Review: Don Quixote

Published on Author Christopher Fahey21 Comments

Today (amazingly the 410th anniversary of the deaths of both Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare) I’ve finished reading the classic Don Quixote Parts I and II. What an unforgettable journey, and what an eye-opener!

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A four hundred year old book (Parts I and II were published in 1605 and 1615) that in many ways paints a character — two characters, in fact — every bit as lifelike and nuanced as anything by novelists who would come hundreds of years later. Insights into the human psyche that presage our modern understanding of the mind. Historical perspectives on Europe, Spain, and even North Africa in the century after the expulsion of the Moors from Europe. And storytelling techniques that seem nearly postmodern.

Gained in Translation

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The Edith Grossman translation also includes a forward by — and presumably the approval of — Harold Bloom.

I began my first sally with my grandfather’s 1946 Modern Library edition, a lovely hardback volume illustrated by the magnificent Salvador Dali. But almost immediately, Peggy bought me a widely-acclaimed recent translation by Edith Grossman. After reading only a few pages, I switched to the newer translation and didn’t look back.

Grossman’s language is crisper, more modern sounding. Apparently, 15th-century Spanish, in particular Cervantes’s style, is more like modern Spanish than 15th-century English is like today’s English, so a translation that values a brisk read over ornate language can still be pretty faithful to the original text. While I was sad to miss the illustrations, the language and the storytelling was far easier to read and offered a more direct entry into the more important aspect of the story, that is, the characters themselves.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza turned out to be far, far deeper and more interesting characters than I could possibly have ever imagined.

Not the Impossible Dream

I’ve never seen the musical “Man of La Mancha”, but I’ve heard the wretched song “The Impossible Dream” enough to know to avoid it. Having read Don Quixote, I am now even more inclined to steer clear of it. The Don Quixote who sings “The Impossible Dream” seems to be a idealistic free-thinker who rises to the challenge of a world that does not understand him, conquering adversity and beleiving in himself. Blah blah blah.

This is pure dreck — the real Don Quixote is a melancholy, thoughtful, sometimes humorous, but ultimately profoundly mentally ill man, suffering from hallucinations and a deep psychic loneliness. His adventures are a mixture of violent slapstick and unmitigated tragedy. His companionship with Sancho Panza isn’t simply one of master and servant, but one of deep friendship and a strange kind of mutual madness.

The Real Don Quixote in a Postmodern Hall of Mirrors

I just used the phrase “the real Don Quixote” in the last paragraph. What’s ironic about writing that is that Man of La Mancha wasn’t the first phony Quixote to make the scene. In fact, a fake Don Quixote was published shortly after Cervantes’s own Don Quixote Part I was published, written by another author to cash in on the popularity of Part I.

This false version perturbed Cervantes so much that he incorporated its existence into his own, real Don Quixote Part II: Only a few pages into Part II, Quixote and Sancho learn about the publication of the false Quixote book, and they frequently run into people who have read either Cervantes’s version or the false version. In other words, the publication of Don Quixote is part of the story itself, and the characters seem to be fully aware of their roles as literary figures. I found this aspect of the story delightful, and particularly surprising for 1615!

As if the postmodern twists weren’t reason enough, Part II gives Sancho a greater, even starring role, the secondary characters are far more interesting and fleshed-out, and their adventures explore more interesting and nuanced aspects of how people seek to understand and explore one anothers’ minds. Some reviewers may tell you to read Part I and skip Part II. Do not do this: If you only read Part I, you are really only reading half of the story, and missing most of the best and most rewarding parts.

The Madness of Don Quixote — and Sancho Panza

The psychological depth of both Quixote and, surprisingly, Sancho Panza, was a revelation to me. Sometimes, Quixote would seem to even understand that he was mad. Other times, he would be completely immersed in his fantasies. Sancho, likewise, was perfectly aware of his simple and comical nature, but he constantly suprises you with his wisdom and understanding. What’s more, the wonder that I felt contemplating these characters was shared by many of the other characters encountered in the story, too.

Some readers, including myself, have a suspicion that Don Quixote isn’t quite as mad as he seems in the story, that in many ways he knew what he was doing. I see this as an aspect of his madness, that he was a man who chose to endure the hardships and abuses of knight errantry merely because it would satisfy the requirements of his madness. Along the way, he befriends his squire Sancho Panza and together they explore the boundaries of each others’ minds. Some have said that the definition of madness is the ability to hold two irreconcilable views in one’s mind at the same time. Both Quixote and Sancho satisfy this definition perfectly, and their mutual navigation of these interwoven conflicts — their friendship — makes up the heart of the novel.

Great Minds

Some have credited Shakespeare with the very invention of the modern mind, through characters like King Lear, MacBeth, and Hamlet. In Don Quixote, you can see that this historical revelation was not unique to Shakespeare (in fact, one of Shakespeare’s lost plays, Cardenio, was based on a long novel-within-a-novel from Don Quixote).

Don Quixote is everything it’s cracked up to be: A comedy, a tragedy, and a window into the creation of the modern literary psyche.

21 Responses to Review: Don Quixote

  1. Chris, what a great review. I first read Don Quixote as a high school student (it’s required reading in my part of the world), and keep meaning to go back and re-read it as an adult. Your review may just have been the prodding I needed to re-visit DQ and Sancho. Thanks!

  2. Yeah, it’s a welcome escape from technology, that’s for sure. Will you read it in English? :-) Just kidding. I think you’ll enjoy it a lot. Every time I re-read something I read in high school, I wonder “What the hell were they thinking making us read that in high school!?” Moby Dick simply cannot be understood by a 16 year old, and I wonder if you had a similar experience with DQ back when you were younger. Not that they shouldn’t teach the classics to kids, of course… I’m just saying that we should all realize that all those books we read in high school really *have* to be read again as we get older.

  3. I started reading DQ last night, in Spanish — although I toyed with the idea of getting the Grossman translation after reading your review. In Spanish we don’t get the advantage of a learned scholar translating from the old Spanish — which can be a little alien at times — into more modern usage. On the other hand, it’s such a venerated part of Spanish literature that it’s almost sacrilege to read it in another language.

    “What the hell were they thinking making us read that in high school!?”

    Agree 100%, most young minds (including mine, at that age) are probably not yet equipped to fully grasp the nuances of these books. I guess educators shove these books down kids’ throats because this is the closest most of these people will ever get to these amazing works. It’s too bad; I think this turns a lot of people off reading altogether.

  4. Although I was not required to read it in school, I did read the part 1 while I was still a student and it was a mixed thing for me, It was quite amusing and was a great pleaseure to read but reading and understanding it was like a lot of work.

  5. The great thing about reading a classic outside of school is that you don’t get all hung up on “understanding” it. I think the understanding happens anyway, at a level that maybe we sometimes don’t even realize.

  6. Have you read Jorge Luis Borges’ story, “Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote”? It raises interesting questions about DQ which remind me of why I was such an incompetent reader of it as a teenager.

    As “postmodern” readers we bring a lot of baggage / expectations to a work like this.

  7. Yeah, I’ve read that and am about to read it again, too. One of the best things about Don Quixote is the question of authorship. Who (in the world of the book) actually wrote it? There are constant references to a fictional Arabic translator within the story (Cide Hamete), but what was the translator translating from? And who is DQ’s narrator, and where did he get Cide Hamete’s copy of the book? Where is Cervantes? Did Don Quixote himself write the book? It’s a twisted knot of authorship. Positively Borgesian. :-)

  8. Great review indeed! The thought that I should be reading Don Quijote has crossed my mind more than a few times. Apparently, I managed to avoid it in highschool, although I am also from that part of the world…? I wouldn’t have cared then, of course, since it wasn’t released by, say, Dischord Records. So maybe it’s for the best I didn’t! Someday.

  9. May I suggest Tom Lathrop’s edition of the Quijote for you whose first language is English and second Spanish. The notes and lexicon are the best available.

  10. DON Quijote is simply the greatest novel ever written by the world’s greatest writer. All of the 659 characters can relate to all of us and to the problems of the world.

    This great book can have a tremendous effect of our lives! READ IT!!!

  11. wow, I am reading Don Quijote right now in spanish class, and I am a Sophomore. I am finding it just a bit over whelming considering that I am just learning how to grasp the basics of the language which makes it hard to grasp when written in the original format.

  12. Goo’ stuff.
    How to get bored students excited & screaming about the human condition…inspired…?

    Best 2u

  13. Looking for Cervantes novel Don Quixote in the Logan Square Library in Philly I accidentally borrowed Unamuno’s Commentaries on the life…1905 version translated by Homer P. Earle. What an amazing discovery! Knowing that Cervantes book was a satire on the foibles of excessive idealism, I misled myself into believing that Unamuno had resorted to irony as a way to further the ridicule by treating Don Quixote as being perfectly sane and chastising Cervantes for not knowing what he was writing about. As a philosopher Unamuno is misclassified as a mystic but I see him as a moral pragmatist who used paradoxes to escape from erroneous assumptions which wir impeccable logic can only lead to erroneous conclusions.

  14. Addendum to my September 1st note: The year I borrowed Unamuno’s book from the library was 1946. Years later a friend gave me an article about Unamuno from which I learned that he was also a madman who created so many disturbances in his native Spain that he was exiled for a while.Homer P. Earle’s translation was published by Knopf in 1927.
    Getting back to Cervantes book, read about Sancho becoming governor of an island to see what can happen when you win an election. Read about the puppet show to learn how our political system works. Long live Don Quixote!

  15. hey! great thoughts on an absolute classic. What copy is that photo from? It’s a DALI painting or lithograph and it is incredible, I’d never seen it. I was searching for Don Quixote and this popped up. Is this your copy of the book? I’d love to have it!!!!!!

    =)

  16. @Vasti: It’s a 1946 Modern Library edition, and yep it’s Salvador Dali. The book has a dozen full-color spreads like this one, and a few delightful little black-and-white doodle-like margin illustrations, too. The book belonged to my grandfather.

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