Don Quixote – Literary Masterpiece?
In the “Zest” section of the Houston Chronicle on Sunday, September 26, 2004, there was an essay titled “What makes a book a best seller?” The article asks the question, but doesn’t quite answer, what it is that makes the difference between a best seller and a long-lived literary novel. The author of the article, Lois Zamora, believes that in order to be a best seller, a novel must have detailed descriptions and a main character that moves from one place to another, becoming enmeshed in events that are occurring, and must act because of them. A masterpiece, however, according to Zamora, is a novel that is read because of its significance - a significance that is “adaptable to the changing needs of historical readers…texts that lend themselves to different levels of reading and different interpretations according to different cultural and historical contexts.”
A masterpiece should do everything she thinks one should do, but that isn’t all. A true masterpiece should also meet the best seller qualifications she lists. Don Quixote meets both, which is why I believe it qualifies as a true world-class masterpiece.
First, let’s examine the best seller qualifications. Don Quixote is full of detailed descriptions. The army of sheep in Book I, as narrated by Don Quixote, is chock full of detailed descriptions. “That knight you see there in the gold-colored armor, who bears on his shield a crowned lion kneeling at the feet of a damsel, is the valiant Laurcalco, lord of the Bridge of Silver…” (127). Don Quixote’s main character moves from place to place quite often during the length of the book. Since the life of a knight errant involves almost continuous travel, Don Quixote rarely sits still. Don Quixote travels quite a bit, even making it as far as Barcelona in Book II. Don Quixote gets involved in every event that he possibly can, even inventing some (without realizing it). Meeting up with the duke and duchess is a perfect example of becoming enmeshed in a situation. The situation is really all of Don Quixote’s own making - he, after all, did want to be famous. He hadn’t quite expected to become famous only to become a joke and amusement for bored rich people, but that is what he wound up being in that instance. While some might argue that he doesn’t have to act on things that happen at the duke and duchess’s, he truly does, because to fail to do so will destroy his world for him.
Second, let’s address Zamora’s masterpiece qualifications. There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Don Quixote has significance. So much occurs in the book that it’s impossible to believe that Cervantes just sat down and dashed it off without trying to imbue it with any sort of message or meaning. The fact that we, as readers of the book over 400 years later, can still find it appropriate and compare it to the modern world, helps to prove that it has endured. It can stand up to scrutiny and have every current literary theory applied to it, unlike many bestsellers that would probably have a problem even meeting one.
To add to everything so far, other qualifications for masterpieces include complex issues, universal truths, originality, and accessibility. Don Quixote has complex issues. The question of removing the Moors from what was their land - possibly through multiple generations - simply because of their religion is something that is not easy to answer. Is the King right to remove those that don’t belong? Is it just plain and simple discrimination? We’d answer no and yes, but that doesn’t answer why it happened and why people let it happen. Just like the Holocaust, people don’t stand up when they should. Sancho was an example of that when he ran into his friend Ricote. Universal truths definitely exist in Don Quixote. Some we learn through bad example, such as the duke and duchess’s treatment of Don Quixote. From them, we learn that it’s mean to treat others in ways that we don’t want to be treated - the golden rule in reverse.
Don Quixote is original. It is one of a kind. While there were 4 main types of literature being produced in Spain at the time, none of them were social or political commentary disguised as an amusing look at the chivalric tradition. Don Quixote has been copied, in one way or another, in movies and books. Even The Princess Bride by W. Goldman steals a bit from Don Quixote!
Finally, there is the issue of accessibility. True, it’s long, but so is Harry Potter. While it may not be a simple read, it is by no means at an advanced reading level, and it continues to reach more and more people even now.
Don Quixote is a true masterpiece that has withstood the test of time. It fulfills criteria for both best seller status and masterpiece status easily. It is a book that will probably never go out of print or style.