Readers will remember that in chapter 20 of Part I of Don Quixote Sancho relieves himself while in close proximity to his master during the long night of fear and storytelling that he and Don Quixote pass after hearing a mysterious and frightening noise off in the distance. Come daybreak, they discover that the noise is not the sign of some heroic adventure, but the racket of a fulling mill, which has been operating through the night. Don Quixote is chagrined, and Sancho Panza cannot help but laugh. The episode calls to mind the scatological humor typical of Rabelais, and has prompted some critics to read it along the lines suggested by Bakhtin's book on the French Renaissance author. Sancho's shit provides an instance of carnivalesque inversion. The squire subverts the rule of his master, even if only temporarily, providing a necessary reprieve from the trials of his subaltern position. Others have shied away from this interpretation, noting that Cervantes's characters are too well-rounded, too human, for this instance of scatological humor to look anything like what we see in Gargantua and Pantagruel.
It occurs to me that perhaps it would be best to abandon the Rabalaisian/Bakhtinian approach altogether, and take a cue about the episode's meaning from something else that happens in the chapter, Sancho's shaggy-dog tale of the goatherd Lope Ruíz. In order to pass the time, Sancho tells his master the tale of Ruíz's flight from amorous misfortune in the company of his herd of goats. The road to Portugal takes him to the Guadiana River, which is flooding, and the only boat available is a tiny fishing vessel that can only accommodate the goatherd and a single animal. Lope Ruíz has no choice but to take the goats across one by one. Sancho, a storyteller of questionable skill, insists that he must narrate the crossing of each and every goat, and that Don Quixote must keep count until he has mentioned all three hundred goats. Don Quixote can't believe it, and tells Sancho "Just say he ferried them all … If you keep going back and forth like that, it will take you a year to get them across." This throws Sancho off, and he asks his master, "How many have gone across so far?" Don Quixote answers in frustration, "How the devil should I know?" And with that, the story ends. Sancho loses his place, and we never know what happens.1
The incident clearly belongs among the many scenes in Cervantes's novel that invite reflection upon the nature of narrative and the conventions of narration. It finds a direct counterpart in the next chapter, when Don Quixote tells a chivalric tale, in order to help his illiterate squire imagine their shared future. The knight errant of Don Quixote's story first acquires fame, then goes to serve a powerful king. He falls in love with the king's daughter, but must bid her farewell to go fight in her father's wars. He then "does battle in the war, conquers the king's enemy, takes many cities, emerges victorious from many combats, returns to court," to marry the princess and eventually assume the throne.2 In this line of his story, Don Quixote does precisely what Sancho Panza refused to do in telling his own tale. He summarizes a long and repetitive sequence of events for the sake of narrative economy, and greater aesthetic effect. He proves himself to be a good storyteller, capable of elaborating and abbreviating as necessary. Sancho, in turn, stands out as a bad storyteller, because he cannot or will not make those choices. He wants to include every goat, even if they are all alike.
Yet the question of what can or should be left out of a story is not exhausted by remarking on the two tales told by the two main characters. There is also the problem of Sancho's shit. Shit has no place in chivalric romance, in which characters rarely if ever attend to bodily needs, and certainly not to the basest of them all. Hence the hilarity of the episode. Sancho's rebellion against his master's authority, which begins with hobbling Rocinante so that Don Quixote cannot go charging toward the mysterious noise, leaving his squire alone in the dark, culminates in his surreptitious midnight defecation. When the fumes rise to Don Quixote's nostrils, and the knight-errant becomes aware of what his squire has done, the inversion of power between knight and squire reaches its grotesquely hilarious climax. The knight has been dragged down into the shit. Hence the argument for carnivalesque inversion. What matters most here, however, is Don Quixote's response. When Sancho asks Don Quixote if he, Sancho, has done something he shouldn't, Don Quixote responds, "The less said the better, Sancho my friend."3 It is not just the goats that are at issue here. It is also the shit.
The narrator would seem to agree. At no point does he speak plainly and directly about Sancho's actions. Instead, he resorts to euphemism. We find out that the urge has come upon Sancho when the narrator states that "he felt the urge and desire to do what no one else could do for him."4 We find out the squire has farted when the narrator tells us that "he finally made a little noise quite different from the one that had caused him so much fear."5 We find out that he has finished the job when "he found himself rid of the burden that caused him so much grief."6 The less said, the better, and for a variety of reasons. The recourse to euphemism is one of the things that makes the episode so funny. Perhaps it also marks the limits of Cervantes's willingness to violate prevailing notions of decorum. Yet it also has the effect of tying the scatological episode to the story of the goats. The story of Sancho's shit becomes, like the story of the goats and its companion, the chivalric tale, a reflection on what can and should be left out of a story properly told. Shit has no place in chivalric romance, yet it also has no place in Cervantes's narrative. It can be heard and smelt, but never seen. The act of producing it can only be alluded to, never described. Sancho's shit becomes that earthy, bodily, all-too-human reality that must be left out of the story, any story.
1. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote. Translated by Edith Grossman. New York: Ecco, 2003. p. 146
2. ibid., p. 160.
3. ibid., p. 148
4. ibid., p. 147
5. ibid., p. 148
6. ibid., p. 148