Why “Don Quixote” Teaches Us to Think Outside the Narration Box

434766_don_quixote_de_la_mancha_1Today I am continuing a two-part reflection on why authors (or anyone interested in the art of narration) should read “Don Quixote.” Yesterday’s post was about “Don Quixote” as the first modern novel and the complexity of its levels of narration.

Today I want to discuss what are called the “interpolated stories” in “Don Quixote.” These are tales that are inserted into the major narrative about the knight and his squire. Sometimes a minor character tells the story of his or her past. In one famous example (the Tale of the Curious Impertinent or “el curioso impertinente”) an innkeeper reads a story a guest left at his inn.

What is interesting here is that “Don Quixote” has an interesting mix of stories told in first or third person. While the stories about the protagonist and his squire are technically told in the first person, they read like third person because the narrator is not a character, but an outsider like us. He did research to find the facts and now is sharing the facts with us. When he does (rarely) mention himself, it’s funny and a bit jarring, purposefully so. Cervantes meant the tales about Don Quixote’s adventures to read like third person for the most part, even if they’re not.

The reason the narrator’s interjections are so jarring, in fact, is that he often interrupts to remind us that we shouldn’t trust what we’re reading: the narration that reads so much like third person. The first person narrator’s major function is to cast doubt on the authority of third person narratives.

The obvious first person narratives are the interpolated stories I mentioned above. The most famous are told by three different characters, sometimes here and there amidst various interruptions.

  • A woman named Dorotea tells the story of her failed relationship with a man named Fernando
  • A man named Cardenio, who seems to have a few screws lose, tells the story of his failed relationship with a woman named Luscinda
  • A man who was a captive in North Africa has escaped and returned to Spain, and he tells his story. It notably contrasts with the others for its adventuristic tone and religious themes, though it in part involves a love story too.

I love the Captive’s Tale in particular. It is so rich. It holds a lot of historical and cultural value, and perhaps is even autobiographical in part, because Cervantes himself was a slave in Africa following his capture in the military service.

The religious themes in the Captive’s Tale and the antagonistic relationship between Islam and Christianity there bring out the narrative tension between the (supposed) Arabian author and (supposed) Arabian translator of the entire book and the largely Christian audience who would have read it at publication.

There’s a lot to unearth there, but I’m not meaning this post to be about the Captive’s Tale. This post is about how any and every author can learn something about narration from “Don Quixote” because the novel contains an interesting mix of (basically) third person narration and first person narration.

If you write in third person, the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho read pretty much exactly like a third person narration. If you write in first person, the interpolated stories will fascinate you. All in all, the novel shows that the two major points of view can mix and mingle, that multiple stories can layer and interrupt and clash with one another in a novel, and that experimenting with narrative tricks and tools is a great idea if you feel inclined to do that.

That’s the major lesson for authors of the first modern novel. Cervantes did something new and different. There really hasn’t been a book like it since. There wasn’t one before. So don’t pigeon hole yourself into a stifling narrative structure if a standard structure doesn’t seem to fit you. If they do, that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with them, not by any means. But don’t forget they’re not the only option.

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