Cervantes has a habit of interrupting his stories at critical moments. For example, in Chapter VIII, Character-Cervantes (as I discuss in my post Don Quixote: Meta-Masterpiece) interrupts the story of Don Quixote’s battle with the Basque to tell us he doesn’t actually know the ending.
Or, for example, the story of Cardenio, which the unfortunate gentleman relates to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Chapter XXIV until Quixote takes offense at Cardenio’s words about Queen Madásima from the novel Amadis of Gaul and sends Cardenio into a mad rage, effectively cutting off the story until later in the book.
Or again, when Quixote and company find themselves at the infamous inn of Sancho’s blanket tossing, where they seek amusement in the story,”The Tale of Ill-Advised Curiosity,” only to have the narrative interrupted by Quixote in the throes of a dream about slaying a giant but really destroying some of the innkeeper’s wine skins. The moment the story stops, is of course, the moment after we learn that one of the tale’s main characters will die.
This technique not only builds suspense and tension, but says something about readers, too: They are not passive audience members, but participants in the story.
Keep in mind that Quixote himself is a reader-turned-participant in the extremest sense. He has read all the books of chivalry he can find and has decided to take up the sword himself to do great deeds in the name of his Lady Dulcinea del Toboso. And we are, as Cervantes points out on many occasions, reading a book about his exploits. This makes Quixote the ultimate reader participant.
It’s worth noting too, that often, it is Quixote who causes the interruption in the telling of a story, be it on purpose or on accident. In the third example, that of “The Tale of Ill-Advised Curiosity,” the characters reading the tale are Cardenio, Dorotea, the curate and the barber. Cardenio and Dorotea are caught up in a love tangle (not triangle) somewhat similar to that in “The Tale of Ill-Advised Curiosity,” and all four of them have created a story in which Dorotea plays Princess Micomicona, who needs Quixote to slay a giant for her, in order to get Quixote home. They, too, have become participants in Quixote’s story, and it is only fitting that he should interrupt their entertainment to continue the story they’ve created.
Although Cervantes was ultimately parodying Spain’s complete obsession with chivalrous novels, I also read Don Quixote as a parody of the extreme inaction and passivity of those same readers. I doubt Cervantes wants us to put on armor and take up swords and wander around the country slaying wine skins, but interact with the books you read. Think about them critically. Talk about them. Write about them.
A version of this post first appeared on my blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog, on December 26, 2011.