Cervantes’ Don Quijote is, above all, the story of a reader. The real question of the novel perhaps is why more readers do not behave like Quijote himself, and attempt to act out the things that they find so engaging in print. I would like to explore the way in which the main character’s status as a reader in Cervantes’ novel gives some clue to us as readers as to how we ought to behave. It seems evident that Cervantes’ strategy in the novel is largely rhetorical and ironic: he uses the language of the books Quijote reads, while imparting an ironic distance to how this language fits into the actual world where Quijote finds himself. But the ultimate result for Cervantes’ reader is to get a deeper form of literary enjoyment than Quijote is capable of: we are inside and outside the satisfactions of the storytelling at the same time, while Quijote is trapped inside them.
The first area of Don Quijote’s actions as reader that we must explore is that of pure rhetoric. In other words, Quijote’s world is, to a large degree, constructed out of language — he does not need to hallucinate when he can narrate his own passage through the world, and act as the recipient of his own rhetorical strategies. We can see this very clearly in his early invocation in the novel of the lady to whom he has chivalrously pledged his affections, Dulcinea:
“O Princess Dulcinea, mistress of this captive heart! Thou hast done me grievous harm in bidding me farewell and reproving me with the harsh affliction of commanding that I not appear before thy sublime beauty. May it please thee, Senora, to recall this thy subject heart, which suffers countless trials for the sake of thy love.”
He strung these together with other foolish remarks, all in the manner his books had taught him and imitating their language as much as he could. As a result his pace was so slow, and the sun rose so quickly and ardently, that it would have melted his brains if he had any. (25)
What is worth noting immediately about this passage is the profound rhetorical disconnection between Quijote’s own means of self-expression, and the narrator’s way of telling the story. Quijote’s language is high-flown and — in Grossman’s translation — slightly archaic, with its use of “thy” and its rhetorical use of apostrophe to address Dulcinea who is not actually there. The narrator’s language by contrast is earthy, but is also highly judgmental and moralistic: twice in two sentences we are reminded that the Don is an idiot. But is he? He is arguably capable of expressing himself in a higher rhetorical register than the narrator seems willing to attempt, which does not suggest stupidity. Instead the stupidity seems to come from the imitative element: this seems to be Cervantes’ point in making Dulcinea the Princess of “Toboso,” a word that he describes as “musical and beautiful and full of significance” but which is likely to sound a little silly to the reader.
What is most noteworthy here, though, is the fact that Cervantes’ rhetorical strategy essentially allows the reader to have it both ways. We enjoy the language of the old chivalrous epics that have comprised Quijote’s reading material, because Quijote faithfully recreates their language — we occasionally note a jarring anachronism or accidental bit of comedy, but otherwise the effect is not unlike going to a Renaissance Faire to see computer programmers wearing tights and talking about wenches and flagons of mead. There is an element of roleplay satisfaction, but also a careful awareness of ironic distance — we as readers get to enjoy both aspects, because unlike Quijote we have a form of irony that permits us to understand that these events are not real or susceptible of emulation. This is perhaps the reason for Erich Auerbach’s legendary comment on Cervantes, that he represents a crucial step toward the more faithful representation of reality with all its complications: in Auerbach’s words, Cervantes “is not merely a destructive critic but a continuer and consummator of the for which prose too is an art. As soon as great emotions and passions or sublime events are involved, this elevated style with all its devices appears. To be sure, its being so long a convention has shifted it slightly from the sphere of high tragedy toward that of the smoothly pleasant, which is capable of at least a trace of self irony. Yet it is still dominant in the serious sphere” (Auerbach 341). In other words, by engaging in a mockery of the epic chivalric romances that Quijote has consumed, Cervantes manages to be a “continuer and consummator” of their methods of storytelling at the same time that he acts as a “destructive critic” of the fundamental unreality of Quijote’s reading material, and how little it prepares him for life in the actual Spain in which he is forced to make his way.
In conclusion, we should consider how Don Quijote managed to become such a phenomenal bestseller in its own time if its purpose was solely to make fun of . This is not a strategy for great literature on its own — ridiculing bad books does not somehow automatically result in a great book. In fact, Don Quijote himself is a testament to the intrinsic appeal of the heroic reading material that Cervantes mocks — and the existence of Quijote shows that Cervantes is not wholly mocking it. He is, in some sense, repackaging the motifs for a readership that is aware of their unreality.
Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. Print.
Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote. Trans. Edith Grossman. New York: Harper Collins, 2003. Print.