From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
11.2 (1991): 107-09.
Copyright © 1991, The Cervantes Society of America
Cervantes: Don Quixote is a brief critical study aimed at the general reader. Like the other works of the Landmarks of World Literature Series, this
study consists of the following features: (1) a consideration of the text
in its historical and cultural contexts, (2) a close analysis of selected
passages, (3) an account of the ways in which the text has influenced later
works of literature, and (4) a list of suggested critical works for further
Chapter One considers Don Quixote's major thematic and structural components. A. J. Close begins his discussion with a very concise overview of Cervantine criticism, and in doing so, he points out how critics since the period of German Romanticism have tended to disregard the novel's fundamental comic dimension. From here Close goes on to discuss briefly Counter-Reformation Spain, Cervantes' biography, and how the writer conceived of his great masterpiece as essentially a parody of the books of chivalry. Having established this basic premise, Close then turns our attention to several central elements of the Cervantine parody such as the general comic formula, the fictitious authorship device, the use of empathetic modes of parody, the importance of common nature, as well as some of the principal differences between the episodes in Parts One and Two.
In building upon the groundwork laid in Chapter One, Close devotes his next chapter to a discussion of the development of the complex personalities of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The parallel patterns of evolution which these characters undergo provide Don Quixote with a type of organic unity. In sharp contrast to Cervantes' initial portrayal of him as a materialistic and simple-minded peasant, Sancho emerges in Part Two as a striking embodiment of moral virtue and natural wisdom. Close neatly describes this transformation in the following terms: the Sanchification of Panza: that is, the refinement of crude rusticity (panza means belly) by the possibilities enshrined in the proverb They call virtuous silence Sancho. And just as the squire grows wiser and ultimately abandons his dream of a governorship, Don Quixote likewise will become disillusioned with his chivalric mission, or as Close puts it, learn to die without Dulcinea. In tracing the development of the knight's disillusionment, Close focuses in great detail on his vision of Dulcinea, beginning with various scenes in Part One and culminating with the Cave of Montesinos episode. Furthermore, at the end of this chapter Close makes a particularly key point with respect to the underlying significance of the story of Don Quixote's madness: The humour of Don Quixote is symptomatic of a rationalist's attempt to domesticate the monsters of unreason by laughter. Their power, and potential sinisterness, come from the human mind's endless capacity for self-delusion. Hence they can only be defeated after a long painful process of self-enlightenment.
Throughout his discussion of Cervantes' masterpiece in the two main chapters described above, Close beautifully illustrates his points with a clear and meticulous reading of individual passages. At the same time, the reader is not burdened with unnecessary critical jargon. The end result is a highly intelligible analysis for an unspecialized yet educated readership.
In Chapter Three, the final chapter in the book, Close returns to the topic of Cervantine criticism. His purpose in doing so here is to show the parallels
between the various trends in critical approaches to Don Quixote and
the narrative aims and techniques of novelists since the eighteenth century.
In this discussion, Close alludes to a number of fictional works ranging
from Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews to various texts of such contemporary
Latin American writers as Jorge Luis Borges and Carlos Fuentes. Upon concluding
the chapter, Close warns the reader not to lose sight of the relative nature
of many of the critical interpretations of Cervantes' novel that have emerged
in the last several centuries; i.e., they could only have been conceived
by those who came after Cervantes and his contemporaries. This point is clearly
driven home, for example, with the following statement concerning the novelistic
style of Laurence Sterne and its relation to Don Quixote: if
it were not for Sterne, and the self-conscious tradition which followed him,
it would scarcely occur to us to think of Cervantes as a self-conscious novelist;
Sterne, we might say, has taught us to see aspects of Don Quixote
that its contemporaries were not trained to perceive or rationalise.
This book is available in both cloth and paperback at very affordable prices. I would highly recommend it to non-Hispanist students and also to professors teaching Don Quixote in English in either a special seminar or as part of a Great Books course. In short, Close's work is a sound and thought-provoking introductory study which will inspire its readers to pursue further a critical engagement with one of the greatest works of world literature.
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