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Cervantes, Don Quixote
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"All prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote."
Lionel Trilling (CC '25), legendary Columbia professor

Like so many of the works we've read, Don Quixote represents a "pivot" in European literature--a locus for some startling literary discoveries (i.e. innovations) and developments (i.e. innovative "twists" on older techniques), as well as an innovative revisiting of some "age-old" questions (the relation of art to life, the quest for meaning, etc.). Like all great literature, it is self-conscious; what marks out Don Quixote among the works we have read is, perhaps, its awareness of its place in a literary tradition. (Note that Don Quixote is not, strictly speaking, a novel, though it has been said to "anticipate" the novel.) In what ways do you see Don Quixote as emerging from the "tradition" adumbrated by the works we gave read? In what ways do you see it as foreshadowing literary "tricks of the trade" with which we are familiar today?

Web Resources
Don Quixote Home Page at The Kennedy Center
The Cervantes Project (Digital Library) at Texas A&M

The Golden Age of Spain
After the discovery of the Americas, Spain gradually became one of the wealthiest nations in the world. In the 16th century, Spain entered its Golden Age, marked by an extraordinary flourishing of the literary, dramatic, and visual arts (note the parallel between financial and artistic wealth, an important underlying question in Don Quixote); and by the growing dominance of the Roman Catholic Church, culminating in its attempt to suppress all heresy through the Inquisition.

Spain's ascendancy, like all ascendancies, came at a price, mostly paid by other people: the Jews and Muslims who were harried, persecuted, killed, and expelled under the Inquisition; and the Aztec and Inca Empires, destroyed by Spanish agents in 1521 and 1533, respectively.

At the beginning of the Golden Age, which spanned almost two centuries, Spain was ruled by Charles [Carlos] I. But when his son Philip II took the throne in 1556, Spanish power began to decline. Internal struggle in Spain and continual battles in Europe and abroad--including the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13), the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15), and the Spanish-American War (1898) --drained the country's resources and strength. The conventional end date for Spain's Golden Age is 1681, the year that saw the death of the playwright Calderón.

(Spanish history in yellow; British in pink; other European events in green; Cervantes' life in white.)

  • 1469 Isabella I of Castile marries Ferdinand V of Aragon, uniting their kingdoms
  • 1478 Spanish Inquisition begins
  • 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella commission Christopher Columbus to explore the Indies
  • 1516 Charles I of Spain inherits the joint thrones of his grandparents Ferdinand and Isabella (although he has to fight two wars in order to be recognized as sovereign). He already holds considerable lands in Europe, including the Netherlands and the Duchy of Burgundy.
  • 1519 Charles is elected Holy Roman Emperor (in which capacity he is known as Charles V).
  • 1521 Destruction of the Aztec empire
  • 1533 Destruction of the Inca empire; birth of Montaigne
  • 1547 Birth of Cervantes
  • 1553 Mary Tudor accedes to the English throne and returns the country to Catholicism, ruthlessly pursuing and burning Anglican and Protestant "heretics" (which earns her the nickname "Bloody Mary").
  • 1555 Mary Tudor marries Philip (about to be Philip II) of Spain
    [This marriage, designed to enforce Roman Catholicism on the realm, failed on a couple of counts: the English people hated foreigners - especially the Spanish - and twenty years of Protestantism had soured the English on Papal interference. Mary met with resistance at every level of society, and, unlike her father (Henry VIII) or brother (Edward VI), failed to conform society into one ideological pattern. Philip II, cold and indifferent both to Mary and to her realm, remained in England for only a short time (but long enough to coerce Mary into war with France, resulting in defeat and the loss of the last English continental possession, Calais). Upon the retirement of his father, Charles I [V], Philip returned to Spain; Mary died ten months later. ]
  • 1556 Philip II succeeds Charles I (V) as King of Spain (not, obviously, as Holy Roman Emperor)
  • 1558 Elizabeth I accedes to the English throne upon Mary's death
  • 1560s England begins participation in the slave trade.
  • 1564 Birth of Shakespeare; death of Michelangelo.
  • 1571 Cervantes joins the Spanish army; fights the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Lepanto; loses the use of one hand (his left).
  • 1575 Cervantes decides to return to Spain, but his boat is waylaid by Algerian pirates and he spends the next 5 years in captivity (making frequent, but unsuccessful, attempts to escape).
  • 1580 First edition of Montaigne's Essais; Cervantes, freed on ransom, finally returns to Spain, where for the next 25 years he struggles to make a living.
  • 1582 Pope Gregory VIII calculates the Gregorian Calendar, the calendar in use in the West today.
  • 1587 Cervantes is hired as Royal Commissioner of Supplies, responsible for gathering food for the "Invincible" Spanish Armada.
  • 1588 The defeat of the Armada by the British navy (after its near-destruction by storms) marks a turning-point in naval power dynamics: the British Empire begins its rise, and the Spanish one begins its decline.
  • 1590s Financial irregularities see Cervantes imprisoned twice; according to scholars, he begins writing Don Quixote while in prison.
  • 1602 Dutch East India Company founded to help exploit profits from the East Indies
  • 1603 James VI of Scotland is crowned as Janes I of England, upon the death of Elizabeth I
  • 1604 Publication of the first part of Don Quixote (Cervantes is 57)
  • 1606 King James I charters the Plymouth and London Companies, which found the Jamestown Colony in Virginia in his honor.
  • 1609 Galileo Galilei builds the first astronomical telescope to observe the planets and solar system.
  • 1611 The King James version of The Bible is published.
  • 1614 Cervantes publishes the second part of Don Quixote, but not before an unauthorized sequel by otherwise-unknown author Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda has time to make an appearance.
    Cervantes, apparently learning of "the spurious Quixote" (el Quijote apócrifo) while writing Chapter 59 of his own sequel, incorporates it into the plot.
  • 1616 Cervantes dies in April, reputedly on the same day as Shakespeare.

The Arts in 16th-century Spain
Letters: After the unification of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella and then under Charles I (V), Spanish literature was imbued with patriotism, religious zeal, and allusions to earlier epics and ballads. New genres arose, including the picaresque novel, a comic genre focusing on the adventures of lower class rogues, which supplanted then-popular chivalric and pastoral novels. Works of religious literature also dominated during the period, including the spiritual writings of St. Teresa of Ávila, Luis de León, and San Juan de la Cruz.

Poetry and Drama: These, considered the true glory of Spanish literature in the 14th-17th centuries, have remained largely unknown to us foreigners (because untranslatable), which skews our sense of the epoch a bit. Spanish poetry, previously influenced heavily by Italian forms, had cultivated its own style through the use of elevated language, classical allusions, and elaborate metaphors (signalling the arrival of what we now call the Baroque period). Two well-known poets in the new style were Luis de Góngora and Francisco de Quevedo. Spanish drama hit its stride during the Golden Age, led by the prolific playwright Lope de Vega. He helped develop Spain's dramatic tradition by using Spanish themes and subjects in his works. Other important playwrights were Tirso de Molina and Pedro Calderón de la Barca. In addition, corrales--structures in residential courtyards designed for theatrical performances--were becoming more frequently used, and plays were no longer staged in ecclesiastical surroundings.

Painting: Spain's Golden Age produced many prolific painters with unique and innovative styles, including the dramatic and expressionistic works of Doménikos Theotokópoulos (more commonly known as El Greco), the synthesis of the natural, religious, and intellectual imagery in paintings by Diego Velazquez; the religious imagery of Francisco de Zurbaran and Bartolome Esteban Murillo, and the realism of Francisco Ribalta and Jose de Ribera.

Study Questions
1. What is the function of the prologue to Don Quixote? (How does it compare with other prologues we've read? What kind of a book does the author claim he has written? What is the point of his conversation with the intelligent friend? How does the Prologue prepare us for reading the novel?)

2. What is Don Quixote's real name?? (pp. 31, 34, 53...)

3. One of Don Quixote's main themes (surprise, surprise) is literature itself--as Boccaccian consolation, as Dantesque threat, and as fodder for the creative and critical reading mind.
  (a)Think about the function of reading and/or writing in the text.
  (b) consider the book inquisition and burning scene (I:6). What are the priest's and barber's qualifications as literary critics (and are they as good as yours)? What are their criteria for "good" lit.? Does the novel in which they appear conform to these?
  (c) Ditto the canon at the end of Part I (p.419ff.). Note that Part I only became "Part I" after Cervantes decided to write Part II--10 years later. What is the significance of ending what was then the novel with this encounter?

4. Expanding that question into more general considerations of the relationship of art to reality: how is that relationship depicted here? Does art imitate life, or vice versa, or both? Are there further permutations of the imitative relationship at work here?
The introduction of "madness" into this volatile mix leaves us flailing in a stew of "-lusions": illusion, allusion and now delusion. Is there (can there be!) any definitive "reality" within the story?

5. How mad is Don Quixote, anyway? Is his madness infectious? How does it affect other characters/the novel as a whole? Think about madness in terms of the familiar CFDs (clumsy fake dichotomies) of content vs. form, story vs. discourse, plot vs. theme. Does the Don's madness control the plot from within or without (ie. would you locate it on the level of "content," or that of "form) ?

6. Speaking of CFDs, the text seems to be structured on a number of binary oppositions, which you might like to keep tabs on. Some important ones are: Don Q./Sancho Panza (what further CFDs are implicit in this one?), arms (the sword) vs. letters (the pen), order vs. disorder, otium (boredom) vs. negotium (activity)...

6. Other themes here are familiar to us too. Keep track of the following, and any others that may strike you as you read: journey (cf. Odyssey and all second semester works), clothing (cf. Montaigne, Lear), madness (cf. Lear), bodies and their secretions (cf. Montaigne, Boccaccio), offspring (literal vs. literary; cf. Montaigne, Plato). "Emptiness" vs. "fullness" seems to be a recurring motif (cf. Don Q.'s retort to the goatherd on p. 451). Don Q. seems to keep losing body parts (ear, p. 78; teeth, p. 141) and Sancho is deeply preoccupied with his his bowels. How do you interpret these references?

7. We also see the introduction of a new motif, money. (Have any of the previous texts really mentioned money, apart from the obvious 30 pieces of silver for which Judas sold Jesus' life?) Try tracking clothing symbolism in Part I, money in Part II. (Think also about what money is, that is, how it works. Whence does money derive its value? How could its function be seen to parallel that of language--or, in some cases, clothing?)

8. The book presents itself as a product of multiple authorship (see, e.g., Prologue & p. 74, last para.). How do you unravel the tangle of authorial voices present in the text? Is there a "Cervantes" persona anywhere among them, or are all the "authors" of this text fictitious? To what extent is Don Q. himself an "author" here?  What are the effects (on the text; on the reader) of this "multiple authorship"?

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