“Take my advice and live for a long, long time. Because the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die.”
Don Quixote (Cervantes, 1605), widely acclaimed as the first Western novel, is a daunting yet worthy challenge for any serious reader. Originally published in two volumes, today’s editions weigh in at just under 1,000 pages. The characters featured in the novel embody a myriad of literary traditions, creating what critic Claudio Guillén has termed “a dialogue of genres.” As you read, keep an eye out for how Cervantes mixes different genres and styles in his writing.
Difficulty Level: 5/5
The Elevator Synopsis:
Alonso Quixano, self styled Don Quixote, is a wealthy man living in La Mancha who loves to read about knights. One day, he decides that merely reading isn’t enough. With his faithful horse, Rocinante, and, later on, Sancho Panza the squire in tow, Don Quixote sets out to become a knight and make his fame known. The novel features a myriad of their adventures. While some are true acts of service, others, including the famous windmills duel, are ridiculously absurd. Ultimately, this text is about a man who still believes in nobility and magic, and is trying to live the best possible version of himself.
There are some gems in this behemoth of a novel. First, the writer displays an impressively wide range of humor, including everything from sophisticated word play to vulgar poop jokes. I’m always game for some good ol’ scatology fun. (The vomit jokes are a bit much though.)
The novel’s treatment of women, though in general was typical of its time, at times felt surprisingly modern. One woman, when her town derided her as cruel for refusing a good man’s love responded: “I do not comprehend, that merely for being loved, the person that is loved for being handsome is obliged to return love for love.” In other words, girls don’t owe you boys anything. Look at Cervantes shutting down the Nice Guy.
Another instance of gender equality comes from Sancho Panza’s wife, Teresa, who reveals that she had hoped to keep her own family name when she got married.
Overall, I found this book difficult to get through. The plot itself is quite simple, but the chapters are filled with long speeches and the adventures, after a while, begin to feel repetitive. That the writing is from the early 17th century did not help. However, Don Quixote is an important part of the Western canon. In the end, this text operates as a powerful message about human nature, the sublime, visions, and the magic inside all of us, if we only know how to unlock it.