In addition to what our text says about Cervantes, it is important to note that he is perhaps the greatest writer in Spanish and Spanish-language literature until the great South American “Boom” writers of the 20th Century such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez took their places in that stratosphere.
Don Quixote is the seminal text in Spanish literature certainly, and among the first modern novels ever written. Its impact on the novel genre cannot be over-state. As Homer is to Greek, Virgil to Roman, and Shakespeare to English, so is Cervantes to Spanish literature: the origin of that particular map.
Don Quixote is among the first novels of the modern era–the first Volume appeared in 1605 and the second in 1615. As we’ve discussed,The Tale of the Genji is a better candidate for the first true novel in human history, but Cervantes probably did not know of that text, and he is certainly among the first Europeans to complete a long and unified prose narrative.
Unlike the romances and prose works that appeared before it, the novel is a long, fully rendered narrative that focuses not only on the adventures and experiences of its central characters, but gives the reader a deep sense of the inner lives of Quixote and Sancho Panza.
The work helped solidify the genre of the novel and differentiated it from verse narratives and short stories. It is also a satire, and a wicked one, of romantic and chivalrous stories–the very stories referenced in the text as being the favorites of Quixote himself.
Don Quixote remains immensely influential in world art; in literature, it has inspired such writers as Lawrence Sterne, Henry Fielding, Gustave Flaubert, Feodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, and Salman Rusdie to name just a few. In art, innumerable artists have drawn, painted, and sculpted images of Quixote and Panza and Cervantes including Pablo Picasso’s famous image (Links to an external site.) among many, many others. In music, songs, operas, musicals, have used Quixote as inspiration.
Here is one portrait of him, but the likeness is, at best, approximate as the artist may not have actually known Cervantes.
Reading Questions for Quixote
Why do you think this novel was immediately so popular and why do you think that modern readers still enjoy it? (It’s one of the rare ‘classics’ of world literature that really is widely read–far fewer people, e.g., read The Iliad outside of a course like this one.)
Do you feel invested in the characters, especially Sancho, given that he is, at heart, a good man if naive, perhaps a little greedy, and foolish, but not a bad character–if so, why?
Why do you think that the novel form has remained such a popular means of delivering a story? Why has the epic poem like Gilgamesh, The Iliad, etc fallen out of fashion, do you think? It was the most popular means of story-telling for 1000s of years! Why is the prose narrative, especially the novel, so much more popular now do you think?
Would you want to read the complete Quixote which is very, very long? Why? Why not?
Themes in Quixote
Intertextuality: Quixote is a very literate text–plays with the notion of the dangers of texts and stories–Sancho is illiterate and Quixote is engrossed with books, and the tension between Panza’s common sense and Quixote’s fantasy drives much of their discussions and adventures. When Quixote is away on his first sally, his servants realize that his books are the cause of his madness and burn them and seal the library.
Romance: Can we say that Quixote is doing it all for love? He declares that everything he does is for Dulcinea, but the problem is that, despite his desire for all whom he meets to know that he’s doing it all for her, she may not entirely exist, and the peasant girl he’s basing Dulcinea on has no idea whom Quixote is. Panza wants to secure and island for himself and his wife, but we know that no such island will ever exist.
Bravery/Heroism: Is Quixote all that different from Gilgamesh, Achilles, Beowulf, et al? On one hand, he is charging at windmills and fighting with monks and sheep. On the other, he believes with all his mind and heart that they are giants, soldiers, and a great army. How can we make the claim that he is brave and that he is just a fool? How much, in other words, do intentions vs. reality matter?
The Individual vs. Society: The episode with the prisoners, e.g., shows that Quixote is on the side of liberty and freedom of the individual–or does it? Is he just a doddering old fool who releases hardened criminals back on the street? Is he right to do what he wants? He is, after all, a rich gentleman entitled to wear a sword and pay no taxes; or is society in need of protection from him and his madness? Where does the line between individual liberty end and social responsibility begin?
From these themes and reading questions, explore in the comments the scenes, dialog, descriptions, et cetera you like or want to discuss more in Quixote.
Required Textbooks: Laura Getty and Kyounghye Kwon, editors. The Compact Anthology of World Literature, Parts One-Three. This text is free and Open-Source: https://ung.edu/university-press/books/compact-anthology-world-literature.php (Links to an external site.)
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