Yocheved T. Kolchin
Professor Steven Alvarez
26 June 2011
Eyeing the “I”: A Critical Look at the Overt Narrators in Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Jorge Luis Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote“
Long before narratives were written down, people would pass down stories to one another orally. Every storyteller had a unique voice, a unique manner of telling a tale, and this voice and manner were equally as important to the listeners as the content of the story itself. So too, every written narrative projects a voice, albeit one we cannot physically hear with our ears, and this narrative voice drastically changes the effect of the story. This article demonstrates how the voice and character of the first-person narrator shapes and contextualizes the stories told in Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote and in Jorge Luis Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote.”
Above All, Know Thy Terms
When we look at narrators, we usually think of them in terms of first-person narrators and third-person narrators. However, these terms can sometimes be confusing or fail to give us a complete picture of who the narrator is. For example, in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Jane is a first-person narrator who also acts as the main character in the book. In Cervantes’s Don Quixote, however, the first-person narrator spends most of the book telling us the story of Don Quixote and Sancho, from which he is removed. Both are first-person narratives, but the two narrators are scarcely comparable.
The case is similar with third-person narrators. We can have a third-person narrator like those in Jane Austen’s novels, who inserts witticisms and judgments into the text (such as in the first line of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”) or like that of the Harry Potter series, who does not. The need for more precise classifications for narrators is evident.
Professor Manfred Jahn supplies us with some such classifications. Jahn distinguishes between “overt” and “covert” narrators. An “overt narrator” gives us information about himself and projects a voice (Jahn N1.8- N1.9). A “covert narrator,” on the other hand, has “a largely indistinct or indeterminable voice” (Jahn N1.9). According to this definition a first-person narrator is always overt, because he always projects a voice of some sort. A third-person narrator, however, may be overt (like in Pride and Prejudice) or covert (like in Harry Potter).
It is important to recognize that this not merely an either/or distinction, but rather, a spectrum. Thus, you might have two narratives that are overt, but one might be more overt than the other. For example, the Jane Eyre is more overt than the narrator in Don Quixote.
Jahn also gives another standard by which to classify narrators:
A text is homodiegetic if among its story-related action sentences there are some that contain first-person pronouns (I did this; I saw this; this was what happened to me), indicating that the narrator was at least a witness to the events depicted; a text is heterodiegetic if all of its story-related action sentences are third-person sentences (She did this, this was what happened to him)” (N1.11).
This refers back to the first distinction we made between the narrators of Jane Eyre and of Don Quixote. Jane is a homodiegetic narrator, because she acts as a character in the story, influencing the events that take place. The narrator of Don Quixote is a heterodiegetic narrator for the most part, because he exists on a plane outside of the action: he tells us what Don Quixote and Sancho did, but he does not act as a character in the story or influence the events. However, I say that he is a heterodiegetic narrator “for the most part” because this classification can and does change (as we will see) in different parts of the story: a narrator may be heterodiegetic in some parts of a narrative and homodiegetic in other parts. But more on this later.
(In While You Were Sleeping, Lucy acts as a homodiegetic narrator. The narration starts at about 2:10.)
Diegesis and the “Praiseworthy” Narrator of Don Quixote
With these definitions in mind, let’s take a look at the narrator in Don Quixote. Chapter I of Don Quixote opens:
In a village in La Mancha, the name of which I cannot recall, there lived not long ago one of those country men or hidalgos… His surname’s said to have been Quixada, or Quesada (as if he were a jawbone, or a cheesecake): concerning this detail there’s some discrepancy among the authors who have written on the subject, although a credible conjecture does suggest that he might have been a plaintive Quexana. But this doesn’t matter much, as far as our story’s concerned, provided that the narrator doesn’t stray one inch from the truth (Cervantes 25).
According to Jahn’s definition of an overt narrator, the narrator of Don Quixote is overt, because he refers to himself in the first-person and tells us a little about himself in the prologue and throughout the text. However, much of the information this narrator— or this “Cervantes character” that is projected onto the narrator— gives us about himself and his story seems to be contradictory. On the one hand, he seems quite unsure as to the details of his story. He can’t be sure of the main character’s name (Quixada, Quesada, or Quexana), the name of the village in which he lived (somewhere in La Mancha), or even the exact time at which this story took place (“not long ago”). Yet on the other hand, he claims that, as narrator, he “doesn’t stray one inch from the truth.” How can this be?
A narrative is a sequence of events that answers the questions “Who?” “What?” “When?” and “Where?” What the narrator is saying when he assures us that he won’t stray from the truth is that even if he is a little iffy on the answers to the “Who?” “When?” and “Where?” questions, he will tell us exactly “What” happened.
But it is surprising that the narrator is so iffy on the first four questions, because he seems to have researched his topic—he writes about “some discrepancy among the authors who have written on the subject,” indicating that he is well versed in the literature surrounding this story. If so, how can he have forgotten some of the most basic details?
It seems that Cervantes is putting up a front, or rather two fronts. First of all, we know that the real Cervantes must have been very smart to pen such a book as Don Quixote. But from his “forgetting” details, and especially from the Prologue, in which he writes that he has a “barren and ill-cultivated mind” (Cervantes 11), he comes across as not very bright. Then again, in the prologue, Cervantes’ friend advises him to doctor up his manuscript in order to trick his readers into thinking he is erudite (Cervantes 15-16). The lines that seem to indicate that the narrator is erudite, such as the “some discrepancy among authors” line, are the lines that the not very bright projection of Cervantes writes in order to project that he is knowledgeable. Thus, the smart Cervantes is projecting himself as a not very smart man who is projecting himself as smart.
This reading of the narrator is further complicated by the digression in Chapter IX, in which the narrator tells us how he discovered the outcome of the fight between Don Quixote and the Basque. For most of Don Quixote, the narrator appears to be a heterodiegetic narrator. This is because, despite his first-person address, he doesn’t take part in the action of the story, which is dominated by Don Quixote and Sancho. However, at this moment in the text, the narrator switches to a homodiegetic narrative in which he centers as the one who discovers a text chronicling the rest of Don Quixote’s exploit with the Basque. This digression is comparable to a famous clip from an episode of Burns and Allen:
(The part we want starts at about 1:35)
Like George, the narrator in Don Quixote freezes the action of the story in order to step in and tell us a story on another level of narrative. This point in the text echoes the prologue to Don Quixote, which is the only other place thus far in which the narrator addresses us homodiegetically.
And in so doing, Cervantes gives us more information about the front that he is putting on as narrator of this story. He writes:
Our gallant Don Quixote is worthy of continuous and memorable praise—which shouldn’t be denied me, either, for all the hard work and diligence I devoted to searching out the conclusion to this agreeable history; although I’m well aware that if heaven, chance and fortune hadn’t helped me, the world would have been left without the pleasurable entertainment that an attentive reader of this work can enjoy for nearly two hours (Cervantes 74).
In this passage, the “Cervantes” not smart character is trying to impress us and convince us that he is a brilliant researcher. He praises himself for the hard work he has done, in addition to praising his story as such “pleasurable entertainment” that the world would have suffered a sore loss had he not written it. He engages in ridiculously high-blown self-praise for having researched Don Quixote. Of course, the audience recognizes that he discovered the lost manuscript more through luck than through effort. Moreover, he asserts that any flaw that might be found in the story of Don Quixote occurs not through a fault on his part, but rather on the part of Cide Hamete Bengali, the author of the found manuscript:
If there is any objection to be made about the truthfulness of this history, it can only be that its author was an Arab, and it’s a well-known feature of Arabs that they’re all liars; but since they’re such enemies of ours, it’s to be supposed that he fell short of the truth rather than exaggerating it. And this is, indeed, what I suspect he did, because where he could and should have launched into the praises of such an excellent knight, he seems to have been careful to pass them over in silence, which is something he shouldn’t have done or even thought of doing, because historians should and must be precise, truthful, and unprejudiced, without allowing self-interest or fear, hostility or affection, to turn them away from the path of truth… if anything worthwhile is missing from it [the manuscript of Don Quixote], it’s my belief that it’s the dog of an author who wrote it that’s to blame, rather than any defect in the subject (Cervantes 76).
The “Cervantes” character discredits the Arab author’s account because he assumes that all Arab are liars– an assumption as ridiculous as it is false. He assumes that the Arab let his prejudice against Spaniards get the better of him, and as a result, didn’t praise Don Quixote enough. The narrator emphasizes that “historians should and must be precise, truthful, and unprejudiced.” And yet, it is clear that the prejudiced one is not Bengali, but the narrator himself, who alternately engages in the most exaggerated praise of Don Quixote and of himself and the most exaggerated vilification of the original Arab author of the story.
Such misplace praise goes directly against what we would typically assume: that the one who wrote the manuscript is more deserving of praise than the one who merely found it. The narrator didn’t even translate the manuscript– he found someone else to do that. So what, in fact, has the narrator done to deserve the praise he lavishes on himself?
Further, by comparing the praise he deserves to that which Quixote deserves for being a gallant knight, the narrator creates a comparison between himself and the insane Quixote. Just as Quixote has delusions of grandeur, our narrator has delusions of grandeur, which are evident in the overblown self-praise of the above passage. Just as the crazy Quixote never really accomplishes very much, our narrator is not so accomplished as he claims to be. And just as we wouldn’t trust Don Quixote’s word as the truth, even though we recognize that he believes that what he says is true, from this passage we are warned that we shouldn’t accept what our narrator writes as the absolute truth, despite the many times he tries to convince us that it is (such as at the end of the passage quoted at the beginning of this paper). The smart Cervantes is taking a jab here at the not-so-smart “Cervantes” by drawing this comparison, which “Cervantes” doesn’t catch. “Cervantes” thinks that this passage will make the reader think highly of him, while Cervantes uses this passage to warn us against thinking too highly of the narrator.
Further, these lines take on yet another meaning when we consider them in light of the fact that Cervantes is the one and only author of this tale. Thus, in the one passage, as the author, he engages in unbelievable self-praise, and in the second passage he engages in equally unconvincing self-reviling. Reading these two accounts, we tend to believe Cervantes falls somewhere in the middle, which is probably what he intended us to think.
Don’t Believe Everything You Read, Especially if it’s by Borges
Like the narrator in Don Quixote, the narrator in Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is first-person and, as such, he is overt. But also like the narrator in Don Quixote, the degree to which this narrator is overt is questionable, because he also puts on a front of erudition and academic background. He uses elevated diction, including such words as “marmoreal” (Borges 88) and “periphrastic” (89), and makes references to such intellectuals as William James (94) and James Joyce (95) and such literary classics as The Odyssey and the AEnid (95). He cites his sources carefully and precisely and includes academic quotes from the texts he compares, as well as quotes from Pierre Menard’s letters.
Yet, in his very first sentence, the narrator reveals that his own prejudices and biases get in the way of his intellectual approach. He writes:
The visible oeuvre left by this novelist can be easily and briefly enumerated; unpardonable, therefore, are the omissions and additions perpetrated by Mme. Henri Bachelier in a deceitful catalog that a certain newspaper, whose Protestant leanings are surely no secret, has been so inconsiderate as to inflict upon that newspaper’s deplorable readers—few and Calvinist (if not Masonic and circumcised) though they be. (Borges 88)
The very opening of the essay acknowledges that another list of Menard’s works exist, allowing for the possibility of a version other than the one the narrator presents us with. The narrator discounts this other list on the unscientific grounds that it appears in a Protestant newspaper, much as the narrator of Don Quixote discounts the found manuscript because it was written by an Arab. The narrator’s vilification of this newspaper is hyperbolic– he employs such negatively-charged words as “unpardonable,” “perpetrated,” “deceitful,” “inconsiderate,” “inflict,” and “deplorable” to denigrate the Mme. Bachelier’s catalog in the newspaper, but offers little substantive evidence by which to back his claims that the catalog is inaccurate– which also serves to call his reliability into question.
Borges’s narrator acknowledges that he has given us cause to distrust him, writing “I am aware that it is easy enough to call my own scant authority into question” (88). He therefore gives us his credentials:
The baroness de Bacourt (at whose unforgettable vendredis I had the honor to meet the mourned-for poet) has been so kind as to approve the lines that follow. Likewise, the countess de Bagnoregio, one of the rarest and most cultured spirits of the principality of Monaco (now of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, following her recent marriage to the international philanthropist Simon Kautzsch—a man, it grieves me to say, vilified and slandered by the victims of his disinterested operations), has sacrificed “to truth and to death” (as she herself has phrased it) the noble reserve that is the mark of her distinction, and in an open letter, published in the magazine Luxe, bestows upon me her blessing. Those commendations are sufficient, I should think. (Borges 88)
But are they? Once again, the narrator employs gross exaggeration, this time in the praise of his references—they are of “the rarest and most cultured spirits” and so forth, but neither the baroness de Bacourt nor the countess de Bagnoregio has any credentials other than her rank. The Mme. Henri Bachelier whom the narrator vilifies has at least published the book Le jardin du Centaure (Borges 95), but we do not find that these ladies have published anything other than their approbation of the narrator’s remarks. In fact, the countess de Bagnoregio’s husband Simon Kautzsch rather seems to have a tarnished reputation—we can only imagine what the complaints of “the victims of his disinterested operations” might be.
And further, the baroness de Bacourt and the countess de Bagnoregio are fictional. So are the sources the narrator lists, in which Menard’s works were supposedly published. This is not necessarily surprising—after all we are reading a work of fiction—but it leads us to question who it was that fabricated these people and sources. Was it Borges or the narrator? If Borges created them, then they exist in the narrative, and the narrator may be citing them correctly. But the possibility also exists that it was the narrator who created them, in which case they don’t exist in the reality of the story, and the narrator is an out and out liar. Of course, we have no way of telling, and so the truth of this narrative is ambiguous, but, as the narrator himself writes, “ambiguity is richness” (94).
Borges’s narrator is also difficult to pinpoint as completely homodiegetic or completely heterodiegietic. For the most part, he is homodiegetic, as he plays a character trying to record and analyze the greatness of Pierre Menard’s work. However, his descriptions of Pierre Menard’s process he becomes heterodiegetic:
Initially Menard’s method was to be relatively simple: Learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor or Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 to 1918—be Miguel de Cervantes. Pierre Menard weighed that course (I know he pretty thoroughly mastered seventeenth-century Castilian) but he discarded it as too easy… To be a popular novelist of the seventeenth century in the twentieth seemed to Menard to be a diminution. Being, somehow, Cervantes, and arriving thereby at the Quixote—that looked to Menard less challenging (and therefore less interesting) than continuing to be Pierre Menard and coming to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard (Borges 91).
The narrator tells us the story of Menard’s process without inserting himself as a character in the story or claiming to have influenced the process in any way. He does mention himself, “I know he pretty thoroughly mastered seventeenth-century Castilian,” but this line does not indicate any action on the part of the narrator. The narrator reads about Menard’s work in the letters Menard sends him (much as the narrator in Don Quixote reads about Don Quixote and Sancho’s travels in the manuscript written by Cide Hamete Benengeli), but he does not do anything to influence the work or the author. Although Borges’s narrator did have contact with Pierre Menard, he still exists on a plane outside of Pierre Menard’s story, just as the narrator in Don Quixote exists on a plane outside of Don Quixote and Sancho’s story.
We have proved how similar the narrators in Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Jorge Luis Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” are in that both are overt, there is ambiguity about the truthfulness of each of them, and both switch between being heterodiegetic and homodiegetic. It is interesting that the narrator of the Borges piece mirrors the narrator of Don Quixote so exactly. Pierre Menard may not have written the entire Don Quixote over again, but it seems that Jorge Luis Borges wrote the narratological structure of Don Quixote over again in this piece.
Jahn’s classifications of narrative voice remind us that the questions “Who is telling the story?” and “How are they telling the story?” are just as important as “What is the story about?” This article argues that in both Don Quixote and “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” we are confronted by overt, intrusive narrators that indulge in homodiegetic digressions about themselves in addition to recounting the heterodiegetic stories that are purportedly the main purpose of their writing, and that these narrative voices encourage us to discount parts or all of the story as being truthful. In both stories, the narrators put on facades of intellectualism and erudition, only to prove the facades false by their subsequent revelation of prejudices and unscientific biases. These false fronts are even more interesting when we consider that the prejudices and unintelligent remarks are another front being put on by the intelligent authors Cervantes and Borges.
Indeed the narrators of the two stories are markedly similar. It would seem that Borges, in a fictional story about an author who recreates Don Quixote, literally does recreate the narrator of the Quixote in the shape of an overt, unreliable narrator who switches between heterodiegetic and homodiegetic narrative structure. Future research into connections between the Borges piece and Don Quixote would look at other ways in which “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” resembles Don Quixote in content and structure and might also examine similarities between the title characters in both pieces. Future research into narratology and Don Quixote might also look at the function of a narrator in film and at if and how the narrator “Cervantes” is incorporated into film versions of Don Quixote.
Austen, Jane. The Annotated Pride and Prejudice. Garden City: Anchor Books, 2007. Print.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “Menard, Author of Quixote.” Collected Fictions Jorge Luis Borges.
Trans. Andrew Hurley. NY: Penguin, 1998. Print.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York, N.Y: Penguin Group, 1997. Print.
De Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel. The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de laMancha. 1605.
Trans. John Rutherford. Columbus, MT: Penguin, 2003. Print.
“Gracie Allen – 2 [Cuckoo][George Stops the Show].” Perf. George Burns and Gracie Allen.
Youtube. 22 Nov 2007. Web. 27 June 2011.
Jahn, Manfred. “Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative.” Poems, Plays, and Prose:
A Guide to the Theory of Literary Genres. Cologne: U of Cologne Press, 2002. Web.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: A.A. Levine Books, 2008. Print.
“While You Were Sleeping part 1/10.” Perf. Sandra Bullock. Youtube. 20 July 2010. Web.
29 July 2011.