Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de


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Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de

(sərvăn`tēz, Span. mēgĕl` dā thĕrvän`tās sä'ävāthrä), 1547–1616, Spanish novelist, dramatist, and poet, author of Don Quixote de la Mancha, b. Alcalá de Henares.

Life

Little is known of Cervantes's youth. He went to Italy (1569), where, in the service of a cardinal, he studied Italian literature and philosophy, which were later to influence his work. In 1570 he enlisted in the army and fought in the naval battle of Lepanto (1571), receiving a wound that permanently crippled his left arm. While returning to Spain in 1575 he was captured by Barbary pirates and was sold as a slave; he eventually became the property of the viceroy of Algiers. After many attempted escapes, he was ransomed in 1580, at a cost that brought financial ruin to himself and to his family. As a government purchasing agent in Seville (1588–97), Cervantes proved less than successful; his unbusinesslike methods resulted in deficits, and he was imprisoned several times.

Works

His first published work was an effusive pastoral romance in prose and verse, La Galatea (1585). Between 1582 and 1587 he wrote more than 20 plays, only two of which survive. He was 58 when Part I of his masterpiece, Don Quixote (1605; Part II, 1615), was published. As a superb burlesque of the popular romances of chivalry, Don Quixote was an enormous and immediate success. A spurious Part II was published in 1614, probably spurring Cervantes to complete the work.

Don Quixote is considered a profound delineation of two conflicting attitudes toward the world: idealism and realism. The work has been appreciated as a satire on unrealistic extremism, an exposition of the tragedy of idealism in a corrupt world, and a plea for widespread reform. Whatever its intended emphasis, the work presented to the world an unforgettable description of the transforming power of illusion, and it has had an indelible effect on the development of the European novel.

Don Quixote is a country gentleman who has read too many chivalric romances. He and the peasant Sancho Panza, who serves as his squire, set forth on a series of extravagant adventures. The whole fabric of 16th-century Spanish society is detailed with piercing yet sympathetic insight. The addled idealism of Don Quixote and the earthy acquisitiveness of Sancho serve as catalysts for numerous humorous and pathetic exploits and incidents. Its panorama of characters, the excellence of its tales, and its vivid portrayal of human nature contribute to the enduring influence of Don Quixote.

In later years Cervantes wrote other works of fiction, including Novelas ejemplares (1613), 12 original tales of piracy, Gypsies, and human passions, drawn from his own experience and molded by his mature craftsmanship. Some of these stories in themselves prove him to be one of the world's great literary masters.

Bibliography

Among the most acclaimed translations of Don Quixote are those by S. Putman (1949), J. M. Cohen (1950), and E. Grossman (2003). See biographies by L. Astrana Marín (in Spanish, 7 vol., 1948–58), F. Díaz Plaja (tr. 1970), and W. Byron (1988); studies by L. Nelson (1969), A. K. Forcione (1982), J. G. Weiger (3 vol., 1979–88), C. B. Johnson (1983), I. Stavans (2015), and W. Egginton (2016); bibliography by D. B. Drake (1980).

Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de

 

Baptized on Oct. 9, 1547, in Alcalá de Henares; died Apr. 23, 1616, in Madrid. Spanish writer.

The son of a surgeon, a poor hidalgo, Cervantes served as a soldier in his youth, distinguishing himself in the naval battle of Lepan to (Oct. 7, 1571), in which his left arm was crippled. During his voyage home he was captured by pirates and sold as a slave to an Algerian pasha. After five years in slavery and four unsuccessful attempts to escape, he was ransomed by missionaries in 1580.

Returning to Madrid, Cervantes wrote the pastoral novel Galatea (1585), the patriotic tragedy La Numancia, and about 30 other plays. He earned so little as a writer that he was forced to move to Sevilla, where he became a purchasing agent, responsible for requisitioning supplies for the navy. Later, he worked as a debt collector. Cervantes’ civil service (1587–1603) was no more successful than his army service: he was imprisoned three times.

The more realistic, more productive, later period of Cervantes’ literary career was nurtured by his contact with various social circles, owing to his position as a civil servant in a major port in a world empire. This period of his work opened with the publication of the first part of the novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605), which he began to write while he was in prison in Sevilla in 1602. In many ways the novel is an account of Cervantes’ personal life, which was replete with heroic daring and catastrophic fiascoes. The national and European success of the novel prompted someone to publish a spurious conclusion under the pen name A. Fernández de Avellaneda. Irked by the vulgarization of his original concept and main images, Cervantes published the second part of Don Quixote in 1615, after publishing the Exemplary Novels (1613) and Eight Comedies and Eight New Interludes (1615). On his deathbed, Cervantes completed the amorous picaresque novel The Labors of Persiles and Sigismunda (published 1617). Tormented by poverty and humiliating experiences, Cervantes joined the Trinitarian Order just before his death and was buried at its expense. The location of his grave is unknown.

All of Cervantes’ work is pervaded by the contrast between the ideal “poetry” of spiritual life—the romanticism of man’s indomitable aspirations—and the impoverished “prose” of the world, which is viewed in an ironic or humorous light. The contrast divides Cervantes’ plays into two genres: dramas about the valiant struggling against the vicissitudes of fate or about lovers who are steadfastly loyal to their feelings (The Traffic of Algiers and The Grand Sultana), and satiric, picaresque interludes whose portrayal of everyday life remains vivid to this day (The Widower Bully, The Careful Guard, and The Judge of Divorces). The same basic contrast is found in the short stories, which include both amorous adventure stories in the tradition of the neochivalrous epics of the Renaissance (“The Liberal Lover” and “The Spanish-English Lady”) and picaresque stories, with satiric depictions of everyday life (“The Dogs’ Colloquy” and “Rinconete and Cortadillo”). In this sense, short stories such as “The Illustrious Kitchen-maid” and “The Little Gypsy,” which depict ideal heroines against a humble (tavern or gypsy) background, constitute a synthetic genre.

In his short stories Cervantes opened European literature to the romanticism of the gypsy theme, which later influenced Hugo, Mérimée, and Pushkin. Short stories such as “The Jealous Estremaduran” and “The Licenciate of Glass,” with their pathologically strained heroes and maniacal characters, occupy a special place among Cervantes’ works. The hero of “The Licenciate of Glass” suffers from the delusion that he has turned into glass. His brittle, crazy “wisdom,” which is merely amusing to others, anticipates the sorrowful humor of Don Quixote.

Cervantes’ genius for realism and his unfailing taste for the heroic and the romantic are most powerfully combined in a single work, in the subjectively heroic ardor of the “insanely wise” knight-errant, Don Quixote, and in the “Quixote situation.” The great multilevel novel grew out of a modest idea of ridiculing the neochivalrous romances fashionable in the author’s time. The literary parody, the superficial level of the novel, is most apparent in the first five chapters. Later, the story of the “bookish knight” who passes through all social circles, encountering approximately 670 minor characters, becomes the vehicle for presenting a variegated panorama of Spanish society at the juncture of two centuries of national development, one rising and the other declining. Capitalist society took shape after the epoch of great geographic discoveries and colonial conquests and after the bourgeoisie’s “period of wandering knighthood” (F. Engels in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21, p. 83). Blinded by past successes, Spain was, in both its politics and its economy, characterized by fruitless adventurism and a quixotic lack of a sense of the “beat of reality” (V. G. Belinskii, Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 6, 1955, p. 34).

Cervantes’ novel, an artistic compendium of life in Spain during the classical period of Spanish culture, contrasts the tragicomic, fruitless enthusiasm of a noble individual with the pathetic stagnation of self-satisfied philistines—the world of impractical spirit with the world of soulless practicality. The main situation in the plot rests on a dual contrast between the central pair of wandering “madmen” and the “sober,” passive social environment, and between the knight, an idealist, and his squire, a realist. In both contrasts, each side has only enough “wisdom” (common sense) to expose the illusions, or madness, of the other. This is the Spanish, national historical level of the Quixote situation.

Beyond national quixotism and the crisis of Spanish culture, Cervantes perceived the general European crisis of Renaissance humanism, with its idea that a new society would emerge and assign a new status to the individual. Cervantes, one of the great realists of modern times, was the first to capture not the heroic but the “prosaic” (philistine) character of the emerging society. Simultaneously mocking and glorifying Don Quixote, Cervantes laughed ruefully at the “heroic madness’ and the Utopian romanticism of an era, creating a realistic work that was the culmination of Renaissance art, which had glorified the idealized free individual, the “creator of his fate” and the “son of his own works.”

At the same time, Cervantes laid the foundation for the new European novel, the “epic of individuals.” He contributed to the development of the comic novel, creating the humor of “high laughter”—laughter at what is lofty, best, and noblest in man; at the eternal activism of human consciousness; at what the novel terms “genuinely knightly” inspiration; and at intervention in life’s course, when consciousness, inspired by something better, “nobly” loses its sense of “the beat of reality.” This is the immortal, eternal significance of the universal, human level of the novel.

The meaning of all the levels of Cervantes’ novel only gradually became apparent to succeeding generations. The 17th century perceived only the parodic level. Eighteenth-century readers, especially the masters of the English novel, Fielding, Goldsmith, and Sterne, discovered that quixotic precepts could be used to develop a comic encyclopedia of contemporary society and the national color of comic characters.

Cervantes was most highly acclaimed in the 19th century, beginning with the German romantics, who rhapsodized over the unsurpassed poeticization of the discord between the ideal and the real in Don Quixote and viewed Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as the “eternal pair,” “the greatest satire of human over-enthusiasm” (H. Heine, Sobr. soch., vol. 7, Moscow, 1958, p. 39), and “mythological persons for all of cultured humanity” (F. W. J. von Schelling, Filosofiia iskusstva, Moscow, 1966, p. 385).

Nineteenth-century realist criticism, represented in Russian literature by V. G. Belinskii, A. I. Herzen, I. S. Turgenev, and F. M. Dostoevsky, discovered the true significance of the image of Don Quixote, stripped of one-sided romantic interpretations. This discovery is evident in national variations on the theme of Don Quixote, including Dickens’ Pickwick Papers in English literature, A. Daudet’s Tartarin of Tarascon in French literature, and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot in Russian literature.

Twentieth-century literary thought and criticism have emphasized the relevance of militant humanism, as well as the “summons to the future” in the chivalrous enthusiasm of the novel’s heroes (A. V. Lunacharskii, Sobr. soch., vol. 4, 1964, p. 140). Historically, the image of Don Quixote has been rediscovered from various points of view. For the artistic consciousness, the concept of Quixote has been fundamentally inexhaustible and endlessly “open.”

WORKS

Obras completas, vols. 1–19. Edited and published by R. Schevill and A. Bonilla. Madrid, 1914–41.
In Russian translation
Sobr. soch, vols. 1–5. Moscow, 1961.

REFERENCES

Belinskii, V. G. “Tarantas.” Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 9. Moscow, 1955.
Turgenev, I. “Gamlet i Don Kikhot.” Poln. sobr. soch. i pisem: Sochineniia, vol. 8. Moscow-Leningrad, 1964.
Heine, H. “Vvedenie k Don Kikhotu.” Sobr. soch., vol. 7. [Moscow] 1958.
Derzhavin, K. N. Servantes. Moscow, 1958.
Menéndez Pidal, R. Izbr. proizv. Moscow, 1961.
Pinskii, L. “Siuzhet Don Kikhota i konets realizma Vozrozhdeniia.” In his book Realizm epokhi Vozrozhdeniia. Moscow, 1961.
Servantes i vsemirnaia literatura. Edited by N. I. Balashov [et al.]. Moscow, 1969.
Snetkova, N. “Don Kikhot” Servantesa. Moscow-Leningrad, 1965.
Astrana Marin, L. Vida ejemplar y heróica de M. de Cervantes Saavedra, vols. 1–7. Madrid, 1948–58.
Castro, A. Hacia Cervantes, 3rd ed. Madrid, 1967.
M. de Servantes Saavedra: Bibliografiia russkikh perevodov i kriticheskoi literatury na russkom iazyke, 1763–1957. Moscow, 1959.

L. E. PINSKII