Book Review: Don Quixote

The only thing I really knew about Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes was the famous tilting at windmills scene. When one of the categories for the Back to the Classics challenge was a classic published before 1800, as I searched titles, this was one of only a couple that I was interested in. I was dismayed to see that the audiobook was 36 hours! One paperback copy I saw was 992 pages! But I plunged in.

Don Quixote starts out as nobleman Alonso Quixano in Spain. He loves reading about tales of chivalry to the point that he loses his senses, believes the stories to be true, and decides to bring back knighthood by becoming a knight errant himself, much to the dismay of his niece and housekeeper. He chooses the name Don Quixote for himself (or Don Quixote de La Mancha in full) and finds an old suit of armor and cleans it up. When he discovers the helmet has pieces missing, he constructs them out of pasteboard. He renames his old horse Rocinante. Every knight has to have a lady love, so he chooses a farm girl from a neighboring village, unbeknownst to her, and renames her Dulcinea del Toboso (at the beginning it is said that he was once in love with her, but later he confesses that he has never even seen her).

Thus he sets off to seek adventure. But most of his encounters meet with little success. People think he is crazy, so some of them fight against him. Other times he mistakes what’s going on, like thinking windmills are giants or sheep are an army of invaders. Once he got so caught up in a puppet show that he began to think the action was real and slaughtered the villainous puppets. When confronted with reality, he concludes that some enemy enchanter changed things, like making the giants into windmills at the last moment.

Along the way he also encounters other people and hears their stories. My favorite one of these involved a well-to-do woman renowned for her beauty. All sorts of men fell in love with her, but she wouldn’t have them and went off to live alone as a shepherdess. She’s thought to be cruel since she won’t return anyone’s affection. Don Quixote comes upon a funeral of a shepherd who died over his love for this woman and her lack of love for him. While the other shepherds are telling the story, the beautiful shepherdess comes upon the scene and delivers what I have dubbed The Lament of Beautiful Girls Everywhere, saying, in the modern vernacular, “Look, I can’t help it if I am beautiful. God made me that way: it’s through no effort of mine. I can’t fall in love with someone just because he falls in love with me, so give me a break already!” One of the more famous of these is the tale of Lothario, who was unwillingly drafted by his friend to woo his wife, thinking that if she passed this test, he would be sure of her love. Lothario resists at first, then lies saying he has made attempts when he has not, and finally the inevitable happens and he falls in love with his friend’s wife, leading to a “lothario” in our day meaning a man who seduces women.

The book we have today contains two parts. Cervantes wrote the first and was in no particular hurry to write the second, until someone else wrote a book about Quixote. Then he wrote the second part in which he makes many digs at this interloper and his work and ends it in such a way that no one can credibly write any more about his character. Nowadays both parts are published in one book.

Quixote takes three journeys, or sallies, two in the first part and one in the second. He goes alone the first time, but for the second two he takes a farmer as a squire, Sancho Panza. Sancho goes back and forth between admiring Quixote in some ways, particularly his bravery, to wondering about his sanity. He stays with him, though, mainly because Quixote has promised his an island to govern at some point.

The story is told by a narrator as if studying the works of a Cide Hamete Benengalie and his research on Quixote, lending a supposed air of authenticity to the story.

My thoughts:

It’s obvious that the story is meant as a farce. Just the mental picture of what translator Ormsby calls the “unsmiling gravity” of Quixote in old banged up armor with a pasteboard helmet (and later a barber’s bowl for a helmet) on an old horse talking in lofty language like a knight of old is comical, as are Sancho’s lamentations over what Quixote is doing or wants him to do and Sancho’s constant stringing together of proverbs.Cervantes even pokes fun at himself: in one scene, Quixote’s friends are going through his books and getting rid of the books of chivalry most likely to cause the Don the most problems and come across one by Cervantes and comment on it. Then in the second part, he addresses some mistakes in the first part tongue in cheek (like Sancho’s mule, Dapple, being stolen and then appearing in Dapple with no explanation) by saying it was a mistake of the printer, and so on. I enjoyed this kind of humor.

I particularly liked some of the phrasing. Cervantes, in the scene above describing his book that Quixote supposedly read, is said to have “more experience in reverses than verses.” Quixote is often described as lean, even gaunt, and one line speaks of “cheeks that seemed to be kissing each other on the inside.” One girl “did not measure seven palms from head to foot, and her shoulders, which overweighted her somewhat, made her contemplate the ground more than she liked.” My absolute favorite line is: “With a blunt wit thou art always striving at sharpness.”

But a lot of the humor is not to my taste. For instance, in one chapter, Quixote and Sancho and another man are sleeping in something like a stable of an inn. The other man is waiting for a woman to join him. Quixote sees her come in and thinks she is there to test his virtue, so he sets her down beside him to tell her why he must remain true to Dulcinea. The other man sees the Don holding the woman there apparently against her will and starts fighting him. Quixote thinks it is an enemy and fights back. The woman is thrown onto Sancho’s bed, and he, being startled, starts punching her, not realizing she’s a woman. It ends up a free-for-all, Three Stooges style. In fact, there is quite a lot of beating up in the first part.

In both parts there is a lot of setting Quixote up for situations and then laughing at him behind his back, but it’s more concentrated in the second part. Just about all the major characters in the book, even Sancho and the Don’s closest friends, have no trouble deceiving him and laughing at him. In fact, when a friend comes to deceive Quixote into coming home for a year in the hopes that his “madness” might thereby be cured, he is told by someone else, “May God forgive you the wrong you have done the whole world in trying to bring the most amusing madman in it back to his senses. Do you not see, senor, that the gain by Don Quixote’s sanity can never equal the enjoyment his crazes give? … if it were not uncharitable, I would say may Don Quixote never be cured, for by his recovery we lose not only his own drolleries, but his squire Sancho Panza’s too, any one of which is enough to turn melancholy itself into merriment.” And this laughing at someone who is impaired plus setting him up for further laughs is not my kind of humor, either.

It’s a little crude in a couple of places.

Don Quixote seems pretty foolish at first, but by the end of the book I had grown quite fond of him. More than anyone else in the book, he maintains his integrity. He has his flaws, but he operates under the laws and ideals of chivalry unwaveringly, even when it costs him. As is said of him near the end of the book, he “was always of a gentle disposition and kindly in all his ways, and hence he was beloved, not only by those of his own house, but by all who knew him.”

So while the book will probably never go down as one of my all-time favorites, I am glad to have read it. I enjoyed much of the writing. It’s nice to know the full story now, especially as cultural references to Quixote abound. I’m listening to Cyrano de Bergerac now, and even that references Quixote. And then there is this recent cartoon from xkcd:

When I was trying to discern which translation would be best to read, I came across this discussion, which said that a newer one might be more accessible to the modern reader, but an older one like John Ormsby’s catches more of the nuances of the original language. And if I am going to read a classic like this, I want those nuances. 🙂 I found a Kindle version of Ormsby’s translation which I would highly recommend, especially his preface. He also gives a brief biography of Cervantes, telling how his travels supplied some of the characterizations and scenes and how he he was a captive in Algiers for a time, which comes out in the character of a soldier in the same situation in the book. He describes how even the geography of La Mancha, for those who know it, lends itself to the irony of the book with what he calls its monotonous landscape with “nothing venerable” about it as being an unlikely place for launching a glorious hero.

I primarily listened to the audiobook narrated superbly by Roy McMillan, with some dipping into the Kindle version already mentioned. The only thing that would have made it better would have been if it had been read with a Spanish accent – that would have enhanced the Spanish flavor of the book. But he did a wonderful job with the different characters’ voices and perfectly portrayed the “unsmiling gravity” of Don Quixote.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)