“Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes has remained an instrumental piece of literature since its publication in 1605. The success of “Don Quixote” may be in part to its underdog hero and his quest to achieve his dreams despite ridicule from his peers. Some critics have gone as far as saying that “Don Quixote” was “the best literary work ever written”. To understand the importance of “Don Quixote” one must break down the novel and examine the theme of chivalry and heroics to see why “Don Quixote” is truly a literary work that transcends time and entertains and inspires many generations of readers.
Many factors go into determining what makes a great literary work, this includes writing techniques. “Don Quixote” is unique in that it is written in an episodic form. Cervantes entertains readers by giving them a sense of Quixote’s history through multiple story arcs that take place over the course of the character’s life (Wardropper). Each episode typically ends with a moral question that asks the reader to evaluate what happened and form their own opinions on Quixote’s journey. The characterization builds throughout each episode as we see them evolve. Cervantes builds a world based on Quixote’s views. This approach causes readers to become attached to the likable yet silly Quixote. One feels as if they are looking into his life, cheering for his victories and lamenting his failures.
The “historic” approach adds background information and relevant facts to each story. Cervantes’ style is very descriptive and through. He even goes as far as creating his own fictional “historian” whom he named Cid Hamet Benengali (Cervantes). This allowed him to tell the story of Quixote with objectivity. Cid gives voice to Quixote’s stories by relating relevant details that the often delusional Quixote might not relate if it was told from his perspective.
The dialogue within the novel is very memorable and quotable (Eisenberg). Originally published in Spanish, the language is both descriptive and humorous (Eisenberg). The use of irony and innuendo keeps the reader guessing what the true intention of the dialogue is.
The Likeable Characters of “Don Quixote”
If one was to ask a reader of “Don Quixote” what they liked most about the book they would most likely relate their love for the characters. The hero (or anti-hero depending on who you ask!) of the novel is Don Quixote (Wardropper). Quixote has a very idealistic mind but is cursed with less than idealistic abilities. To his credit he never gives up on his dream to become a knight and takes his fate into his own hands by manufacturing his own adventures. Even though his adventures are less than knightly in a traditional sense, he inspires others everywhere he goes and makes friends because of his charming personality (Whitenack). Readers can relate to this character because he has flaws that make him human (Wardropper).
Quixote’s companion, Sancho Panza, is also a normal peasant. He is described as, "one of his neighbors, a country-laborer, and good honest fellow, for he was poor indeed: poor in purse and poor in brains." (Cervantes). He has many inborn fears, yet despite these flaws he remains utterly loyal to Quixote under all circumstances. Klein states, “The realism of Sancho Panza is required to make the idealism of Don Quixote effective.” (Klein). The great friendship they form is truly the greatest treasure they gain as a result of their travels. The chemistry built between the characters was a feat of brilliance by Cervantes.
Many other characters appear throughout the course of “Don Quixote”, each is representative of real human traits (Whitenack). Some are cruel and some are kind, but all contribute to the development of Don Quixote as a character. They often illustrate the differences between classes and illustrate how society works during this time period. All of the characters throughout “Don Quixote” are unique yet relatable to real life. Readers can recognize characteristics within this cast that they might also recognize in society around them.
The Genre of “Don Quixote”
“Don Quixote” is unique in that it doesn’t really fall into any particular type of fictional genre. The prose style of Cervantes and the chivalrous goals of Don Quixote are often characteristics of the romance genre (Whitenack). Don Quixote is the consummate gentleman whose main goal in life is to defend lovely damsels (Whitenack). Quixote seems to be in love with the very idea of love. Even though Don Quixote lacks the ability to become a knight in his heart he holds to chivalric ideals. When describing a simple farmer’s daughter, Quixote proclaims, “For what I want of Dulcinea del Toboso she is as good as the greatest princess in the land. For not all those poets, who praise ladies under names which they choose so freely, really have such mistresses. . . .I am quite satisfied. . . to imagine and believe that the good Aldonza Lorenzo is so lovely and virtuous. . . .” (Cervantes). This proves that even the goofy Quixote can make female readers swoon as he relates that even a common born female should feel as if she is a princess.
Others may argue that the episodic style of “Don Quixote” would be more representative of the adventure genre. Each episode is action packed with often absurd adventures. The reader lives vicariously through Quixote’s actions. Quixote’s travels are vast and he meets a wide array of characters throughout his journey. In Quixote’s mind his adventures are larger than life, although based on the observations of Cid we know that this is not really that case. For example the most well- known episode in “Don Quixote” is his fight with a windmill, which in Quixote’s mind was a band of blood thirsty giants (Cervantes). Quixote’s overactive imagination reminds the reader that we too can enjoy adventure in our otherwise mundane life if we endeavor to do so.
“Don Quixote” also has elements of parody and satire. The comedic interludes into the novel are in reality light hearted even though they are treated with a mock seriousness by the narrator. Cervantes pokes fun at traditional medieval romances and the fallacy of knights (Whitenack). Cervantes reminds us that all heroes are in fact human and have flaws. Small digs are also taken at Spanish history, with its fictional historical styling. “Don Quixote” takes a satirical look at issues such as nationalism and class often questioning why some people are considered “important” and others are not.
Part of the appeal of “Don Quixote” is that it does appeal to so many different audiences. Since it doesn’t fall into any one genre all readers are sure to find some element within the story that is of interest to them. The themes throughout are universal to all cultures and time periods.
Why “Don Quixote” is considered a Classic
“Don Quixote” has truly stood the test of time. Spanning over 400 years, the novel has never lagged in popularity, readers continue to delight in the adventures of these characters (Wardropper). “Don Quixote” has inspired many other works of literature, including a play by William Shakespeare himself (Wardropper).
Cervantes keeps the reader involved by continuously asking questions such as: Is Quixote really a hero? Why must class distinctions and societal expectations dictated dictate what we do with our life? And Is Quixote mentally ill or merely expressing individuality? Notes of parody and satire are hidden within the guise of a historical novel. Cervantes even points that, “such books were offensive because they presented fiction under the guise of historical truth.” (Cervantes). This indicates that Cervantes even had a sense of humor about himself.
Part of determining if a novel can be labeled “a great literary work” is by determining if the author achieved their goal through the message the book transmits (Eisenberg). Eisenberg, one of the foremost authorities on “Don Quixote” expressed, “Cervantes hoped they would choose better books and read books more critically, as a result of which they would live more virtuous lives, especially by following God's rules in dealing with the opposite sex, and become more patriotic.” (Eisenberg). Based on the popularity of the book, the need to critically analyze the book by readers, and the moral messages throughout, Cervantes did indeed meet his goal with the completion of this novel.
This novel presents of a blend of what Cervantes thinks readers want, reality and fantasy. In fact he makes this concept a key theme throughout the book. Reality is represented by Cid’s presentation of the events, while fantasy is represented in Quixote’s representation (Wardropper). This duality is also shown between the depiction of negative real life concepts, such as poverty, ugliness, stupidity, and madness (Cervantes). Including positive real life experiences such as friendship, loyalty, adventure, and seeking out ones goals. The negative side of fantasy is shown through Quixote’s disillusionment, fights with ogres and giants, and exaggerated heroics (Cervantes). The positive side of fantasy is shown through the depiction of true love and the idea that anyone can “live in a fantasy” if they only have the courage to do so.
Even though today’s society is not overly concerned with “becoming a knight” and the world of Quixote seems like a far off fantastical place, readers can still relate to the messages within it making it a true classic. Don Quixote has actually become a metaphor for overcoming disadvantages with a sense of humor. Whether one’s goal is to become an accomplished in their profession, find love, or find a release from mundane life most people can relate to Quixote’s own goal our perceptions of what the goal is just changes with the time.
The Drawbacks of “Don Quixote”
For everyone who feels that “Don Quixote” is the greatest work of literature, there are also others who feel that the novel is not without faults. One can’t discuss the greatness of “Don Quixote” without also recognizing its drawbacks in terms of literary achievement.
Because of the overly descriptive style and the fact that it was first published in 1605, sometimes the style of “Don Quixote” can be challenging for readers to understand (Eisenberg). Some of the words and historical satire comments can be lost on the twenty first century reader. However due to the unpretentious conversational tone of the novel one can usually surmise the plot without a great deal of difficulty. This is a testament to Cervantes brilliant writing technique.
Since “Don Quixote” is episodic and published in two volumes over the course of several years, as a whole the story of Quixote is very long (Wardropper)! Some of the adventures are much more memorable than others, and even if read several times most readers may not fully comprehend each story. One has to be dedicated to analyzing each episode, not just the most memorable, if they are truly going to judge if “Don Quixote” is a great work (Wardropper). The novel covers an entire life time, and like real life some of the adventures are not really worthy of inclusion. Some feel that Cervantes’ message would be better served through the editing of unnecessary episodes. It is a challenge to keep readers interested throughout such a long, dense book (Eisenberg).
Even though opinions on whether “Don Quixote” is the “world’s greatest literary work” are varied few could ignore the impact and popularity of this novel on society. The ability of the author to express his writing goals through narrative is astounding. Cervantes create a new writing style that combines fantasy and reality through the guise of history. Many of his predecessors have since been inspired by his work and implemented his style into their own works. Cervantes use of technique and language are superb (Eisenberg).
As for plot, “Don Quixote” presents a storyline that can be relatable for any culture or time period. The author creates a series of plots within a singular theme. This allows him to cover a large time period and provide an almost “historical” account of the character’s life. Thematically the search for love and recognition is relatable to nearly everyone. “Don Quixote” can’t really be categorized into one genre. Cervantes takes elements of many different genres and combines them to appeal to the majority of audiences.
The characters within the book represent all elements of society and have real human emotion. They are not idealized or exaggerated although their personal goals are. They represent how underdogs can become “heroes” even if it is only within their own mind. The story is inspirational and humorous, mostly because of the actions of the characters.
I feel that “Don Quixote” has adequately earned the title of “a great piece of classic literature”, maybe not the best ever but certainly one that has made a lasting impression on readers for over 400 years.
Cervantes, M. d. (2003). Don Quixote. New York: Ecco. Print.
Eisenberg, D. "A Study of Don Quixote,." Index to works by Daniel Eisenberg. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Dec. 2012.