What is truly modern shall remain modern no matter how many centuries pass. So it happens with key works of literature. While Homer’s The Odyssey contains the DNA of Western tales, Cervante’s Don Quixote is still one of the most modern books ever written.
Let’s highlight a few elements of Cervante’s narrative genius: the use of metafiction, the parody of contemporary narrative genres, the first examples of heteroglossia, and even what can be considered an unreliable narrator. All mixed up in an early 17th-century novel!
We cannot gloss over its cultural influence, which goes far beyond Spanish literature to become well-recognized across the world. The word “quixotic” is used to describe something idealistic, impulsive and unpredictable. And the expression “fighting windmills” has become an idiom about fighting imaginary enemies. How many people have been compared with Don Quixote when trying to defend their honorable values against all odds?
If you are wondering why you should read this book, here are a few reasons.
What is Don Quixote about?
The Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha – referring to the region in Spain where the action takes place – depicts the story of an impoverished nobleman called Alonso Quixano who has gone crazy after reading tons of chivalry romances. He believes himself a knight errant by the name of Don Quixote of La Mancha. In order to pursue his fate, he enrolls in an adventure for which he provides himself with a horse called Rocinante, and a loyal and humble squire called Sancho Panza.
Together they live several enterprises guided by the imagination of Don Quixote (spelled “Quijote” in Spanish), such as fighting windmills that he mistakes for giants. And because damsels in distress are also a key plot point in chivalry tales, he even has a platonic love embodied in Dulcinea del Toboso, the nickname Don Quixote gives to a peasant girl called Aldonza Lorenzo, who in reality differs from the idealistic image Don Quixote attributes to her. Although many of the wisecracks of Cervantes’ tragic hero seem at least messy, they all come from the kind and utopic background that moves Don Quixote.
Nevertheless, Don Quixote offers much more than this quick summary can provide. He highlights his love for books and reading. It also confronts realism and idealism with no moral intention, as opposed to Cervantes’s contemporary works, which tend to teach a lesson, and offer a unique vision of what is told. While Don Quixote is stuck in fantasy, Sancho Panza represents common sense, and both perspectives are shown without judging them.
How many parts does Don Quixote have?
Don Quixote was published in two parts. The first volume appeared on January 16th, 1605, and the second one was released ten years later. It became a great success almost immediately, and the first translations were quickly published in the popular languages of the time. Even so, Cervantes didn’t receive many earnings due to pirated copies and other royalties limitations derived from impression rights. He had to keep relying on patronage, and that’s why the books are dedicated to powerful noblemen.
Just a year before the appearance of the second volume, a polemic yet popular spurious work was published. What is now known as the false Quixote was titled A Continuation of the Comical History of the Most Ingenious Knight Don Quixote de la Mancha. It was written by someone called Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, probably a nickname of an admirer of Lope de Vega, another great Spanish writer of the time.
Although Lope de Vega y Cervantes used to be acquaintances, they weren’t on good terms by that point. That’s why this De Avellaneda person – whose identity remains unknown – seized the opportunity of gratuitously insulting Cervantes on his work as a way to defend his idol. Cervantes vents his anger in the writing of the second part of Don Quixote itself, and he does it in a very polite way. Be that as it may, the fake Quixote forced Cervantes to take certain narrative decisions to avoid any new sequels.
It is in the second volume of Don Quixote that the author displays his best narrative skills. Many critics agree on judging it as more profound and richer than the first one. Not only does he allude to the previous stories, but he also reacts to the apocryphal work – which was well-known by Don Quixote fans, by the way – as he plays with different layers of fiction and reality. In fact, both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are perfectly aware of the editorial success of the first volume, and throughout this part, many characters even admit to having read the original book.
Afraid of someone stealing his creation again, Cervantes kills its hero at the end of the second part. Don Quixote returns home, recovers his mind, but then falls ill acknowledging there was something he couldn’t defeat: his own limitations. While he is resting in bed, a memorable scene takes place. The priest and Quixote’s barber burn part of Don Quixote’s library as a (kind of) vengeance for Quixote’s madness. Not all the books are burned – Cervantes’ La Galatea is saved, for instance – but the selection of titles is a combination of literary criticism of chivalric books and a parody of the Inquisition practices of burning texts.
Why Is Cervantes’s Book So Important in Western Literary Tradition and Why Should You Read It?
Cervantes plays with different layers of reality and fiction in extraordinary detail. In the first part, it is stated that Arab Muslim historian Cide Hamete Benengel is the true author of the story of Don Quixote. Cervantes tries to play the readers, making them believe that the main character was a real person and what is told happened decades ago and was recorded by this historian. Nonetheless, as the reading moves forward, it becomes clear that the Cide Hamete ploy is just a joke and that the narrative is impossible to be real. Cervantes entrusts the reader with the responsibility of deciding what to believe.
Besides this example, there are a bunch of reasons to add Don Quixote to your reading list, if you aren’t convinced of it yet!
- It’s been labeled as the first modern novel, and 400 years after its publication it still remains one of the greatest books ever written.
- It’s the most printed work after the Bible.
- Translated into more than 140 languages, it’s considered the pinnacle of modern literature.
- It’s one of the first examples of heteroglossia –the inclusion of multiple voices (narrator, characters, and so on), which is a key element for later novels.
- Metafiction: Cervantes includes different references to reality as part of the fictional plot. Besides the ones cited above, he also mentions the time he spent in an Algerian prison in 1580. His escape attempts are depicted in an episode where the character mentions “a Spanish soldier named something de Saavedra” (Cervantes’ second last name).
- A curious fact: Cervantes was well-traveled. He served the Spanish Crown in several adventures abroad, with mixed results. Consider the battle of Lepanto where he lost the use of his left hand, becoming known as “El manco de Lepanto,” or “the one-handed of Lepanto”.
- It’s clearly a parody of chivalry romances, but he also parodies other genres such as pastoral romances, picaresque novels (quite popular in Spain back then), and Italian novellas.
- There is a heavy dose of Cervante’s sense of humor as proof of his prodigious mind.
- Readers can perceive the evolution of the characters, while in most 16th-century novels, characters were stereotyped and immutable.
- Gender studies have praised Cervantes’ approach to portraying the women of 17th-century Spain.
- The relationship between the errant knight and his squire is one of the key parts of the work. Not only do they unveil their personalities during their adventures, but they also influence one another and forge a special friendship based on mutual respect, even though they are quite different, even physically. Don Quixote is tall and thin, and Sancho is short and fat (“panza” means “pot belly” in Spanish). The pair has become an archetype, and it’s easy to find its influences in later literary works (for example, Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings).
First Editions and different English translations of Don Quixote
It’s said Cervantes started to write his masterpiece while he was imprisoned in Sevilla for several months in 1597. It wasn’t until January 16th, 1605, that the first volume was published in Madrid. The success was so great that the printer, Juan de la Cuesta, had to publish a second edition only three months later. Due to this rush, the first copies of Don Quixote have a lot of typos attributed to the author although they were the responsibility of the press compositors. Juan de la Cuesta printed the third edition in 1608.
By August 1605 there were two Madrid editions, two published in Lisboa, and one in Valencia. Later, it appeared in Brussels (1607 and 1611), and Milan (1610). The first impression of both parts together was done in Barcelona in 1617.
The first English translation of Don Quixote was made by Thomas Shelton in 1612 (first part), and 1620 (second part). It was published with the title The Story of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant Don Quixote of the Mancha.
It is unknown when Cervantes started to write the second part, but it was printed at the same press as the first one by the end of 1615. Due to its popularity, it was quickly reprinted in Brussels and Valencia (1616), and Lisbon (1617).
If you are wondering which edition of Don Quixote is the best, well, there are many options and opinions. First of all, you can choose between the original work and the adapted versions (short versions, graphic novels, and illustrated works). There have been some attempts of telling the story with contemporary language and narrative style, with mixed results.
In Spanish, there are superb editions, like the illustrated one made by Real Academia Española in 1780. There are also editions illustrated by artists such as Gustave Doré and Salvador Dalí. On the other hand, recent English translations made by John Rutherford (2000) and Edith Grossman (2003) have been widely acclaimed, especially Grossman’s.
Besides Thomas Shelton’s translation, which was revised by John Stevens in 1700, other English translators of Don Quixote have been: John Phillips (1687), Peter Motteus (1700), Peter Motteus revised by John Ozell (1719), Charles Jarvis (1742), Tobias Smollett (1755), Charles Henry Wilmot (1774), Alexander J. Duffield (1881), John Ormsby (1885), Henry Edward Watts (1888), Robinson Smith (1900), Samuel Putnam (1949), J. M. Cohen (1950), Walter Starkie (1954), Burton Raffel (1995), John Rutherford (2000), James H. Montgomery (2006).
How much is the first edition of Don Quixote worth?
Well, as one of the rarest and scarce books of all time, the answer is quite a lot of money. According to Raptis Rare Books, “The first edition last changed hands in 1989 for $1.5 million and is not very easy to hunt down these days.”
Don Quixote’s influence in later literary works
The list of writers influenced by Cervantes’ masterpiece is endless: Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, Benito Pérez Galdós, Goethe, Stendhal, Flaubert, Borges, Faulkner, Nabokov…some of their works have been directed and explicitly modeled on Cervantes’ creation. Milan Kundera’s 1960 work, The Art of the Novel, has extensive references to Don Quixote, which the author labeled as the best novel, and admits his own works are a homage to Cervantes.
Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin (The Idiot) were heavily influenced by the Don Quixote character. So was Daniel Quinn, the protagonist of Paul Auster’s City of Glass, included in The New York Trilogy. Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote believes himself as a descendant of the knight errand, and in Quichotte Salman Rushdie creates a modern Don Quixote. Rushdie is a confessed and devoted fan of Cervantes’ work, which also inspires his The Moor’s Last Sigh. Apart from that, the loyal squire is the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s short story The Truth About Sancho Panza.
Whether it’s a fine illustrated edition copy or a cheap reading copy of Don Quixote, it is worth your time to read this literary classic!