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The Mirth of Girth: Don Quixote’s Stout Squire
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It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a more fitting foil for Cervantes’s Don Quixote than his plump squire. Sancho’s girth has not gone unnoticed since he first appeared in the 1605 novel. A search on the Cervantes Project website, established in 1995 and edited by Eduardo Urbina, offers seventy-one digital pages containing 1,403 items, many with iconographic reproductions pertaining to Don Quixote—a dearth of images, however, is noticeable for some recent entries. Of the hundreds of depictions of Sancho featured, none better captures the essence of the rotund sidekick than Pablo Picasso’s famous 1955 silhouette of knight and squire. A. G. Lo Ré describes it as an “insightful, sassy, ubiquitous, black on white drawing of Don Quixote [and Sancho]” (105) with both standing in a field where windmills abound. Lo Ré describes the figure of Sancho as “a black mass vaguely defining his round body, and sitting on Dapple” (105; emphasis added).

Sancho’s images amassed by the Project offer iconic testimony to his appearance and expand on what Picasso captures and Lo Ré describes as Sancho’s “round body,” by focusing on this aspect of his portrayal. Even when Cervantes indirectly describes Sancho, as the squire appears in the drawing included in the Arabic continuation, he is rotund. He is thus surnamed “Panza” from the Latin pantex, also the root of “paunch.” Remarkably, however, whereas iconography depicts his physique, only words can detail his non-physical traits. Narration, therefore, provides a more thorough picture that deemphasizes Sancho’s bulkiness. Iconography may also be misleading; today’s viewers, as well as today’s artists, often perceive Sancho’s depictions through a modern lens, and thus not see or understand the Sancho of his time.

Contemporary views on obesity find scrutiny in Fat Studies which, according to Marilyn Wann, is a “new interdisciplinary field of intellectual inquiry” (ix). Wann adds, from a post-structural perspective (a post Sassurean one) that, “defined in part by what it is not” (ix), it is an endeavor “[l]ike feminist studies, queer studies, and disability studies, which consider gender, sexuality, or functional difference” to “show us who we are via the lens of weight” (21-22). The prescriptivism of Fat Studies probably hinders a literary examination of what girth meant to Cervantes. Therefore, our approach is not per se a “fat study” but, to the degree possible, we include Fat Studies precepts when these provide a point of departure toward Cervantes’s attitude toward Sancho’s stoutness. In addition, our excursus does not dispute male and female girth differences, though it allows for the formulation of perspectives concerning female girth in the novel, not the least of which are those regarding Dulcinea. Furthermore, it does not purposely explore Sancho’s bulk in contrast to Quixote’s skinniness; when it does, it does so only to examine Sancho’s corpulence.

In using a Fat Studies perspective as a starting point, we go to Lesleigh J. Owen’s “Consuming Bodies: Fatness, Sexuality, and the Protestant Ethic,” where she asserts that “fat persons are stigmatized” (2) and, if asked, many of her students might produce these descriptors to characterize fat people: “‘slovenly,’ ‘dumb,’ ‘pathetic,’ ‘lonely,’ ‘working class,’ ‘lazy,’ and ‘loud’” (9). Viren Swami and Martin J. Tovée share this negative view (89), as do Laura S. Brown and Esther D. Rothblum in their anthology’s introduction (1). A cursory glance at the several study titles in this “new field of intellectual inquiry” (Wann ix) reveals justifiable defensiveness against current attitudes toward the heavyset.

Does this negativism hold true in the field of literature, particularly in a work like Cervantes’s? Moving from the sociocultural to the literary and pondering this query, John Mullan, in his “Ten Best Series” in the Guardian, lists male characters marked by mass: from Shakespeare’s Falstaff (Sancho Panza’s contemporary) to Alexander Finch in Peter Carey’s The Fat Man in History (1974). For Mullan, Falstaff is “at ease with his bulk.” A fat medieval man, Friar Tuck appears in Sir Walter Scott’s nineteenth-century Ivanhoe (1821). Mullan claims that Tuck sports his heft as testimony “to his joie de vivre.” Besides...


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