Don Quixote, Part II: Halfway through

In my buddy read of Don Quixote with Emma of Words and Peace, we’ve not kept up with the chapter a day pace, but that’s okay; we’re determined to keep going anyway. I’ve made it to chapter 37 of 74, halfway through Part II, so it seems like a good time for a check-in.

When I started I had wondered whether this half of the book — really Book Two of a two-book series — would stay focused on the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, or wander into multiple digressions and interpolated tales like Part One. So far, there have been no such interruptions, and that makes for quite a different reading experience. In fact, this part is even more strongly centered on Quixote, as it is based on the premise that the first part of his adventures was published and now he is a famous character. Many of the people he meets know about him and his madness, and either react with compassionate tolerance or with a less kind wish to use him for their own amusement.

This gives a new layer to Cervantes’s commentary on human nature, its folly and its cruelty as well as the possible potential for true nobility. It highlights even more the importance of the stories we tell ourselves, and the relationship between life and narrative. I can see why this novel is considered the foundation of modern literature, which has moved us toward a more complex understanding of self and world than in past ages, frequently leaving us in a state of confusion. In his playing with perspective, consciousness, and multiple realities, Cervantes challenges us to find a new standpoint from which to evaluate our experience. That’s the real “knightly quest,” I feel.

At the point I’ve reached now, we’re in the middle of an elaborate deception perpetrated by a lord Quixote has met along the way. He’s encouraging the self-anointed knight errant in his whims and creating illusory enchantments to egg him on. Particularly, there is the promise that Quixote’s beloved Dulcinea will be released from the spell making her an ugly peasant woman — if Sancho will beat himself to a pulp.

Since Sancho himself encouraged Quixote to believe in this spell, is this perhaps a just punishment? He could break up the whole deception by simply telling the truth, but the lure of his promised governorship keeps him caught in the trap of his own making, and increasingly unsure what is real and what isn’t. The web of untruth and self-interest is growing ever more tangled, and one wonders if there can ever be a way out. But the journey shall continue…

Don Quixote Part II: The first dozen chapters

Don Quixote Reading by Adolf Schroedter

This is the inaugural post of my buddy read of Part II of Don Quixote, which I’ve been meaning to finish for more than a year. I’m so glad Emma from Words and Peace agreed to read a chapter a day (more or less) along with me!

We’ll be taking turns to post about our progress every couple of weeks, so here are my impressions of the opening chapters. In Part II, Don Quixote insists on returning to a life of knight errantry, in spite of the efforts of his friends and neighbors to restore him to sanity, and his long-suffering squire Sancho goes along for the ride once more. It takes a while to get going, but once they do there’s an encounter with the Don’s beloved lady Dulcinea, who has inexplicably been turned by wicked magic into a hideous peasant girl. Following this they meet a troupe of traveling players who play havoc with Sancho’s donkey, and then another lovelorn knight who seems to have the same chivalric madness.

What is real? To what extent do we see only what we want to see? And how can we ever truly meet one another, when we manipulate our perceptions according to our desires? As in Part I, these questions come up over and over again, with both comic and tragic ramifications. Don Quixote’s longing for the ideal feminine is noble, but his refusal to accept what is in front of his face is absurd. His servant is more pragmatic but no less ridiculous, with his eternal hope of gaining an “insula” from this mad quest. Maybe he goes along just because the adventure is more entertaining than ordinary life at home, in spite of all the pratfalls he takes.

So far, I feel Cervantes is just getting warmed up, coming back into the mode of the novel he left off ten years earlier. Where will this journey lead? Will Don Quixote actually learn something this time? I’ll be looking forward to finding out.