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Analysis: Chapters XVI–XX

The graphic accounts of Don Quixote’s and Sancho’s vomiting constitute Cervantes’s basest humor. Cervantes later justifies the inclusion of such bawdy episodes, stating that a successful novel contains elements that appeal to all levels of society. This crude humor seems out of place, especially when compared to the delicate humor of Sancho’s story in Chapter XX. Critics often focus on this disparity, but Cervantes may be using this contrast to draw our attention to the differences between romantic ideals and reality. He highlights reality by emphasizing its physical aspects, reminding us about the inconsistency between the way things play out in Don Quixote’s dreams and the way they play out in the real world.

Don Quixote’s explanation for why the Balsam of Fierbras does not work for Sancho underscores the characters’ perception of class and privilege. Don Quixote seems to believe that bad things cannot happen to knights because they belong to a higher class, one that the mundane world cannot touch. The fact that he persistently attributes all of his misfortunes to an enchantment emphasizes his faith that mortal forces cannot touch him. This class distinction extends to gentlemen as well, who play by a different set of rules than members of the lower class. Cervantes’s attitude toward such class distinctions appears mixed: even though Cervantes includes numerous classist remarks, he pokes fun at Don Quixote’s claim of being separate and superior. Ultimately, Cervantes undercuts the idea that one’s class signifies one’s worth. He criticizes people in all classes in an effort to humanize everyone.

Sancho’s bizarre, aborted account of the shepherd and shepherdess highlights Cervantes’s tendency to comment on the nature of storytelling and the way literature should be presented and read. Sancho’s storytelling mimics Cardenio’s later refusal, in Chapter XXIII, to finish his story when Don Quixote interrupts him in the Sierra Morena. Here, Sancho asserts his right to tell the story as he sees fit and according to the tradition by which people in his homeland tell stories. This tradition mimics great epic poems, often tedious in their apparently useless repetition and lists of detail. Don Quixote views these conventions as empty formalities and asks Sancho to skip them, which irritates Sancho. But Sancho apparently believes that a story is not truly a story unless it has a certain formal structure. This interplay of structure and content is found throughout Don Quixote, since Cervantes frequently plays with the highly formal framework of chivalric tales. Here, through Sancho, Cervantes implies that a reader must play along with the author’s structural effects to get to the meaning of the story. Sancho’s story thus prompts us to pay attention to the game Cervantes plays throughout his novel.