Why is Don Quixote the first modern novel?

Edwin Williamson

From The MHRA Centenary Lectures (2020), doi:10.59860/cl.c47c5cc

Part of the book: The MHRA Centenary Lectures

Edited by Graham Nelson


Modern Humanities Research Association

Full text.  This contribution is published as Open Access, and its full text is given below.

Why is Don Quixote the First Modern Novel?

Professor Edwin Williamson

University of Oxford

Let me start by saying what a great pleasure it is to mark the centenary of the Modern Humanities Research Association by addressing you here today. It is, in fact, a double pleasure, since this centenary coincides with the centenary of the establishment of Spanish Studies at the University of Leeds.

Fig. 1. The University of Leeds as it stood in the 1910s

Given the pressures under which the humanities currently find themselves, and the pressures that also bear upon modern languages in the British educational system, I believe it is important for us, as Hispanists, to take every opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the academic profession. The MHRA is one of those great achievements. It has become an outstanding advocate of the importance and value of the humanities, not just on a national but also now on an international scale. It was established at a time of war, when Europe was tearing itself apart, with a mission to overcome barriers between languages, cultures, and disciplines through the promotion of academic research. One hundred years later those founding goals are as politically and culturally relevant as ever. What’s more, the coincidence of the two centenaries, I would say, is gratifyingly appropriate for all of us who work in Spanish Studies.


You will recall that 2016 was the fourth centenary of the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes. Both writers, as you well know, are regarded as the supreme examples of literary achievement in their respective languages. It struck me, however, that Shakespeare is one of a constellation of English-language writers who are known throughout the world, whereas Cervantes is probably the only Spanish writer whom most people outside of the Spanish-speaking world have heard of. I don’t intend to examine the complex historical and cultural reasons for this state of affairs, but it serves to remind us of the challenges that still remain in the enterprise of advancing knowledge and understanding of the languages, literatures, and cultures of the countries of the Hispanic world.

As a Cervantes scholar, I have often wondered what it is about Cervantes that makes him unique in the way I have described. The simple answer is of course — Don Quixote. None of Cervantes’s other works is as well known in the wider world as that one book. But what is it about Don Quixote that has made it stand out among the other classics in the Spanish language to become a classic of world literature? That is the theme I have chosen for my talk today.

Fig. 2. Mariano de la Roca y Delgado, Miguel de Cervantes imaginando El Quijote (1858)

Great claims have been made for Cervantes’s masterpiece. Georg Lukács called it ‘the first great novel of world literature’.1 Lionel Trilling believed it was seminal in the development of prose fiction: ‘In any genre, it may happen that the first great example contains the whole potentiality of the genre. … It can be said that all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote.’2 According to Harold Bloom, the book has left a lasting imprint on the modern novel:

This book contains within itself all the novels that have followed in its sublime wake. Like Shakespeare, Cervantes is inescapable for all writers who have come after him. Dickens and Flaubert, Joyce and Proust reflect the narrative procedures of Cervantes, and their glories of characterisation mingle strains of Shakespeare and Cervantes.3

The book remains a source of inspiration for writers in our own day. In a poll of one hundred leading writers from fifty-four countries conducted in 2002 by the Norwegian Nobel Institute, a majority voted Don Quixote ‘the greatest work of fiction ever written’.4

Fig. 3. Thomas Shelton's English Quixote, its first translation into any language, had a lasting reach. This 1725 reprint proudly claims to be a verbatim reissue of the 4th edition of 1620, albeit 'with a curious SET of CUTS from the French'

Now such huge claims may be open to dispute, but no-one can deny the book’s prominence in literary history. When the First Part appeared in January 1605 it quickly became a popular success in the Spanish-speaking world. Within a few months of its publication, people were dressing up as the mad knight and his squire in fiestas and street-pageants in Spain, and by 1607 the odd couple had even reached the Vice-Royalty of Peru, appearing as figures of fun at a fiesta in Lima. The book’s fame began to spread abroad too. In England the Earl of Southampton donated a copy to the Bodleian Library at Oxford in August 1605, only eight months after its first publication in Spain, and two years later, the English writer John Fletcher based a story on one of the tales interpolated in the novel; the first English translation by Thomas Shelton appeared in 1612, and another interpolated tale, the story of Cardenio and Luscinda, inspired a play, The History of Cardenio, now lost, whose authorship has been attributed to Fletcher in collaboration with William Shakespeare and which is recorded as having been performed in London in 1613 by the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s theatre company. The story of El curioso impertinente (The Tale of Inappropriate Curiosity) was translated into French in 1608, and a French version of the whole of Part One was published in 1614, the year before Cervantes published Part Two.

Don Quixote was to inspire parodies of sentimental and pastoral romances in France and England, and went on to influence the early English novel in the hands of Fielding, Sterne, Smollett and Defoe. The Romantics found a philosophical significance in the book that invested it with an underlying seriousness. In the heyday of Realism it was hugely admired for its interplay of truth and illusion and its vivid characterisation; while modernists and postmodernists were drawn to its ingenious metafictional games. It has, moreover, inspired artists in a wide range of other media — from drama, ballet, and opera to painting, film, television, cartoons and comic strips. Don Quixote, one might say, has achieved the status of a universal classic — and this almost in a literal sense: I read, not long ago, that a new star had been given the name ‘Cervantes’ — and its four planets will be called — yes, you probably guessed — Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, Dulcinea and Rocinante.5 All of this begs the question: How could this one book have had the power to exert such enormous influence on literature and the arts for some 400 years? And it prompts a related question: how could a seventeenth-century Spaniard, a devout Catholic and loyal subject of the Spanish Monarchy, a man living in the Spain of the Inquisition, come to write a work that is widely regarded as the first modern novel?

Fig. 4. The endlessly adaptable Quixote: some of the many 20th-century graphic novels and animations


Some scholars have argued that such claims and questions are based on a misunderstanding. The first of these sceptics was Erich Auerbach. In his famous book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, he observed that there were ‘probably few lovers of literature who do not associate the concept of ideal greatness with Don Quijote’, but such a view, he complained, ‘withstands all attempts on the part of philological criticism to show that Cervantes’s intention was not to produce such an impression’.6 And he attributed the origin of that alleged misapprehension to the Romantic period.

The German Romantics read Cervantes’s book as representing a clash between the Ideal and the Real, symbolized by Don Quixote and Sancho Panza respectively, a conflict in which the knight’s love for his lady Dulcinea became imbued with pathos and even a certain tragic irony.7 Although the Romantics acknowledged the comedy in the Quixote, they subsumed it in a higher metaphysical meaning as the author’s expression of the impossibility of realizing the Ideal in this material world. Cervantes’s parody of the romances of chivalry thus became a sort of philosophical allegory about the human condition in the modern age.

Fig. 5. Erich Auerbach (1892-1957)

Auerbach emphatically rejected this Romantic interpretation:

There is […] very little of problem and tragedy in Cervantes’s book––and yet it belongs among the literary masterpieces of an epoch during which the modern problematic and tragic conception of things arose in the European mind. Don Quijote’s madness reveals nothing of the sort. The whole book is a comedy in which well-founded reality holds madness up to ridicule.8

Auerbach was followed by a number of mostly British scholars who rejected the Romantic approach to the novel. For Alexander Parker the madness was a comic device to punish Don Quixote’s foolish pretensions.9 Peter Russell cited sources which suggested that Cervantes’s contemporaries regarded Don Quixote as little more than a ‘funny book’, an amusing satire on the absurdities of the Spanish books of chivalry.10 The most hardline of these anti-Romantic scholars, Anthony Close, believed that all modern Quixote critics, with very few exceptions, had got it wrong, because they had disregarded Cervantes’s declaration in the Prologue to Part One, that his only aim was to destroy the fabric of the romances of chivalry.11

However, I want to vindicate the Romantic interpretation of Don Quixote — to the extent of saying that it was not some fanciful perversion of Cervantes’s intentions but rather, a response to certain qualities inherent in the work itself. Auerbach and his followers, in their insistence on privileging Cervantes’s intención, overlooked another vital element in the making of Don Quixote — Cervantes’s invención, a quality which he greatly prized and which led him to boast in his Voyage to Parnassus: ‘Yo soy aquel que en la invención excede/a muchos’ — ‘I am one who surpasses many others in his powers of invention’.12


In this lecture I propose to defend the idea that Don Quixote is indeed a seminal work which fully deserves to be regarded as the first modern novel. But what does one mean by the ‘modern novel’? What are its distinctive features? It’s very hard to say because the modern novel, being so loose and fluid in both form and subject matter, resists hard-and-fast definition. And yet, even though it may be difficult, if not impossible, to agree on a poetics or a rhetoric of the novel, I think it makes sense to talk about the ‘novel’ as a distinct mode of writing. In ‘The Art of Fiction’, Henry James famously defined it as follows: ‘A novel is in its broader definition a personal, a direct impression of life: that, to begin with, constitutes its value, which is greater or less according to the intensity of the impression.’ But he warned, ‘there will be no intensity at all, and therefore no value, unless there is the freedom to feel and say’.13

I think ‘the freedom to feel and say’, the freedom to articulate ‘a personal, a direct impression of life’ constitutes an important factor in distinguishing between traditional and modern forms of fiction. The pre-modern author was judged against a canon of classic works and according to generally accepted norms — aesthetic, moral, religious and political: he was expected to imitate authoritative models, required to impart moral lessons in and through his inventions, and enjoined to portray life not as it is but as it ought to be. Overt moralizing, however, is anathema in modern fiction; what is valued above all is the originality of a writer’s vision. Modern writers are free to create fiction on their own terms, free to express their sense of the world in the open, eclectic, protean genre of the novel. This freedom from external norms and authorities is the reason why, according to Henry James, ‘there is no limit to possible experiments, efforts, discoveries, and successes’ in the novel.14

That sea-change from authority and orthodoxy to originality can be observed in Don Quixote, for in the course of writing his parody of chivalric romance Cervantes broke with the normative tradition of poetics and struck out on his own. At a crucial point in the narrative, as we shall see, he had the courage to follow his invención, his creative imagination, even though he must have known it would take him beyond the authorized limits of early-modern Spain.

Fig. 6. Chivalric darkness and light: Gustave Doré's Orlando (left, 1877) and Quixote (right, 1863)

Cervantes was not the first writer to parody the romances of chivalry. Ariosto, for one, had already done so in Orlando Furioso, a book Cervantes greatly admired. But it was the Spaniard’s brilliant idea of making his hero mad that made the crucial difference, for the ideal world of chivalric romance, which had captivated the European imagination for over four centuries, was condensed at a stroke into a reality existing nowhere other than inside the head of a lunatic.15 This, I would say, was the source of the book’s power and the key to its modernity.

Everything that Cervantes was to achieve in his great masterpiece would flow from the madness of Don Quixote. The chief target of the parody was the absurd claim of the Spanish libros de caballerías that they were ‘true histories’. And so, an old country gentleman from La Mancha goes mad from reading too many books of chivalry and ends up believing that they are literally and absolutely true. The ensuing conflict between illusion and reality would form the basis of the kind of fiction that developed in Europe in subsequent centuries. This conflict could easily have become formulaic and tedious, but the knight’s engagement with reality is far more subtle than this. As Milan Kundera observed:

When Don Quixote went out into the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the genre.16

But why does the world become a mystery for the knight of La Mancha? Because he sees that the reality around him does not correspond to the world portrayed in the books which he takes to be ‘true histories’. This means that he must interpret everyday phenomena in a world where appearances can no longer be relied upon to reveal their true chivalric character. Things get even more complicated when the down-to-earth Sancho Panza appears on the scene, for Don Quixote must reckon with an alternative view of what they see before their eyes, as in the notorious case of the giants and the windmills. The knight’s mission therefore turns into a mad argument over the true nature of reality. Eventually, this mad argument generates such an intense play of different perspectives between the various characters that the possibility of reaching an objective view of the world seems at times to be open to question.17

The madness contributes also to the development of a modern conception of literary character. Master and servant are enclosed by the madness in a relationship in which the destiny of the one will become entwined with that of the other, where there is dialogue as well as friction, subterfuge as well as affection, so that gradually Don Quixote and Sancho Panza acquire an individuality and a psychological complexity that are far removed from the stock types that predominated in earlier literature.

This mad argument over the nature of reality is carried over to another level of fiction, when Cervantes makes the chronicler of Don Quixote’s adventures a shifty Moor called Cide Hamete Benengeli, whose truthfulness would have been suspect in the eyes of his Christian readers. We have here the first major example of the unreliable narrator, and given the Moor’s unreliability, Cervantes himself must take on the role of editor and textual commentator of this dubious account of the knight’s career. There are many self-referential tricks of this sort in the novel, but all stem from the confusion which caused the knight’s madness in the first place — his inability to tell fact from fiction.

Already in Part One the madness has led Cervantes to discover some of the most important features of modern fiction -- the conflict between illusion and reality, the unreliable narrator, complexity of character, metafictional playfulness, and overall, a breezily comic narrative voice that would greatly impress early English novelists like Fielding and Sterne. All of these are tremendous achievements in themselves, but the critical shift from the parody of traditional romance to a modern form of fiction will come in the sequel of 1615. There is one episode, in particular, which transformed the story of Don Quixote and impelled Cervantes into uncharted waters on a creative adventure whose ultimate destination he could not have foreseen. It was this adventure that allowed his invención the freedom to break away from the narrative template of chivalric romance and generate what Jorge Luis Borges once called, ‘the unfathomable magic power of the Second Part’ (‘El poder mágico insondable de la Segunda Parte’).18

Shortly after the beginning of Part Two, Don Quixote decides to visit the village of El Toboso to pay his respects to Dulcinea, the lady of his heart. This visit represents a crucial test of the success of his endeavours in Part One. He had claimed to be in love with a handsome country girl called Aldonza Lorenzo, and now he has come to her village to see her transformed into the beautiful ‘princess’ Dulcinea del Toboso. The reason he is expecting to ‘behold my lady in her true being’ (II. 10. 549-550), is that Sancho had claimed to have had an interview with Dulcinea during a previous visit to El Toboso.19 Sancho was lying, of course, because Dulcinea does not exist, so the squire is in a real fix. But now he pulls off an even bolder deception -- he declares that three peasant girls who happen to be riding by on donkeys are none other than the princess Dulcinea and her maidservants. He then launches into an extravagant eulogy of the alleged beauty of the lady.

Fig. 7. The visit to El Toboso, as imagined by the German painter Peter Baumgartner (1834-1911)

Don Quixote, however, can see only the three ugly girls, so he concludes that an evil wizard must have cast a spell on Dulcinea. The knight laments his blindness: ‘And to think I could not see any of that, Sancho! I say it again, and I shall say it a thousand times: I am the most unfortunate of men’ (II. 10. 551).

Erich Auerbach rightly saw that this episode holds a special place among the knight’s adventures. He observed that the shock of seeing Dulcinea in such a degraded form might have caused ‘a terrible crisis’. There existed ‘the possibility of a shift into the tragic and problematic’, but he argued that ‘such a shift is definitely avoided’ because the fact that the knight ‘automatically takes refuge in the interpretation that Dulcinea is under enchantment, excludes everything tragic’.20 Don Quixote, therefore, ‘surmounts the shock’ so that even though the episode might seem ‘sad, bitter, and almost tragic’, ‘if we merely read Cervantes’s text, we have a farce, and a farce which is overwhelmingly comic’.21

All the same, Auerbach was sufficiently perceptive to recognize that the peculiar nature of the knight’s madness posed a problem for the anti-Romantic argument: ‘The difficulty lies in the fact that in Don Quijote’s idée fixe we have a combination of the noble, immaculate, and redeeming, with absolute nonsense’. This phenomenon made it ‘much more difficult’, he said, ‘to determine the position of the scene [of Dulcinea’s enchantment], and of the novel as a whole, on the scale of levels between tragic and comic’.22

Certainly, that is one of the great challenges of Quixote criticism. But I think we can begin to resolve the difficulty if we look more closely at the nature of Don Quixote’s madness. There are, in fact, two levels to the madness. First, there is the core belief that the books of chivalry tell the absolute truth. So long as he believes this absurdity he will be mad, but there is a further level to his madness, as the text itself makes quite clear:

By now quite insane [rematado ya su juicio], he conceived the strangest notion that ever took shape in a madman’s head, considering it desirable and necessary [. . . ] to become a knight errant, and to travel the world with his armour and his arms and his horse in search of adventures. (I. 1. 27)

This secondary belief adds a dynamic element to the basic delusion — it drives the old gentleman to re-invent himself as Don Quixote de La Mancha and set out to restore the world of chivalry.

Don Quixote will never waver in his primary belief that the romances of chivalry are literally true — but his secondary belief in his own chivalric destiny is capable of changing over time, and it was this potential for self-doubt that allowed Cervantes to take Don Quixote far beyond the limits of the buffoon he might otherwise have remained.

This is precisely what begins to happen as a result of the enchantment of Dulcinea. Sancho’s lie goes right to the heart of Don Quixote’s mission to restore the world of chivalry. He had been expecting to see Aldonza transformed into the princess Dulcinea in all her glory, but instead he was faced with an uncouth rustic and her vulgar companions. This awful revelation brings about a reversal of fortune — from now on, he will be unsure whether he has the capacity to become a hero, and this doubt will sap his self-belief so that the robust optimism he displayed in Part One will give way to a growing pessimism.

Contrary to what Auerbach asserted, the enchantment of Dulcinea does, in fact, produce a ‘terrible crisis’ —but within the terms of Don Quixote’s madness. The text itself makes it plain that Don Quixote does not ‘surmount the shock’:

Don Quixote was plunged into dejected thought as he went on his way, considering the bad joke that the enchanters had played on him by turning his lady Dulcinea into the vile shape of a peasant wench, and he couldn’t imagine what could be done to turn her back into herself. . . (I.11. 551)

Still, even though Cervantes will refer to the knight’s melancholy in numerous chapters of Part Two, the action cannot develop into a proper tragedy because however much Don Quixote may be plagued by doubts about his destiny, his chivalric mania will prevent him from questioning his primary belief that the books of chivalry are absolutely true, and so he will continue to say and do things that make him a laughing stock.

Fig. 8. Quixote's phantasms, once again imagined by Gustave Doré

Throughout Part Two, the dual structure of the madness will make Don Quixote veer unexpectedly from the pathos of his self-doubt to the comedy that his basic chivalric delusion inevitably produces. For example, in the passage I cited a moment ago, the pathos of the depressed Don Quixote suddenly slips into bathos:

… and he was so carried away by these thoughts that, not knowing what he was doing, he dropped the reins, and Rocinante made the most of the liberty he was being given to stop at every step to munch the green grass that was plentiful in those fields.

It was from these sudden shifts from pathos to comedy and back again, that Cervantes would fashion the knight’s madness into a profoundly ambiguous phenomenon that would come to resonate so powerfully with modern readers.

As a consequence of his lie about Dulcinea, Sancho Panza becomes an ambivalent character too. His ability to manipulate the knight’s madness boosts his self-confidence and brings out a cruel, self-interested streak in him that we haven’t seen before. He loses his habit of deference to reveal a social ambition not dissimilar to that of a picaresque rogue. What he wants most of all, he confesses, is to rise in the world, make money, and gain the island that his master had originally promised him.

As a result of the enchantment of Dulcinea, therefore, knight and squire are locked into a unique space defined by the madness, for what keeps them together now is a web of competing interests that are the product, not of the real world around them, but of the crazy priorities of the knight’s mania.

Sancho Panza’s misconceived ambition reaches its apogee when the pair are received as guests at the palace of a real Duke and Duchess, where they are subjected to a series of tricks and hoaxes. There the servant will be awarded the governorship of the so-called island of Barataria, which is a hoax sure enough, but the point is that the Duke’s promotion of Sancho denies Don Quixote the high reward which he fully expected would crown his career as a knight errant.


The argument of the anti-Romantics rested fundamentally on an appeal to Cervantes’s presumed intentions, and, insofar as Don Quixote’s disappointment at the Duke’s palace contradicts the traditional climax of a romance of chivalry, Cervantes could be said to have fulfilled the aim he had stated in the Prologue to Part One — to destroy the narrative system of the Spanish libros de caballerías. And since the parody has run its course by now, there would seem to be nothing left for Cervantes to do but to wind down the narrative and bring it to a close.

Nevertheless, something very odd occurs at this juncture. Cervantes activates a narrative mechanism which was bound to create an open conflict between Don Quixote and Sancho. This mechanism consisted of reviving one of the hoaxes organized by the Duke several chapters earlier. In Chapter 35, a servant disguised as the great wizard Merlin had prophesied that the enchanted Dulcinea would be released from her spell if Sancho whipped himself 3, 300 times on his backside. Merlin’s prophecy was plainly absurd, but it invested Sancho with the exclusive power to liberate Dulcinea. In other words, it had the effect of reducing Don Quixote to a position of helpless dependence on his squire for the one thing in the world that mattered to him most– the release of his lady from her enchantment. The device of Merlin’s prophecy invigorates many of the last chapters of the book with a new energy and interest.

Strange though it may seem, this late phase of the Quixote has not received sustained critical analysis. One of the reasons for this neglect is that these chapters challenge the widely-held belief among cervantistas that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are united by a bond of friendship. This view was memorably expressed in Salvador de Madariaga’s sentimental notion of ‘the fraternity of soul’ that unites master and servant thanks to a process of mutual influence, which Madariaga famously encapsulated as the ‘quixotification’ of Sancho and the ‘sanchification’ of Don Quixote.23

Due to Merlin’s prophecy, however, the inevitable clash between the protagonists — a clash that Cervantes must have fully intended since it is obvious that he had carefully planned it — occurs in chapter 60. Don Quixote becomes so frustrated with Sancho’s refusal to apply Merlin’s remedy that he tries to whip the squire himself. Sancho reacts with great fury and wrestles his master to the ground. Don Quixote is horrified: ‘“What, you traitor? You defy your own natural lord? You raise your hand against the man who feeds you?”’ But Sancho remains defiant: ‘“I’ll help myself”’, he replies, ‘“for I’m my own lord” ‘(II. 60).24 Don Quixote knows that, thanks to Merlin’s prophecy, his destiny lies in the hands of Sancho, so he surrenders to the servant and promises never to lay hands on him again.

This extraordinary episode has escaped the attention of Cervantes scholars. One of the very few to even mention it was Madariaga, who called it ‘one page which every reader of Don Quixote would wish unwritten’.25 But the fact is that Cervantes did write that page. And, what’s more, things get worse. Several chapters later, Don Quixote is defeated in combat by the Knight of the White Moon, who makes him promise to return to his village and give up arms for a year. The journey home is full of stresses and strains; after the servant’s rebellion against his master, the pair exist in a kind of social limbo. The knight strives to shore up his waning authority, but the peasant can scarcely be bothered to keep up the pretence of serving an obvious lunatic. In the following chapters, Cervantes shows Sancho disengaging, step by step, from the crazy world of the old hidalgo, with its wicked enchanters, its code of chivalry, its courtly manners, and its self-denying exaltation of platonic love.

In chapter 68, Don Quixote complains about Sancho’s insensitivity: ‘“I imagine you must be made of marble or of hard bronze … I watch, while you sleep; I weep while you sing”’(II. 68. 944). Yet, again, he urges Sancho to whip himself, but the peasant rejects any sense of a shared fate: ‘“¿What have the Panzas got to do with the Quixotes?”’(II. 68. 946). In the next chapter, we see the knight fall to his knees at Sancho’s feet, in full view of the Duke and his court, and implore the peasant to rescue Dulcinea from her bewitchment. Shocking as this might be, it is more shocking still to find that Sancho is prepared to exploit his master’s despair for material gain: when Don Quixote offers to pay him to whip himself, he eagerly negotiates a price for each lash. The knight is abject in his gratitude: ‘“¡Oh, blessed Sancho! [...] Dulcinea and I shall be under an obligation to serve you for as long as heaven spares us!”’ (II. 71. 962.) And, even now, Sancho is capable of deceiving the madman — he goes off into a wood and starts whipping tree-trunks, emitting great howls of feigned agony.

Sancho regards his career as a triumph of sorts. At the end, he can boast to his wife: ‘“I’ve brought some money back with me, and that’s what counts, and I’ve earned it with my own wiles, without doing any harm to anybody”’ (II. 73. 973). How different is the fate of Don Quixote. He comes home — with no reward for his pains, humiliated by Sancho’s rebellion, and defeated by a rival.

What’s going on in these chapters? Let me venture a hypothesis. Following Henry James, I have characterised the modern novel as arising from the winning of an individual author’s ‘freedom to feel and say’, and here we have Cervantes choosing to exercise that freedom, choosing to give free rein to his invención in order to play out the full consequences of Sancho’s lie about the enchantment of Dulcinea.

In the decline and fall of Don Quixote, one finds a tension between Cervantes the Spanish Catholic and Cervantes the artist, for in the figure of his troubled protagonist he had come upon something that possessed an extraordinary literary power, a new source of admiratio, that quality of wonder that was so highly prized in the poetics of the day. And with a kind of morbid fascination, he was prepared to pursue the downfall of the would-be knight right to the end, even if it took him beyond his own conscious beliefs and beyond the ideological horizons of his time and place. And so, within the eccentric bubble of the quixotic madness, Cervantes describes the crumbling of a traditional order of things and brings his reader to the threshold of a new world that he must himself have imagined with dread: a world in which the God-given hierarchy and the bonds of honour and deference that sustain it — the world reflected in chivalric romance — might be replaced by individual freedom and self-interest, as evinced in Sancho’s rebellious cry: ‘I am my own lord’.

As Quixote and Sancho approach their village, Cervantes portrays the most poignant scene in the entire book. Sancho pretends he has completed the 3,300 lashes prescribed by Merlin, so Don Quixote scrutinizes every woman they pass on the road to see ‘if it might be Dulcinea del Toboso — because he was absolutely certain that Merlin’s promises could not be false’ (II. 72. 970) When they are about to enter the village he catches sight of some hounds chasing a hare. He takes this to be a bad omen and becomes so distressed that instead of expressing himself with his former eloquence, he can hardly bring himself to mutter in fractured syntax: ‘“Malum signum! Malum signum! Hare flees, greyhounds chase: Dulcinea appears not!”’ (II.73. 971).

What’s happened here? Well, Don Quixote realizes that his quest has been emptied of meaning: he has reached the farthest limit of his madness and come up against a void. And yet, he is still a slave to his ridiculous belief that the books of chivalry are absolutely true — ‘he was absolutely certain that Merlin’s promises could not be false’. The knight, in short, is trapped by his double madness, for even though he may despair of ever liberating Dulcinea, his unbending faith in the truth of the books prevents him from reasoning his way out of the dead-end — the nothingness — to which his chivalric quest has led. We are not too far here from the endless frustrations suffered by characters in Kafka’s stories, or from the futile quest for the key to the universe undertaken by the desperate librarians in Borges’s ‘The Library of Babel’.


Cervantes, of course, was not Kafka or Borges. In the last chapter the old gentleman finds salvation from the madness before dying a good Christian death. Still, it is worth noting that this ideological correction is brought about by a miracle — he recovers his sanity thanks to a mysterious illness which closes the window on the void to which his obsession has led.

This return to Catholic orthodoxy doesn’t rob the book of its modernity, however. Well before that death-bed cure, what stands out ever more poignantly is his unwavering belief in chivalry. This may be what makes him mad, but it is also what makes him cleave to Dulcinea with a strange, transcendent zeal. Even in the face of death he will refuse to renounce his lady. Cast down to the ground by the Knight of the White Moon, and with a lance pointed at his breast, he will insist:

Dulcinea is the most beautiful woman in the world, and I am the most unfortunate knight in it, and it would not be right for my weakness to obscure that truth. Drive your lance home, sir knight, and take away my life, since you have taken away my honour (II. 64. 928).

Cervantes’s courage in pursuing Don Quixote’s manic devotion to his lady to the brink of utter despair was rewarded by an astonishing achievement — he was able to distil the general comic atmosphere of the book into a timeless tragic moment in which a man was condemned to make a fool of himself with no hope even of knowing why. This is the paradox that lies at the heart of the first modern novel, a paradox that made Don Quixote rise from the ashes of his failed chivalric quest to personify the absurdity — but also the nobility — of living in a world that had become so impenetrable and strange. This is why the mad knight of La Mancha remains such a compelling symbol of the human spirit in the modern age. This is what endowed the book with the power to inspire so many writers and artists over the centuries and to exert its equivocal magic even to this day. And this, ultimately, is why Cervantes as well as Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, Dulcinea, and even the old nag Rocinante, now have their place among the stars.

Fig. 9. The fifth-magnitude star μ Arae, or Cervantes, which is similar to our own Sun and, at 50 light years' distance, relatively nearby. In 2016 the International Astronomical Union accepted the proposal of the Planetario de Pamplona that its planets μ Arae b, c, d and e should be named Quijote, Dulcinea, Rocinante and Sancho

Given at the Business School, University of Leeds, 28 March 2018; © Edwin Williamson 2018


1Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), p. 103.↩︎

2Lionel Trilling, ‘Manners, Morals and the Novel’, in The Liberal Imagination (London: Mercury Books, 1961), pp. 205-22 (p. 209).↩︎

3‘Introduction’ to Don Quixote, trans. Edith Grossman, New York, Ecco/HarperCollins, 2003, p. xxii.↩︎

4Don Quixote gets authors’ votes’, BBC News, 7 May 2002.↩︎

5‘Cervantes da nombre desde hoy a una estrella’, El País, 15 December 2015.↩︎

6‘The Enchanted Dulcinea’, in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, translated by Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974 [1946]), pp. 334–58.↩︎

7See Anthony Close, The Romantic Approach to ‘Don Quixote’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010 [1978]).↩︎

8Auerbach, p. 347.↩︎

9A. A. Parker, ‘El concepto de la verdad en Don Quijote’, Revista de Filología Española, 32 (1948), 287-304.↩︎

10P. E. Russell, ‘Don Quixote as a Funny Book’, Modern Language Review, 64 (1969), 312–26.↩︎

11Close, The Romantic Approach to ‘Don Quixote’.↩︎

12Viaje del Parnaso (Madrid: Real Academia Española, 2016), Capítulo 4, vv. 28-29, p. 61. See also Edwin Williamson, ‘Intención and Invención in the Quixote’, Cervantes, 8 (1988), 7-22.↩︎

13‘The Art of Fiction’, in Henry James, The House of Fiction: Essays on the Novel, ed. by Leon Edel (London: Hart-Davis, 1957), p. 29.↩︎

14Henry James, p. 29.↩︎

15For a study of Don Quixote’s relation to chivalric romance, see Edwin Williamson, The Half-way House of Fiction: ‘Don Quixote’ and Arthurian Romance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984). And for a fuller account of my interpretation of Don Quixote see my chapters on Parts One and Two respectively in The Oxford Handbook of Cervantes, ed. Aaron Kahn, Oxford University Press (forthcoming February 2021).↩︎

16Milan Kundera, ‘Afterword’, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), p. 237.↩︎

17For a more detailed discussion of Don Quixote’s crazy attempts to interpret the world in a chivalric sense, see Williamson, The Half-Way House of Fiction, pp. 90-125.↩︎

18Guillermo Gasió, Borges en Japón: Japón en Borges (Buenos Aires : Editorial Universitaria de Buenos Aires, 1988), p. 92.↩︎

19Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from Don Quixote, trans. John Rutherford (London: Penguin, 2000). I include them in parenthesis in my text, referring to Parts I or II, followed by the chapter and page numbers, e.g. (II. 10. 549-550).↩︎

20Auerbach, p. 343.↩︎

21Auerbach, pp. 340 and 339.↩︎

22Auerbach, pp. 343–4.↩︎

23Salvador de Madariaga, Don Quixote. An Introductory Essay in Psychology (London: Oxford University Press, 1966 [1934]), p. 136.↩︎

24The English version of this exchange is from Don Quixote, translated by Edith Grossman, p. 851.↩︎

25Madariaga, p. 6.↩︎