It’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:
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:
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.
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.