In short, our gentleman became so caught up in reading that…with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.

Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote

Don Quixote

Don Quixote
The accurate, readable, and funny 2003 translation by Edith Grossman is highly recommended. (Harper Collins, ISBN 0-06-018870-7). The John Ormsby translation (1885, with some more recent revisions) is available for free online and with convenient links to individual chapters, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes - Free Online Book (learnlibrary.com)

Milan Kundera calls Cervantes “the founder of the modern era”...

It is impossible to summarize this vast, multi-layered novel, first published in two parts – in 1605 and 1615.  Milan Kundera calls Cervantes “the founder of the modern era;” and indeed once students have cleared away the idea they may have that it’s an archaic and somewhat silly tale about a knight who fights with a windmill, they are likely to be astonished at how contemporary at least some aspects of the book feel. The text frequently draws attention to its own status as a work of fiction; Cervantes invents an Arabic Muslim historian to whom he attributes most of the narrative, casting himself as the discoverer of the manuscript rather than its author, and his prologue makes fun of the scholarly apparatus of translations and footnotes that accompany most “serious” works of literature. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, he leads us on an adventure that begins with the Don’s resolution to “become a knight errant and travel the world … righting all manner of wrongs” and ends with his renunciation of his quest and the books that inspired it, told over two parts.  The second part, published 10 years after the first, is a metanarrative – written with the assumption that the first half of the book has been published and is widely read, and that the consequences of the resulting fame are now directly affecting Don Quixote and his squire Sancho in their subsequent adventures that make up book two.

Why This Text is Transformative?

Like Don Quixote, they [students] may be inspired by high ideals to advocate for causes to which they are deeply committed, only to find themselves met not with opportunities for heroism but by cynicism, bureaucracy, ridicule, and the insistent humdrum demands of everyday life.

Don Quixote is often called the first novel. Despite the humor that suffuses the tale, it is a serious and even a tragic work. The laughter the novel provokes, and the distance combined with affection we feel for its noble yet ridiculous protagonist as he attempts to live out his ideals in a decidedly unsympathetic world, provoke examination of themes that students will feel deeply. Many of them, in coming to college, have themselves set off on a grand adventure. Like Don Quixote, they may be inspired by high ideals to advocate for causes to which they are deeply committed, only to find themselves met not with opportunities for heroism but by cynicism, bureaucracy, ridicule, and the insistent humdrum demands of everyday life.   In addition, although most classes will probably not have time to read more than short excerpts from the novel, the way the text draws attention to its own nature as a written artifact and highlights issues of interpretation throws into question the notion of authorship means that even short selections can give rise to rich conversations about reading, writing, understanding, and storytelling.  Questions of this sort are also raised by the fact that it is apparently reading tales of knight errantry that has driven Don Quixote to his course of action in the world.  If we read seriously, should we not be open to being changed by what we read?

A Focused Selection

Study Questions

Brownies

The following selections from the text will create a lively discussion of contemporary themes 

“Brownies”

This story, told from the first person perspective of “Snot” is about a Black Brownie troop heading to a campout. When they arrive, there is a white troop also arriving, and from there things get interesting. None of the girls has really ever seen a white girl before, not in any meaningful way, not up close. When Arnette comes back from a trek to the communal bath to announce that one of the white girls called Daphne a “nigger’, everyone wants a piece of the white girls. What they discover, though, is that things aren’t always what they seem, and “Snot” must make the decision to be her own person.

Class 1 – Study Questions

  1. Part of this story is about “Snot” participating in the ambush of the white girls without really having all the information. This theme resonates in particular with the (dis)information age in which we currently reside. Have you ever acted on someone else’s information without validating it for yourself? What was the outcome? Did you come to regret that decision? +
  2. There a couple of places where the narrator could simply refuse to follow along with Arnette’s plan. Instead, she follows along as Arnette expects. Have you ever had an opportunity to speak up and not take it?  How did you feel afterward? Did someone else speak up? Did you wish after that that you had been the one to speak up? 
  3. Arnette seems to be a trouble maker She likes to keep things going. What’s your experience with girls (or boys) like Arnette? How did you handle girls (boys) like her when you were that age? Were you that girl (boy)?

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

“Drinking Coffee Elsewhere”

In “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere”, the title story from this collection, we meet Dina, an African American freshman woman at Yale on Orientation day. In group circle she tells the group, when asked what inanimate object she wanted to be, that she wants to be a revolver so that she can wipe out all of humanity. This does not go well, and she finds herself in regular psychiatric counseling. Her roommate moves out, and she is branded a pariah from day one. But she meets Heidi and they create a sort of friendship until Dina finds a way to put distance between them and finally ends the relationship all together.  

Class 2 -Study Questions

  1. A good deal of this story is about Dina feeling like an outsider in  a place she’s supposed to belong. Have you ever wanted to be somewhere and then discovered you really didn’t want to be there? Was it a place you thought you should want to be? Did you leave? Was it hard to leave if you did? 
  2. Dina makes the comment she makes perhaps partly for effect. Have you ever done or said something purely for the impact you thought it might have on others? What was it? Did the performance backfire or were you successful? 
  3. Do you find it hard to make friends? Have you ever wanted to be friends  with someone who resisted the opportunity? What did you do? Did you leave them alone or did you try harder?
  4. Have you ever dealt with Imposter Syndrome, a situation where you get where you want to be, but feel like you don’t really deserve to be there, that somehow you’re not as qualified as everyone else? What did you do?

Building Bridges

A Recommended Pairing

A wonderful short novel by Graham Greene, Monseigneur Quixote, recasts Cervantes’ magnum opus in a way that captures much of the humor and pathos in a more modern context, as the adventures of a Roman Catholic priest and a communist mayor taking to the road together in Spain during the Franco years. The richly imagined characters and their conversations make it clear that the issues that drive Don Quixote’s idealistic quest are not raised only in books of chivalry.  How do we live with a commitment to the ideals of a religious faith or a political ideology which, though noble, may not fit easily with and may have unfortunate consequences in the unforgiving world in which we find ourselves? What difference does friendship make in our lives?

Supplemental Resources

Don Quixote and the Windmills Salvador Dali

Don Quixote and the Windmills, 1945 - Salvador Dali - WikiArt.org

Don Quixote has been an inspiration for many visual artists. Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali returned to the novel multiple times throughout his long career, creating sketches, paintings, and sculptures of Don Quixote and Sancho, depicting important episodes in the book.  A pairing of an episode with one of Dali’s works can lead to a stimulating discussion.

What details do students notice? What do his artistic choices suggest about his interpretation of the characters?  To the extent that students are familiar with the story of Don Quixote, it is likely to be as it is filtered through the musical The Man of La Mancha.  The musical has its own merits, and is framed by the interesting device of placing Cervantes on stage as a narrator, but of course it is impossible for it to capture much of the complexity of the book – and it alters the ending dramatically. Students may find it interesting to compare the two endings.

 

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