What Makes Don Quixote a Parody?

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Don Quixote and Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote is a renowned novel written by Miguel de Cervantes, a Spanish author. Published in two parts, the first in 1605 and the second in 1615, many consider this work one of the greatest novels ever written. It tells the story of a man named Alonso Quixano, who reads so many chivalric romances that he loses his sanity and decides to become a knight-errant, renaming himself Don Quixote. Accompanied by his loyal squire, Sancho Panza, Don Quixote sets out on a series of adventures, often resulting in absurd situations.

Miguel de Cervantes, born in 1547, was a soldier, poet, and novelist. His life experiences, including his time as a soldier and a captive in Algiers, significantly influenced his writing. Cervantes is often credited with creating the modern novel and is revered as one of the greatest writers in the Spanish language.

Parody as a Literary Form

Parody is a literary form that imitates the style or character of another work, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect. It often employs sarcasm, irony, and humor to critique or mock the original work’s content, style, or subject matter. Parody is a versatile tool in literature, used not just for humor but also as a form of social and political commentary.

Don Quixote as a Parody

Don Quixote functions as a parody of the chivalric romances that were popular during Cervantes’ time. These romances, characterized by their idealized portrayal of knights and their adventures, had a significant influence on European literature. In Don Quixote, Cervantes takes the conventional elements of these stories – such as noble quests and heroic deeds – and turns them on their head, creating a narrative that both imitates and satirizes the genre. Through exaggerated characters and ludicrous scenarios, Don Quixote serves as a humorous critique of the chivalric ideals and provides a realistic portrayal of contemporary Spanish society.

Historical Context of Don Quixote

Popularity of Chivalric Romances in 16th and 17th Century Spain

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain experienced a surge in the popularity of chivalric romances. These stories, often long and elaborately written, centered around idealized knights and their heroic quests. They were the dominant form of popular literature at the time. Knights in these tales embodied virtues such as honor, love, and bravery, and they often embarked on fantastical adventures to save damsels, defend kingdoms, or seek holy relics. The popularity of these romances can be attributed to a societal yearning for an idealized past, especially during a time of political and social change in Spain.

Amadís de Gaula

Amadís de Gaula is a landmark work in the genre of chivalric romance, originally written in Spanish. The earliest known version of this tale was composed in Spain or Portugal, with the earliest surviving edition published in 1508. The story centers on the adventures of Amadís, a knight who is unmatched in his skills in arms and chivalry. His numerous quests, battles against giants and wizards, and his unwavering love for the princess Oriana are central themes. The narrative is characterized by its idealized heroism, the depiction of courtly love, and the portrayal of a fantastical world filled with magical beings and enchanted islands. Amadís de Gaula was extremely popular in its time and significantly influenced later chivalric romances, including Don Quixote.

Tirant lo Blanc

Written by Joanot Martorell and completed by Martí Joan de Galba, Tirant lo Blanc is a Valencian chivalric romance first published in 1490. It narrates the story of the knight Tirant, a character hailed for his military prowess and noble virtues. The novel covers an expansive narrative that includes detailed accounts of battles, tournaments, and the knight’s romantic pursuit of the Byzantine princess Carmesina. Unlike other chivalric romances, Tirant lo Blanc is noted for its relatively realistic depiction of warfare and courtly life. It blends the fantastic elements of traditional romances with a more grounded and practical portrayal of knightly life. Miguel de Cervantes himself lauded this work in Don Quixote, distinguishing it from other less realistic chivalric tales.

Palmerín de Olivia

Palmerín de Olivia is another significant chivalric romance from the 16th century, attributed to Francisco Vázquez. It was first published in 1511 in Salamanca and quickly became a popular text in the genre. The story follows the titular hero, Palmerín, who is the secret son of a noble king and queen. His journey involves a series of quests and adventures across Europe and the Near East, where he proves his valor and chivalry. The narrative includes elements of romance, as Palmerín falls in love with the beautiful Polinarda. The book is characterized by its intricate plot, exotic settings, and the idealized depiction of its hero, which was typical of chivalric romances of the period. Palmerín de Olivia influenced a number of subsequent works and was part of a larger Palmerin series popular throughout Europe.

Social and Literary Environment Influencing Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes lived in a period of significant transition in Spain. The late 16th and early 17th centuries were marked by the decline of the Spanish Empire, economic difficulties, and a shift in societal values. The once powerful nation was grappling with the realities of its waning influence and the challenges of modernization.

In the literary world, there was a growing awareness and criticism of the outdated ideals presented in chivalric romances. The exaggerated tales of knighthood and chivalry were increasingly seen as disconnected from the realities of contemporary life. This disconnect fostered a ripe environment for satire and parody, as writers sought to critique and mock the outdated values and overly idealized narratives of these stories.

Cervantes himself experienced many hardships, including financial struggles and a period of enslavement after being captured by Barbary pirates. His personal experiences, coupled with his keen observation of the changing world around him, greatly influenced his writing. Cervantes used Don Quixote to satirize the chivalric romances popular in his time, poking fun at their outdated ideals and unrealistic portrayals of heroism and virtue. His work reflected a more modern and realistic view of the world, challenging the societal norms and literary traditions of his era.

Elements of Parody in Don Quixote

The following are what makes Don Quixote a parody.

Exaggerated Characters

The character of Don Quixote himself is a brilliant example of exaggeration. In traditional chivalric romances, knights-errant are portrayed as noble, courageous, and almost superhuman in their abilities and virtues. Don Quixote, on the other hand, is an aging man who becomes delusional after reading too many chivalric novels. He decides to become a knight-errant himself, adopting a ludicrously grandiose name and setting out on his adventures. His lack of practicality, poor judgment, and frequent misunderstandings of everyday situations turn him into a comical figure. This exaggeration serves to mock the unrealistic portrayals of knights in chivalric romances.

Ridiculous Scenarios

Cervantes places Don Quixote in various absurd situations that parody the serious and often grandiose tone of chivalric romances. One famous example is the windmill episode, where Don Quixote mistakes windmills for giant enemies and decides to fight them. This scene humorously subverts the expectations of a dramatic battle scene typical in chivalric stories. Instead of showcasing heroism, it highlights Don Quixote’s detachment from reality and the impracticality of the chivalric ideals he tries to embody.

Satirical Themes

Beyond the surface-level humor, Don Quixote also uses parody to critique social and literary norms of the time. Cervantes employs irony and humor to question the value and relevance of chivalric romances, suggesting that they are outdated and detached from the real world. He also criticizes the rigid class structures and the fading nobility of Spain, using Don Quixote’s misguided nobility and Sancho Panza’s down-to-earth pragmatism to contrast different societal perspectives. Through these themes, Cervantes invites readers to reflect on the nature of reality, the folly of blindly following outdated ideals, and the importance of self-awareness and adaptability.

Cervantes’ Use of Humor and Irony

Below are five specific instances that exemplify Cervantes’ use of humor and irony:

1. The Windmill Scene

Perhaps the most famous example of parody in Don Quixote is the windmill scene. Don Quixote, convinced that the windmills are ferocious giants, attacks them. This scene humorously overturns the expectation of a knight battling formidable foes. Instead of displaying heroism, Don Quixote’s actions highlight his delusion and the absurdity of chivalric ideals in a changing world.

It is also worth noting that, at the time, windmills represented a modern technology.

2. The Inn as a Castle

When Don Quixote arrives at an inn, he mistakes it for a castle. This mistake pokes fun at the typical settings of chivalric romances, where castles are centers of noble quests and heroic deeds. Cervantes uses this scene to humorously show how out of touch the ideals of chivalric romance are with reality.

3. The Idealized Lady Dulcinea

In chivalric romances, knights are often motivated by their devotion to a noble lady. Don Quixote creates his own lady, Dulcinea del Toboso, whom he has never actually met. He idealizes her as the epitome of beauty and grace, contrary to reality. This idealization serves as an ironic commentary on the unrealistic portrayal of women in chivalric tales.

4. The Barber’s Basin as the Golden Helmet

Don Quixote finds a barber’s basin and believes it to be the legendary “Helmet of Mambrino.” This incident humorously underscores how far removed Don Quixote’s perception is from reality, and mocks the often-ridiculous valorization of trivial objects in chivalric stories.

5. The Enchanted Dulcinea

In a comedic twist, Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s squire, convinces him that a peasant girl is the enchanted form of Dulcinea. This situation is ironic because it turns the trope of enchantment common in chivalric romances on its head. Instead of a grand magical transformation, it’s a simple deception that fools the delusional knight.

Influence of Don Quixote on Later Parodies

Don Quixote not only stands as a monumental work in the world of literature but also as a pioneering force in the genre of parody. Its publication in the early 17th century marked a significant shift in how authors approached both the creation and the critique of literary and social norms.

Setting the Precedent for Literary Parodies

Don Quixote broke new ground by using humor, irony, and satirical elements to mock the conventions of chivalric romances. Cervantes crafted a narrative that both imitated and exaggerated the very genres it sought to ridicule, creating a template for future parodies. This method of using the structure of a popular genre to satirize its elements became a hallmark of literary parodies going forward. The book’s success in both critiquing and entertaining opened the doors for writers to explore satire and parody more freely, using humor to comment on societal, political, and literary issues.

Notable Works Influenced by Cervantes’ Style

Several authors drew inspiration from Cervantes’ unique blend of realism, satire, and character-driven storytelling.

One notable example is The Female Quixote, written by Charlotte Lennox in the 18th century. This novel parodies the same chivalric romances that Don Quixote does, but through the adventures of a female protagonist, Arabella. Arabella, much like Don Quixote, is deluded by her readings of romantic novels and embarks on a series of misadventures, interpreting everyday occurrences through the lens of her fanciful readings. The Female Quixote not only pays homage to Cervantes’ style but also innovatively critiques the gender norms and literary tastes of its own era.

Another work influenced by Cervantes’ style is Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. It uses the narrative device of a journey, much like Don Quixote, to satirize contemporary politics and society.

Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy also reflects the influence of Cervantes in its digressive narrative style and its playful subversion of traditional novelistic conventions.

Enduring Impact on the Genre

The influence of Don Quixote on later parodies extends beyond specific works. It helped establish the idea that literature can be a medium for critical reflection and not just a source of entertainment or moral instruction. By infusing parody with intellectual and artistic depth, Cervantes opened a pathway for later writers to use humor as a serious and effective tool for literary critique. This legacy of combining wit with critique continues to be a defining characteristic of modern parodies in literature and other forms of media.

Further Study

Close, Anthony. The Romantic Approach to Don Quixote: A Critical History of the Romantic Tradition in Quixote Criticism. Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Echevarría, Roberto González. Cervantes’ Don Quixote: A Casebook. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Johnson, Carroll B. Madness and Lust: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Don Quixote. University of California Press, 1983.

Riley, E. C. Cervantes’s Theory of the Novel. Oxford University Press, 1962.

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