Reading and writing in Don Quixote

As I’m reading Don Quixote, I’m reminded of a certain type of eighteenth-century novel, particularly those of Henry Fielding, which I realize is backwards, of course — Henry Fielding’s novels should remind me of Don Quixote, not the other way around — but I came to Henry Fielding first. As backwards as my response is, I’m pleased, because one of the reasons I wanted to read Don Quixote was to understand more about the history of the novel, although, no surprise, I’m ending up with more questions than answers. But I’m seeing the same light-hearted tone in Don Quixote that I learned to love in Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews; the same picaresque, episodic style; the same violence; the same stories within stories; the same type of humorous, vulnerable but also paradoxically invulnerable type of character — the type who gets bruised and battered over and over and over and always ends up being just fine.

If Henry Fielding was hugely influenced by Cervantes, I’m left with questions about Cervantes’s influences. Obviously, he was inspired by those chivalric romances the novel is always mentioning — inspired to make fun of them, that is — but I wonder what other models and sources lie behind this novel. What conventions that Cervantes draws upon come from those chivalric works, what come from other types of books, and what things weren’t conventions at all, but were things Cervantes made up? Perhaps I’ll have to do some reading about this …

I’m also interested in the way both Fielding and Cervantes have a lot to say about writing and reading, and how much they draw attention to their books as artifacts. They are not trying to get you lost in the story and to make you forget you are reading a book; rather, they draw your attention to that fact again and again. Obviously, Cervantes is writing about reading when he makes Don Quixote so very obsessed with romances and determined to become a knight just like the ones he’s read about. Cervantes has so much to say about the pleasures and the dangers of reading in this sense.

But he also draws attention to books and authors in other ways, for example, in the library scene, where the priest, barber, and housekeeper go through Don Quixote’s collection of books to throw out those dangerous tales of chivalry — comically, the priest winds up wanting to keep most of them, finding something of value in them after all. And then between Parts One and Two of the novel’s first part, the narrator interrupts the story to tell us a bit about the text itself. Cervantes has presented himself, not as somebody who has made up a story, but as the one who found Don Quixote’s true history written up by others, and as the one who is putting various texts together into a coherent story. And at the end of Part One, he tells us that he has reached the end of his sources and must look around for others:

But the difficulty in all this is that at this very point and juncture, the author of the history leaves the battle pending, apologizing because he found nothing else written about the feats of Don Quixote other than what he has already recounted. It is certainly true that the second author [that is, Cervantes] of this work did not want to believe that so curious a history would be subjected to the laws of oblivion, or that the great minds of La Mancha possessed so little interest that they did not have in their archives or writing tables a few pages that dealt with this famous knight; and so, with this thought in mind, he did not despair of finding the conclusion to this gentle history, which, with heaven’s help, he discovered in the manner that will be revealed in part two.

This passage accomplishes a lot of things: it ends Part One with a cliffhanger — Don Quixote has been battling “the gallant Basque” and we’ll want to rush on to Part Two to find out how it goes — but it also allows Cervantes to talk up his subject. Surely so great a story as that of Don Quixote wouldn’t remain untold? Surely the story that Cervantes has so enjoyed, other people will have enjoyed in the past and will again in the future? How could we, Cervantes’s readers, not love what he is offering to us?

The author becomes a reader too, something we see even more clearly near the beginning of Part Two:

… at that extremely uncertain point, the delectable history stopped and was interrupted, without the author giving us any information as to where the missing parts could be found.

This caused me a good deal of grief, because the pleasure of having read so small an amount was turning into displeasure at the thought of the difficult road that lay ahead in finding the large amount that, in my opinion, was missing from so charming a tale.

Cervantes is acting out what he wants his reader to experience — enjoyment in the story, grief when the story ends.  A bit later, once Cervantes has found another manuscrupt, the continuation of the story, we get this wonderful passage:

I say, then, that for these and many other reasons, the gallant Don Quixote is deserving of continual and memorable praise, as am I, on account of the toil and effort I have put into finding the conclusion of this amiable history, though I know very well that if heaven, circumstances, and fortune do not assist me, the world will be deprived of the almost two hours of entertainment and pleasure the attentive reader may derive from it.

I love this passage. The author steps in and tells us not only that his main character is wonderful, but that he, the author, is wonderful too, having put so, so much work into producing his book. If he hadn’t done it, and if he didn’t have heaven’s help, the reader might lose out on two hours of pleasure. He’s mocking himself and his enterprise a bit, of course, but there’s also a seriousness to it — two hours of entertainment and pleasure may not be such a little thing after all.

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

3 responses to “Reading and writing in Don Quixote

  1. I was wondering, too, where Cervantes got his inspiration to write as he did. I’m curious about these chivalric romances–they must have been the pop culture books of the day as he certainly makes all sorts of references to them! I enjoy Cervantes’ little additions to the text–like voiceovers to the action. I usually read a chapter and then read the little introductory blurb for the next one to see what’s in store for the next days reading! I’m also curious to read what contemporary readers must have thought about his book as well.

  2. Voiceovers is a good way to put it, Danielle! I like those introductory blurbs too, although did you notice the one that was wrong? The editor pointed out that the events the introduction describes don’t take place for another couple chapters.

  3. That was helpful–maybe when he edited things got messed up or his writing just took another direction. I wish other authors had those blurbs–they are kind of fun!

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