Bellow's Africa is the Africa of books, notably Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Ernest Hemingway ("E.H.") as portrayed (see photo) in Life magazine (p. 93): "the world is a mind. Travel is mental travel" (p. 159).
Bellow faithfully follows the Cervantine model. Both Don Quixote and Henderson launch their quest at the age of about 50. DQ is searching for immortality: “Oh, happy the age, and fortunate the time, wherein my famous feats shall be revealed, feats worthy to be graven in brass, carved in marble, and delivered with most curious art in tables for a future instruction and memory” (1st part, book 1, chap 2). Henderson, the anti-hero says “I’ll say it straight out, I don’t even deserve to be chronicled on toilet paper” (p. 200). Both protagonists wish to connect with their ancestry. DQ finds an old suit of armour in his attic and takes it as his knight’s attire (1st, 1, 1). Henderson goes to his storeroom and “I found the dusty old case and I opened it, and there lay the instrument my father used to play, inside that little sarcophagus” (p. 29) and “my main purpose was to reach my father playing on his violin” (p. 34). Henderson is described as “a regular bargain basement of deformities” (p. 83). For his part, DQ adopts the name “Knight of the Ill-favored Face” (1st, 3, 7). Both are influenced greatly by literature. Those surrounding DQ thinks he goes crazy with books, at one point his library is burned (1st, 1, 6). Henderson knows “I am a nervous and emotional reader. I hold a book up to my face and it takes only one good sentence to turn my brain into a volcano” (p. 229).
Parallels exist between the protagonists’ attendants. While DQ offers his squire Sancho Panza an island (1st, 1, 7), Henderson offers Romilayu a jeep ! (p. 110). Both offer gentle resistance to their masters. In the famous windmill scene, Sancho cannot believe that DQ hallucinates and sees them as giants (1st, 1, 8). The adventure where DQ attacks the sheep is similar (1st, 3, 4). Most absurd is the barber’s basin that DQ adopts as the Helmet of Mambrino (1st, 3, 7). DQ is teased about the helmet in the galley slaves chapter (1st, 3, 8). At the end of Bellow’s novel, Henderson uses the helmet as a basin for the lion cub ! (p. 313).
Mtalba, Queen of the Arnewi, offers herself to Henderson: “time was when I would have felt differently about the love she offered me” (p. 103). In a hilarious sequence, DQ mistakes a prostitute’s (Maritornes) late night sojourn towards a guest at an inn, as a come-on when she stumbles at his bedside: “I could wish to find myself in terms, most high and beautiful lady, to be able to recompense so great a favour” (1st, 3, 2).
The subject of teeth is frequent in both novels (as also adopted in Martin Amos’ Dead Babies). Henderson’s second bridge is “acrylic, supposed to be unbreakable – fort comme la mort” (p. 125). DQ loses his cheek teeth on one of his adventures: “a mouth without cheek teeth is like a mill without a mill stone; and a tooth is much more to be esteemed than a diamond” (1st, 3, 4).
Both protagonists must face the lion. They both take on new names. DQ adopts the name “Knight of the Lions” (2nd, 17) after braving two lions whose cage has been opened by a lion tamer. This is after DQ has been "captured" in an ox cart (1st, 4, 19) to return to his village: "and ended it will be when the furious Manchegan lion and the white Tobosian dove shall be united in one." Later (1st, 4, 22): "it is necessary to shut you up in a cage and carry you on a team of oxen, even as one carries a lion..." Henderson writes to Lily “I want you to enroll me at Medical Center and give my name as Leo E. Henderson” (p. 267). The letter to Lily is entrusted to Romilayu, but he is stopped on his way and fetched to return and help Henderson’s escape. Bellow has mimicked the famous letter scene in DQ. Sancho is waylaid on the road to El Toboso by the barber and the priest who convince him to rescue his master in the Sierra Morena where he is in seclusion (1st, 3, 9).
Both DQ and Henderson come in direct contact with death. DQ comes upon a corpse in the adventure of the hearse (1st, 3, 5). Later, DQ encounters a group of itinerant players who have just performed ‘The Parliament of Death’, they personify the roles they play (2nd , 13). Henderson finds a corpse in his hut in the Wariri village (p. 130).
An obvious reference to Moses, Henderson seeks to eliminate the frog infestation in the Arnewi’s cistern. For his part, DQ seeks to free a young man, Andrés, from the beatings of his master (1st, 1, 4). Later he frees a group of galley-slaves (1st, 3, 8). Both protagonists have messianic qualities. Late in the book, DQ descends into the legendary cave of Montesinos (2nd, 23) and spends 3 days there – a direct corollary to Christ’s visit to Hell between the crucifixion and the resurrection. This is the only adventure in which DQ has no witness – suggesting an adventure of the spirit. Henderson’s excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, identify him with the “man of sorrows” (p. 258). Henderson is also resurrected – from the tomb after Dahfu’s death. In the Wariri village it is said that “The view of the Bunam is you have been expected” (p. 180).