The Legend of Don Quixote
One of the most influential works of all time, and certainly the most prominent literary work to come out of the Spanish Golden Age, is Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. Written in the picaresque style of the late 16th century, Don Quixote is one of the earliest canonical novels in Western literature. Not only has the novel won the hearts of readers around the world, but it has also inspired many works of art and music, even by such renowned artists as Pablo Picasso and Richard Strauss.
The author, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, was born in a suburb of Madrid in 1547. He spent the majority of his life in Madrid and died there in 1616. He was a Spanish novelist, poet and playwright, as well as an ex-marine. During his time with the Spanish Navy Marines, Cervantes fought in many battles and was captured by Albanians in 1575. He was consequently taken to Algiers and kept as a slave for five years. Eventually his family paid ransom and he returned to Spain where he pursued a career in the literary arts.
He claimed that the idea for his most notable work, Don Quixote, occurred to him while in debtors’ prison in La Mancha, a region located on an arid but fertile plateau in central Spain. In the novel, an hidalgo—or person of the Spanish nobility or gentry—named Alonso Quixano has read so many chivalric novels that he decides to set out to bring back chivalry under the name Don Quixote. He recruits Sancho Panza—a simple farmer of low self-esteem—as his squire. Together with Sancho Panza, Don Quixote wanders throughout La Mancha as a knight-errant, which is a warrior that rides from place to place, righting injustices and saving ladies in distress. As befitting of any good knight, Don Quixote has an object of romantic affection named Aldonza Lorenza in whose honour he goes about his knight-errant business.
On his journeys, Don Quixote is met by the world as it is, which contrasts with his projections of antiquated knighthood and chivalric ideals. Although his character is genuinely noble-minded, he is also a touch mad, as is made clear by ordinary people’s reactions to Don Quixote’s behaviour and actions at various points throughout the novel. His desire to embody chivalric ideals drives him to act inappropriately in certain contexts, looking for opportunities for heroism where none is called for. In his attempts to do good, Don Quixote often ends up making a mess of things. It isn’t until he is on his deathbed with a sanity-inducing illness that he is able to distinguish between reality and the ideals in his head, and to realize that he has been living in a delusion. In this way, the story can be read as either a comedy or a tragedy, depending on the interpretation.
The novel was published in two volumes, the first in 1605 and the second in 1615. The first volume is more farcical, demonstrating clearly the ridiculousness of Don Quixote’s chivalric ideals in the context of his contemporary Spain. The second volume, however, is more philosophical and centers on the theme of deception. Many view the second volume as where the true message of Cervantes’ work comes out. Similarly, in terms of the novel’s character development, the first volume consists mainly of Don Quixote imposing himself on his environment, whereas by the second volume his character is so well established that he has to do less to maintain his image. The second volume then focuses much more heavily on the psychological evolution of Don Quixote back into Alonso Quixano on his deathbed.
The structure of the novel is episodic in form, which was common of contemporary chivalric romances. Although it maintains the traditional structure, the novel’s emphasis on psychological development was atypical of the time, and points more in the direction of the modern novel. Another interesting structural point about Don Quixote was that it was written in Old Castilian, the medieval form of Spanish that was no longer used in Cervantes’ age. Writing in Old Castilian had the affect of both harking back to the era of chivalric knighthood and also of reintroducing a more traditional form of Spanish back into the language.
When the first part of Don Quixote came out, it was an immediate success. It initially gained popularity in the New World and then quickly became a must-read item throughout Europe. The first 400 copies of the novel were sent to the New World, with most of them disappearing in a shipwreck near La Havana. The 70 surviving copies made it to Lima and into the hands of the Spanish settlers who fell in love with the book’s epic main character. Months later, thousands of copies of Don Quixote were being printed and distributed in Spain, France, England, and other areas of Western Europe. Still today, Cervantes’ work is read widely for both scholastic and leisurely purposes, and is considered one of the greatest novels of all time.