Don Quixote’s Quest Through Novel History

by Claire Mathieson

Don Quixote has been a part of this world since it sprang from the imagination of a brilliant Spanish writer more than four centuries ago. It has not only survived over time and across oceans, it has grown branches, becoming new-yet-interconnected works in the crucibles of others’ imaginations. We will soon see this firsthand as it comes to life before us as a French opera, which is itself a perfect example of Quixote’s chain of inspiration – the opera did not come directly from the novel but was based on Jacques le Lorrain’s 1904 play Le chevalier de la longue figure. Despite Don Quixote’s great strides into diverse genres, it continues to ride its horse proudly through the lands of time as the first modern novel, and a stunning variety of novelists in Cervantes’s wake have used Quixote’s colorful episodes and unconventional knight-errant as inspiration for their own literary quests.

The Female Quixote, a 1752 novel by Charlotte Lennox, follows a English young woman who believes her life should mirror a typical French romance novel. After a couple of real-life courtships and a mistaken escape into the River Thames, a doctor helps her see where in her life reality and imagination have become confused. This novel went on, in turn, to influence Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Madame Bovary

Soledad Fox, a professor of comparative literature at Williams College, believes that Don Quixote’s effect on Flaubert “is one of the most important, and least studied, examples of influence and imitation in the history of the novel.” Where Quixote escapes life in La Mancha through dreams born of chivalric novels, Emma Bovary’s romances lead her away from her own realities in provincial France.

Dostoyevsky likens the “positively good and beautiful” protagonist of his own 1860s novel The Idiot to Quixote in a letter to his niece, saying “of all the beautiful individuals in Christian literature, one stands out as the most perfect, Don Quixote.” He believes that Quixote “is beautiful only because he is ridiculous” and argues that “whenever compassion toward ridiculed and ingenious beauty is presented, the reader’s sympathy is aroused.” It is this sympathy he aimed to elicit as he had his own “beautiful” protagonist taken for an idiot due to his goodness.

Paul Auster’s 1985 City of Glass, part of his New York Trilogy, features a detective named Daniel Quinn, whose initials are no mistake. Quinn meets Auster (also a character in the book) who is, by chance, writing an article about Don Quixote.

In James A. Owens’s The Shadow Dragons, a 2009 fantasy, Quixote himself returns to a novel’s pages alongside characters inspired by relative newcomers in the realm of influence, like J.R.R. Tolkien, Edgar Allen Poe, and C.S. Lewis. Also featured are dragons and a badger named Fred.

Early on in Young Adult author Libba Bray’s 2009 novel Going Bovine, its protagonist is reading Don Quixote in class. Not long after, he embarks on a journey that – while unique in that it involves a Norse god masquerading as a lawn gnome – parallels Quixote’s own quest.

From novels that are classics in their own right to novels that were still fresh in their authors’ imaginations less than a decade ago, Don Quixote has left a living mark on literature. Though Cervantes has been long dead, Quixote himself lives on, traveling through universes not even his creator could have imagined. Just as opera is a collaborative art, the orchestra, performers, directors, and audience coming together to bring a story to life, Quixote lives on in a collaboration of inspiration and imagination, carried along from person to person like a shared and endless dream.