Coping with Don Quixote
From Approaches to Teaching Cervantes' Don Quixote, ed. Richard Bjornson (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1984): 45-49.
The range of the novel's appeal astonishes quite as much as the extent of it. Catholic thinkers find their Catholicism vindicated by it, reformers find their criticism of the status quo supported, and Marxists discover that it prefigured their analysis of capitalist society. Throughout modern history, Don Quixote has inspired everything from ballads to ballet. How are we, as teachers, to cope with such a prodigious book?
There are so many innovations in Cervantes' novel--so many elements of previous works are refined and brought to perfection in it--that even a partial list is staggering: the creation of a self-conscious narrator, the illusion of the autonomous character as achieved by the subversion of narrative reliability, the integration of a multiplicity of styles, the assimilation of many different narrative genres, the profusion of various levels of fictionality, the transformation of events into experience through the manipulation of point of view, the elaboration of a subtle and pervasive irony, the masterful use of dialogue in the creation and development of character. The fundamental problem of the relation between art and life is developed in Don Quixote with respect to every conceivable set of paired opposites: illusion-reality, lies-truth, fiction-fact, poetry-history, mystery-revelation. Moreover, Cervantes' shift from action and passion per se to the development of character involved impressive perceptions of the way people change, dream, and fantasize.
Anyone who has taught Don Quixote has become involved in the complications of Cervantes' narrative, but it is always useful to remind students that the book entails the story of readers reading, or misreading, and of writers writing, or failing to write. Don Quixote's reading drives him mad, and his final regret is that he has no time left to read a different kind of book. The author's reading is said to have provoked him to write the novel. All the important characters of part 2 are readers of part 1, and most of the principals in both parts are readers of chivalric romances and other kinds of fiction. Both Don Quixote and the canon are would-be writers, and Gines de Pasamonte is glimpsed at a moment when he is between two parts of the book he is writing. The "humanist" guide to the Cave of Montesinos is a professional author. As a writer, Cide Hamete is potentially so prolific that he asks to be praised for his restraint in limiting himself, as he has, in part 2. In the text, there is explicit discussion and criticism not only of narrative fiction but of drama and lyric as well. Books and manuscripts are bought and sold, handled, read aloud, acted out, annotated, translated, criticized, printed, plagiarized, burned, buried, and even kicked around by the devils of hell. Because the production and consumption of fiction are primary activities in Don Quixote, it is an ideal text for the teacher of literature. …