Critical Essays Technique and Style in Don Quixote


Relation of Novelist to His Characters

Each author has a "point of view" from which he invents and constructs his characters and incidents. Some novels may be written in first person narrative to expose subjectively society's evils; other forms of writing stem from an omniscient author who can see into each person and recount past and future history at each point in the narrative. Dickens is an example of such a writer.

Cervantes, on the other hand, chooses to write a "history" and thus gives himself certain limitations and advantages. He must journalistically give facts of what clearly occurs at each part of the action; he cannot invent attributes of his characters without documenting these qualities by actions. As a responsible historian, he cannot impose any opinions on his reader but must present each character with as many details of description and action so that his readers can draw their own conclusions. To further this ideal of objectivity, Cervantes invents the eminent historian, Cid Hamet Benengali, for only a Moor would try to underrate any Spanish achievement, and this guarantees the verisimilitude of all details in the life of Don Quixote.

Further reading into the life of the Manchegan knight, however, reinforces a growing suspicion that provides another reason for the invention of Cid Hamet. Perhaps Cervantes felt that Don Quixote was too quickly outgrowing his artificial existence, becoming more than just a lampoon out of a chivalric romance, to be, as Byron has termed him, a character created to "smile Spain's chivalry away." Like a Pinocchio animated while Gepetto lay sleeping, Don Quixote seems to wrest himself from his creator's pen and live an independent life. Furthermore, as he lives on and on in world literature, it becomes even clearer today that his organic growth defied restriction and circumvention by a mere author.

Sancho Panza, as well, possesses this quality of self-determination. Don Quixote, returning from his first sally at the inn to obtain fresh linen, some money, and a squire, solicits "one of his neighbors, a country-laborer, and good honest fellow, for he was poor indeed: poor in purse and poor in brains." From this modest introduction of what would become one of the funniest characters in literature an ignorant, unwilling, gold-seeking squire who eventually becomes wise and quixotic we may assume that Cervantes had not at first realized the possibilities of Sancho.

Consequently, Don Quixote presents this interesting aspect of a novelist who learns and grows in coincidence with his own characters. As he lives with them and loves them, Cervantes investigates with them the fundamentals of human understanding. This notion of an objective creator, set apart from his characters yet integrally consistent with everything they do, began with Cervantes. His organic artist-creation relationship is as complex and plastic as that found in Shakespeare and has become a condition of the modern esthetic for the art of the novel.

Relation of Novelist to Reader

Following the character-artist relationship, there remains the important and often unnoticed relation of the writer to his reader. Just as Cervantean characters seem to "write themselves," we have in this novel the aspect of the reader "writing himself" as well.

Because a reader is forced to think about each invented episode after it occurs, and because he suspects that Cervantes is not saying all there is to say about each incident, Don Quixote is sometimes difficult and frustrating for a modern reader to comprehend. He is obliged to wonder for himself why the hero does not lose his illusions sooner, why Sancho insists on remaining with his master to face more and more drubbings, why one feels a sympathy for the ridiculous knight who somehow remains dignified in the most humiliating circumstances. Like Sancho and Don Quixote, the reader is forced to reconsider the meaning of what has transpired each time the knight, bruised and weary, rises to remount Rosinante and continue his errant mission. We slowly come to conclude the final organic nature of this elusive book: to educate and mature the readers in the same way as Don Quixote and Sancho increase in self-awareness.

This is the extension of Cervantes' art of objectifying life's experiences. Standing aside from his "stepchildren," he allows them to impress each reader who encounters their careers in his own way. His novelistic realism, unlimited by supplying a given point of view of his creations, presents protagonists to the reader as one presents any human being to another, forcing the reader to understand, sympathize, or deny according to his own nature. Setting each character free in his invented world without guiding murmurs of approval or disapproval, Cervantes, the prime-mover novelist, also sets the reader free. This is another unique quality which makes Don Quixote one of the most lasting and elusive books in the world, and makes Cervantes one of the most consummate novelists that Western literature has produced.

Vitality of the Novel

The richness and interest of Cervantes stems, then, not from the profuseness of character types, nor from the variety in his constant inventiveness, nor from the philosophical conclusions we may make from his material, but from an emanation of life that lends vivacity and fascination and dynamism to every part of his huge narrative. This essential quality of Don Quixote, eluding more specific appellation, can roughly be called organic. A vital force animates each episode, and it gives even a bony horse and fat donkey memorable personalities.

In essence, Don Quixote shows us that the reality of existence consists in receiving all the impact of experience, which, transformed through the medium of a special awareness, is synthesized as part of the character. The prosaic Alonso Quixano, after an impact on his imagination from books of chivalry, transforms himself into the Knight of La Mancha. Reading of pastoral tales is the impact which causes Marcella to become a shepherdess, and Samson Carrasco receives his impetus from trying to conquer the madness of his rival once and for all. All these characters have changed their lives from internalizing essentially external influences. As Don Quixote and Sancho continue their journeys, they change and develop under the impact of each new episode. Having internalized one experience by their constant discourse they go on to face another, and once more retrench themselves under this new influence.

The emanation of life is seen whenever any character encounters experience. Dorothea, bathing her feet in a running brook, is a figure out of a pastoral tableau. As soon as she describes how Ferdinand wrought havoc on her normal rustic life, her intelligence awakens and she gains flesh and blood before our eyes. Under these new circumstances, she is able to play the exacting role of Princess Micomicona, although still ignorant as ever about things like geography. People like Don Diego de Miranda (the gentleman in the green coat), the priest at the duke's castle, and the niece Antonia Quixana are inured against external influences and remain static.

Chosen not alone for their comic attributes, episodes provide a testing ground to stimulate all areas of the personalities of Don Quixote, Sancho, and all others. Thus we see the virtuous wife Camilla put to a literal "test," and she quickly emerges as an accomplished adulteress. Whenever Sancho's loyalties are put to a test, on the other hand (his defense of his master at the priest's scolding, the instant when he is "fired" by Don Quixote, his constant desire to quit his squirehood when dissatisfied, for instance), he remains faithful. The whole sequence of the adventures with the duke and duchess provides a testing ground for the values Don Quixote holds dear as a knight-errant. His final test is when, with Samson's lance poised at his throat, he chooses rather to die than to give up the idea of Dulcinea's perfection.

In other words, Cervantes makes things happen in order to reveal latent possibilities. Even the weather is forced into service, for the one time it does rain, it is so the barber can don his basin to protect his new hat; hence the adventure of Mambrino's helmet. The vividness of the rocky wilderness of the Sierra Morena serves only to isolate the various scenes that take place there Don Quixote's penance, Cardenio's meeting with the curate and barber, Dorothea's story and it provides, as well, a safe refuge from the police force. The scorched July morning shows what a madman it takes to begin knight-errantry when it is so hot; the dusty road serves to obscure the two flocks of sheep which the hero thinks are armies; and a verdant meadow, the scene of Rosinante's frolic with the mares, provides the adventure of the Yanguesian carriers.

This utilitarian dynamism of every part of the novel is further maintamed as episodes interweave with each other like motives in a symphony. Recurring with some variation, these themes are picked up again and again. Sancho, for instance, never forgoes a chance to rue his blanketing; the disenchantment of Dulcinea haunts Don Quixote until his death. Altisidora never gives up her game of courting the knight. Alonso Quixano is always in the shadow of Don Quixote's mad career, and Sancho's wished-for island held out to him like a carrot to a mule finally becomes his prize. Tosilos reappears, Andrew reappears, Gines de Passamonte thrice returns to cross Don Quixote. The ideal of pastoral life weaves in and out of the novel in many variations: Marcella, the New Arcadians, Don Quixote's secondary fantasy. Nothing happens without repercussions, and characters or episodes are invariably picked up again.

The descriptive style is another source of Cervantes' dynamism. Terse, yet elegant, he sketches images that make illustrations in the book seem anticlimactic. Sancho, starved for some good food, is with his master at the goatherds' huts: "Sancho presently repaired to the attractive smell of goat's flesh which stood boiling in a kettle over the fire . . . . The goatherds took them off the fire, and spread some sheepskins on the ground and soon got their rustic feast ready; and cheerfully invited his master and him to partake of what they had." Introducing Marcella: "'Twas Marcella herself who appeared at the top of the rock, at the foot of which they were digging the grave; but so beautiful that fame seemed rather to have lessened than to have magnified her charms: Those who had never seen her before, gazed on her with silent wonder and delight; nay, those who used to see her every day seemed no less lost in admiration than the rest." The immortal tilt with the windmills occupies a mere forty or fifty lines: "'I tell thee they are giants and I am resolved to engage in a dreadful unequal combat against them all.' This said, he clapped spurs to Rosinante . . . . At the same time the wind rising, the great sails began turning . . . . Well covered with his shield, with his lance at rest, he bore down upon the first mill that stood in his way, giving a thrust at the wing which was whirling at such a speed that his lance was broken into bits and both horse and horseman went rolling over the plain, very much battered indeed."

The overall success of the book lies, therefore, in the vitality and organic development of the characters themselves. The descriptions are vivid, not merely for the prose style, but because they give physical fulfillment to the dynamic image of the personalities. Setting, which Cervantes rarely details, is unforgettably and briefly etched only if it is integral to the development of the corresponding episode. Thus, with a technique of subordinating every other literary ornament to animate and discover all parts of an active character, Cervantes has created a strong unity of episode, setting, dialogue, and characterization which lends this book its protean nature. It is as if the author, considering his creation a great darkness at first, sweeps across its surface beams of light in the form of incident, dialogue, description, background, until the entire configuration of human personality is revealed.