Shakespeare's light years ahead.


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