Don Quixote: A Critical Analysis (Book Review)│ Ben Khamis
I refuse to be defeated by any book. Unless I have some serious moral problem with a given work, I will almost never return a book to the library just because I got “bored” of it. There’s just something in my psyche that rebels against throwing in the towel…and Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel “Don Quixote” has long been a burr under my saddle. I started the abridged version many years ago – and didn’t finish it. About six months ago, I tried the unabridged version – and it went back to the library unfinished.
That situation has now been remedied. And I finally feel a sense of completion.
It was only at the very end of his career—he was already fifty-eight—with Don Quixote in 1605 that he finally hit the jackpot: the book was at once a runaway best seller. And Cervantes died just one year after the publication of the second and final part of his book (1615). Since Don Quixote was rightly hailed as one of the greatest works of fiction of any age, in any language, it is interesting to note that it was also—quite literally—a potboiler concocted by a hopeless old hack, at the very end of his tether.
Furthermore, when we consider what set off Cervantes’ imagination, our puzzlement increases: he had intended his entire book as a machine de guerre directed against a very peculiar target—the literature of chivalry and knight errantry, a genre which had been in fashion for a while. This literary crusade now appears utterly irrelevant, but for Cervantes it was an important cause that mobilized the best of his intellectual energy; in fact, the relentless pursuit of this rather idle quarrel provided the very backbone of his entire narrative. As we all know, the overall structure of Don Quixote is very simple: the basic premise of the story is set in the first few pages of Chapter One, and the thousand pages that follow simply represent its applications to diverse situations—hundreds of variations on one same theme.
Literary critics do fulfil a very important role (as I shall try to show in a moment), but there seems to be a problem with much contemporary criticism, and especially with a certain type of academic literary criticism. One has the feeling that these critics do not really like literature—they do not enjoy reading. Worse even, if they were to enjoy a book, they would suspect it to be frivolous. In their eyes, something that is amusing cannot be important or serious.
This attitude is unconsciously pervading our general view of literature. As a result, we tend to forget that until recently most literary masterpieces were designed as popular entertainment. From Rabelais, Shakespeare, and Molière in the classical age, down to the literary giants of the nineteenth century—Balzac, Dumas, Hugo, Dickens, Thackeray—the main concern of the great literary creators was not so much to win the approval of the sophisticated connoisseurs (which, after all, is still a relatively easy trick) as to touch the man in the street, to make him laugh, to make him cry, which is a much more difficult task.
“Don Quixote” is a bit of a paradox. On one hand, it’s a thought-provoking meditation on the nature of chivalry and the impact one man can have on the lives of others…but it’s also a long, tedious slog through page after page of inane dialogue and occasionally bawdy humour. Is it worth your time?
The book is best known for its memorable depiction of Don Quixote jousting with windmills he believes to be giants. The overarching story, however, is a bit more complex than that. Don Quixote is a Spanish nobleman with an affinity for “books of chivalry” (semi-historical adventure stories, vaguely reminiscent of something a 16th-century Simon Scarrow might have written). These stories so inspire Don Quixote that he decides to become a knight-errant – a warrior riding from place to place righting injustices and saving damsels in distress.
Of course, any good knight-errant needs a lady to inspire him. So Don Quixote settles on the semi-attractive Aldonza Lorenza, a peasant girl from a nearby village. The fact that he has never actually seen her is irrelevant – he promptly decides to call her Dulcinea del Toboso and resolves to perform great deeds in her honour. Along with his faithful squire, the slightly slow-witted Sancho Panza, Don Quixote sets out to win fame and renown in the name of Dulcinea. But such seeming “madness” doesn’t go unnoticed by his neighbours – particularly the village curate and barber. The two men take it upon themselves to “cure” Don Quixote, following him and his squire around the Spanish countryside in the hopes of restoring his senses. Thus begins the adventure of Don Quixote – a long, meandering epic that takes him hither and yon in search of everlasting glory.
At first, I hated this book. The first five or six hundred pages are full of digressions and seemingly meaningless episodes that didn’t appear to add anything. Things do pick up in the latter half of the novel, however, and it becomes clear that Cervantes had a purpose beyond mere entertainment.
It would’ve been easy to write off Don Quixote as simply a comic novel – if not for the complex attitude toward honour and chivalry that the book espouses. (Note that in order to fully explore the depth of this novel, the following discussion contains spoilers.)
At first glance, the story appears to satirize the fantastical adventures of bold knights, cunning enchanters, and beautiful princesses. And as previously mentioned, most people’s image of Don Quixote is of a ramshackle knight trying vainly to knock down windmills. When given only a cursory look, it seems as if “Don Quixote” was written to poke fun at the idealized notions of chivalry and honour popular at the time. However, such a view misses the true point of the novel.
It took me almost one thousand pages of reading to realize the significance of all the apparently useless adventures early on in the book. Although Don Quixote’s behaviour appears to be totally irrational (and his conversation is punctuated with nonsense references to enchantments and wizards), he is actually successful in performing deeds of honour.
The primary conflict in the first half of the book revolves around a love square (something like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). Through Don Quixote’s intervention, the fullest happiness is in fact attained for all the individuals involved. His commitment to living chivalrously forbids him to allow wrongs to go uncorrected.
Later on in the book, Don Quixote and Sancho fall in with a duke and duchess who decide to play along with Don Quixote’s madness. They make sport of him by inventing outlandish situations that appear to be pulled straight from the pages of one of his “books of chivalry.” Don Quixote escapes, but is confronted by a mysterious “Knight of the White Moon” who defeats him in single combat and makes him promise not to leave his village for the space of one year. (In reality, the “Knight of the White Moon” is a fellow villager that the curate and barber have employed to stop Don Quixote.)
The curate and the barber take Don Quixote home in the hopes of curing him. Don Quixote, however, soon becomes fatally ill. On his deathbed, he “regains his sanity” and renounces the absurdly chivalric lifestyle he has previously led. However, in a surprising twist, his fellow villagers (who had previously ridiculed him) recognize the impact he has had on others. They tell Don Quixote that he is mistaken: that he is the Knight of La Mancha and must continue to be so. Despite all the mocking jests they have hurled at him over the years, they cannot escape the truth that he has given them a new way of looking at the world.
And that is the true beauty of “Don Quixote.” It is not a mockery of chivalry so much as it is a celebration of it. Don Quixote’s ironclad commitment to courtesy, honour, and justice does not go unnoticed by those around him – even the ones who formerly sneered at his behaviour.
Worldview elements are somewhat synthesized with the previously discussed message of the story. As a whole, the novel affirms traditional moral values (although certain “humorous” scenes are of somewhat poor taste). Although there are a few jokes at the expense of the Catholic Church and the priesthood, Christianity as a whole is treated with great respect. (Readers may wish to be aware that the same respect is not necessarily accorded to Islam – an attitude undeniably consistent with the sentiments of the time.)
So should you read it?
I hate to ever encourage someone to read an abridged version. Having read the full, unabridged version, I honestly question whether an abridged edition would be able to accurately convey the overarching message of the novel (and not just devolve into a string of semi-comic episodes). But since I haven’t read an abridged version, I can’t say anything for sure.
The full version of “Don Quixote” is truly a massive tome. With an unabridged edition that tops out at roughly 1200 pages, it’s almost as long as “War and Peace.” And it’s exceedingly dull in portions (especially those that seem to have no relation to the rest of the story). However, it is also a thought-provoking look at the nature of true chivalry – and that in itself makes the book a worthy read. It doesn’t really kick into high gear until the last two hundred pages or so…but the ending is an emotional touchstone that justifies spending hours wading through the slower segments.
If you’re a fan of classic literature, the uncut “Don Quixote” is probably a must-read. If you prefer more casual entertainment, an abridged version might be more enjoyable. It’s not for everyone…but there’s a reason it’s on all those lists of “great books.”