- Cervantes’ Don Quixote by Roberto González Echevarría
Near the end of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Roberto González Echevarría urges his readers to pay attention to the details of the literary texts they study: “Literature is made of specific, concrete details, not of abstractions, like philosophy, and this is why it is important to notice and to remember the details” (283). This directive is one of the many instances of how González Echevarría’s book is as much about instructing its readers how to read intelligently as it is about the work of Cervantes. González Echevarría’s focus on critical reading is appropriate because, as he claims throughout his text, “the Quixote is […] a book about how to read and how to interpret stories” (109). As a result of this emphasis on reading, in addition to receiving an excellent introduction to Don Quixote, the non-specialist reader also will be exposed to many of the fundamentals of literary study. Cervantes’ Don Quixote is part of the Yale Open Courses Series and is based on González Echevarría’s undergraduate lecture course. Although this book certainly is intended for a general, rather than academic, readership, González Echevarría writes that he has “endeavored to offer original insights; new slants on [Cervantes’s] life and works and even daring fresh interpretations” (ix).
Because of its origin as a lecture course, nearly all of the chapters of Cervantes’ Don Quixote are centered on a relatively brief section of Don Quixote, along with selections of three other works: J.H. Elliot’s Imperial Spain:1469–1716, González Echevarría’s edited Cervantes’ Don Quixote: A [End Page 235] Casebook, and Cervantes’s Exemplary Stories. Although to get the most out of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a general reader will also want to read these additional texts in the order prescribed, this certainly is not necessary. Indeed, González Echevarría’s book is so comprehensive that a general reader will leave it having learned a considerable amount about Cervantes, literary studies, and early modern Spanish culture.
Although specialists may quibble with some of his broad claims (for instance, his assertion that Cervantes “is quite different from Shakespeare and his somber conception of the human” seems to me to be overstated ), González Echevarría presents a detailed, clear, and well-organized discussion of the cultural and historical background of Cervantes’s work. Moreover, because the book is composed of lightly edited classroom lectures, González Echevarría does so in an easy, conversational manner—he admits the book has an “occasional avuncular tone” (ix)—with many useful digressions that the intended audience should find both interesting and informative. When González Echevarría relates Cervantes to contemporaries like Montaigne or Diego Velázquez, he thoroughly explains them in ways that will be clear to a general readership.
While his book is organized by moving systematically through both parts of Don Quixote, González Echevarría frequently returns to the central thesis that unifies his reading of the novel: “the Quixote embodies the most modern of predicaments: the individual’s dissatisfaction with the world in which he lives, and his struggle to make the world and his desires mesh” (12). González Echevarría’s stress throughout his book on what Don Quixote says about humans in the world leads him to his recurring focus on perspectivism, which he applies to the individual. As he writes, “one of the topics in the Quixote criticism is perspectivism, that reality is seen from the various perspectives of the characters,” but really “that within each individual there is already perspectivism because there is more than one perspective of things within him” (94–95). González Echevarría’s attention to the individual is advantageous for general readers (or students in his lecture) because it allows them to make connections between Don Quixote and their own lives. Indeed, the ability...