Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is famous for one book, and that book is one of the greatest in the history of literature. But Cervantes wasn’t always so successful. Earlier in his life, he wrote and published just half of an earlier book, La Galatea, a pastoral book about shepherds and shepherdesses who fall in love and then die of broken hearts. The book didn’t sit well with someone – the public, the publisher, or the author – because Cervantes never completed it. The author himself makes fun of it in a book-burning scene in Don Quixote, although we can’t tell if the joke came from proper literary judgment or from some kind of modesty. I haven’t read it; I have no wish to. So I can’t begin to say if it’s a bad book. But someone thought Cervantes’s pastoral writing bad, or else we would have a completed novel.
So why did Cervantes include pastoral side stories in Don Quixote? The translator of the version I’ve been enjoying recently condemns these passages as boring and advises readers to skip them so they don’t get bogged down and give up on the extremely long novel (423,813 words: somewhere between David Copperfield and War and Peace.) It’s hard for me to skip parts, though, and the digressions at least interesting as historical artifacts. So I’m reading them (quickly). But still I kept wondering: why did Cervantes include them?
I have a couple of theories. First, perhaps he included the pastoral stories because that's what you had to do at the time to sell books. More likely to my mind, though, is the theory that Cervantes knew the flaws of this genre and included the stories as a foil to the much superior story of Don Quixote. The shepherds and shepherdesses die because of unrequited love, a thing no one to my knowledge has ever done. Meanwhile, Don Quixote performs crazy antics in imitation of the dejected Orlando of Orlando Furioso, publicly making a fool of himself and causing himself pain in order to show his beloved Dulcinea what torture “she” is putting him through, a thing thousands of teenagers do every day.