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The language of Don Quixote is so rich and exuberant that no summary of the story can possibly do justice to it. You have to read the novel for yourself to see just how much fun the author has with language. For the most part, the prose style of the novel is earthy and direct. At times, however, it rises to heights of eloquence. At other times, the author uses high-flown language to parody other types of literature. Don Quixote's speech at the very beginning of Chapter 20, in Part II, is one example of the way Cervantes uses overly elegant language for the sake of humor. Sancho Panza sleeps right through the Don's flowery speech, only to be awakened by the down-to-earth aroma of frying bacon.
There are also a great many puns and other types of word play in the story. Some of the puns will be lost on readers who do not know Spanish. Fortunately, much of the humor survives the translation of the novel into English. The illiterate Sancho Panza constantly confuses one word with another, mistaking "revoking" for "revolting" and "critics" for "crickets." Another of Sancho's quirks is his tendency to quote folk sayings and proverbs at length. Sometimes the proverbs are appropriate to the occasion. At times, though, Sancho's garbled proverbs are laughable, a form of double talk.
As in the plays of William Shakespeare, there are episodes in Don Quixote where the humor descends to what we would consider a dirty joke. One example of this occurs in Part I, when the barber Nicholas borrows an oxtail that the innkeeper uses to hang his comb in to use as a false beard. This sets the stage for some bawdy wisecracks when the landlady later demands that Nicholas give her her "tail" back because her husband needs it. This type of humor, as well as Sancho's occasional jokes about bodily functions and disgusting odors, was taken more or less for granted in the seventeenth century.
Of course, you should keep in mind that in reading Don Quixote in an English translation you are not reading the actual language Cervantes wrote. However, the translations most commonly used today-especially those by J. M. Cohen and Walter Starkie-will give you a fairly accurate idea of the tone of Cervantes' prose.
FORM AND STRUCTURE
Don Quixote is a very loosely structured novel. Many readers complain that the story is too repetitive and filled with unnecessary, and sometimes confusing, digressions. Others find it jarring that the two halves of the novel are so different in tone. These complaints are not new. The original readers of the novel raised the same objections-and, indeed, you will find Cervantes' reply to these criticisms incorporated in Part II of the book.
There is a simple explanation for the unusual structure of the novel. Cervantes himself had no idea, when he began writing, of how the Don's adventures would end. Most likely, he originally intended to write a novella, or long short story, ending the Don's quest after his first return home and the burning of his library (now Chapter 8, Part I). When he decided to expand his story, he created the series of seemingly endless, and sometimes repetitive, adventures that make up what we know as Part I of the novel. While it is true that the Don's adventures sometimes seem to go on and on, this is just part of the joke. Lack of structure and repetition were among the characteristics of the chivalric romances that Cervantes had set out to lampoon.
When he began to write Part II of the novel, Cervantes had developed a more subtle conception of his characters, and he changed his approach to structure as well. Most modern readers find Part II more satisfying because the episodes seem less randomly strung together. It is easier to see how each new adventure affects the changing relationship between Quixote and Sancho and leads to the Don's eventual return home. But it is possible to disagree with this judgment. Some readers continue to find Part I funnier and more lively, and it is true that the best-remembered incidents from the story-the Don's attack on the windmills and his battle with the wineskins, for example-occur in the first part of the book.
If you enjoy tightly plotted suspense novels-or the kind of economical writing that makes every word count toward a single resolution or a unified theme-then you may find yourself growing impatient with Don Quixote. To put it another way, this is not a novel for people who care a great deal about neatness. Don Quixote was written in a spirit of experimentation-in the attempt to break out of established literary molds and to put more of life between the covers of a book than anyone had done before. The readers who enjoy this novel most are usually those who relax and get into the free-wheeling spirit of the individual episodes.
POINT OF VIEW
The shifting points of view in Don Quixote underline and emphasize the theme of illusion vs. reality. The story is told by an author, presumably Cervantes himself, who sometimes interrupts his tale to speak directly to you. In the Prologue to Part I, for example, this author even complains about how much trouble he has had finishing his work. The author claims that he is only retelling a true story related by an Arab historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli. Of course, there is no such person as Benengeli. The author made him up. Benengeli's comments on the story represent another level of unreality that lies between you-the reader-and the adventures of Don Quixote. Sometimes Benengeli's observations point out certain aspects of the novel to you. Sometimes Cervantes even uses Benengeli to make fun of Cervantes the author, as when he has Benengeli complain that the Don's story as written has become too long and tedious.