Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quijote [Don Quixote] (3885 words)


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Don Quixote is arguably the most influential prose narrative in world history. It explores many of the generic possibilities of telling stories in that medium and it does so by using techniques, such as the disnarrated, that have only recently been categorized by specialists in narrative discourse. It will become a mine of resources for novelists and is still widely read today. The eponymous lead character, Don Quixote de la Mancha, a poor country gentleman about fifty years of age, has befuddled his sense of reality by exhaustive reading in the romances and ballads of chivalry (see esp. Riquer). Clad in antiquated armor and accompanied by his trusty squire Sancho Panza, he rides about on his old nag Rocinante seeking occasions to emulate the much younger heroes of chivalric romance, on one occasion famously mistaking windmills for hostile giants. Don Quixote is the first fictional character who determines to live literature, while assuming that his own exploits will be duly written down. His identity is formed by his reading and perpetuated through the writing of a magus he imagines already in chapter 2. He is thus a thoroughly “literary” figure. In Cervantes’s hands, this mimicking of mimesis is complemented by an innovative self-conscious diegesis.

The book we know today as Don Quixote is two books in one. Part one appeared in early 1605 and was titled El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha. Part two did not appear until 1615. Its title is identical, except that hidalgo is now replaced by caballero, perhaps in recognition of the fact that the main character is already known to the reading public as a knight errant, or caballero andante. In part one, Don Quixote is actually an hidalgo andante, although that term never appears, and the concept is anomalous. It is common to speak of the two parts as the 1605 Quixote and the 1615 Quixote. The 1605 volume contains 52 chapters, while the 1615 continuation expands to 74. Between Cervantes’s two volumes, there appeared, in 1614, a spurious sequel to the 1605 Quixote, by someone yet to be identified, who uses the pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda. Cervantes’s part two will draw extensively on his own part one and, in due course, also on Avellaneda’s continuation, which it will treat with creative irony.

The Title

Titles often indicate an author’s point of view toward his work and also how he would hope to condition reader response. This is particularly so in the present instance. The name Quixote in the 1605 title was pronounced then as “key-show-tay”. The letter x represented the “sh” sound at the time; compare xerez, anglicized as sherry; also the French Don Quichotte and the Italian Don Chisciotte. A quixote was a piece of knightly armor that protected the thigh, so one might say that we have here a metonymy, a part that comes to stand for the whole. The contrast with the illustrious precursor Lanzarote (Lancelot) is patent, for his name contains that conspicuously offensive weapon, the lance. So Quixote resonates off Lanzarote in parodic fashion, much to the disadvantage of the Don, for it connotes a comparatively passive, defensive posture vis-à-vis the implicit assertiveness of the precursor. The proximity of this protective device to the genital area foreshadows the character’s reticence around real women (he is a fiftyish virgin) and his compensatory refuge in an incorporeal female ideal called Dulcinea. Quixote may also derive from Quixano (his real surname) and, if so, in tandem with “don”, which is used only with first names, it functions as a first name, thus defying the tradition whereby patronymics derive from first names in Castilian (e.g., González from Gonzalo), since here we would have a first name formed from a last name. Or we might say that it is simply a modified surname, with –ote for –ano, and, as such, it would also call attention to itself. So the logic of the title comes apart in the middle, centering on the misappropriated title at the center of that title. Hidalgos at this time were not allowed to use the “don”, so the incongruity of this title within the title is quite striking. “Ingenioso” can mean witty and clever, but it can also suggest a humoral imbalance, with a preponderance of yellow bile, or choler. This condition would make one choleric, or intemperate and quick to anger. This is a characteristic displayed frequently in part one. Finally, “de la Mancha” refers obviously to the area between Castile and Andalusia, a prosaic and proximate place in comparison to the exotic and remote places of provenance of the knights errant about whom our good Manchegan had read. A “mancha” is also a spot or stain, implicating the family coat of arms, perhaps caused by traces of Jewish or Moorish blood in the family line. Or it could refer to the spots of ink on the printed page, out of which emerges the character, with his esquire alongside. Taken together, the several elements of the 1605 title suggest an ironic, festive posture on the part of the author, one that is less than flattering to the main character, while also clearly suggesting that the reader should participate fully in this lighthearted game, likewise maintaining ironic distance from the mock hero.


A number of themes and sub-themes can be identified, but, in part one, those that serve to structure the text are love, literature, and chivalry. The first is especially prominent in the interpolated stories. The reading of literature is cited as a factor of great importance in the transformation of Alonso Quijano into Don Quixote, and it appears as a leitmotiv throughout, in the scrutiny of the main character’s library, the concluding commentary on the novella read aloud at the inn, and in allusions to and the incorporation of other literary genres, such as the picaresque, the pastoral, the chivalric, the sentimental, the Moorish, and even the Byzantine. Chivalry is associated primarily with the main character and his self-assumed mission and it is ubiquitous throughout both parts. Some have proposed justice, or the search for justice, as a theme, but it might better be seen as a sub-theme of chivalry. The first pseudo-author-cum-narrator describes the character’s motivation as being twofold, to become famous in an honorable way, and to serve his country. Self-interest and altruism come together in this double objective and, ideally, they should complement each other. The theme of literature looms even larger in the 1615 Quixote, partly because it is a more self-conscious text, more metafictional, in which the two main characters are aware of having been characters in a book already published (the 1605 Quixote), then, later on, in another book that has appeared more recently (the 1614 Avellaneda sequel, published after Cervantes had already begun the second part published the following year, hence its late appearance in the 1615 Quixote). Many of the characters they encounter have read about them, and that knowledge is sometimes used to manipulate the pair. Cervantes is fond of pairing characters and themes and even, on occasion, developing parallel actions involving two main characters, as occurs when chapters alternate between Don Quixote and Sancho in a lengthy section of part two. Some themes that are presented as binomials are history vs. story, arms vs. letters, past vs. present, and reality vs. illusion.

Characterization of Don Quixote and Sancho

The two characters are neither flat, nor are they round. They are, instead, polymorphous and paradoxical, increasingly so in 1615. Both incarnate antithetical tendencies. Don Quixote is sometimes referred to as a cuerdo-loco or sensible madman, while Sancho is a simple-agudo, a sharp simpleton. They often defy expectations. Each can be or become whatever the plot demands, or, to put a finer point on it, whatever their author feels will fit within the parameters of verisimilitude but also produce the requisite admiratio in his readers, in order to keep them turning pages. The main consistency one notes in them is that very inconsistency. It is therefore unrealistic to speak of character development, although it is more legitimate to speak of the author’s increasing mastery of paradoxical character drawing, as well as the artful alternation between the two of them in part two. It would seem that the author became aware of the potential of Sancho and assigned him a role in 1615 very near that of co-protagonist.

As is invariably the case, they are characterized by the opinions of the narrators (which can be ambiguous, ironic, or downright contradictory), by the reactions of other characters with whom they come into contact, and by their own words and actions. Their relationship one to the other has been compared to that of a couple in a lengthy traditional marriage, with Don Quixote as the husband, proudly in charge at the beginning but in decline toward the end, with the spouse assuming a more dominant role at that juncture. There are the usual misunderstandings and tu quoques [“you too!”], but they remain together for their own reasons, and at the end we see Sancho entering a reasonably prosperous widowhood. Their interactions over the course of time lead to some mutual influences—on occasion each will emulate some aspect of the other—but, while there is some evidence to support a modest quixotization of Sancho, there is precious little evidence of the supposed sanchification of Don Quixote.

Other Noteworthy Characters

Don Quixote has two friends with whom he discusses literature. These are the village priest, Pero Pérez, and their barber, Maese Nicolás. The two attempt to bring their friend back from his wanderings, in order to attempt to cure him of his obsession, and finally they succeed at the end of part one. Along the way, they enlist the aid of a very resourceful damsel in distress, Dorotea, who pretends, for different reasons, to be in need of Don Quixote’s help. She is one of four strong and independent women in the main plot of part one, all of whom are, in addition, strikingly beautiful. The other three are Marcela, whose defense of her autonomy is quite eloquent; Luscinda, who is Cardenio’s true love; and Zoraida, a Muslim who is determined to be baptized in the Christian faith. Another remarkable woman—one who defies the stereotype of external beauty as a reflection of inner beauty—is Maritornes, a servant at the inn, who is misshapen physically (and perhaps morally), but is nevertheless surprisingly kind to Sancho. Other memorable characters are Anselmo, Lotario, and Camila of the interpolated tale of a man who obliges his best friend to test his wife’s fidelity, with devastating results for all involved.

In part two, a young man named Sansón Carrasco will substitute for the priest and barber in the quest to bring the wanderer home. He is the first of many characters who has read part one. He will pretend twice to be a knight errant and will engage our mock-hero in combat, losing the first time but winning decisively the second time, on the seashore in Barcelona. The duke and duchess invite the knight and his squire to spend time with them but only to amuse themselves with the quaint pair, whose story they too have read. Basilio (the poor suitor), Camacho (the wealthy suitor), and the object of their affection, Quiteria, provide an interesting interlude that has subsequently been made into a well-known ballet. A chance encounter on the highway with a gentleman dressed in green leads to a kind of doppelganger effect, for he is the hidalgo Don Quixote might have been, had he not read books of chivalry, had he married and sired children, and had he stayed comfortably at home. This kind and gracious paterfamilias is, for reasons difficult to fathom, a favorite whipping boy of certain critics.

Two characters who reappear in part two are Ginés de Pasamonte, one of the convicts on his way to the galleys, now in disguise as Maese Pedro the puppet master, and Álvaro Tarfe, who had a leading role in Avellaneda’s spurious sequel and who now obligingly signs a notarized document stating that the Don Quixote and Sancho before him at this moment are real, while the ones he knew in the other book were imposters. Another who reappears is Dulcinea, the protagonist’s fantastical lady, who is apparently based on a young woman named Aldonza Lorenzo, from a nearby village. She is “enchanted” and transformed by Sancho early in part two, and the quest then comes to center around disenchanting her. There is one contemporary historical personage included, a Catalonian bandit Roca Guinarda, whose name is Hispanicized as Roque Guinart. There is also reference to a recent historical event, the expulsion of the moriscos (Spaniards of Moorish descent) in 1609, in the anecdotes of a former neighbor, Ricote, who has returned to Spain in disguise, and in the subsequent appearance of his daughter, Ana Félix, in Barcelona.

Pseudo authors

The narrator of chapters 1-8 of our story is the first of three pseudo authors. He claims to be putting together a definitive version of Don Quixote’s adventures, basing himself on other unnamed authors who are said to have written on the subject, while drawing also on the annals of La Mancha. These annals—ordinarily the record of noteworthy events of a given year—contain surprising detail, such as the fact that the character’s first adventure was really a non-adventure, for it involved merely traveling all day and then arriving, tired and hungry, at an inn. What this first text-speaker is compiling amounts to a critical edition that brings together all previous records of the character’s adventures.

The second pseudo author is, in fact, called the “second author”, or segundo autor, and he appears in chapter 9 only, after the intervention of a transitional editorial commentary at the end of chapter 8. His role is essentially that of the autor de comedias, or producer of plays, of Cervantes’s day, for he seeks out the continuation of the text and brings it to the stage, so to speak. He tells of his fortuitous find and of contracting a translator to render this text, written in either Arabic or Aljamiado (like the medieval jarchas, in Castilian but transcribed in Arabic characters), into legible Spanish.

The third pseudo author, and the only one of the three who is not also a narrator, is likewise introduced in chapter 9, and his name is given as Cide Hamete Benengeli. He is the most inverisimilar of the lot—an example of total inverisimilitude, according to Edward C. Riley—and may also be an afterthought of Cervantes, who may well have gone back over his manuscript in order to insert this personage strategically at the beginnings and endings of the internal parts 2, 3, and 4. This is the compelling contention of José Manuel Martín Morán. Cide Hamete is mentioned by name only in chapters 9-27 of the 1605 Quixote and is alluded to thereafter only as “the author”. He is clearly dispensable in 1605, and his frequent mentions in 1615—beginning in the first sentence of the first chapter—seem to respond to Cervantes’s attempt to refute Avellaneda’s spurious part two of 1614 and to reclaim the story as his own. Avellaneda had attributed his continuation to another morisco historian, named Alisolán. This would mean, of course, that Cervantes again went back over his manuscript, inserting Cide Hamete’s name opportunely—seven times more frequently than in 1605—because he did not become aware of Avellaneda’s effrontery until he had written fifty or more chapters of his own part two. The mention of Avellaneda in the 1615 prologue is easily explained if we assume that the prologue is in reality an epilogue, just as the 1605 counterpart clearly is, and as prologues generally are.

José María Paz Gago has called attention to the pseudo-authors in compelling fashion, arguing that it is important to distinguish between them and the narrators. He is quite right that Cide Hamete is not a narrator, but the first and second authors serve both functions. If would follow, of course, that if the second author—the voice of chapter 9—is not a narrator, that entity cannot be the editorial voice of the text. Paz Gago is very much on target on that very important point. Also, if Cide Hamete is not a narrator, he cannot be the teller in the tale. He is presented as a text writer but not as a text speaker.

The Diegetic Plot

Complementing the mimetic action centered on the two main characters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, there is a diegetic plot having to do with the finding, compilation, and transmission of the story. The diegetic plot has its own cast of characters, including the three just mentioned: the first author, second author, and Cide Hamete. There is also the morisco translator, introduced in chapter 9, whose credentials and previous experience are never mentioned, thus casting doubt on his competency and enhancing the subversion of narrative authority that is a constant from the 1605 title onward. Following some brief comments in chapter 9, the translator is silent until chapter 5 of part two, where his role as editorial voice or commentator begins to be enhanced considerably over what we saw in part one. Like Cide Hamete, however, his interventions are filtered through and paraphrased by a higher-ranking editorial voice, which might be called the supernarrator. This is the transitional editorial voice first encountered at the end of I.8, and it resurfaces momentarily in I.9 as a clearly Christian presence, seemingly from within Cide Hamete’s manuscript, where it will remain largely hidden for the remainder of part one. These two interventions in part one represent a narrative strategy called metalepsis, which has to do with the intrusion of one narrative voice into territory seemingly assigned to another. This technique will be used more frequently in part two. The voice that begins part two by referring to Cide Hamete in the third person is this now dominant editorial voice or supernarrator. It will be the narrator for all of part two, while periodically referring to or quoting the translator or Cide Hamete. The first author and second author are no longer with us in part two, nor, of course, is the autonomous moral voice that narrates the tale of ill-advised curiosity, one of the interpolated stories of part one. So the diegetic design is considerably simplified in part two. The only narrative voice is that of the editor or supernarrator, which is generally straightforward in its interventions, although it may on occasion appear again in a fifth-column role, slipping through the interstices of the translation of Cide Hamete’s narrative. This occurs, for instance, in II.63, where a Christian voice unexpectedly surfaces from within the text to indicate solidarity with a Spanish ship that is militarily engaged with forces of the faith we associate with both Cide Hamete and the translator. It refers to the Christian forces using the plural possessive, “our”, something neither the writer of record nor his translator would be likely to do. There are subtleties in the text that repay close reading.

Although Cide Hamete does not satisfy the criteria for a narrator, as José Manuel Martín Morán also has shown, he does play a crucial role in the proceedings. He represents what he does, writing, and he comes to be associated with his medium to such an extent in part two that the oft-repeated phrases “Cide Hamete says” and “the story says” become synonymous and interchangeable. Once again, we have the part (the writer) metamorphosed into the whole (the writing).

The occasional irruptions of a Christian voice from within Cide Hamete’s text represent an underlying and informing orality that will not be suppressed. Writing is a representation of orality, at one remove from its origins in speech, and, as such, a more distanced and deferred medium of expression, one that is therefore less reliable and authoritative. His role within the text, in addition to the metonymic relationship to writing, would seem to be the signal contribution his presence provides in undermining the reliability and authority of the printed page. An association with his culture—one of the two great cultures of the book represented within the text—is inevitable. He is clearly marginalized from mainstream “old Christian” society and his marginal comments throughout are emblematic of that lack of status. Paradoxically, the more frequently he is mentioned in part two, the clearer it becomes that he is not the narrator, and the more peripheral his presence is seen to be. His discourse is invariably filtered through the translator and the supernarrator, so that, if one were to assign him a nominal slot in the narrative hierarchy, it would be at the well embedded intra-intra-diegetic level, at two removes from the extradiegetic, frame-narrator level.

Generic considerations

Part one is predominantly inverted romance coupled with Menippean satire structurally and mild Horatian satire in manner and tone. In the prologue to part two and toward the end of that book, there are glimmers of the more caustic satire associated with Juvenal, in the negative references to Avellaneda. In addition to drawing upon the hoary traditions of satire and romance, Cervantes likewise draws in varying degrees upon types of narrative popular at the time, especially the pastoral, sentimental, Moorish, Byzantine and picaresque modes, as well as the Italianate novella (the tale of impertinent curiosity).

While the two main characters are the same in both parts, the supporting cast differs considerably in 1615, and those two characters are shown in a different light also. Don Quixote is a bit more subdued. He does not ordinarily take one thing for another, and his use of archaic diction (“fabla”) has virtually disappeared. Death becomes a leitmotiv early on, frequently foreshadowing his eventual demise. Regarding Sancho’s enhanced role, Raymond Willis has suggested that the man, rather than the master, is a more likely prototype for the modern novel. While the 1605 volume drew extensively upon the books of chivalry, the sequel draws heavily on part one, and, after fifty-some chapters—when the author becomes aware of Avellaneda’s 1614 part two—it begins to draw upon that antecedent also. Part two integrates interpolated stories much more seamlessly into the main plot. The admixture of romance, novel, and satire continues, but one can discern both the realistic and the self-conscious novel in embryonic form in part two. Some say that the work foreshadows the realistic, modern novel, while others maintain that it has more in common with self-conscious, postmodern narrative. It may be that the realistic novel derives from the mimetic action, while self-conscious narrative owes more to the diegetic plot.

Further reading:

Close, Anthony. The Romantic Approach to ‘Don Quixote’: A Critical History of the Romantic Tradition in ‘Quixote’ Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Martín Morán, José Manuel. El ‘Quijote’ en ciernes: los descuidos de Cervantes y las fases de elaboración textual. Torino: Dell’Orso, 1990.
Parr, James A. Don Quixote, Don Juan, and Related Subjects: Form and Tradition in Hispanic Literature, 1350-1650. Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 2004.
Paz Gago, José María. Semiótica del ‘Quijote’: teoría y práctica de la ficción narrativa. Amsterdam/Atlanta: Rodopi, 1995.
Riley, Edward C. ‘Don Quixote.’ London: Allen & Unwin, 1986.
Riquer, Martín de. Aproximación al ‘Quijote’. Barcelona: Teide, 1967.

Citation: Parr, James A.. "Don Quijote". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 13 August 2008 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=5558, accessed 26 January 2022.]

5558 Don Quijote 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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