Our Don Quixote, Ourselves

Adrift in a time of tumultuous change, Cervantes invented fiction to help him digest and understand his world; and that fiction in turn helped give birth to ours”; that “Not only would it become the template for all novels to come, but it also became a keystone of Western intellectual culture”; and finally—take note, Silicon Valley book clubs—that the novel stands as “one of the greatest innovations in human history.” Thereafter, Egginton devotes himself to answering a dutifully gob-smacked question: “How did he do it?”

.. while the novel is “clearly an impregnable masterpiece,” it “suffers from one serious flaw, that of outright unreadability.”

.. Don Quixote is a sprawling, decadent mess of a book, written in purposely puffed up, self-satirizing prose. It’s also full of assorted digressions, false plot turns, random asides, authorial self-deprecations, writer-on-writer sniping, and extended plot diversions, including novella-sized interpolations of other chivalric tales that are themselves chockablock with more of all this same stuff. In other words, in its very scale and range, Don Quixote does not exclusively amuse, endear, awe, and beguile, which is what we have come to expect from a 400-year-old classic.

.. This impatience owes to more than my wanting always desperately to put the book aside and check my phone. It also comes from knowing that I only need to read the first eight chapters “to get it.” After all, it’s in those opening chapters that Cervantes establishes the crazy-making nature of his protagonist’s addiction to 16th-century Spanish novels of chivalry.

.. he became so convinced in his imagination of the truth of all the countless grandiloquent and false inventions he read that for him no history in the world was truer.”

.. he had the strangest thought any lunatic in the world ever had, which was that it seemed reasonable and necessary to him, both for the sake of his honor and as a service to the nation, to become a knight errant and travel the world … righting all manner of wrongs and, by seizing the opportunity and placing himself in danger and ending those wrongs, winning eternal renown and everlasting fame. 

..  novel’s difficulty lies not just in its size and form and style, the usual terms for latter-day readers finding fault with the book. In fact, Don Quixote’s difficulty actually owes to the reasonableness of Egginton’s proposition that we can find ourselves reflected in this book’s creation-cum-revelation of the modern mind in all of its advanced self-awareness. But if that’s the case, this means also finding evidence in the novel of all our most troublesome, even destructive capacities as moderns.


One of the Knight’s earliest good deeds, for instance, concerns a servant boy he finds tied to an oak tree, being whipped by his master. Quixote intervenes, reprimands the farmer, and orders the boy released and compensated for his suffering. The farmer agrees and asks that the boy come back to the house with him to get, you know, paid. The boy refuses to go, regardless of Quixote’s assurance that the farmer will comply not just out of fear that the Knight will punish him if he does not but also in natural deference to his authority and reputation: “And if you wish to know who commands you to do this, so that you have an even greater obligation to comply, know that I am the valiant Don Quixote of La Mancha, the righter of wrongs and injustices, and now go with God, and do not even think of deviating from what you have promised and sworn, under penalty of the penalty I have indicated to you.”

The boy gives way, the Knight rides off, and then the farmer grabs the boy and gives him “so many lashes that he left him half-dead.” Cervantes closes this episode: “In this way the valiant Don Quixote righted a wrong.” As far as the Knight is concerned, he has in fact done a good and noble deed, in keeping with his quest to bring justice and win fame. And as far as we can tell, he has just compounded a powerless young boy’s suffering. I think therefore I am, and you are what I say you are.

.. Egginton himself argues for a meaningful coincidence between Cervantes and Descartes, related to the crowning importance of perception to the security and integrity of one’s identity ..

.. Likewise, the novel’s hero can be laughed at, dismissed, and even denounced, but also pitied and admired on the exact same terms, all for trying to live his life according to a credo that everyone else around him knows to be false, pointless, risible, even dangerous.

.. “Cervantes pushed the envelope of every literary genre, parodying established styles and conventions along the way.” And so, in answer to the question driving this study, that’s “how he did it,” that’s how Cervantes created the book read by more people than any other, save the Bible.

.. The pressures of Cervantes’s private life offer lots of possible answers to the question of why he wrote it. But beyond the dreamy notion of a jail-cell inspiration, the more vexing possibility—vexing because it’s at once irritating and intimidating to writer and reader alike—that emerges by the end of the novel is that Cervantes wrote this simply because he wanted to, and he could, and so he did. Consider: in the novel’s closing pages, the Don has returned home following a genuine defeat in a brief battle against another knight. Quixote rejects all books of chivalry, comes to his senses, makes a good confession, and dies. His final words are an apology to the author of the novel itself and a request for forgiveness

The Man Who Invented Fiction review – what we owe to Cervantes

Recent high-profile studies have claimed that reading fiction can help strengthen empathy, and improve theory of mind.)

.. The splitting of perspectives – experiencing this “fiction” from within and without, with a multiplicity of differing understandings of the world – allowed Cervantes to explore moral questions without ever being moralistic; and it allowed him, too, to get past any censor on the lookout for seditious anti-national or anti-religious messages in an increasingly controlling state.