The Adventures of Don Quixote
The Adventures of Don Quixote
by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel in two parts set in early seventeenth century Spain; the first part published in 1605, the second in 1615.
A middle-aged gentleman imagines that he is a knight and sets out on a series of adventures with his “squire.” an illiterate peasant.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra lived through two distinct periods in Spanish history. The first was a “golden age” of military success, national pride, and intellectual freedom; the second, a time of economic and military weakness and religious and intellectual repression. Don Quixote (pronounced “kee-hotay”) was written at the end of his life and in the midst of the second of these periods. Spain at that time was in a state of desengaño (a word meaning both “disillusion” and “disappointment”); the Spanish people realized by 1605 that the powerful empire of the previous century had been built on a shaky foundation—and that the foundation was crumbling.
Decline of the Spanish empire
In 1547, the year Cervantes was born, Spain was ruled by King Charles I, who was also the leader of the Holy Roman Empire and a member of the Haps-burg royal family. Charles ruled for many years over Spain, Austria, the Netherlands, and parts of Italy and Germany. He also controlled the territories that Spain had conquered in the New World since Columbus’s first voyage in 1492, which had proved to be a valuable source of silver and gold. The wealth and power that Charles and his predecessors accumulated contributed to the discord between the Hapsburgs and the other powerful rulers of Europe. Attempting to protect and expand his empire, Charles engaged in a number of wars that heavily drained the finances of Spain and caused great losses of life.
Charles was a religious king, and his military policy was based partly on the desire to spread Catholicism throughout Europe and to eliminate all other religions. His son, Philip II, felt even more strongly about the importance of a Catholic world. When he took the throne in 1556, he declared that he would prefer not to rule at all than to govern over heretics. This attitude caused him to fight impractical wars and lose valuable property, leading Spain into three successive bankruptcies before his reign ended in 1598. His successor, Philip III, lacked not only his father’s religious zeal but also his leadership ability and moral integrity. His crowning added moral decay to Spain’s growing list of problems.
Although Spain’s decline after its golden age was gradual, it was perhaps best symbolized by the destruction in 1588 of the so-called “invincible” Spanish Armada by English ships. The Spanish fleet—130 huge ships sent to the English Channel to wage war on Protestant England—was destroyed, an event that left Spain humiliated. This military disaster forced Spaniards to accept what many had been reluctant to acknowledge: the glorious days of their empire had come to an end.
SPAIN’S DECLINE THROUGH DON QUIXOTE’S EYES
Don Quixote bemoans the decline of Spain in the second part of Cervantes’s novel, but instead of blaming it on unwise rulers, he attributes it to the death of chivalry, the principles of knighthood: “Our depraved times do not deserve to enjoy so great a blessing as did those in which knights errant undertook and carried on their shoulders the defence of kingdoms.... Now slofh triumphs over industry, idleness over labour, vice over virtue, presumption over valour, and theory over the practice of arms, which only lived and flourished in the golden age and among knights errant.”
(Cervantes, Adventures of Don Quixote, p. 447)
Erasmus and Renaissance humanism
Under the reign of King Charles I, Spain had been an active participant in the European intellectual community. This community, led by Italy, was in the midst of the Renaissance, a period of rebirth in which artists and thinkers discovered anew the contributions that ancient Greek and Roman civilizations had made to the world. Building on what their ancient counterparts had done, Renaissance Europeans reconsidered their schools, churches, art, and politics and began experimenting with new models. Their exploration was guided by the basic idea that traditions can and should be questioned and reformed.
Among one Renaissance group, called the “humanists,” this questioning led to the revolutionary conclusion that Christian faith alone should not guide humanity. These philosophers, artists, and teachers believed that practical human concerns should be studied with the same intensity applied to the study of the abstract world of God in the Middle Ages.
One such humanist, a Dutch philosopher named Desiderius Erasmus, had a great impact on intellectual and religious life in Spain. Famous for his witty satires, Erasmus thought that Catholics and the Catholic Church had strayed too far from the teachings of Jesus and that they had much to learn from Plato and other non-Christian thinkers.
He criticized the gullibility of Christians who believed in miracles, the stupidity of many theologians, and the meaningless traditions of monks. In his Handbook for the Christian Soldier (which also translates as “Christian knight”), he discussed the injustice of poverty and questioned the right of the wealthy to hold property.
In the early 1500s Erasmus played a central role in Catholic Spain; his ideas were the main influence behind King Charles’s early policies on religion. Soon, however, the tolerant attitude of Spain’s religious and political powers would end, and the humanistic ideas of the Renaissance would be stifled.
The Inquisition and loss of intellectual freedom
In the novel, the main character, Don Quixote, returns home wounded after his first adventure. Worried friends of his village, convinced that his insistence on behaving like a knight is due to his having read too many books of chivalry, hold a “great and pleasant Inquisition” during which they toss most of these books into a bonfire (Adventures of Don Quixote, p. 56). Although Quixote’s friends have kind motives, their actions reflect an alarming trend in sixteenth-century Spain—a movement toward strict religiosity and the elimination of liberal thought and culture.
The Inquisition, a court created by the pope of the Catholic Church in 1238 to investigate and punish heresy, was made an official branch of the Spanish government in 1478; in 1481 the first heretics convicted by the court were burned to death at the stake. The court proceeded to victimize former Jews who had converted to Catholicism in order to avoid being expelled from Spain in 1492. By the late sixteenth century, no one was safe from being accused—even the famous monk St. John of the Cross was found guilty of unchristian acts.
Intellectuals were persecuted as the free thought of the Renaissance was replaced by the terror of the Inquisition. By the end of the 1500s, Catholic Spain had closed its doors to most of Renaissance Europe and any ideas that sprang from it.
Chivalry, work, and the Spanish hidalgo
Don Quixote is the story of a hidalgo, or nobleman. Hidalgos were people who inherited a title of nobility and supposedly had pure Christian blood. In many cases—including those of both the author Cervantes (who was almost certainly of Jewish ancestry) and his character Don Quixote—they had little more than their titles. Despite the fact that hidalgos were not required to pay taxes, they were not guaranteed wealth. Furthermore, the code of the hidalgo meant that labor of any
kind was frowned upon; a true hidalgo should not work for a living. As a result, many of these so-called nobles had plenty of free time but lived their proud lives in poverty.
The hidalgo’s notions about work, which contributed greatly to Spain’s economic problems, had their origins in Spain’s Holy Wars against Muslims during the Middle Ages. The perfect hidalgo of that time was a knight who followed the code of chivalry. A courageous man of honor, he lived for war and died for Christian principles. The amount of his riches was a sign of his success as a warrior; his income came not from manual labor but from the storehouses of the lands that he had conquered. Without the profitable wars of Spain’s past, hidalgos were at a loss for what to do. Many were landholders and made some money from their tenants, but a large number simply struggled from day to day, proud to have descended from the chivalric knights of Spain’s past but unable to live comfortably in their high-born position.
Alonso Quixano, a country gentleman living in the dry, desolate region of La Mancha in central Spain, is nearing fifty years of age when his story begins. As a hidalgo, he has plenty of free time, which he has devoted almost entirely to reading tales of legendary knights and their exploits. He buries himself in these books day and night until he begins to think of himself as a knight and develops a hunger for adventure. Renaming himself Don Quixote, he gathers a rusty suit of armor, claims a neighboring peasant girl as his “lady,” mounts his feeble horse, and sets off. His first round of adventures is brief. He stops at an inn that he takes for a castle and asks a startled but willing innkeeper to knight him. This new knighthood does him little good, however, for his first confrontation with evildoers earns him a harsh beating, after which he is rescued by a fellow villager and returned home.
When Don Quixote sets out again, it is with his newfound “squire,” Sancho Panza, a fat peasant who expresses his insights in proverbs that convey the wisdom of the common folk in contrast to his master’s book learning. With Sancho by his side, the knight Don Quixote fights giants disguised as windmills, frees a chain gang of prisoners (who then rob the knight and his squire), and engages in countless other adventures in the name of chivalry. Don Quixote’s purpose in all this is plain: to restore justice and virtue to the world by battling the forces of evil, and thereby gain fame and fortune. Sancho’s motives are slightly less admirable. He seeks to better his condition somehow through his association with this seemingly crazy noblemaiji. Don Quixote finishes this second round of exploits by once again being beaten to near death. He returns home with Sancho to recuperate and plan new adventures, at which point the first book ends.
POLICIES OF THE SPANISH INQUISITION IN THE LATE 1500S
- Punishment for importing forbidden foreign books into Spain is death.
- Study abroad is forbidden, except in Italy and Portugal (both Catholic countries).
- Unnaturally talented acrobats and circus animals are investigated for possible ties to the devil.
The second book of Don Quixote, though written ten years after the first, picks up the action of the story only a few weeks after the point where Book One ended. Still at home, the knight is confronted by a neighbor who has recently returned from college, where he read The Adventures of Don Quixote.
The neighbor explains to a pleased Don Quixote that his adventures are famous all over Europe, and discusses with him the details of some of them. Inspired by this news, Don Quixote and Sancho soon set out again to right more wrongs. This time, after a few small adventures, the knight and his squire are taken in by a country duke and duchess. The couple, who have read the first book, are happy not only to play along with Don Quixote’s fantasy but to add to it for their own entertainment. Actually many of the “adventures” they devise for Don Quixote are quite cruel. The portrayal of the duke and duchess is an obvious criticsm of the idleness and injustice of much of Spain’s upper class in Cervantes’s time.
DON QUIXOTE RENOUNCES HIS IMPOSTOR
The first part of Don Quixote was enormously popular, and one Spanish writer, known only by the pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, decided to capitalize on its success. Before Cervantes published his promised continuation, Avellaneda put out a version of his own. Needless to say, this new version angered Cervantes. Since he had no legal recourse, Cervantes sought his revenge against Avellaneda by arranging a meeting between Don Quixote and one of Avelianeda’s characters, Don Alvaro Tarfe, in his own Book Two, At the meeting Don Quixote asks the character to make a formal declaration that “he did not know Don Quixote de la Mancha, and that it was not he who was written of in a history entitled The Second Part of the Exploits of Don Quixote de la Mancha, composed by a certain Avellaneda” (Adventures of Don Quixote, p. 929). Don Alvaro complies, convinced that he has met two very different Don Quixotes, and Quixote and Sancho, greatly relieved, go on their way.
Eventually Quixote and Sancho leave the duke and duchess and embark on more adventures. These culminate in a visit to Barcelona, where the knight meets his downfall. Challenged to a joust by the Knight of the White Moon—who is actually his neighbor the college student in disguise—Don Quixote is defeated. Under the terms of the knights’ agreement, Quixote must relinquish his knighthood and return home for a year. This sacrifice proves too great for Don Quixote. He soon falls ill, and on his deathbed he renounces his knighthood, saying “I was mad, but I am sane now. I was Don Quixote de la Mancha, but to-day . . . I am Alonso Quixano” (Adventures of Don Quixote, p. 938). He dies shortly after speaking these words.
Fiction vs. reality
In the first part of Don Quixote’s story, in the midst of his battle against another character, the action stops abruptly, and the narrator announces that the information about the conclusion of the battle is missing. This news serves as a launching point for a detailed explanation of how Don Quixote’s adventures were recorded. The narrator explains that, while browsing in a market one day, he found some books written in Arabic that he soon discovered contained the history of Don Quixote, of whom he was an admirer. He bought the books and hired a translator to rewrite the knight’s history in Spanish. The fact that the original version was written by an Arab led the narrator to suspect that it purposely portrayed Don Quixote unfavorably, since the Arab Muslims were bitter enemies of Spain’s Catholics.
Cervantes thus introduces the idea of different versions of Don Quixote’s story. Aside from catching the attention of his readers, the structure of Cervantes’s novel plays with the scholarly literary standards of his day, which stressed the importance of “verisimilitude,” the appearance of reality in fiction. He also may be alluding, in a much more subtle way, to the state of confusion in which Spain found itself at the time. Since the country had limited access to books and foreign knowledge and information was censored and controlled by only a few religious and political leaders, it was difficult for early seventeenth-century Spaniards to know if they were hearing “the real story” about anything. Cervantes may be drawing attention to this fact by emphasizing the manner in which his story is told.
In a conversation described in the prologue to the first part of Don Quixote, Cervantes’s friend explains to him that “this book of yours aims at no more than destroying the authority and influence which books of chivalry have in the world and among the common people” (Adventures of Don Quixote, p. 30). Chivalric novels were the soap operas of sixteenth-century Spain. Widely read by commoners, hidalgos, and even some religious leaders, they told of the battles, loves, and adventures of knights, using a grandiose style that Cervantes parodies. Whether he sought to end the reading of these books or
simply to poke fun at them is unclear. After all, books of chivalry, chiefly Amadis of Gaul, were the greatest influence on the narration and plot of Don Quixote. The passages below, taken from Amadis and Don Quixote, demonstrate the similarities between these two works and the comic touch that Cervantes adds to his book.
LEVELS OF REALITY IN VELÁZQUEZ
The Spanish artist Diego Vetázquez, born a fore Don Quixote was written, used a technique of “leveled” reality in his 1656 painting las Meninas, This painting, a departure from traditional royal portraits, portrays the artist himself looking at his canvas, which the audience cannot see, while he pamts the king and queen, who must be behind the audience (only their reflection, in a mirror behind the artist, can be seen). The focus of the painting is actually on several young gifts positioned next to the king and queen. One of the girls is watching them pose, two are watching the audience, and the rest are watching each other. What the “real” painting is no one knows for certain.
And they then left that road, and taking another, journeyed all that day without encountering any adventure, and night overtook them near a fortress.
“Sir,” said the dwarf, “here you may lodge, where there is a duenna who will serve you.” Amadis reached that fortress and found the duenna, who lodged him very well, giving him his supper and a very comfortable bed in which to sleep; but he did not do so, for his meditation about his lady was so great that he slept almost not at all that night; and next day, having said farewell to the duenna, he started out under guidance of the dwarf and went until noon.
(Amadis of Gaul, pp. 191-92)
. . . at nightfall his horse and he were weary and dying of hunger. Looking in all directions to see if he could discover any castle or shepherd’s hut where he could take shelter and supply his urgent needs, he saw, not far from the road he was traveling on, an inn, which seemed to him like a star to guide him to the gates, if not to the palace, of his redemption. … So he approached the inn, which to his mind was a castle, and when still a short distance away reined Rocinante in, expecting some dwarf to mount the battlements and sound a trumpet to announce that a knight was approaching the fortress…. Now at that very moment, as chance would have it, a swineherd was collecting from the stubble a drove of hogs—pardon me for naming them—and blew his horn to call them together. But Don Quixote immediately interpreted this in his own way, as some dwarf giving notice of his approach.
(Don Quixote, pp. 37-8)
In addition to chivalric novels, there were other stylistic influences on Cervantes, including the pastoral novel and the satires of Erasmus. Pastoral novels, more popular than chivalric novels by the seventeenth century, were set in the natural world of shepherds and shepherdesses, far from the frustrations of village life or the high drama of knightly adventures. These books told stories of complicated love triangles and often included poems about the beauty of one character or the passion of another. Don Quixote actually includes within it two short pastoral novels (stories told to the knight and his squire in the course of their adventures). After Don Quixote’s defeat at the hands of the Knight of the White Moon, he and Sancho even discuss the possibility of becoming shepherds for a year, until they can return to a life of chivalry.
The influence of Erasmus’s works, though censored in Spain by the time Don Quixote was written, can be seen in the novel. Cervantes, who probably studied Erasmus’s works as a young man in Madrid, presents many of this great humanist’s ideas—and mirrors his witty style—in Don Quixote. Although the basic beliefs of Catholicism are never ridiculed, many of its rituals are. In the first part of the novel, for instance, Don Quixote, following the example of the legendary knight Amadis of Gaul, decides to perform penance to convince his imagined “lady,” Dulcinea, that he is her devoted servant. Although acts of penance are supposed to be performed to express sorrow for a sin or wrongdoing, Don Quixote explains to Sancho that his plan is “to do it without cause” (Adventures of Don Quixote, p. 203). Don Quixote then informs Sancho that his penance will involve “the tearing of my garments, the scattering of my arms, the running of my head against the rocks, and other things of the kind which will astonish you” (Adventures of Don Quixote, p. 206). Stripped down to his underclothes, Don Quixote finally begins his penance. “He fore a great strip from the tail of his shirt, which was hanging down, and made eleven knots in it, one fatter than the rest; and this served him for a rosary all the time he was there, during which time he recited a million Ave Marias” (Adventures of Don Quixote, p. 215).
This passage, which raised the eyebrows of the members of the Inquisition, is one of many of Cervantes’s humorous treatments of Catholic traditions. It is important to note, however, that Cervantes also includes many positive representations of the church in Don Quixote. The canon of Toledo, with whom Don Quixote debates the merits of books of chivalry, is depicted as a learned and distinguished man, and the priest from Quixote’s village is kind and likable. Like Erasmus, Cervantes did not reject Catholicism altogether. In his view, the inward aspect of religion—an individual’s relationship with God and practice of virtue—was more important than outward ceremonials. Clergymen were, after all, just human beings, subject to error and silliness like anyone else.
Although Cervantes relied on many other writers for stylistic ideas, the characters in Don Quixote are almost entirely his own. Cervantes is consistently praised for his realistic portrayal of people from every corner of Spanish society. The author’s keen insight into the lives of his fellow Spaniards—students, priests, dukes, soldiers, innkeepers, and peasants—was gained from a life of wandering. Many of the characters in Don Quixote, in fact, could represent stages in Cervantes’s own life. He was, at various times, a student, a cardinal’s assistant, a soldier, a captive in Algiers, a purveyor in charge of buying food for the Spanish Armada, a tax collector, and, of course, a writer (a poet, a playwright, and a novelist). Many of these jobs required extensive travel throughout Spain, which allowed Cervantes to form opinions not only about the different classes of Spanish people, but about the different regions in which they lived. When Don Quixote battles a Basque, dines with a gentleman in Barcelona, or discusses literature with a priest from Toledo, Cervantes draws on his own extensive knowledge of Spanish culture to create an authentic picture of each of these characters.
Don Quixote, considered by many the first modern novel, was both a symbol of its times and a groundbreaking work. An inspiration for countless novels, including Madame Bovary, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (both covered in Literature and Its Times), and Joseph Andrews, Cervantes’s story made an enormous impact on the literary world. In Cervantes’s own world, Don Quixote was considered the funniest book of his time and was widely read by all members of society. As a comic novel, it failed to offer practical solutions for Spain’s many problems, but its impractical hero, who remains positive despite his many downfalls, might have given the Spanish people a surge of optimism, and it definitely provided them with a reason to laugh.
Anglo, Sydney, ed. Chivalry in the Renaissance. Rochester, New York: Boydell, 1990.
Byron, William. Cervantes: A Biography. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1978.
Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. The Adventures of. Translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin, 1950
Defourneaux, Marcelin. Daily Life in Spain in the Golden Age. Translated by Newton Branch. New York: Praeger, 1971.
Rodriguez de Montalvo, Garci. Amadis of Gaul. Translated by Edwin B. Place and Herbert C. Behm. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974.