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.

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Don Quixote: A Compendium of Genres, a Book of Books

friendship-of-don-quixote

Don Quixote may be the first modern novel, but Cervantes did not pull it out of the air like a magician’s bouquet. The Spanish bard borrowed language, story, form and genre, giving them his own indelible stamp. The stories he borrowed became his own.

Obviously, the principal genre Cervantes plundered was chivalric romance. Romances are the authors of Don Quixote’s madness, they serve as guidebooks for his speech and behavior, and they are the templates for the novel. The book follows the typical structure, story line, chronotopes and many conventions, but the heroic tale becomes a parody as it passes through the hands of multiple authors, some realistic and some rhetorical.

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