Most of this post will be about the second half of Don Quixote and the ending, so if you don’t want to hear about it, you might want to save this post for later. I loved the way the second part of the novel became a kind of commentary on the first (is this what people are talking about when they say that everything comes together in the second half?), how everyone Don Quixote and Sancho Panza meet have read the novel’s first half and so are in on the story of his peculiar form of madness. Most of them decide to have some fun playing jokes on the two, to see just how far the madness of Don Quixote will go. So, in addition to all the metanarrativity that was already going on in the first part — the multiple authors and the long conversations on storytelling and the frequent mentions of Cide Hamete Benengeli — Cervantes adds his critique of the false sequel to Don Quixote published in between his two volumes and mixes up real life and fiction even more by having Don Quixote confront the results of his literary fame again and again.
It is this playfulness about fiction and authorship that I will remember about the book, long after I’ve forgotten individual episodes — episodes it probably won’t take me all that long to forget, in truth, because some of them dragged on a bit and my attention wandered. But I love that self-interrogation is built into the structure of one of the first novels ever, depending on how one defines “novel,” or, at the very least, one of the earliest and most influential novels. Don Quixote is a novel about madness, friendship, adventure, and love, but it’s also very much a novel about novels, and it starts a very long tradition of novels that reflect on themselves, a traditional so influential that even ostensibly realistic novels usually have some kind of self-reflexive element to them.
About the novel’s ending: it is so sad! I didn’t expect to see Don Quixote regaining his sanity, and even less did I expect that moment of sanity to be rather depressing:
“Señores,” said Don Quixote, “let us go slowly, for there are no birds today in yesterday’s nests. I was mad, and now I am sane; I was Don Quixote of La Mancha, and now I am, as I have said, Alonso Quixano the Good. May my repentance and sincerity return me to the esteem your graces once had for me, and let the scribe continue.”
And he goes on reciting his will. It’s this melancholy at the end that convinces me (even further than I was already convinced) that Cervantes has great affection for his two main characters, in spite of their foolishness. It’s the energy of their madness that carries the story forward, so that as soon as Don Quixote regains his sanity, there is no story anymore, and the novel abruptly ends. Without Don Quixote’s madness, Cervantes has nothing. So, yes, Cervantes mocks Don Quixote’s foolish and naïve way of reading, but I think he glories in the energy and the fun of it too. To me, Don Quixote comes across as admirable in his imagination, his resourcefulness, his persistence, and his liveliness. I realize this is a very contemporary way of looking at the novel, and earlier readers may not have seen anything admirable in Don Quixote whatsoever, but I can’t help reading as a contemporary person, can I?