Don Quixote, Part II: The End

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part II (1615)

Though I did not stick very well to my chapter-a-day intention, by reading in fits and starts I have finished Don Quixote. When I last checked in, I was in the middle of Part II; Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were being deceived by their aristocratic hosts, who wanted to encourage them in their role as knight errant and squire. This went on for a good while longer, and included Don Quixote having the opportunity to defend his virtue against a lovely young admirer, along with Sancho finally getting to be the governor of his insula.

The latter was one of the most successfully conceived episodes, I thought, with Sancho showing surprising acumen in his role, yet soon wisely deciding the responsibility of governing is not for him (largely because the doctor in charge of the governor’s health won’t let him eat anything he likes). He goes back to serving his master and they have a few more adventures which end in Don Quixote being sent back to his village, where he comes into his right mind at last.

Don Quixote Consulting the Enchanted Head – Charles-Antoine Corypel IV, ca. 1714

If that sounds a bit anticlimactic, it is. Overall, I found the pacing of this part of the novel decidedly odd. Where the first part suffered from layers of interpolated tales, this part was full of false starts and red herrings, plot threads that Cervantes seemed to lose interest in and quickly abandon. For example, in one chapter Sancho gets stuck in a cave, which would seem to promise some trials or other escapades … but in the next chapter Don Quixote hears him calling and he is released without further ado. Ho, hum.

The promise of playing with multiple realities and points of view also dissipated. There were a few piquant observations — for example that the Duke and Duchess are as mad as their knightly guest, for taking so much trouble to deceive him — but otherwise I had the sense the author was getting bored and just wanting to wrap up. After a peculiar meeting with a man who has supposedly met the “other” Don Quixote and Sancho Panza from the pirated second half of the tale (to which Cervantes is constantly referring in this part, as well as to the “real” version by a Moorish author), the Don just goes home and — dies? Perhaps this was an attempt to put an end to further literary piracy, but for me it was something of a letdown.

Don Quixote – Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1900

And what about Dulcinea? After being the subject of so much of the action and conversation within the novel, and after Sancho’s finally pretending to give himself the blows supposedly needed to release her from her enchantment, she never appears — which is logical enough, as she doesn’t exist. And yet I wish she could have been more than a figment, that there could have been some interesting clash with the reality of an actual woman. But as usual, it’s only Sancho and his wife who provide us with anything close to a real-life relationship in the novel.

This is all very postmodern, and I’m sure there is much to be drawn from the subverting of my narrative expectations, but in the end I was left with a sense of disappointment. Maybe another read-through, now that I have the overall picture, would grant me more insight into this famous story. But for now, I’m going to move onto other quests.

Thanks to Emma of Words and Peace for reading along with me. You helped me to get going, and I hope you reach your own goal!

Classics Club List #71


Classics Club Spin: Don Quixote, Part I

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part I (1605)

For the last Classics Club spin book, I drew Don Quixote, which I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time. I did read an abridged version in high school, but I remember absolutely nothing about it except the Quentin Blake drawing on the cover. (Does anyone else have an amazing memory for book covers, as opposed to their contents?) I felt I had to make an effort to appreciate what is often called the first and perhaps the greatest modern novel, and the acclaimed new translation by Edith Grossman seemed a good place to start.

Given the kind of December that I had, there was no way I was going to make it through the whole 900-page tome, so I decided to be kind to myself and do it in two parts. These were in fact published 10 years apart, in 1605 and 1615, so I feel quite justified in treating them as two separate books.

Part I, as probably every semi-literate person knows, starts off with the titular Don of La Mancha being driven mad by reading too many books of chivalry, and deciding he’s going to go off and be a knight errant himself. Capers ensue in which he attacks the innocent and frees the guilty, insisting that wineskins are giants and a barber’s bowl is a magic helmet, while his hapless squire, the peasant Sancho Panza, trails along in hopes of being made rich by his noble master. There’s a lot of bawdiness and slapstick, as well as much rhapsodizing on the charms of his lady love, Dulcinea (a wench from a nearby village who never appears in person).

This was all more or less what I expected, and contained some interesting revelations of how long the “post-truth” phenomenon has actually been around; near the end of the book Don Quixote makes a fierce argument that whatever he thinks must be true, because he likes it that way, and he’ll pound anybody to a pulp who says otherwise. Yup, sounds familiar.

What surprised me somewhat was that about two thirds of the way through the Quixotic quest narrative comes to a screeching halt while Cervantes interlayers in a whole lot of boring romance plots with utterly flat, unmemorable stock characters (the wronged wife, the rake who is forced to go straight, the Moorish maiden who wants to convert, the loyal, lowborn lover of a noble lady…) These include a forty-page “interpolated novel,” derived from some random manuscript found in a chest at the inn where the main characters are staying — in a meta-fictional touch, this may have been left by Cervantes himself.

There are also a bunch of characters encountered while Quixote the madman has decided to pretend to go mad in a deserted place, in emulation of one of his chivalric heroes (one of the funnier bits). These end up tagging along for quite a while, and then there are some others met along the way who have to tell their backstory for another thirty pages,  plus another group that turns out to be related to the second bunch… At the very end, when I thought we’d gotten back to the main story, there’s a goatherd-who-is-really-a-wronged-lover-in-disguise, who has to tell HIS tale of woe for a whole chapter. I admit to cheering when Don Quixote gave him a good thumping.

What the heck was Cervantes up to with all this? In terms of composition and structure, I can’t say that I would call this mess a great novel compared with Pride and Prejudice or The Scarlet Letter or even Ozma of Oz. I suppose he was still trying to figure out what a “modern novel” was or could be, and was just mixing in all kinds of narrative styles current at the time, without much rhyme or reason. (It’s not unlike a lot of Shakespeare plays mashed up together, actually.)

The result, for me, was that the narrative momentum was somewhat diffused and lost, leaving me dissatisfied that things were not tied together in a more conscious way. While the character of Don Quixote was brilliant in its comedic irony, and highly relevant, again, as a comment on our modern muddled thinking, these other threads failed to compel in the same way. I’m assuming this is largely what got abridged out of the edition I read earlier.

At any rate, I made it through, and Don Quixote has now returned to his village without having changed or learned anything whatsoever (another element one would find a failing in most novels today). I do wonder what will happen in book II, and whether during the intervening decade Cervantes will have figured out how to write a novel more like the ones I would call “great.” After a short break, I’ll look forward to returning to La Mancha and finding out.

Classics Club List #71