He was talented, ambitious, and gifted. He attempted to survive by becoming a modest bureaucrat in the great administrative machinery of the Spanish Empire. He gathered supplies for the Invincible Armada being prepared for an invasion of England; however, his lack of foresight as an accountant, combined with bad luck, created almost insoluble problems, landing him in jail for a while. As Salvador de Madariaga puts it, “for the rest of his life he had to live in the presence and company of this contrast: his inner worth, as a soldier and a Spaniard; his utter failure to get recognition for it. He might have incarnated examples of manliness and leadership in slavery; in liberty, he lived a life of helplessness and poverty; a king of infinite space in his Algerian cell, he was on the roads and in the inns and boarding houses of Spain but a scribbler of petitions to the King’s ministers and of dedications and laudatory epistles to the King’s grandees.”4
Talent, courage, and bravery in war, but no recognition: this can be a formula for bitterness. And yet nothing in his behavior or in his writings indicates he was discouraged or bitter. On the contrary, we associate Cervantes with a good sense of humor. During his years of hope and disappointment he developed a critical mind and an ironic perspective to make sense of his experience.
A person with a good sense of humor can observe the world around him or her with a certain amount of detachment, yet humor leads to critical analysis and ultimately becomes a tool to better understand both the society we are part of and also a few individuals in this society. Making fun of ourselves is the most difficult, even dangerous, stage of humor. It is possible to find a way to laugh at oneself by projecting a part, and perhaps a very small one into a character we are creating and then making fun of this character. There are subtle ways in which Cervantes may have laughed and criticized himself while creating the main character in his novel.
With humor, it is possible to analyze and criticize without utterly destroying the subject being analyzed. Humor can also be like a drop of oil that makes hard surfaces more manageable. From his lofty viewpoint, the author with a fine-tuned sense of humor sees the characters he is creating evolve in a situation where their weaknesses will be revealed. They will be able to go on acting and feeling since the critical blows that rain on them are not lethal. Ideally, the characters should learn from their mistakes. This seldom occurs, but the possibility of going on with their lives, their hopes, their dreams, is still offered to them. Humor is universal, and at the same time it is conditioned by culture and by history. Humor in Cervantes’s time was undoubtedly more rough and cruel toward its victims than it would become in the literature of later centuries.
Cervantes did not have a formal education, but he made up for it with an insatiable appetite for reading and travel. His father had a vast collection of books, which at the time was unusual and much prized. There is no reason to think Cervantes was worse off because he did not attend Salamanca or Alcalá de Henares universities, which were then tradition-bound, old-fashioned, and confining. This was especially true of the University of Salamanca. Reading widely and independently better nurtured his sensitive, imaginative, and creative mind.
His experience more than compensated for his lack of officially accepted knowledge. A writer of fiction needs both imagination and a firsthand acquaintance with different levels of life. Cervantes was blessed with imagination and sensitivity, and his experience encompassed several levels. He traveled abroad and within his own country; he knew poets, writers, intellectuals, aristocrats, and also rogues, thieves, and swindlers; he was a prisoner in Africa for five years and later imprisoned in Spain. He was at odds with the church, even excommunicated for a while. He was entangled in a long struggle with the Spanish Treasury Department over accounting problems arising from the bankruptcy of a bank where he had kept a sum of money owed to the government.