Cervantes' "Don Quixote"

by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria


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The novel Don Quixote, written in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, is widely considered to be one of the greatest fictional works in the entire canon of Western literature. At once farcical and deeply philosophical, Cervantes’ novel and its characters have become integrated into the cultures of the Western Hemisphere, influencing language and modern thought while inspiring art and artists such as Richard Strauss and Pablo Picasso. Based on Professor Roberto González Echevarría’s popular open course at Yale University, this essential guide to the enduring Spanish classic facilitates a close reading of Don Quixote in the artistic and historical context of renaissance and baroque Spain while exploring why Cervantes’ masterwork is still widely read and relevant today. González Echevarría addresses the novel’s major themes and demonstrates how the story of an aging, deluded would-be knight-errant embodies that most modern of predicaments: the individual’s dissatisfaction with the world in which he lives, and his struggle to make that world mesh with his desires.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300198645
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 04/28/2015
Series: The Open Yale Courses Series
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Roberto González Echevarría is Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature at Yale University. In 2011 he received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. He lives in Northford, CT.

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Cervantes' Don Quixote

By Roberto González Echevarría


Copyright © 2015 Yale University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-19864-5



Why Read the Quixote?

In this course we are going to read one of the unquestioned masterpieces of world literature, a work translated into dozens of languages. Cervantes' book has given pleasure to generations of readers and is in the curriculum of many schools and universities. In addition, I anticipate that the Quixote will affect your lives, not just your understanding and enjoyment of fiction. Cervantes' book is the first modern novel, one which already contains, according to Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize–winning Colombian novelist, everything that novelists would attempt to do in the future. Cervantes' fans have been many and very illustrious. The young Sigmund Freud formed a Cervantes club with his friends, and the Quixote was Jorge Luis Borges's obsession. Borges, as you may know, was the great Argentine writer, the author of Ficciones (1944). Ian Watt, the late British scholar, considered Don Quixote "one of four myths of modern individualism," the others being Faust, Don Juan, and Robinson Crusoe in works by, respectively, Goethe, Tirso de Molina, and Daniel Defoe. But this is not the most important thing about the book.

The Quixote has been and continues to be read by millions of readers all around the world, and we will be asking ourselves why that is so. What is it that this book has that is so appealing to so many? I myself have answered the question in this fashion in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition we will be using:

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's masterpiece has endured because it focuses on literature's foremost appeal: to become another, to leave a typically embattled self for another closer to one's desires and aspirations. This is why Don Quixote has often been read as a children's book and continues to be read by or to children. Experience and life's blows teach us our limits and erode the hope of living up to our dreams, but our hope never vanishes. It is the soul's pith, the flickering light of being, the spiritual counterpart to our DNA's master code. When the hero regains his sanity at the end of Part II, he dies. As the last chances of living an imaginary life disappear, so must life itself. Don Quixote's serene passing reflects this understanding; he knows that the dream of life is over, and as a Neoplatonist and Christian, his only hope now is to find the true life after death.

For you, reading the Quixote will be an event you will always remember, and Don Quixote and Sancho, his squire, will become lifelong friends about whom you will think often. I can predict that safely—I think. In addition, the depth and enduring fame and currency of Cervantes' masterpiece are partly due to the rare combination of contrasting features that make up its protagonist. Rabelais's and Moliere's grand comic characters are ultimately serious or funny. Shakespeare's tragic heroes Macbeth, Lear, and above all Hamlet are more complicated, and they awe us still with their dramatic dilemmas and the drastic solutions they take. But there is rarely anything comic, much less ridiculous, about them. Shakespeare saves his humor for his comical characters, like Falstaff. Cervantes, on the other hand, endows Don Quixote with both seriousness of the highest order and comicalness of the lowest. Sancho possesses both qualities, too, though in different doses. Cervantes offered modern readers a potential image of themselves that included the ridiculous as well as the sublime, a poignant, modern sense of self that did not appear again until Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. We are all Don Quixote when we look into the mirror.

So, what is, after all, the Quixote? A novel, you will say. Well, first of all, the Quixote, if it is a novel at all, is two novels: one published in 1605, and the other in 1615. Together, they are known as the Quixote—much more about the title in a minute—and knowledgeable people refer to them as Part I and Part II, or the 1605 Quixote and the 1615 Quixote. So the first thing to learn—I like first things because I like to build on them from the ground up—is that the Quixote consists of two parts originally published separately ten years apart. But what Cervantes wrote, though considered the first modern novel, was not a novel as we know them today because novels did not exist as such yet. Novels developed in the wake of the Quixote, so Cervantes could not have set out to write a novel.

In Cervantes' time there were chivalric romances, stories about knights-errant—a lot more about that in the very near future-pastoral romances, stories about fake shepherds, picaresque lives—what we call today confusedly picaresque novels—and brief nouvelle or novelle, that is, long short stories, of which Cervantes wrote quite a few and very good ones. We will read some in this course. The modern novel would evolve from translations and imitations of the Quixote, particularly in France and England, and would attain its current form in the eighteenth century. I am very much a historian, and I would like for you to have a clear historical, chronological idea of the development of the novel and of Cervantes' own career, so take note of these chronological clarifications that I give you.

Now, what might you know about the Quixote? Many of you, I suppose, come to this course intrigued by the name of an author and the title of a book that you may have heard about but that, like most classics, you have not actually read in its entirety, much less studied. As is true of most classics, you have probably heard so much about the Quixote that it feels as if you had already read it. Many have heard the songs from Man of La Mancha. "The Impossible Dream" and so forth; perhaps you have even seen the show. It is quite a good show, by the way. I do not look down on it. It is a version of the Quixote in an American mode, very much an American mode, but a good one. So, many of you have seen Man of La Mancha, have heard the songs, and maybe you have even read a comic book based on the novel. Others may have read parts of it in high school; some of you may have read it in a course like Directed Studies, in conjunction with other Western classics, such as the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and the Divine Comedy. Whatever the case may be, most of you are probably puzzled by the spelling and pronunciation of the protagonist's name and the title of the book. Let me clarify those as a modest beginning, the first step having been to tell you that the Quixote is two novels. Now, the second step is to tell you about the name of the protagonist and how to pronounce it and how we pronounce it in Spanish and how it is spelled and why.

The way to pronounce it in modern Spanish is Quihote, kee-ho-te. No gliding to the o. No kee-hoe-tay. In Spanish we do not glide the vowels; they are short and crisp. Why, then, that vexing x in English? The reason is that when the book was written in the last years of the sixteenth century and the first of the seventeenth, the sound of the j in Spanish was still in the process of moving from the sh sound that it had thanks to the influence of Arabic-more about that later—toward the aspirated h of modern Spanish. That sh sound was then written with an x in the still-to-be-codified spelling of the language. The spelling of modern European languages was not codified until the eighteenth century. For instance, the modern word for soap, in Spanish-many of you who know some Spanish know it—jabón, was written then with an x and it was pronounced shabón. México was pronounced Méshico and was spelled with an x, and that x is still retained, though in Spanish it is pronounced Mé-hi-co, never Mé-shi-co. The book was translated into English very early. It was published in 1605, and the first translation appeared in 1612; seven years is very fast in the seventeenth century. So the English, seeing that x, in the middle of the title, mispronounced it quic-sote, giving it a sound it never had in Spanish. That is why you have the x in English and the mispronunciation Quixote. The French, meanwhile, hearing that sh, rendered it qui-sho-t, which is still the way they mispronounce it. The French call it Don Quishot. I will always say "Quijote" and hope you will learn to do the same from now on, at the risk of sounding a little snobbish to English speakers.

Let me give you a few more basic facts about the title of the book. The title of a book or a painting is like the first interpretation by its author. It is what we would call today in literary criticism a metatext, a text above the text. Sometimes titles can be misleading, but they are always interesting and should be examined carefully, making sure that you gain access to the full title of the first edition, not one that has been tampered with by editors or the reading public later. For instance, Pickwick Papers, the novel by Dickens, was really called The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, and it is interesting why it is called that. Now, be careful also with the translations of titles because sometimes they are very misleading. A novel by Alejo Carpentier called El Siglo de las Luces was translated as Explosion in the Cathedral because the editors thought that a true translation, The Age of Enlightenment, would sound like the title of a textbook. You have to be careful; if you are going to really read the title carefully you should go to the original title.

The full title of the first part of Don Quixote—remember, published in 1605; I want to engrave that date on your mind—is as follows: El ingenioso hidalgo don Qvixote de la Mancha. You know that the u was rendered then as a v. So, El ingenioso hidalgo don Qvixote de la Mancha. Here is a reproduction of the actual title page of the first Quixote (fig. 1). We are fortunate to have a copy of that first edition at the Beinecke Library here at Yale.

Let us go over those words one by one. I can assure you we are not going to go over every word in the book one by one as I am going to do with the title, or it would take the rest of our lives to finish reading the Quixote together! Ingenioso here does not mean exactly what it means in Spanish today. Today ingenioso means something like 'sharp,' 'witty,' 'cute,' or 'inventive.' In 1611 Covarrubias writes—now, Covarrubias is a name you are going to be hearing throughout the semester. His name was Sebastián de Covarrubias y Horozco. He was a lexicographer who in 1611 published the first dictionary of the Spanish language, called Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española, or "Thesaurus of the Castilian or Spanish Language." It is very convenient that Covarrubias published that dictionary in 1611, right between the two parts of the Quixote, 1605 and 1615; Covarrubias gives us Cervantes' Spanish. This is why it is such an important book for the reading of Cervantes' Don Quixote. The title itself is interesting because it shows that Castilian and Spanish are one and the same thing. I will talk about that a little more later. Covarrubias writes the following about ingenio: "We commonly call ingenio a natural force of the mind that inquires that which through reason and intelligence can be found through all sorts of sciences, disciplines, liberal and mechanical arts, subtle inventions and deceit. Hence, we call engineer [ingeniero] he who builds machines to fight off the enemy and to attack him. Ingenioso is he who has a subtle and sharp wit." So, ingenioso in the title of the Quixote means a heightened kind of wit or understanding, one that verges on madness, recalling what Plato said in the Republic about poets being slightly mad. In 1575, a few years before the publication of the Quixote (and within Cervantes' lifetime), Juan Huarte de San Juan, a medical doctor, published an important book called Examen de ingenios para las ciencias. "Wits Examined" would be the translation of that title, in which he studies different kinds of madness. Examen de ingenios meant an examination of various kinds of madness of the kind that Covarrubias mentioned. This gives you the context of the word ingenioso in the title El ingenioso hidalgo don Qvixote de la Mancha.

Now, hidalgo is a contraction of hijo de algo, which in Spanish means 'son of something' We are all sons or daughters of something. But what that meant was if you are an hidalgo you are the son of someone of some distinction, of a worthy lineage, and Covarrubias, again, says it means "the same as noble, with an ancient pure lineage."

In other words, pure of cast, of origin, of ilk, of tradition. An hidalgo, as you will discover in reading the first chapter of the book, is a petty nobleman, someone belonging to the lower nobility or aristocracy. Here, Cervantes does not call Don Quixote a caballero, a knight. The novel is, at its most basic level, the story of a petty nobleman who becomes, by dint of his own self-invention, a knight worthy of using the Don that is given in the title. In 1615, however, in the second part of the Quixote—we will look at that title page when we come to it—Don Quixote is called a caballero for a variety of reasons I will explain at the proper time.

Now, don is a form of address, like 'sir' or 'sire,' that not everyone had a right to expect. Don Quixote, that is, Alonso Quixano, the man who became Don Quixote, did not, by virtue of his modest station in life, but he takes on the don as part of his self-invention. Hidalgos, in other words, did not have the right to the don; Don derives from the Latin dominus, 'sir,' 'lord,' 'master' Your readings in Elliott, Imperial Spain, one of the books for the course, will give you much further background on this.

Quijote, as you will learn in reading the first chapters of the book, is said to be a derivation of quijada, 'jaw,' or quesada, something having to do with cheese, or quejana, something having to do with complaint. It is said that Quijano or quijana could be the last name of Alonso Quixano, the hidalgo who turns himself into Don Quixote. These names echo those words mentioned before, quijada, quesada, and so forth. They are not highsounding or ennobling words. Quite the contrary.

The -ote ending is a suffix that in Spanish always refers to something base or grotesque and sounds it: gordote, from gordo, is a fatso; grandote, from grande, is a hulking big guy, a lummox; feote, from feo, is an ugly cuss; so Quijote, then, was meant to sound abasing and ridiculous, particularly when paired with don, with which it forms a kind of oxymoronic pair, Don Quijote. Don is high sounding, and Quixote has all of these negative connotations. It also has echoes of Lanzarote, one of the knights-errant Don Quixote reads about, and it has also been discovered that quijote is the name of a part of the armor covering the leg. But the important background is what I gave before.

La Mancha is a region in central Spain, in Castile, that encompasses parts of the provinces of Toledo, Ciudad Real, Cuenca, and Albacete. Geography is very important in the Quixote, particularly in Part II. This is a novel that is deeply rooted in a given landscape. La Mancha is flat, arid, and monotonous. Its main products used to be cereals and wine, but the important thing here is that it is not—at least it was not until Cervantes' work—a particularly desirable place to be from. Mancha also means 'stain' in Spanish. It sounds like a put down. Being from La Mancha was like being from Bridgeport or Buffalo or Brooklyn or Podunk. This has all changed in light of the book, and now the name and the region have a poetic air, and there are theme parks in La Mancha with windmills and all. But that was not what Cervantes intended when he had Don Quixote be from La Mancha. His hidalgo was to be in contrast to knights who came from more distinguished places, Amadis de Gaula, from Gaul, or Palmerin de Inglaterra, from England, and then, Don Quixote de la Mancha. You see, this is what is supposed to be meant by the title. You would not have suspected this if I had not told you because you are still under the influence of Man of La Mancha.

The issue of Don Quixote's spurious don is significant in a broader historical sense. By the sixteenth century the glory days of the nobility were long gone. Noblemen were no longer much engaged in the military, except at the highest ranks, which never saw actual combat. Wars were fought by professional armies. There was little chance for the nobility to exercise martial-like activities, which were now played out in jousts and in hunting. War became sports for the aristocracy. The nobility was, on the whole, in a downturn in Spain because of policies initiated by the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella, to curtail the power of the aristocracy. Certain groups at the highest level that clustered around the courts of the descendants of the Catholic Kings had a lot of power, but on the whole the nobility was on the decline, more noticeably so in La Mancha, which had a sparse population of hidalgos as opposed to northern regions of the peninsula. So, for Don Quixote to practice caballería, knight-errantry, was a way of reviving the past, of reliving a past of splendor and glory, now only really available through reading the chivalric romances, which portrayed a medieval world in which the aristocracy was truly involved in warfare, or through sports like hunting—of which Don Quixote was fond, as you will learn in the early chapters of the book. We will have much more on chivalric romances, as I promised, in the future.


Excerpted from Cervantes' Don Quixote by Roberto González Echevarría. Copyright © 2015 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface, ix,
Acknowledgments, xi,
A Note on the Texts, xiii,
1. Introduction: Why Read the Quixote?, 1,
2. Chivalric Romances and Picaresque Novels: Antecedents of the Quixote, 15,
3. Don Quixote and Sancho on the Road: Books and Windmills, 30,
4. Literature and Life: The Quixote and Las Meninas, 49,
5. Ugliness and Improvisation: Juan Palomeque's Inn, 62,
6. Modern Authors: Cervantes and Ginés de Pasamonte, 79,
7. Love and the Law: Interrupted Stories, 96,
8. Memory and Narrative: Stories within Stories, 110,
9. Love Stories Resolved: Fictions and Metafictions, 125,
10. Fugitives from Justice Caught: Restitutions as Closure at the Inn, 140,
11. The Senses of Endings: Finishing the Quixote, Part I, 153,
12. On to Part II: The Real and the Bogus Quixote, 167,
13. Renaissance (1605) and Baroque (1615) Quixotes, 182,
14. Deceiving and Undeceiving: Baroque Desengaño, 197,
15. Don Quixote's Doubles, 210,
16. Present Varieties of Classical Myths: Ovid, Cervantes, and Velázquez, 226,
17. Caves and Puppet Shows: Internal and External Representations, 240,
18. Don Quixote and Sancho in the Hands of Frivolous Aristocrats, 255,
19. Bearded Ladies and Flying Horses: The Duke's House of Tricks, 268,
20. King for a Day: Sancho's Barataria, 283,
21. Borders and Ends: Moriscos and Bandits, 296,
22. Dancing and Defeat in Barcelona: Don Quixote Heads Home, 309,
23. The Meaning of the End: Don Quixote's Death, 322,
24. Cervantes' Death and Legacy, 337,
Notes, 353,
Index, 359,

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