Thursday, April 30, 2015

Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes

And here it is!  The Don Quixote post!  In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have written as much about reading it as I did, because I probably set all you readers up for a good analytical post, when I definitely don't have that in me.  Still, here is a post about my thoughts on Don Quixote.

So, Don Quixote.  I'll admit that I had my doubts.  It was long and I wasn't in the mood for a tome when I started it, but it's one of those classics that I really wanted to approach again for Classics Club-a wonderful motivator for this kind of thing.

Most people know the basic plot of Don Quixote.  However, here it is.  Don Quixote is divided into two parts-the first one being tales of his escapades and stories of the people around him.  The second is, well, I didn't love it.  I'll say more later.  Don Quixote is a fairly wealthy man living in La Mancha.  He adores exciting adventure stories full of chivalrous deeds.  And this, according to our narrator, is his downfall.  The books, or so we are told, turn his brain to mush so that he sees everything as part of his fantastic stories.  So, he proceeds to try to live his life as much like a chivalrous knight-errant.  He helps all the poor and needy, tries to win his love (a woman he barely knows), and perform brave deeds.  He takes along his trusty steed (a frail horse) and his side-kick (Sancho).

This part of the book was so fun-adventures and thrills, dangerous quests.  And, through it all, I began to see his world as Don Quixote did.  This is the part of the book that includes the famous windmill story.  For the first 1/8 of the book, I laughed at Don Quixote, with his silly adventures and his delusions.  I identified with Sancho, although at times I wondered why he didn't just leave Don Quixote. And then, something clicked.  I realized why Don Quixote was doing what he was doing.  I started to see a method to his madness.

By the second part of the book, things start to change.  Sancho is now tricking and lying to Don Quixote (for reasons that confused me for awhile, but that became clear later) and there are a slimy Duke and Duchess in on it.  They have convinced Don Quixote that his love has been put under an enchantment and that only he can perform all kinds of deeds to save her.  And so they cruelly send him on task after ludicrous task, which he performs tirelessly.

His imagined events become more and more insane, but, strangely enough, that actually made me empathize with him even more.  His imagination is a reaction to the world in which he is living.

This is where I grew sick of the book and went from smiling complacently to close to outrage.  The tormenting, the joy that all the people around him were getting out of tormenting him sickened me.  The brutal behavior displayed by so many people made me ache for Don Quixote and, all at once, I realized something.

Now, I know that this is not a new statement and that plenty of people have made this observation before.  But, I still was so struck by it. Don Quixote is the one in the right.  In the first part of the book, we are the complacent villagers watching his insanity, wondering why he can't just settle down and do things like everybody else.  By the end of the book, we are supposed to have realized that Don Quixote  is demonstrating the need for, and lack of, chivalry.  His willingness to do anything to help people, however deluded those actions may be, is admirable.  And we, the readers, are supposed to empathize with that.  Cervantes is making the observation that, in his culture, chivalry was being lost.

In the final chapters, Don Quixote is alone, exhausted, and sick.  It is in these final moments that he realizes that chivalry is dead, that his efforts have been in vain.  And then, he dies, leaving the reader to be brought back to reality by the narrator.

While this book often gets labeled as comic, I definitely didn't see it that way.  Well, maybe for the first section, but after that, I was left feeling melancholic and slightly wrenched by Don Quixote's life events and his last moments.

And that, I think is the sign of a wonderful writer.  I have almost no knowledge of 1600s Spain. And yet, Don Quixote speaks to our human condition-our desire for chivalry and bravery, though none of us would say that we particularly are longing for those things.  Cervantes's use of words and poetry and imagery brought goosebumps to my arms multiple times.

The translation I had was fantastic and I think that made a huge difference.  If you're interested in getting a copy of Don Quixote, I highly recommend the one translated by Edith Grossman.  She did what all good translators do-kept her voice in the background and Cervantes's in the front, simply giving the reader the impression of an enhanced view of the original author.  And then she had all kinds of fascinating notes at the end, which I really appreciated.

Do, please go read this book, if you're in the mood for a long classic.  It was worth all those days spent slogging through chapter and after chapter.  Now, on to Frankenstein!


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