Stalking the Behemoth: Don Quixote

Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes
The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha
By Miguel de Cervantes (1605)
In the coming months, I plan to review a series of my favorite long books, “long” here defined as “six hundred pages or longer,” in my “Stalking the Behemoth” series. I can’t think of a better behemoth to start on than Don Quixote, considered by many to be the first modern novel. Of course, it could be argued that Quixote had a few forebearers–the Tale of Genji and Satyricon are the most famous–but the common argument is that Quixote was the first novel to grant its characters interiority and complex arcs. Now, since I haven’t read either of Quixote’s forebearers, I can’t judge where this stacks up historically, but I can say that Don Quixote and especially Sancho Panza’s developments are pretty remarkable. Panza in particular fascinates me, moving as he does from the comedic cowardly sidekick to a man with cunning (always used for good, of course), and even wisdom.
You probably know the summary, but for those who have spent a better part of the past four hundred years under a bridge, it works like this. Don Quixote reads too many books of chivalry, gets it in his head that he’s a knight, and sets off on a string of comic adventures. Along the way, he picks up a squire, the simple farmer Sancho Panza, and claims he’s doing it all in the name of Lady Dulcinea, whom we hear a lot about but never actually see. He also jousts with windmills, mistakes inns for castles, frees a group of convicts, beats the stuffing out of a priest, and just generally makes the most endearing fool out of himself imaginable. At least for a while.
See, you’re invited to develop a complex relationship with Quixote, which I think is part of the reason why he’s endured in the public imagination. You laugh at him at first, because let’s face it, he’s a ridiculous guy, and for the first hundred pages, I was comfortable with thinking of him as just a ridiculous guy. The fullness of Quixote’s character doesn’t kick in until you’ve read a little, until you see how other characters react to him and treat others, and then you realize that he’s got a heart of gold and is out for what’s best for everyone. At that point, the whole novel becomes a remarkably poignant allegory for just how hard it is to find a good person, and how anyone who charges out there in the name of good will be treated like a madman; “Quixotic” is almost never used as a compliment, but maybe it should be.
Which is all remarkably sophisticated for a novel published between 1605 and 1615, when narrative was just beginning to divorce itself from Homer, whose whole idea of character motivation was “because the gods said so and you can’t fight the gods” (this, incidentally, is why I’ll never be a classical scholar). It gets even more crazy modern when you consider how meta it all is: part one was meant to be cobbled together from a variety of sources, and in part two, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have become famous for their exploits reported in book one; complicating the hall-of-mirrors effect further, book one of Don Quixote exists within Don Quixote’s universe, and both Quixote and Panza are aware of it. Cervantes even takes a moment to subtly insult a writer known as Alonso Fern├índez de Avellaneda, who wrote a sequel to Don Quixote in the interim between the first and second book’s release. That’s right, fanfiction has been around since Shakespeare’s time. Again, book one came out in 1605. Book two? 1615.
Now, it’s easy to see how Cervantes was working without a net here, which means the occasional flaws are easy to excuse, but they’re there, and they’re glaring enough for me to detract half a point. They come in the form of the tangents. As anyone who follows this project long enough will learn, I love tangential novels like Gravity’s Rainbow to death, but here’s the thing: Pynchon’s tangents are a lot more interesting than Cervantes’. He’ll pick and throw a side character into the mix seemingly for the sake of having a side character in the mix and launch into this elaborate three-chapter discussion of who they are and how they got where they are, but will somehow do so without the charm and wit and intelligence that defines Quixote’s exploits. Granted, anyone curious about the mores of seventeenth century Spain will find a lot to mine in them, but if you can make it through “The Tale of Inappropriate Curiosity” and not start to lose feeling in your brain, you’re a stronger reader than me.
Still, it’s a terrific read, and not just for the history: Quixote and Panza’s arcs are the stuff literary legends are made of. It’s still looked at as one of the greatest books ever written four hundred years later, and let me tell you, that did not happen by accident. By all means, read this.