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The Humor Quotient Newsletter

Vol. 9, No. 1, August 2004, Winona, MN


Don Quixote:  a Mystery Story


The story written by Miguel Cervantes Saavedra regarding the adventures of Don Quixote, the valiant knight of La Mancha, and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, is a mystery story.  It has been variously characterized by scholars as “the greatest of Spanish novels,” “a national treasure,” “responsible for Cervantes being ranked with the greatest writers of all times.”  A very large number of reviews, analyses, etc. have been presented over the years, in many different countries, with the History of Don Quixote de la Mancha as their subject.  It has been judged by some that the literary quality of Don Quixote makes it appropriate that Cervantes stand alongside William Shakespeare in rank of authorship.


This enthusiasm and praise for Don Quixote is consistent with the facts that the story has been so widely translated, with worldwide distribution, and has been alive for a global audience—in several different media—for the extended duration of approximately 400 years.  Volume I was published in 1604 and Volume II was published in 1615. They have never been out of print, in some part of the world, since their time of original publication.  The enthusiastic praise of this novel has always been widespread and without contradiction.

This loading of praise and statistics creates an eminence of contrast with the actual content of the story of Don Quixote, sufficiently great that we can call Don Quixote a “mystery story.” It has long puzzled me that this book has stood out with such great audience appreciation and has withstood the erosion of attention that comes naturally with such a long time of existence.  I do not speak of  Don Quixote  as being a “mystery  story”  in the  usual   popular sense.  I do not





mean that it tells the story of a mystery.  What I mean is that Don Quixote, itself, is somewhat of a mystery in that it has received such remarkable enthusiasm and appreciation, for so many years.


There is no question that enthusiasm and appreciation have existed, documentary evidence for that is abundant.  However, such extensive and enduring degrees of praise and admiration as those regarding Don Quixote seem disproportionately great when matched to the actual contents of the story—the plot, the story line, characterizations.  The central story line is a rather simple one, with much structural repetition.  There is a limited cast of major characters who are interesting as portrayed, but are not ones with whom most readers will comfortably identify.  There are diverting subplots throughout the book, but they are generally even more simple than the central Don Quixote/Sancho Panza story, and the resolutions of most are relatively artless.  These features result in a book that, if judged for literary quality alone, is less than an incomparable artistic triumph.  The mystery of this book revolves around the perception that something other than extraordinary literary quality must exist in the tale to have fueled such remarkable long-term reception.


Granted that the experiences of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza provide genuine amusement and comic entertainment.  Humor in Don Quixote is easily identified in the book.  There is no mystery or confusion about humorous entertainment.  Don Quixote is widely categorized as comedy.  Commonly, the episodes of the book that are most well remembered, generally most beloved—are those that deliver humor. Humor is a widely pervasive element of the story.  Many specific “techniques” (A. A. Berger:  An Anatomy of Humor, New Brunswick Transaction Books, 1993, pp. 18) of humor are readily recognized as the story unfolds.  These techniques of humor are prominent, frequent, and well-diversified, and in their abundance support certification of the story as comedy.


Don Quixote is himself a caricature figure, who is subjected to a good bevy of well-designed ridicule—not slapstick humor, that is primarily reserved for his squire (Sancho Panza).  Eccentricity, absurdity, irony, and satire are found in large quantities in treatments of the Don.  Ignorance, literalness, caricature, mistakes and disappointment are common humor techniques used with Sancho Panza.  Various other assortments of techniques are commonly used in the many subplots that complement the central Quixote/Panza storyline, especially coincidence, accident, reversals, and exaggeration.  These specific techniques are effective stimuli for the generation of hearty and even some subtle humor.  Generally speaking the success of the humor content in the novel provides ample justification for designating Don Quixote as a comedy.


The prestige of Cervantes’ novel rides in the top rank of classic world literature.  But the true literary quality of Don Quixote is modest. Abundance of humor techniques supports Don Quixote’s designation as comedy, but there are many other humorous books that can be brought to mind (none having durability and wide popular acceptance comparable to Don Quixote).  Furthermore,  humor does  not have an exclusive  presence in the book.   There is a





good deal of tragedy in the book—pathos, humiliation, physical injury and pain, frustration, betrayal, anguish, loss, disappointment. A classic component of comedy—the happy ending—is not found in Don Quixote.  The Don ends up as set aside, to molder away, his dream repudiated and scorned. Sancho Panza finishes his role in the book, back where he started, having learned some hard lessons.


Neither literary quality nor predominance of humor are sufficient for explaining how the book’s unique reputation has become established, and maintained.  A mystery exists.  We must search further for sufficient source of the outstanding popularity of Don Quixote.  There must be some additional, complex and remarkable factor contributing to the power of the book’s unique reputation.  What have the millions of Don Quixote enthusiasts gathered into their lives from that book, to the extent justifying their degrees of enthusiasm over the centuries?


Amusement, mirth, and entertainment are not the only values of humor.  Humor also can be accompanied by mirthful behavior that can be stimulating and beneficial to physical functioning of various body components.  Humor enhances social interaction and conviviality.  Humor promotes resolution of conflict, compromise, mediation.  Humor has been facetiously—but with good reason—labeled ‘the Universal solvent.’ Humor encourages and supports learning.  And with each humorous presentation—each occasion of humor—Discovery takes place.  The discovery may be mundane or profound, something we have never known before or something we have known but didn’t understand its full meaning.  Sometimes we may not have welcomed the discovery, bitter or humbling, despite its funny ‘coating.’ Nevertheless, discovery is the prime cognitive experience in all forms of humor.  All these benefits listed above—and perhaps others with which we are not yet familiar—are natural accompaniments in our humor experiences.


This factor of discovery, with its consistent presence in all experiences of humor, takes a prominent role in considerations regarding Don Quixote and its mystery.  We must recognize that discovery is experienced by the reader time and time again throughout that book, acquired throughout the frequent, repeated infusions of many types of humor.  The impression is inescapable that the reading of Don Quixote presents many involuntary discoveries—they may be large or may be small, etc.  It is in this theme of discovery and the continuously enormous importance of discovery in human life that we may observe a possibility for explanation of the mystery of Don Quixote.


Columbus took his trip in 1492.  The Magellean circumnavigation expedition began in 1519.  Cervantes was born in 1547.  As previously stated, the first volume of Don Quixote was published in 1604.  Properly named, an Age of Discovery was the era into which Don Quixote was introduced.   The “Age of Discovery” name was created in western civilization to honor the

outstanding European geographic discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries, not just in the “New World,” but also around the entire globe.  And with these  geographic  discoveries  came





development of new knowledge (“discoveries”) of many sorts.  Geographic discoveries were clearly the most concrete, explicit advances of knowledge following the initiative and examples of creation and intellectual vitality characteristic of the receding Renaissance.  And they were not limited to discovery of new locations and many other sorts of entities across the globe.  Access to new wealth and extended commerce were discovered and established.  The Western World profited greatly in these obvious, material ways.  Also, intellectual wealth was expanded as a result of greater leisure time and the expanded economy, allowing for support of scientific inquiries, intellectual and artistic explorations.  This discovery-driven blossoming of that era of Western growth and expansion led naturally into the subsequent evolutionary cognitive and philosophic revolution that has been memorialized by the name, Age of Reason, or of Enlightenment.


The advances of the Western culture that are very briefly visited above are not events that could be limited in occurrence to the Western World alone. Other cultures were expanding their horizons during this period of human evolution.  But, many, many learned papers have been written and spoken in many places throughout the world on the subject of how the Western World was able to begin to rise up around the turn of the 1st Millennium from its culturally impoverished state and then, in many ways, outpace cultural developments elsewhere—an advance that even now continues, though less clearly than a century or so ago.  No theory has provided a complete analysis of the complex issues that are involved in considerations of this subject.  But lack of final success in that venture hasn’t discouraged the trying.  And by dint of this trying, scholarly studies have brought forth a very large supply of ideas of what factors may have contributed to impressive advances of Western culture.


I hasten to dissuade any reader of this essay from allowing growth of an anticipation that I might soon suggest that the book, The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha, has been—and continues to be—the source of the blossoming of the Western World.  That is not the direction I am taking with these historic commentaries and my ideas of the importance of Discovery in human functioning (including in Humor).  But I am very definitely of the opinion that the story of the Don and his Squire has made contributions to cultural advancement, and that its very timely creation by a person with autobiographic qualities of very timely combination presented, first to the Western World, and then gradually throughout the entire world, psychological experiences in Don Quixote that have potentiated human psychological evolution.  That potentiation has made possible the cognitive advances that, in accumulation, show up as cultural developments.  (I leave it to History to say whether various of these developments are to be regarded as advances, or . . ..)


It is frequently stated that the ability to laugh at oneself, to be amused by one’s own foibles or errors or mistakes or mishaps, is a golden measure of psychological maturity.  The complexities

of mind that lie behind that aphorism are great and multiple.  Issues of feelings of vulnerability, insecurity, inferiority,  humiliation,  anger,  retaliation and other forms of hostility are mixed with





issues of humility and humbleness, acceptance, patience, security, self-confidence, loving warmth, courage.  And for a spicy touch, curiosity and vitality are also there.  It is obvious that laughing at oneself is quite a complex venture—consistent with the idea that level of maturity can be well measured by this criterion.


Further, if one is to mix self-reflective humor and discovery together in the same joke, or story, or transaction, something of a very dynamic nature may occur.  We have already observed that Don Quixote is replete with humor, and thus, with discovery.  At this point, we are pursued by the question of how much of that discovery can be identified as self-discovery.  Perhaps, Cervantes’ book was a mirror for the times, throughout which readers could discover themselves through the magic agency of humor, observe strengths and weaknesses in themselves, measure those factors connoting maturity, experience positive feedback and encouragement, receive corrective information and be able to laugh at those areas of thought and behavior that are different from what one wishes they might be.  Perhaps, Don Quixote’s and Sancho Panza’s adventures are even now, in their humor, showing things about ourselves that we need to discover.


What sort of humor is to be found in Don Quixote that might have this special constructive capability?  There have been many things to be learned by humans, about themselves and other humans, and about many other aspects of the world in which Cervantes lived.  Some were conditions that existed without human modification—conditions of Nature, that’s just the way it was.  And some conditions were products of human creativity and imagination, and the unfortunate mental tendencies of humans to create horrors amongst themselves and in the world around them.  The world of Cervantes’ time was not a pleasant time.  He, himself, was often bedeviled by poverty, oppression by State or other superiors, scarcity of opportunity for expression of his literary talents.  He was permanently disabled by war wounds fighting in the “battle of the century” at Lepanto (1571).  After healing from his wounds, being wounded twice again in other battles and eventually being returned to military obligations for an additional three years of service, he was captured in transit by Barbary pirates, and sold into slavery in Algiers, where he lived as a slave for the following five years.  After being ransomed at great financial sacrifice by his family, he foundered for several years, writing generally unsuccessful theatre pieces.  Subsequently he returned to the service of the Spanish king, Phillip II, with a commission to assist in the provisioning activities for the Spanish Armada that was being assembled by Phillip to teach Queen Elizabeth I of England that she should not have rejected his offer of marriage.  We know what happened to the Armada off the coast of Ireland, but that didn’t save Cervantes from meeting another tragedy, in the form of being accused of embezzlement by the King’s accountants.  He served a jail term, and was refused any further governmental employment.  During the end of the jail term and approximately the following decade, the first portion of Don Quixote was written and published.    From the beginning of its availability to the reading public, it was extremely popular—and was soon plagiarized, depriving Cervantes  of the full  benefits   of  his  creation.    In a  biographical note by translator Samuel





Putnam (The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha, Great Books of the Western World,” Chicago:  The University of Chicago, 1952), it states, “Although Cervantes was known and celebrated throughout Europe, his fame never brought him wealth, or even comfort.”  He lived in poverty until his death in 1616.


It was hard times for Cervantes, even harder times for great masses of the population of his times.  At least, he had had education, literary talents, and the favors of government employment on several occasions—though of temporary duration.  As hard as times were naturally for most people of Cervantes’ time because of realities of contemporary life, the people of the time, in many ways made things much harder for themselves by great diversities of mental and emotional aberrations.  Irrationality, mysticism, superstition, prejudice, alchemy, astrology, witchcraft, necromancy, sorcery, diabolism, wizardry, the Black Arts, torture, hangings, burnings, the Inquisition, other forms of violent punishment were common features of life at those times.  That is the way people lived in those days—a small example:  that expedition of Magellan mentioned above.  Magellan’s partner in the planning of the trip, dropped out of the venture at the last minute because he had cast his horoscope and found it to be unfavorable regarding his participation.  They really believed in those things in those days.  (This is not to say that there are no present day examples of people believing in horoscopes—but not to the same intensity and extent as was common everywhere four hundred years ago.   Human psychological sophistication has matured a great deal during this interval.)


Getting back to the question of what kind of humor is to be found in Don Quixote, consider the sorts of natural living horrors faced by human populations, and those created by human populations.  If humans were to be benefited by humor-conveyed discoveries—discoveries that could free humans from ridiculous beliefs and behaviors, the humor must be directed against factors that enhance, support, and perpetuate destructive and ridiculous beliefs and behaviors.


A unifying theme in Don Quixote is repeatedly stated throughout the book—“narrow obsession can lead to tragedy.”  At the beginning of the story, it is stated, “he (the Don) was in the habit of reading books of chivalry with such pleasure and devotion that he almost totally forgot his enthusiasm for hunting, and even the managing of his property.  So great was his infatuation with this reading of chivalry that he even sold his lands in order to be able to buy and read on this subject . . .. The poor fellow used to lie awake at night in efforts to disentangle meanings and sense from his readings . . .. The Don became so immersed in this reading that he spent entire days and nights poring over these books until, finally, his brain dried up and he want completely mad . . .. When his wits had gone beyond recovery, he conceived of the strangest idea—of becoming a knight-errant and going out into the world, to right every wrong that he might meet.”  And with many amusing details, Cervantes completes that introductory picture by describing the Don’s absurd costume for his mission.






Rudolph Schevill (Cervantes, New York:  Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1966) comments on the process undertaken by Cervantes regarding these “books of chivalry.”  “How was the

attitude of incurable devotees to be changed . . .? If the efforts of council chamber and pulpit has failed to curb the perverted tastes of the public, perhaps a burlesque would help to accomplish the purpose . . .. this idea of Cervantes was the practical one:  to hold up to ridicule a literary monstrosity . . .. no one who had been amused by reading the narratives of Don Quixote’s adventures could again turn to the stories of chivalry.”


Arguably the most widely renown episode of the book is the Don’s attack on the windmills—renown, even to the point of having become an universal aphorism.  “Tilting at windmills” has become widely recognized as an activity that one would not want to spend much of one’s time doing.  This discovery is conveyed through humor to real people everywhere.


Cervantes does not forego the occasion at the closing of his masterpiece to add one last sarcastic quip alongside the deathbed of the Don, “Such was the end of the remarkable Don Quixote whose birthplace has not been exactly revealed, so that all the towns of La Mancha will have the opportunity of vying with each other for the right to claim him as their citizen, just as did the seven cities of Greece in the case of Homer.”  From beginning to end, humor provides these sorts of discoveries that focus with revealing illumination of foolishness and ridiculousness of so many beliefs and behaviors that are so detrimental to the welfare, comfort and creative achievement that could be available to humans.


Our contemporary, continuing enthusiasm for the discoveries made available through self-reflexive humor in Don Quixote reflect the persistent value to the maturation of individuals and to advances of cultural sophistication that is available from this source.  A wave of History didn’t simply carry Don Quixote up onto the beach, to be spontaneously rooted in human acceptance and enthusiasm, as the result of some extrinsic, unrelated seismic activity. The dynamic that accomplished the rooting of the book was the repeated conveyance of valuable self-reflective humor presenting discoveries about the human Self. And so, today, and tomorrow with new translations and in new media, the story of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza sustains its potent effectiveness in teaching us about ourselves, providing new vision, new perspectives, new understanding.


Many times, by many persons, it has been declared that language is a key to human intel-ligence. If this is indeed true, it is not only a worthy metaphor, but also is a useful metaphor.  It provides a  continuity  that  can  be  built  upon  in  this  exploration of the unity of humor/truth/

discovery/freedom.  If language is a key, then humor is the unlocking process, discovery is the resultant freedom that allows a person to acquire and extend creative intelligence and personal maturity.  Don Quixote is one of the patterns of the key that makes the key work.                                                               

William F. Fry, Jr., Stanford University





New Directions for a New Millennium


Vol. 9 of HQN appears after a hiatus of several years.  While the reasons for the hiatus are diverse, the fact of the hiatus stands for the end of a phase of HQN.  That phase was primarily related to a humor testing program at Winona State University, centering on the Humor Quotient Test and later the Bergson-Langer Vitalist Humor Test.


Thanks to incredible interest and cooperation from students and citizens throughout the Midwest, this testing program succeeded beyond our wildest imagination in demonstrating that humor is intimately related to diverse aspects of the human psyche.  It was also possible to show that humor is decisively related to the most serious of issues in our lives, even things like the 911 Trade Center attacks and subsequent American attitudes toward patriotism.


At the time that the WSU testing program began, humor testing seemed in its infancy and, like infancy, seemed to be mainly enduring repeated frustration rather than moving forward—in the case of infancy, frustrations like continually dirtied and wet diapers, non-stop teething, and an inability to express needs and wants in anything but wails.  In the case of early ‘90’s humor research, the frustration of doing long and careful research projects only to report that nothing had been definitively learned and statistically demonstrated about humor.


However, humor research is no longer in its infancy.  Research results from all over the world are flowing in fast and furious—witness the studies routinely printed in Humor.  Enormous credit for these goes to the International Society of Humor Studies, to its Executive Director, Don Nilsen, to its board, to the editors of Humor and their board, and perhaps particularly to the under-sung heroes who have organized yearly international summer humor conferences.


So in short, we at HQN are declaring victory.  We are starting into an experimental new phase of publication with less intent to publicize yet new findings of the serious consequences of humor and more intent to return from scientific research to more humanistic thinking about humor.  Ultimately, the study of humor must proceed like every serious discipline on many fronts.  It is our estimate that the research front has moved forward very quickly.  The humanistic front now needs to appropriate some of the key results from the scientific investigations and to start to make sense of those discoveries in the real world of literary artistry and the like.  We believe Bill Fry’s revisiting of Don Quixote is a worthy exemplar of that new experimental direction for HQN, and we particularly solicit contributions that consider humor questions in broad humanistic contexts.


Paul Grawe

Editor, HQN

Winona State University


HQN Editor:  Paul Grawe, Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies, 678 Sioux Street, Winona, MN 55987. Tel:  (507-454-4141; email:





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