Literature's Most Misunderstood Novel

by Norman Berdichevsky (Oct. 2008)


No foreigner who has been in Spain more than a few days will fail to recognize them. Statues, portraits and images of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza stare out at you from tiled murals on the walls of schools, museums, shops and cultural centers. The familiar figures of the tall, lanky and gaunt knight-errant with his rusty sword, crooked lance and broken helmet, perched on his emaciated old plough horse turned charger, Rocinante, towers over the pudgy peasant Sancho Panza sitting astride his mule.


After the Bible and the Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, Don Quixote is the most widely translated literary work in history and a significant demonstration of self-satire and criticism of the established social values of Cervantes' Spanish homeland time, knighthood and chivalry, the romantic idealized medieval view of women, patriotism, the aristocracy, monarchy and the Church.

This book, considered by many as the first true novel, has gained world renown and contributed words and metaphors in many languages including English terms such as ‘Quixotic’, ‘Tilting at Windmills’, ‘Putting all your eggs in one basket’, ‘Judging people by the company they keep’, ‘The lance has never blunted the pen’, and ‘An honest man’s word is his bond’. Don Quixote is the subject of a hit Broadway musical (‘Man of La Mancha’ with its hit song – ‘The Impossible Dream’), a Russian ballet, posters by Picasso, an opera by the composer Cristóbal Halffter, and great musical works by Richard Strauss and Bedrich Smetana. It is the name of an American left-wing political forum with its own website, a Latin American institute for social justice and greater involvement of the Catholic Church on behalf of the poor as well as a high risk mutual investment firm (with their own impossible dream).

What does a sixteenth century Spanish novel about an unattractive ‘odd couple’ who might be mistaken at first glance for Oscar and Felix, the two contrasting characters in Neil Simon’s play of the same name or the film comics, Laurel and Hardy, tell us of lasting value? At first glance, the answer seems quite straightforward – it is an expression of sarcastic comment on well meaning people with noble idealistic motives who have their heads in the clouds only to bring disaster upon themselves and all around them. Time and time again it is the uneducated, crude peon, Sancho Panza, with his physical appetites and feet firmly on the ground who speaks up as the voice of sanity to prevent even greater misfortune.

This book is probably the most misunderstood in the United Stated among all foreign language novels translated into English. The reason is due to the success of the Broadway show man of La Mancha and its hit song “The Impossible Dream”. Numerous documentary programs dedicated to portraying the significance of the book totally miss the mark. There is a documentary produced especially for The Discovery Channel featuring actor Donald Sutherland as the narrator and a host of well known personalities and politicians including Mario Cuomo, ex-governor of New York, who explain that the “real message” of Don Quixote is high idealism just as stated in the words of the song……

“To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go....

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause

And I know if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will be peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star”

I doubt that either Sutherland, Cuomo or any of the others on this documentary feature ever read the book. What Cervantes wrote was the polar opposite of the song - a mocking satire. He leaves no doubt that it is precisely this unrealistic daydreaming and highly idealistic “quest” that is what most often results in disaster. Happiness is to be found in a realistic accommodation to reality rather than the futility and hopeless quest for vain glory by tilting at windmills. Apparently, the American upbeat super-optimistic psyche refuses to accept the real significance of the book.

The film version according to Arthur Hiller's concept for "Man of La Mancha" is much closer to the true spirit of the book and is the antithesis of the general audience’s expectations based on the musical. The film concentrates on the characters of Don Quixote, Sancho and Dulcinea who are all tragic figures because they admit and are all too aware that the world they live in is a dungheap but they hold out hope for an “impossible dream” of a better world ....if only in their hearts.

Hiller had no need of massive sets, choreography or rousing overtures. The score is more like chamber music and underscored, to focus attention on the characters. Most critics hated the film and obviously had been expecting something along the line of Fiddler on the Roof or Camelot. The film makes use of a double-plot in which the real Cervantes awaits trial by the Inquisition.

In the book, musical and film, Don Quixote sets forth to aid the weak and downtrodden and correct the injustices of a venal and corrupt society but becomes the constant target of their own misperceptions and failure to see reality as it is. He seeks to do great deeds without wavering from devotion to the ideals of chivalry, bravery, modesty, self-sacrifice, fair play and devotion to his lady, the noble and beautiful Dulcinea who is actually an ugly, stupid peasant shepherd-girl who takes care of swine and in the film she is portrayed as a whore. The film captures something of the majesty of the book but did not satisfy the expectations of an American audience with what was perceived as a tragic-comedy.

The author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, is recognized today as Spain’s greatest literary figure – a Spanish Shakespeare who encompassed all the futile strivings of the human condition in a single book and unmercifully mocked the quest for ‘glory’ which has often been their cause. Don Quixote is however redeemed by his essential dignity in the face of all adversity. It is this last characteristic which also emerges in some of the other songs of ‘Man of La Mancha’ and what makes the book into something much greater than just a farce.

Cervantes used a literary format that was far ahead of his time and it is this technique that makes the book so sophisticated and contemporary to modern readers. The text is divided into two parts. In the first (completed in 1605 and spanning 52 chapters), Don Quixote and Sancho are the laughing stock of all whose path they cross – haughty noblemen, simple peasants, learned scholars, rogues and criminals, sanctimonious priests, the insane, wronged women and jealous men, crass prostitutes and inn-keepers.

Don Quixote roams around his native Castille and the Sierra Morena suffering mockery and injury in his quest for chivalry, In the second part (completed in 1615 and containing 74 chapters) however, the characters they meet have already ‘read’ the accounts of the first part of the book (which became a best-seller) and are aware of the duo’s absurd quest.

These characters thus intentionally provoke Don Quixote and Sancho in order to amuse themselves and show by their own perverse behavior that it is ‘society’ which is absurd. This is what Shakespeare meant by “all the world’s a stage’. They are acting a part rather than reacting naturally as they did in the first half of the book. In the end, they drive Don Quixote back towards sanity and teach both him and Sancho that the human condition consists of learning to cope with earthly reality while still being able to soar to the heavens on the wings of imagination and idealism. Towards the end of the book, Sancho also becomes more a friend and companion than an exploited servant.

The book mocks the ideal of chivalry that put women on a pedestal to be worshipped and totally refutes the mistaken relationship that all effects or results must be due to a preordained cause that could have had no other outcome. This is the same logic that leads Don Quixote to believe that the giants he charged to do battle with were changed into windmills at the last moment by an evil sorcerer to frustrate his noble intent although Sancho had warned him beforehand that to attempt to joust against windmills would lead to disaster.

Cervantes uses much the same argument in many adventures and whenever the voice of wisdom speaks, it is that not that of Don Quixote. A beautiful maiden, Marcela (First Part, Chapter XIV) is blamed for the death of Grisostomo, a nobleman “unique in intelligence, unequaled in courtesy, peerless in friendship, faultless in generosity, serious without presumption, merry without vulgarity (all the virtues of chivalry)" who had the misfortune to love deeply and was rejected. He adored Marcela but was scorned and his story is read aloud, evoking the deep sympathy of Don Quixote and others, but Marcela explains that she cannot be blamed for Grisostomo’s death by suicide.

She must explain the faulty logic characteristic of the Middle Ages and the exaggerated and unrealistic ideal of chivalry, that because a woman is born beautiful, she cannot be held accountable for the passions and desires of men who seek to conquer and subdue her, holding her chastity as a great prize to be obtained. What better lesson could and should be learned by today’s traditional Muslims who accept judgments that a woman is guilty of being raped because she did not dress appropriately or was not accompanied by a male chaperone from her own family?

In the words of Marcela...

“Just as the viper does not deserve to be blamed for its venom, although it kills, since it was given the venom by nature, I do not deserve to be reproved for being beautiful, for beauty in the chaste woman is like a distant fire or sharp-edged sword; they do not burn or cut the person who does not approach them. Honor and virtue are adornments of the soul, without which the body is not truly beautiful, even if it seems to be. And if chastity is one of the virtues that must adorn and beautify both body and soul, why should a woman, loved for being beautiful, lose that virtue in order to satisfy the desire of a man who, for the sake of his pleasure, attempts with all his might and main to have her lose it?”
(Don Quixote, new translation by Edith Grossman’ Vintage.- Random House, London 2004 p.99)

On his deathbed, a much chastened Don Quixote writes his will, admits his madness and recognizes the debt he owes to Sancho Panza for his integrity and faithfulness. Don Quixote’s view of the world has changed too. ‘There is nothing but ups and downs in this world, and he that is cast down today may be a cock-a-hoop tomorrow. I was mad but I am now in my senses; I was once Don Quixote de la Mancha but am now, as I said before, plain Alonso Quixano and I hope the sincerity of my words and my repentance, may restore me to the same esteem you had for me before’ (In the musical and the film, he suddenly reverts back to his Don Quixote identity and leaps out of bed to do battle with imaginary giants and evil spirits).

There is moreover a debt which has never been explicitly recognized between Don Quixote and two other great classics of French and English literature - Voltaire's Candide (1759) and Swift's Gulliver's Travel's (1726) are novels that demonstrated an early use of black humor - the clever use of exaggeration, ironic understatement and grotesque humor to express the cruelty and insensitivity of the world. The same black humor can be observed in the avant-garde theater of such works and 'Waiting for Godot', 'Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern' or novels such as 'Catch 22'.

Cervantes, Swift and Voltaire directed their satirical attacks on the hypocritical notions maintained by respectable society regarding patriotism, religion and the established order. Candide's mentor, Master Pangloss was another idealistic philosopher like Don Quixote who confused cause and effect and could always explain that everything that happens, no matter how cruel, degrading and unjust had a higher purpose and purposeful design in this best of all possible worlds.

Candide and Cunagonde are no less an odd couple than Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Their irreconcilable differences are glossed over and lead to the most laughable situations immortalized in Leonard Bernstein's song 'Oh Happy We', Candide sings of his vision of the future in a modest little farm in a sweet Westphalian home, while they sit beside the fire and Pangloss tutors them in Latin and Greek surrounded by faithful dogs. At the same time, Cunegonde is pining to live a life of luxury bedecked with jewels and residing in their mansion where all will be pink champagne and gold. "We'll live in Paris when we're not in Rome," surrounded by faithful servants.

After worldwide travels and harrowing adventures, Candide comes to the same realization as Don Quixote - that the only recipe for a happy life is to abandon the quest for great achievements, noble heroism, chivalry and the vain quest for fame, fortune and riches. The only real alternative is to settle down and 'make ones garden grow'.

Gulliver's Travels has a less obvious connection since Gulliver travels without a partner who challenges and confronts him. Nevertheless, Swift was undoubtedly indebted to Cervantes for the bitter satire encompassed in his many observations of mankind and disgusted at the follies of four mythical kingdoms ruled by miniature beings, giants, mad philosophers and humanlike horses. Whereas Cervantes uses Don Quixote as a lunatic who has come to his senses, in order to understand how mad the word is, Swift transferred the notion of a degenerate European society to a world of alien creatures in a kind of forerunner to the famous Hollywood film Planet of the Apes.

The works of Cervantes, Voltaire and Swift all lampoon ideologies that come before common sense and do not recognize pity. Swift mimicked the religious intolerance and fratricidal conflicts that had torn Europe apart in the Thirty Years’ War between Catholics and Protestants by describing the schism between the Lilliputians and their arch-enemy the Blefuscans who had been split over the great issue of whether to crack eggs from the big end or small end. In Candide, Voltaire mocks religion, patriotism and loyalty to kings as excuses for greed, plunder and rape.

Cervantes uses Don Quixote to demonstrate how ‘noble ideas’ such as freeing slaves (Book I, Chapter VIII) are often the whim and excuse of a madman to serve his own ends. Don Quixote insists that the freed slaves put on their chains again and carry them a great distance to do homage and impress his noble lady.

Cervantes, in much the same way as Shakespeare inserted a plea for tolerance, hidden among the usual stereotypes acceptable and even popular in his time. For those who could read between the lines in the Merchant on Venice, the speech “Hath not a Jew eyes?’ spoke out against the prevailing prejudices and dogmas of the Church and Inquisition.

Cervantes’ plea can be found in the second book, Chapter LXIII, “Of Sancho’s Misfortune on Board the Galleys with the Strange Adventure of the Beautiful Morisca.” The Moriscos were Muslims who had been forced to convert to Christianity (although many had undoubtedly been the descendants of Christians who had been forcibly converted to Islam) but maintained their Arabic language, dress, folk-arts and other customs and traditions. These practises eventually proved too divisive and offensive to the Church which finally forced them into exile in 1609-1612, following the example of the Jews in 1492.

It is the story of Ana Felix, a Morsica whose parents were forced into exile and took her with them although she fervently desired to remain true to Catholicism. However, she was simply not permitted to demonstrate her loyalty. Nevertheless, she speaks of Spain as “My country.” She poses as a boy and thus is already practicing a double form of concealment. Cervantes puts these words in her mouth “All I have to beg is that I may die a Christian, since I am innocent of the crime of which my unhappy nation is accused.”

For the more sophisticated reader, there is the inference that if she is not guilty of the crimes which the Moors had been collectively accused of, might others not have also been unjustly banished? Might the same also be said of the Jews? Didn’t they too speak of Spain as “their” country? Cervantes probably went as far as he could go without provoking the Church.

What is the lasting heritage of Don Quixote for modern Spain and the world? It is a literary-intellectual-moral heritage no less powerful than Shakespeare’s words. Spain’s greatest twentieth century intellectual philosopher, the Basque born Miguel de Unamuno, saw in Don Quixote a modern version of Jesus – a lonely hero in a cruel world who could not persuade others to follow his unselfish example except the very naïve, such as Sancho Panza.

Unamuno who held the post of Rector at Spain’s greatest university, Salamanca, had been rescued from prison in the Canary Islands where he had been sent by the new Republic. Unamuno was too individualistic to identify with the ‘Generation of 98’ Spanish writers who had embraced the new republic. He had initially favored the uprising led by General Franco and openly admired leaders of the Falange party.

Nevertheless he quickly realized his mistake and termed Franco’s brutal war and stifling of all dissent as “an epidemic of madness.” At a reception at the University in 1936, several months after the outbreak of the Civil War, to celebrate Spain’s national holiday, (October 12th; also known as ‘Columbus Day’ in the United States), Unamuno gave the welcoming address to General Franco.

Present were General Franco, his wife, the Archbishop of Salamanca who had called the Fascist rebellion a ‘Christian Crusade’, and prominent members of the Falange and military leaders. These included the one-eyed, one-armed commander of Spain’s Foreign Legion, José Millán Astray, who called the Basques and Catalans, ‘Cancers in the body of the nation’ and roused his supporters with the Legionnaire’s slogan ‘Viva la Muerte!’ (long live death!).

Unamuno shocked the audience by pointing out that the Archbishop was a Catalan and he himself was a Basque who had devoted his life to the Spanish language and that the absurd and necrophilic cry of ‘Long Live Death’ was an insult, especially since Millán Astray was a war invalid like Cervantes, but without the author’s spiritual greatness.

Unamuno warned that this senseless morbid cry would inevitably lead to many tens of thousands more crippled and dead Spaniards providing a morbid consolation for Millán Astray. Unamuno finished by telling his angered audience that ‘You will win because you have more than enough brute force but you will never convince.’ It is no wonder that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have become immortal.

The subordination to the past, the rigid division of society by sex and religion and the fascination with death and worship of martyrdom that were all so characteristic of the Middle Ages lampooned by Cervantes are found at the root of today’s Muslim extremists who have politicized and ossified their own confusion between cause and effect. The societies where a rigid view of Islam prevails still feel the pull of the 7th century faith that is still waiting for a Cervantes of their own. Until then, they continue to search for imagined causes of their poverty, backwardness, illiteracy, gross social and economic inequalities, failure to freely pursue scientific enquiry and wretched record of human rights for individuals, women, children and non-Muslim or non-Arab minorities is a dead end similar to Grisostomo blaming Marcela for his anguish and eventual suicide.

Like Don Quixote, they continue to joust against windmills of their own imagination which holds that the cause of their fate and the disasters they have suffered are due to the “giants”, i.e. the Jews, Israel, America, the West, Christianity, imperialism, the Crusades, etc. rather than the windmills of reality. Like Marcela’s beauty, the achievements of the West or Israel are not responsible for their grief.

In March, 2004, a military spokesman for al-Qaeda in Europe, Abu Dujan al Afghani had this to say on a recorded tape to Spaniards (and of course to American, Israelis and Jews everywhere) following the bombing in Central Madrid at the Atocha Train Station that killed almost 200 passengers …

We declare our responsibility for what happened in Madrid exactly two and a half years after the attacks on New York and Washington. It is a response to your collaboration with the criminals Bush and his allies. This is a response to the crimes that you have caused in the world, and specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there will be more, if God wills it .. You love life and we love death.”

The preferred solution of a large part of the Arab world is a form of slow suicide – the sworn ideal of those fanatics who cannot enjoy life but rather prefer to seek martyrdom in which death and destruction are their ultimate rewards. They must learn to value their own Sancho Panzas and stop tilting at windmills. 


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