Why is Don Quixote "the" Spanish book of all time?

According to wikipedia, “The novel was recently voted The Greatest Book of All Time by the Nobel Institute.”

Why is Don Quixote considered so utterly great of a book, such that 99% of Americans would not be able to name any other work of Spanish?

Are there any competitors within Spanish literature? Or some kind of Spanish prose top 3 list?

According to one of my lit professors, no - it’s not the greatest Spanish novel, but the only one of any merit at all. He might have been joking, though.

I know it is considered the first “modern novel.” At least, the author of the foreword in the edition I read made a big point about that.

It was taught in my Spanish (as in “from Spain”) literature course back in high school as the first “modern style” fiction book (novela). There were other works before it, such as Cantar del mío Cid, La Celestina, and a couple others which plots I remember but can’t place the title. And of course, there were many novellas and fiction works written and available, which are parodied in El Quijote.

Now, IIRC, El Cid is not a prose fiction work, instead it is an epic poem fictionalizing real figures. And La Celestina, I’m not certain now if it was intended as a play or as a fiction novel. Spanish wiki states that is debated where to put it…

And if we go to plays, certainly there are Tirso de Molina and a few others as important playwriters.

Personally I prefer Latin American authors and magic realism, such as Gabriel García Márquez, Alejo Carpentier, and other authors like Carlos Fuentes.

If he meant Spanish as in “from Spain”, I wouldn’t know, since I said, I don’t like it so much (I blame my HS teacher). I suspect that is not true, though.

If he meant in the Spanish language, then sure he is joking… or else completely wrong.

He meant from Spain.

Heh… It is better than the books it parodied… I wouldn’t know, since my literature course ended with García Lorca. I did have to read other novels for other courses, but they were more “teen/coming of age literature” than adult fiction works.

As to some things that distinguish from other works, just a few:

  • The characters are more fleshed out. They are more complex, more gray, not entirely black and white.

  • Most of the main characters are not nobility or related to it. In fact, it makes fun of it. El Cid is talking about the conquests of a famous nobel and military man. La Celestina’s characters are mainly aristocrats, although the title character is a witch.

  • The description and narrative is more realistic and complex than works before.

By the way, I don’t know if an English translation exists, but I recommend reading La Celestina, or Tragicomedia de Calixto y Melibea. It is a tale similar to Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers… but much more interesting.

Don Quixote by Cervantes is boring and pedestrian. I prefer Pierre Menard’s version.

The fact that Menard never managed to complete his work is the single greatest tragedy of modern letters. The richness with which he managed to imbue each word in his novel shocks me every time I pour on his text.

Ok, hardly anyone is going to get that reference without googling, so I’ll try (and probably fail) to explain a little bit.

Don Quixote, for practical purposes, is the first novel. You can make arguments against this, and some of them would probably even be convincing, but in academic and literary circles, it is considered the first novel.

So, you know how important the Beatles are? Imagine if there were NO rock and roll, blues, jazz, etc before them. Imagine it was Beethoven and Bach right up until the Fab Four popped onto the Ed Sullivan Show and cranked out I Want to Hold Your Hand. And it’s now the 24th century and rock and roll is still widely popular. That’s how important Don Quixote is.

It influenced (some would argue, literally) everything from its publication to the end of the Modern Era in ~1960, and ostensibly everything in the Postmodern Era which is essentially commenting on the Modern Era and therefore indirectly (and sometimes even directly) on Don Quixote.

Postmodern theory would (loosely, of course) hold that, whatever you write, someone else has written it, and they or whoever they were quoting, was influenced by the Quixote.

That, and it’s pretty funny in some parts :p.

And, on preview: vdgg81, I couldn’t agree more.

You know what? I was taught that in high school, but when I went to college and had my first English-language general literature course, the book they gave us mentioned another novel as the “first novel”. Not “first novel in English”, but first one overall… I went “WTF?”

I have since forgotten what novel they were talking about (maybe Frankenstein?), but it irked me. On one hand it irked me that the book didn’t acknowledge El Quijote, on the other, wondering if what they were presenting was considered true or not in literary circles.

I have a friend who is a literature professor (PhD) and I asked him, if Don Quixote was the first novel, what are all these literary traditions it is satirizing? He said epic poems, bard songs, plays, etc. I think it’s important to note that, pointing out some book or other that was published beforehand and called a novel would not change the fact that Don Quixote is widely considered the first novel. I’d be surprised if your lit professor was referring to Frankenstein, though, since it was written about 2 centuries later.


Anyway, DQ is a hilarious satire. The Case of Foolish Curiosity, a chapter, is one of the funniest stories ever told.

I got it!

I don’t have anything to add, I just wanted to brag.

I’ve heard Genji Monogatari called the first novel. If it is, it beats the pants off Don Quixote by ~500 years.

Of course, it wouldn’t have influenced Western Literature at all, so this point might be irrelevant.

I’ve only read the first few pages of Don Quixote, but found myself not interested. It might have started a new style that offered more description and so on, but I still found the Arthurian tales from 200 years earlier to be less terse. Possibly it was a poor translation, of course.

I thought Clarissa was supposed to be the first novel. Maybe just the first in English.

I seriously doubt that 99% of all Americans (which should include a good portion of people with Hispanic origins) are so poorly educated that they know no other Spanish book but the Quixote.

But even if true, how could such a fact tell you anything about the value of the book itself as a piece of art, its worth within literature and its influence on Spanish and other cultures?

Just because, to name another example, most Americans might never have read a play by Lope de Vega or have ever heard about him, doesn’t mean they haven’t felt the lasting influence of the artists of the siglo de oro, if only by reading Shakespeare, who stole repeatedly from them.

Many artists we do know stand on the shoulders of giants, who we might not know but who made the art we know possible – because they invented (or added to) the techniques of the art and their subjects.

I don’t know what this is supposed to mean, but I agree that El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha is a masterpiece.

First, it’s a very well done book: great prose, interesting and developing characters, a straightforward but complex story line with carefully constructed arcs that have lots of meaning beyond the obvious.

Thus, its interpretation is not an easy task; one school concentrates on its comical side: the Quixote parodies, for example, the at that time well-known genres of the chivalric and pastoral novel; it’s also part of the picaresque novel and triumph over its boundaries.

It’s also a satirical analysis of Spanish history, culture and society; experts like Américo Castro think that the humour in Quixote is a critique against the phoniness of Spanish society and it effectively exposes their deceits by laughing at them heartily.

Others, like Miguel de Unamuno, focused on the heroic aspects of the Quixote; they identified Spain with the book and transformed it into a national symbol.

And there is the epistemological interpretation of the book: one of Cervantes’ themes is definitely the very Spanish idea of la vida es sueño (life is a dream), an idea that was masterfully translated into plays by another author of the siglo de oro: Calderón de la Barca.

Cervantes shows a lot of insight in the question of reality and constructs -– and it’s no surprise that he is often cited by representatives of the Radical Constructivism and similar epistemological schools.

Needless to say that his thinking influenced later authors who have toyed with such themes, like Sabato and Borges but also many other European and American novelists.

To determine the value and influence of a book like the Quixote by polls and lists is pointless … and more than a bit degrading. There is more to art than random popularity.

It’s a play.

It’s not supposed to be the first novel: after all, it makes fun of existing novelas de caballería (lit. novels about knights). But it changed the concept of novel, at least as it previously existed. It was set “in a time much like our own” and “a place much like ours” even if the author had chosen to have memory problems about the name of the village where Don Alonso Quijano lived; previous novels in Spanish, Catalan and Galego were set “in a [del]galaxy[/del] country far, far away” populated by fae and knights whose armor stayed spotless after a fray and came on and off without a glitch. Cervantes’ characters sweated, they made mistakes (part of the theme of El Quijote is “who is the one who’s deluded, Quijano or the rest of the world?”), they got hungry and thirsty and needed a shave.

Now, part of the reason it’s so famous is… because it’s so famous. But it’s also very good, although (as it so often happens with books they make you read in Spanish Lit) woefully inadequate for most 15-year-olds. I was supposed to read it in 6th grade (didn’t), but in 10th grade we were assigned “your choice of two Novelas Ejemplares” instead (short stories, also by Cervantes), which were a lot more digestible. Most people who got it assigned in both 6th and 10th never got around to reading it.

Which translation of Don Quixote is considered the best? And how good is the most recent one?

Well, it is a good story!