Cervantes – Don Quixote

Word Count: 1005Cervantes’ greatest work, Don Quixote, is a unique book of
multiple dimensions. From the moment of its appearance it
has amused readers or caused them to think, and its
influence has extended in literature not only to works of
secondary value but also to those which have universal
importance. Don Quixote is a country gentleman, an
enthusiastic visionary crazed by his reading of romances of
chivalry, who rides forth to defend the oppressed and to
right wrongs; so vividly was he presented by Cervantes that
many languages have borrowed the name of the hero as the
common term to designate a person inspired by lofty and
impractical ideals.

The theme of the book, in brief, concerns Hidalgo Alonso
Quijano, who, because of his reading in books about
chivalry, comes to believe that everything they say is true
and decides to become a knight-errant himself. He assumes
the name of Don Quixote de la Mancha and, accompanied
by a peasant, Sancho Panza, who serves him as a squire,
sets forth in search of adventures. Don Quixote interprets
all that he encounters in accordance with his readings and
thus imagines himself to be living in a world quite different
from the one familiar to the ordinary men he meets.

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Windmills are thus transformed into giants, and this
illusion, together with many others, is the basis for the
beatings and misadventures suffered by the intrepid hero.

After the knight’s second sally in search of adventure,
friends and neighbors in his village decide to force him to
forget his wild fancy and to reintegrate himself into his
former life. The “knight” insists upon following his calling,
but at the end of the first part of the book they make him
return to his home by means of a sly stratagem. In the
second part the hidalgo leaves for the third time and
alternately gives indication of folly and of wisdom in a
dazzling array of artistic inventions. But now even his
enemies force him to abandon his endeavors. Don Quixote
finally recognizes that romances of chivalry are mere lying
inventions, but upon recovering the clarity of his mind, he
loses his life.

The idea that Don Quixote is a symbol of the noblest
generosity, dedicated to the purpose of doing good
disinterestedly, suggests the moral common denominator
to be found in Cervantes’ creation. But in addition to
furnishing a moral type capable of being recognized and
accepted as a symbol of values in any time or place, Don
Quixote is a work of art with as many aspects and reflections
as it has readers to seek them. Considerations of general
morality thus become intermingled with the psychological
and aesthetic experience of each individual reader in a way
that vastly stimulated the development of the literary genre
later known as the novel, and Fielding, Dickens, Flaubert,
Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, and many others have thus been
inspired by Cervantes. In Madame Bovary, is Gustave
Flaubert, for example, the heroine changes the orientation
of her life because she, like Don Quixote, has read her
romances of chivalry, the romantic novels of the nineteenth

Cervantes demonstrated to the Western world how poetry
and fantasy could coexist with the experience of reality
which is perceptible to the senses. He did this by
presenting poetic reality, which previously had been
confined to the ideal region of dream, as something
experienced by a real person, and the dream thus became
the reality of any man living his dream. Therefore, the
trivial fact that a poor hidalgo loses his reason for one cause
or another is of little importance. The innovation is that
Don Quixote’s madness is converted into the theme of his
life and into a theme for the life of other people, who are
affected as much by the madness of the hidalgo as is he
himself. Some want him to revert to his condition of a
peaceful and sedentary hidalgo; others would like him to
keep on amusing or stupefying people with his deeds,
insane and wise at the same time.

Before Cervantes, literature was, as occasion offered,
fantastic, idealistic, naturalistic, moralistic, or didactic.

After his time, literature continued to exploit all these
types, but with them it was inclined to incorporate, as well,
some readers’ experience of them. Romances of chivalry
could now attain a significance beyond that of mere books
and could become what people felt or thought about them,
thus growing to be the very dynamic functioning of living
persons. In Don Quixote, for example, the hero takes them
for the gospel; the priest believes them to be false; the
innkeeper admires the tremendous blows delivered by the
knights; his daughter is taken by the sentimental aspect of
the love affairs which they describe; and so on. But the
reality of the literary work is the ideal integration of all
possible experience which all of the possible readers
undergo. This point can be further illustrated by taking
proverbs as an example. Before Don Quixote, many
collections of sayings and proverbs had been published, but
when Sancho interspersed these proverbs helter-skelter in
his conversation and thus brought his master to despair,
the proverbs became the living experiences which Sancho
and Don Quixote derived from them. In this manner,
everything in Don Quixote can be either real or ideal, either
fantastic or possible, according to the manner in which it
affects the variety of readers, whether they be creators of
beautiful and comforting illusions or dispassionate
demolishers of dreams. To live, for Cervantes, is to let
loose the extensive capacity of all that is human; it may also
be to remain deaf and inert before the attractions of love,
faith, and enthusiasm. All who live in the human universe
of the greatest book of Spanish literature succeed or
destroy themselves, according to one of these opposing

When compared with such a prodigious book, all of
Cervantes’ works which have not previously been
mentioned, no matter what their value, must be relegated to
a lower level. Among his dramatic works, La Numancia, a
description of the heroic defense of that Iberian city during
the Roman conquest of Spain in the second century b.c.,
and the amusing Interludes, such as El Juez de los
divorcios (“The Judge of Divorces”) and El Retablo de
las maravillas (“The Picture of Marvels”), are
outstanding. Also worth mentioning is the verse Voyage
to Parnassus (1614), in which almost all of the Spanish
writers of the period are lauded, and Persiles y
Sigismunda, published posthumously in 1617. In this
last-named work the author returns to the theme of the
Byzantine novel and relates the ideal love and
unbelievable vicissitudes of a couple who, starting from
the Arctic regions, arrive in Rome, where they find a
happy ending for their complicated adventures.


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