Eyeing the “I”: A Closer Look at the First-Person Narrator in Don Quixote
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, an “overt narrator” gives us plenty of information about himself and projects a voice (N1.8- N1.9). According to this definition, 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 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. Jahn explains, “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). For most of Don Quixote, the narrator appears to be a heterodiegetic narrator despite his first-person address, because 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 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.
However, 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.
De Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel. The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la
Mancha. Trans. John Rutherford. Columbus, MT: Penguin, 2003. Print.
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. <http://www.uni-koeln.de/~ame02/pppn.htm>