Don Quixote: The Origin of Modern Realism and Metafiction


tilting-at-windmillsAdapting genres, Cervantes created two new ones: realism and metafiction, says Robert Alter in Partial Magic (1979). The “juxtaposition of high-flown literary fantasies with grubby actuality” established realism, while the “zestfully ostentatious manipulation” of the artifice of literary creation set precedent for “all the self-conscious novelists to come” (Alter 3 – 4). Realism and metafiction were born on the same day and became, almost immediately, rivals. Metafiction is the elder brother, however, since realism was a metafictional technique Cervantes created to parody the conventions of romance. Most fiction since Cervantes, says Alter, can be classified under one of these two headings.

What is metafiction? The prefix “meta-” derives from the Greek μετά, meaning “with,” “after” and “between.” In the first half of the seventh century, “meta-” took on the additional meaning of “beyond.” “Metatheology,” for instance, took one step beyond theology to question the theological purpose of theology. Why do humans study God? How do humans study God? The Oxford English Dictionary defines “meta-” thus: “Prefixed to the name of a subject or discipline to denote another . . . which raises questions about the nature of the original discipline and its methods, procedures, and assumptions.” Cervantes’ novel is metafiction because it is fiction that raises questions about the nature of fiction itself and its “methods, procedures and assumptions.” The term “metafiction” was first used by writer and philosopher William H. Gass in “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction” (1970) and meant, simply, fiction about fiction. The OED defines it as “Fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work . . . by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions (esp. naturalism) and narrative techniques.” Cervantes’ novel fits this description so well, we could put it on the dust jacket.

As explained, the novel is a book about books, a compendium of texts. The author of the preface discusses literary conventions. The multiple authors make us aware of how the name and image of the author affect meaning. The authors describe their writing process, techniques and attitudes toward the material. They discuss representation, history, truth, books in general, the book Don Quixote, even Cervantes. Books are the authors of the country gentleman’s madness. Our knight perceives the world through the language of his books, and books serve as guides for his behavior. He lives for the book that will be written about him. Books and narratives influence the thought and action of most characters. Levels of reality are blurred. A reader enters the book and becomes a character. The main characters learn about their book, and, in essence, become readers of their own book.

The printing process, which was still relatively new in Cervantes’ day, is also made explicit. In Part II, Chapter 62, the knight and his squire visit a printer’s shop where publishers are producing an unauthorized sequel to El Ingenioso Hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha. This ripoff gets a great deal of criticism from the characters, narrators and writers in Cervantes’ second volume as they endeavor to prove that it is a false and inadequate sequel, but in Chapter 72, a character from this book, Don Alvaro Tarfe, actually appears in Cervantes’ novel! Our knight tries to persuade him to proclaim before a magistrate that the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza he had previously met were not the real Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. This highly metafictional section does not deny these characters their reality; it actually confirms their existence. Thus, the unauthorized author, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda (a pen name), actually becomes a real author of Don Quixote (the tenth writer in our author count).

You cannot stop people from adding to a story once it is out in the world. We can delineate a Quixotic genre, which includes such works as Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, or The Adventures of Arabella (1752); Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759, 1761, 1762, 1765, 1767); Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (1760); several short works by Jorge Luis Borges, including “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1944); Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote (1982); Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote (1986) and many others. Actually, if Alter is right that Cervantes invented both metafiction and realism, most modern literature could be called an extension of Cervantes’ book of books.

What is realism? To try the limits of the genre, consider the following narrative, “The Story of a Little Girl with Dimples.” A little girl with pink ribbons, blue eyes and dimples gets the puppy she wanted for her birthday, even though her mother warned her that they couldn’t afford one. The daughter wraps her pudgy arms around her mom’s neck and declares, “Thank you, thank you, Mommy-cakes! I love you!”

Not realistic? Why not? Such things do not happen? Or is it because the tale sounds like a sweet story that makes readers smile? It may be “heart-warming,” but it isn’t “realistic.”

What if we give the girl dishwater-blonde hair and a scab on her chin, at which she compulsively picks? Maybe her divorced mother has just lost her job on an assembly line because she spurned the advances of the drunken foreman. Now she is worried that she will not be able to feed herself and her daughter. She corners a mutt behind a dumpster, and having nothing else to give her daughter, takes the mangy dog home and bathes it. As a finishing touch, she ties a pink ribbon around its neck. The little girl is delighted. She puts her pudgy arms around her mother’s neck and says, “Thank you, thank you, Mommy-cakes! I love you!”

But then the mother and daughter have a terrible fight because the girl feeds the dog her chicken-fried steak under the table. Grounded for a week, the hungry girl escapes from her bedroom window with the puppy. A homeless veteran with scabies follows her, brutally rapes her and abandons her bruised body on the tracks, as blood begins pooling between the ties. The puppy approaches cautiously, sniffs her face and ribbons, then starts lapping up the blood. As a distant train begins to howl, the little girl with dimples loses consciousness.

Is that more realistic? Stop a moment and think up a brief story line of your own that would qualify as “realistic.”

Did your story include any of these elements: “rude words, grinding poverty, brutal gestures, sexual depravity, intense human interest, unhappy marriages, a sordid background and an atmosphere of acute misery” (Thody 74)? If so, then you were employing the conventions of realism, as described by Roland Barthes. These elements are typical of realistic fiction, but they are nothing more than generic symbols. They are no more natural than the conventions of science fiction.

The madness is that most people think “realism” is realer than other forms of fiction.  These people are confused by the name of the genre. They take it literally. They suppose that only tragedy is honest, only violence is authentic, and only the downtrodden are “real people.” When a French student of mine was leaving on a trip to Los Angeles, I warned him that Hollywood was not as glamorous as he might imagine. When he came back, he told me he was not disappointed since the dirtiness made Hollywood seem more realistic. But dirt is no realer than glitter and diamonds. And what tortuous logic induces an intelligent man to look for realism in Hollywood?

Some frown on literary works whose primary purpose is entertainment because pleasure distracts us from reality, while suffering leads to wisdom. This may be true sometimes, but mostly suffering just hurts. Wisdom is valuable because it directs us away from situations that cause ourselves and others pain and steers us toward behavior that will increase long-term satisfaction. Thus, entertainment, which induces pleasure without high personal cost, is more direct. Nevertheless, we need to be reminded now and then that life has a darker side, so we can learn how to cope with the darkness and do something about the misery and injustice around us. The best literature, like Don Quixote, entertains and enlightens, feeds us sweets and sorrows, plays a range of emotional chords, but privileges pleasure. No admired work that lacks entertainment value has survived the test of time.

(An extract of my book Narrative Madness, edited by Katie Foxwhich you can get at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon.)

Works Cited

Acker, Kathy. Don Quixote, Which was a Dream. New York: Grove Press, 1986. Print.

Alter, Robert. Partial Magic: The Novel as Self-Conscious Genre. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Print.

Borges, Luis. “Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote.” Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. 88 – 95. Print.Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. Don Quixote de la Mancha. Trans. Charles Jarvis. Ed. E. C. Riley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print.

Gass, William H. “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. David R. Godine, 1978. 3 – 26. Print.

Greene, Graham. Monsignor Quixote. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. Print.

Lennox, Charlotte. The Female Quixote, or The Adventures of Arabella. Seven Treasures Publications, 2009. Print.

“meta-”.  OED Online. March 2011. Oxford University Press. 20 January 2011. Web. 20 May 2010.

“metafiction, n.”. OED Online. March 2011. Oxford University Press. 20 January 2011. Web. 20 May 2010.

Smollett, T. (Tobias). The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves. Bel Air: Filiquarian Publishing, 2010. Print.

Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. New York: Signet Classics, 1962. Print.

Thody, Philip, and Ann Course. Introducing Barthes. New York: Totem Books, 1997. Print.

4 thoughts on “Don Quixote: The Origin of Modern Realism and Metafiction”

  1. I’m in the midst of reading Don Quixote for the first time, and I really appreciate your illuminating discussions of the novel. Thanks for writing this!

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