I don’t feel qualified to substantively comment on this world classic. I didn’t study it in a university course or have an expert explain it to me. I read it in my free time over the summer, hopeful to count it as “pleasure” reading but ultimately finding that it fit better in the must-finish-in-order-to-be-cultured category. Whereas I devoured both War and Peace and Anna Karenina in less time last summer (see my reviews here and here), this one was a slog — likely more important given its age and originality, but much less entertaining than either of Tolstoy’s behemoths.
I was helped in my appreciation by reading it alongside Miguel de Unamuno‘s Vida De Don Quijote Y Sancho. Though I can’t recommend this extremely long essay to anyone who’s not studying academically, I also can’t deny that it dramatically increased my level of engagement with the source material. If I had only read the novel on my own, I fear I would have been tempted to dismiss it as an inaccessible relic. But thanks to Unamuno, I’m able to see its value. . . not so much in the story itself, but in the two unforgettable protagonists.
The second part, as many say, is undoubtedly the more fulfilling of the two, the richer and deeper half. The meta-story is interesting, and Sancho gets more characterization and more action (including, in one of my favorite episodes, his long-sought governership, even if it’s not truly an isle). At various times there is a fascinating lifting of the veil in which Sancho acknowledges his master’s insanity while simultaneously avowing both his love and duty to the same madman.
The duo is also dealing with fame in this second half, as the first part of their adventures has been published in the time they’ve been resting (the aforementioned meta- aspect). This makes their adventures less natural but somehow more adventurous. There’s also the question of their hangers-on (specifically the Dukes), who court them for their fame while mocking them for their craziness. At several points you wonder who is worse off: the unknowingly mocked (Quixote & Sancho), or the depraved who will go to such ridiculous lengths in their mockery.
The good stuff, though, is too few and far between. There’s a lot of tedious filler that had me really struggling to keep on. I would actually suggest to people wanting to read this that they get a condensed version of the first half, just to understand the events, and then read the second half in its entirety. That way you experience the style, know everything that happened, and come to the meat of it fresh and ready to ponder an analyze.
And there sure is a ton to analyze. The word “quixotic,” for example, of course comes from this book. It means “exceedingly idealistic, unrealistic or impractical,” and Don Quixote certainly was these things at times. But I’m not sure those are his defining characteristics. Unamuno would certainly disagree with the word’s modern-day meaning, calling Quixote a “Knight of Faith,” exemplifying what it means to believe undyingly in an ideal, perhaps God, and to fight with all of your strength for that ideal, no matter what say any of the unbelievers.
I think the main point is that Don Quixote is a blank slate, into whom you can read whatever you want. You can call him a fool, as I was inclined to during most of the first half. You can call him a hero, as Unamuno unwaveringly avers. You can call him something in between, or look to the characters who were responding to him and swore that he was both mad and sane at the same time.
I prefer to think of him as the embodiment of idealism, though not in the mocking connotation that the word “quixotic” has now gained. Don Quixote is pure idealism, an admirable idealism, the ideal of idealism, if you will. And Sancho, who I absolutely love, is a skeptical realist who worships this ideal and is really trying to be an idealist himself.