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Free Barron's Booknotes-Don Quixote by Migel de Cervantes-Free Book Notes
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REFERENCE

THE CRITICS - CRITICAL ANALYSIS

There is no one so stupid as to praise Don Quixote. Lope de Vega, Cervantes' contemporary and rival

This harsh judgment of Don Quixote was unusual, even for its times. Nevertheless, it reflects the general tendency of the early readers of Don Quixote to see the novel as a comic entertainment, unworthy of serious criticism. A few critics today still insist that Don Quixote should be read for its humor alone.

In the nineteenth century, the majority opinion on the novel swung to the opposite extreme. Readers found the novel almost unbearably sad and poignant. Typical of this reaction was the comment of the critic John Ruskin, who said: "Don Quixote always affected me throughout to tears, not laughter. It was always throughout real chivalry to me:... and because all true chivalry is thus by implication accused of madness and involved in shame that I find the book so deadly."

George Tyler Northup in his Introduction to Spanish Literature (1925) summarizes the twentieth-century view of the Cervantes masterpiece:

The vast majority of critics have considered Don Quixote the greatest novel ever written. What are the qualities which give it this pre-eminence? Other novels show more carefully constructed plots, greater perfection of technique, characters more perfectly drawn, a deeper philosophy, a style more polished. These very limitations contribute to its universality. It appeals to both the cultured and the uncultured. It was addressed to no narrow group.... What makes it appeal to all countries, to all ages, and to all classes is that it taps the well-springs of human nature, and human nature is the same everywhere.


The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, in Meditations on Don Quixote (1914), discussed Quixote as a Christ-like figure:

The figure of Don Quixote, set in the middle of the work like an antenna which picks up all the allusions, has attracted exclusive attention, to the detriment of the rest of the book, and, consequently, to the character himself.... in a certain way, Don Quixote is the sad parody of a more divine and serene Christ: he is a Gothic
Christ, torn by modern anguish; a ridiculous Christ of our own neighborhood, created by a sorrowful imagination which has lost its innocence and its will and is striving to replace them.

Gerald Brenan stresses the influence of Erasmus and other Renaissance thinkers on Cervantes and sees Don Quixote as the portrait of a revolutionary:

Its subject is militant-which is as much to say revolutionary-faith. It explains the psychology of the believing and half-believing man with a subtlety and penetration not approached by any other writer. If one wanted a modern equivalent, one could rename it the adventures of the [Communist] party man and his fellow traveller. And where do its sympathies lie? The revolutionary is the hero of the book, yet its author has not only made him mad, but casts doubt on the purity of his motives.... [Nevertheless,] With all his failings, Don Quixote
towers above the other characters as the one great and noble man in the book.

The noted American critic Joseph Wood Krutch, in Five Masters (1930), calls attention to the novel's realism, which makes it an honorable progenitor of the modern novel:

But he [Cervantes], on the other hand, could not but be aware that Don Quixote violated the literary canons of his age. Outwardly it was nearer to the picaresque romance than to anything else-it was strung upon a thread of comic misadventures and it not only dealt realistically with the common people but carried such realism further than it had ever been carried before-yet it touched upon high things which had no place among the vulgarities of the picaresque romance and it seemed to strive for that synthesis of the comedy and tragedy of life which we recognize as the distinguishing mark of the modern novel...

The following are two recent views of Don Quixote.

Both parts of Don Quixote form a veritable encyclopedia of cruelty. From that viewpoint it is one of the most bitter and barbarous books ever penned. And its cruelty is artistic. The extraordinary commentators who talk through their academic caps or birettas of the humorous and humane mellowly Christian atmosphere of the book, or a happy world where 'all is sweetened by the humanities of love and good fellowship,' and particularly those who talk of a certain 'kindly duchess' who 'entertains the Don' in the second Part-these gushing experts have probably been reading some other book or are looking through some rosy gauze at the brutal world of Cervantes' novel.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Don Quixote, 1983

Don Quixote may have failed at the herculean task of rebuilding his society: he managed at the very least to establish in his own mind, and perhaps also in the mind of his readers, the legitimacy of dreams and protest. It is undeniably true that we would seek in vain for a precise conclusion, a moral to the fable. The fact that many messages, often contradictory, have been found, seems to prove that we can approach Cervantes' meaning only 'through a glass, darkly.' Lord Byron thought that Cervantes' novel had sounded the death knell for the Spanish heroic spirit and therefore had accelerated the political decadence of Spain. The authors of the modern musical comedy, Man of La Mancha, on the contrary, believe that the enthusiasm and idealism of the knight are infectious: Sancho and Dulcinea, somehow, will continue the struggle and the quest.

Manuel Duran, Cervantes, 1974

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