Why You Should Read Don Quixote

Why You Should Read Don QuixoteIt’s often been said that Shakespeare is the broccoli of English literature: people consume it because they think it is good for them but they don’t really like it.

And this is generally true of any of the Great Books that we are all supposed to read and pretend to love. Yet there are major exceptions like any Jane Austen book. But the single biggest exception is Don Quixote. You shouldn’t read it because it is important; you should read it because it is supremely entertaining.

I’ve read it dozens of times and yet you can still see me sitting on a bus reading it — laughing like a crazy man. And you too can be a crazy man like me!

The Boring Windmill Story

If you know only one thing about Don Quixote, it is the following story:

Don Quxiote rides over a bluff on his emaciated horse. There in the valley are dozens are windmills. But Don Quixote thinks these windmills are giants. So he charges toward them with a lance and is dashed to the ground.

Not very funny, is it? It’s no wonder that people think it isn’t worth their time. I wouldn’t either!

The Real Windmill Story

Now consider what is actually in the book:

Don Quixote is a Spanish gentleman: a man who doesn’t really do anything. He’s spent too much time reading exciting adventures about knights errant. So he’s decided to be one. He needs a squire, so he convinces a local working man, Sancho Panza, to come with him offering the prospect that Sancho will become governor of an island Don Quixote will win for him.

They come over a bluff — Don Quixote on his horse and Sancho on his mule. They see windmills and Don Quixote says, “Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves… [T]hirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes…”

Sancho is an uneducated peasant, but not an idiot. He says, “What giants?”

After a bit of conversation during which Don Quixote insists that the windmills really are giants, the crazy man rushes toward the windmills. Sancho yells after him, “You idiot! Those are windmills!”

Sancho races after Don Quixote, begging him to end this folly.

Don Quixote gets to a windmill and stabs one of its sails — thinking it a giant’s arm. This breaks his lance and dashes him to the ground.

Sancho soon arrives and says, “Didn’t I tell you those were windmills!”

But Don Quixote is having none of it! Sure, they are windmills now. But that’s just because his nemesis, the evil magician Friston, turned the giants into windmills “in order to rob me of the glory of vanquishing them!”

The First Modern Novel

If there is anything else you know about Don Quixote, it is probably that it is the first modern novel. In my experience giving talks about the novel, this is a claim that people have a lot of trouble with. What does it mean?

There are a lot of reasons why scholars claim that Don Quixote is the first modern novel. But the most important is the centrality of character in the story. Before Don Quixote, characters in novels weren’t individuals so much as archetypes. But even more important, the stories were not generated out of those characters.

In Don Quixote, the two primary characters are as vibrant and honest as any character in a modern novel — and that’s with 400 years of later novels stealing from them. In addition, the story is entirely driven by Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The plot moves along because of their actions; they aren’t characters dropped into a given plot. And as you can see in the windmill story, the humor derives from the characters — Don Quixote chasing glory in his fantasms and Sancho trying to limit the damage caused by his lunatic friend.

The Postmodern Novel

Another reason that Don Quixote is so fun to read derives from the fact that it is actually two novels. If Part 1 is the first modern novel, Part 2 is certainly the first postmodern novel.

One of the conceits of Part 1 is that the story is true. So when Cervantes wrote Part 2, he did so in a world where the character was literally world-famous. But if the character was famous, then the supposed real man was famous. Thus, the entirety of Part 2 has Don Quixote and Sancho going on their adventures in a world riddled with people who knew them from the first novel.

Luckily, Don Quixote is too insane and Sancho too unsophisticated to realize that people are mocking them. Of course, in many ways, this isn’t very different from Part 1 where people quickly determined that Don Quixote was crazy and had much fun at his expense.

But the merging of fiction and reality is very fun. It makes Don Quixote resonate greatly with a modern reader.

Summary

In 7 minutes, it’s hard to explain why Don Quixote is such an enjoyable read. That’s especially true when I’m limited to a single story that takes up less than a page in the book. But I hope that I have whet your appetite about the book and at least made you realize that Don Quixote is more than just the story of a crazy man doing battle with windmills.

12 replies on “Why You Should Read Don Quixote

  1. Dave L says:

    “′Classic′ – a book which people praise and don’t read.”
    ― Mark Twain

    Since “the past is the past” one thing we may not get is that Don Quixote’s quest to be a knight was anachronistic at the time

    It would be like a modern man dressing like Blackbeard, gettin’ a parrot and a cutlass and a flintlock pistol, and lookin’ ta rob Spanish ships of their chests full a’ doubloons, which he would then bury

    • Lawrence Schuman says:

      When I was five Mom put me up to an amusing stunt. She had me write my Senator, Barry Goldwater, asking to be granted a Letter of Marque. That is, a license to operate an armed privateer. He never responded, of course.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      I’ve thought about this a lot and concluded that the modern equivalent is sports. I’m not sure how that could work. Perhaps Don Quixote dressing in shorts and going to urban centers taking on young men on the basketball court.

      This article was just a speech I gave. I’m supposed to improve it and give it again. I haven’t figured out how to do that without being boring.

      • Dave L says:

        >taking on young men on the basketball court

        Probably wouldn’t work. Although Quixote might not be in shape to take on those young men, the very IDEA isn’t ludicrous. Besides, being good at a sport doesn’t “make the world a better place” the way Quixote was trying to do

        Just go old school. Quixote in the twenty-first century. Dressing in plate mail like a medieval knight, tilting at trucks, defending a chivalry that was a myth in its own time and is considered old-fashioned, outmoded, and naive today

        • Frank Moraes says:

          You have to remember that even in early-17th century Spain, Don Quixote cuts a ridiculous figure. Yet he manages to win a number of fights due to luck and his total insanity. That would be hard to do in basketball because there are rules.

          I’ve been playing around with a novel with a modern, female Don Quixote. In it, she goes around urban areas meting out justice. In it, Sancho is a speed freak prostitute who “Donna” saves from a john. I think it works pretty well because I can depend upon the same techniques of the original. I do think that simply being crazy can be an effective tool in battle.

          The reason I bring up sports is that the novel starts by showing how men will have arguments about whether Amadis de Gaula was a greater knight than Galahad. And this is something I’ve seen in sports where people will compare players from different times. Was Michael Jordan better than Wilt Chamberlain? I’m not above that myself, but it is a silly exercise. And for a long time, the heroes of literature were very much like modern sports heroes.

          • Dave L says:

            >I’ve been playing around with a novel with a modern, female Don Quixote

            That could be cool

            • Frank Moraes says:

              Thanks! I’m thinking of revisiting it. Recently, I’ve been wondering where I go from here. And the most obvious is for me to get back to novel writing. This is my best project.

  2. Lawrence Schuman says:

    I was unfamiliar with the claim that it was the first modern novel. Interesting. Were there other modern novels written around the same time? I’m thinking of how Newton and Liebniz developed calculus independently but contemporaneously. Or did writers study and emulate Cervantes?

    • James Fillmore says:

      First “postmodern” novel, one where the characters referenced how famous they’d became. You can still see its influence today. In the X-Men movie “Logan,” set 20 years in the future, Wolverine finds old X-Men comic books and says “it didn’t happen that way.” (Great movie for the first 40 minutes, BTW, kinda crappy after that. In my not-so-humble opinion!)

      As for the first modern novel? I’m curious, too, about where that particular definition is drawn. “The Odyssey” definitely has novelistic aspects to it, so does the Bible, and probably many stories far older than either. The Bible is a sprawling mess, but so is “War And Peace.” (Although I would argue that Tolstoy is a better novelist than God.)

      In English, the consensus seems to be that Chaucer was the first, but the original Chaucer is almost unreadable because English was such a different language then. Essentially, it was a different language, the same way we’d consider Danish and Swedish different today, although they have similar roots.

      So what’s the first modern novel, or novel, period? I have no clue.

      • Frank Moraes says:

        In the book Intellectuals, the chapter on Tolstoy is titled, “God’s Elder Brother.”

        Homer is a good example of storytelling that while great is still old. Hector isn’t a real person. He’s too perfect — the archetype of the reluctant warrior who really just wants to take care of his family. Don Quixote and Sancho are real people — for good and for bad.

        Of course, there are plenty of other reasons why Don Quixote is considered the first modern novel. But ultimately, I think it comes down to character. The modern novel is character-driven. Novels before Don Quixote were not character-driven. But there are lots of PhD dissertations that you can read if you want to learn more!

    • Frank Moraes says:

      Not really. Cervantes was way ahead of his time. I would say it took a good century before writers fully figured out what he was doing.

      It’s strange too, because Cervantes saw himself as a poet. And he was mediocre! But it’s clear he had a razor-sharp wit. I would have loved to have known him.

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