Read an Excerpt
From Carole Slade's Introduction to Don Quixote
In the first few pages of Don Quixote, Cervantes had his contemporaries laughing. King Philip III remarked of a student he spotted from his balcony bursting into fits of laughter while reading a book, "That student has either lost his wits or he is reading Don Quixote." A courtier who went to investigate found that the young man was indeed reading Don Quixote. Even if apocryphal, the remark conveys the contagious hilarity with which Don Quixote infected seventeenth-century Spanish readers. What did they find so amusing? Understanding the continuing power of Don Quixote to entertain as well as to instruct begins with answering that question.
Cervantes's contemporaries would have immediately recognized Don Quixote as a low-level member of the nobility struggling to keep up appearances, always a comical endeavor. His rusty lance and rotted shield, relics of the means by which his grandparents and their forebears had acquired land, wealth, and power, now serve only as ornaments on his walls. Far from living with the ease of a gentleman, the status to which he pretends, he is tightening his belt to the point of constriction. His skimpy diet, which consumes three-quarters of his income, his "skeleton of a horse," and "starved greyhound" suggest that he lives right on the edge of his financial means. In taking the title of don, which he does not merit because he does not own enough land, he follows a widespread practice of inflating rank with nothing more substantial than assertions. His fragile ego, which he always protects from admission of failure, suggests that he would have needed a way to avoid facing his financial bind and prospective social ruin. Like many Spaniards of his time, he finds an escape in books of chivalry.
To buy his books of chivalry, Don Quixote has raised money in a way that a seventeenth-century audience would have found ludicrous: selling off good, potentially income-producing farmland. Engrossed in reading the books, he has let his house and holdings go to ruin, and he has given up hunting, a perennial pastime of Spanish aristocrats. On these points he is laughably imprudent; but soon it becomes clear that on the subject of chivalry, he has not merely gorged himself on books, but perhaps has lost his sanity. Over the course of the novel, readers slowly begin to reckon with the sobering idea that they could be laughing not at a clown or a fool, but at a lunatic, and what's more, that Don Quixote quite possibly reflects their own image back to them. In choosing not to anchor the novel in a specific time and place, Cervantes signals that his satire will be directed not only at Don Quixote but also at his contemporary Spaniards. Don Quixote is not the only one, Cervantes suggests, who lives in a laughable, and dangerous, fantasy world. Don Quixote was as topical in its time as the most recent broadcast of Saturday Night Live is today, and it has proved as timeless as Shakespeare's King Lear and Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Seventeenth-century Spaniards are not the only ones who cannot reconcile themselves to change and decline.
In most of part I, especially in the first foray, the humor of Don Quixote remains relatively benign and broad. Consider, for example, Don Quixote's appearance. On the morning he rides out of his village on Rocinante, Don Quixote wears a full suit of rusted armor and a medieval helmet outfitted with a cardboard faceguard. In addition to being more than a century out of date, obviously jerry-rigged, and completely inappropriate for the intense July heat on the high plains of Castile, this outfit confines him to stiff, clumsy gestures reminiscent of the inflexible gait of the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz. Henri Bergson explains in his treatise on comedy, Laughter (1900), that "the artificial mechanization of the human body," the transformation of a human body into a "thing" by whatever means, costume or gesture, constitutes the stuff of physical comedy.
Like the ungainly movements of the Tin Woodsman, which exhibit his lack of a heart, Don Quixote's armor, particularly his corroded helmet, represents the rigidity of his mind and spirit. He has created a self-image from books of chivalry, the accounts of heroic deeds of medieval knights, and he proceeds to treat the world as if it were the scene of such a romance. Spotting a very ordinary inn just at sunset, Don Quixote conjures up a castle.
As our hero's imagination converted whatsoever he saw, heard or considered, into something of which he had read in books of chivalry; he no sooner perceived the inn, than his fancy represented it, as a stately castle with its four towers and pinnacles of shining silver, accommodated with a draw-bridge, deep moat, and all other conveniences, that are described as belonging to buildings of that kind.
He hears the swineherd's horn call to round up his pigs as a trumpet salute to his arrival; he greets two women immediately recognizable as "ladies of the game," or prostitutes, as "high-born damsels"; and he addresses the innkeeper as "Castellano" (governor of the castle).