Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra holds the secret to The Novel of the Golden Age, and is the greatest representative of both Hispanic and universal writings. His novel “El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha” (The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quijote of La Mancha) has granted him complete immortality. Cervantes was born in Alcalá de Henares in Madrid in 1547. His father belonged to the lowest level of nobility, and he was a nobleman probably descended from Jewish surgeons. He began his studies as an infant with the Jesuits and later on probably went on to study at the University of Salamanca. He also went to Italy on Cardinal duty. When Spain signed the Holy Alliance with Rome and other European states, Cervantes enlisted and fought in the battle of Lepanto. Like many of his peers he was seeking glory. In the middle of the battle, and suffering from fever, he demonstrated his strength and heroism, which led to him losing mobility in one of his arms. He earned the nickname “El Manco de Lepanto” (The one-armed man of Lepanto). But the Turks captured him and he was imprisoned in Argel. In 1580 he was freed by the Trinitarians, who were the people in charge of negotiating the release of Christian prisoners, and he returned to Spain.
Once again he fought to gain recognition for his merits in battle, but he was unsuccessful. He also tried to go to America but didn't manage to get the necessary documents to travel. His life was a journey in pursuit of glory. He also worked as a tax collector, and for reasons that are not very clear he was imprisoned in Seville.
His marriage did not turn out very well either, and after an affair he was persecuted by the courts in Valladolid. From there he had to return to Madrid under the protection of the Count of Lemos. This protection, however, did not prevent him from dying in complete poverty in 1616.
As a literary figure, Cervantes developed all of the genres, including theatre and poetry, but it was the novel that particularly made him stand out from the rest. In theatre he cultivated the “entremés” which were short plays that were put on during the intervals of the longer plays. In poetry he experimented with many different genres, but he himself admitted that the muses had not granted him this gift. Certainly his poetry did not reach the same level as other poets of the time, like Góngora or Quevedo (who will be discussed later), but this does not mean that Cervantes was not as able. With regards to the novel he used all types of genre, but began with a pastoral novel, which he called “La Galatea” in 1585.
His masterpiece which has made him famous worldwide is “El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha” (The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quijote of La Mancha). In this book he narrates the life of a country gentleman from La Mancha who goes mad because of too much reading. It was a firm attack on the novels about knighthood, which were very fashionable at the time. The protagonist loses his mind, calls himself a knight and convinces his neighbor Sancho to follow him on a journey to find glory so that he and his Lady Dulcinea (imaginary name that he has given a female neighbor from Toboso) can become nobility. His adventures as a knight begin in the lands of La Mancha, where he fights against all types of imaginary enemy.
Until this point novels and historical accounts had narrated the life of the protagonist, hero or antihero from birth. Cervantes changed this trend, beginning his novel in the thick of the plot. We know nothing about the protagonist´s birth or infancy because it is not important for the rest of the story. Cervantes gives us a brief explanation of the context of Don Quijote´s life at that moment in time, but there are no descriptions of before the moment when he went mad.
The book portrays the complete ideology of the era. The criticism of knights´ literature has already been mentioned, but the theme itself was huge. Cervantes lived in an age of crisis and great changes, some of which are described in the book. Literature was changing from something that is read aloud, to something that was read in silence. Cervantes thought, along with general opinion, that this type of “silent” literature could provoke insanity.
In the novel he includes all the genres that were fashionable in 16th century literature: pastoral, Moorish, knights’ etc, creating a huge contemporary literary treaty. All of the genres are perfectly woven together and link to the central theme. Don Quijote represents idealism as he is motivated by the idea of glory and honor, which thus projects an image of the author himself into the adventures.
In the 16th century the “Reconquista” (Spanish Reconquest) had finished and the Peninsula was full of soldiers who were out of work. Many of them joined the conquest of America, a place where they could still achieve fame. It was said that the conquistadors were the last knights errant. They arrived at the new continent after a dangerous journey and then faced an endless number of dangerous: illness, vermin, hostile new tribes… But they also awaited the legends that would guide them through jungles in search of heroic deeds, and the recognition of returning from them. During the Reconquista the Kings had rewarded the best warriors with noble titles or land. But to achieve this they first had to gain a reputation. This is what our hidalgo wanted to do. Moreover, he was from La Mancha, which was a borderland for a long period of time. Great fortunes were made in it but Don Quijote belonged to the lowest class of nobility, as demonstrated by his title “hidalgo”. It is assumed that Don Quijote inherited his ideas about climbing the social ladder from his ancestors.
Sancho is the loyal companion of Don Quijote but also his counterpoint. He admires his master and stays faithful to him until death, and it is he who makes sense of the insanities of the hidalgo. He explains to us what the visions of his master really mean, for example Don Quijote´s giants that are actually windmills. But his sensibility is at the same time marred by his ignorance, despite him seeing what his master refuses to acknowledge, he believes what he is told by Quijote. He is loyal because of the promise that Don Quijote made him: to be ruler of an island, as the knights from the books did for their loyal companions when they achieved glory. The knight errant was someone that did things in an altruistic way without expecting anything in return; but the squire receives his reward from the hands of his master.
The other characters that are depicted in the book are perfectly outlined; some pity Don Quijote's illness, but the majority make fun of him. Drama emerges in the last few moments of his life. His sanity returns and he realizes that his life has all been in vain. At the same time that Don Quijote gains his sanity, Sancho starts losing his, and so the roles are reversed.
In terms of the formal structure of the novel, it is written in the form of a discovered manuscript. Cervantes tells us that he is not the author of the book, but that he found it. It was a manuscript signed by a certain Cide Hamete Benengeli. This format has been widely used in literature but Cervantes probably used it because of his origin, since it was already suspected that he had Jewish ancestors, and so it worked as an alibi against the Inquisition.
During the Renaissance and the Baroque period a debate arose about realism and probability. As a supporter of probability, Cervantes believed that artwork had to be believable. This meant that the fantastic elements that appear in his novels had to be explainable in some way. Don Quijote gives the author an excuse to include fantasy because it could be counteracted by Sancho Panza's simple rational explanations for everything supernatural. This makes Cervantes way ahead of his time, as we see all the fantastic elements through the eyes of the crazy man, which allows him room for unreality.