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Although Don Quixote was written in Spanish, its main character inspired the coining of the English word quixotism. Normally, we say an individual is being quixotic when he is in the grip of misguided idealism. The novel's view of quixotism, however, is more complex. Don Quixote's overactive imagination turns windmills into giants and poor farm girls into delicate princesses. Sometimes Don Quixote's delusions make him appear ridiculous. Sometimes they do more harm than good. For example, his inept attempt to save the shepherd boy Andrew from a beating (Part I, Chapter Four) only gets the boy into worse trouble. Yet in many scenes in the story Don Quixote is a sympathetic, even tragic, figure. Does his consistent fidelity to his ideals, however unrealistic, inspire your admiration?
Although everyone agrees that quixotism is the principal theme of Don Quixote, there are almost as many different interpretations of this concept as there are readers of the novel.
2. A PARODY OF CHIVALRY
For centuries, the majority of readers considered Don Quixote a comic novel, plain and simple. They took literally Cervantes' claim that his purpose in writing Don Quixote was to poke fun at the popular chivalric romances. Some readers today agree with this point of view. They maintain that the novel was written to be amusing, and that anyone who tries to find tragic overtones in the story is missing the point.
3. THE NATURE OF FAITH
In the nineteenth century, many readers began to take Don Quixote more seriously. These readers noted that in popular belief and in literature, mad persons are often thought to be especially close to God. Insanity can be an expression of divine inspiration. (This belief is even discussed in the novel, in the chapters devoted to the Captive's Tale.) Some readers even wondered whether Don Quixote was not merely pretending to be mad. Such questions have given rise to many different theories about the character of Don Quixote.
One theory is that Don Quixote is a Christian hero, a man who holds fast to his faith in a world that can neither share nor live up to his high standards. Readers who take this view usually emphasize the conservative values of the novel. Although Cervantes may make jokes at the expense of the church hierarchy or the upper classes, these readers say, he never ridicules such basic values as courage, fidelity, and chastity.
Another group of readers has pointed out that the character of Don Quixote is a very accurate psychological portrayal of a revolutionary. Don Quixote, they say, is an example of a man who sets out to transform the world in accordance with his vision. Like the fanaticism of real-life crusaders, religious and political, his can be laughable, even dangerous. Yet his persistence does succeed-for example, in its influence on Sancho Panza. Readers who take this viewpoint are likely to emphasize the elements of the novel which show that the author had been exposed to the thinking of humanist philosophers. They feel that many of his criticisms of the established order, while humorous, have a hidden sting. Cervantes could hardly have been more direct in his satire, they point out, since he was writing under the restraints of censorship.
4. IDEALISM VS. REALISM
Some readers feel that quixotism is a comment on the unresolvable conflict between idealism and realism. Don Quixote's ideals may be admirable, but they are doomed to futility because he is out of touch with the world he lives in. Time has passed him by. Our noble intentions can come to a disastrous end if we do not pay attention to the practical consequences of our actions.
Curiously, there have even been a few readers who accuse Cervantes of writing a dangerous, hateful book. Admirers of chivalry and the society of the Middle Ages sometimes take this point of view. G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the British journalist and author of the Father Brown mystery stories, even wrote that by ridiculing the values of chivalry, Cervantes had made it impossible for modern men and women to take them seriously. Cervantes, then, must bear part of the responsibility for the confusion about morals that plagues today's world. Although this is certainly an extreme point of view, it illustrates how a book which many see as pure comedy can rouse other well-educated readers to fury.
5. ILLUSION VS. REALITY
There are many layers of illusion and reality in Don Quixote. First, there are the Don's own mad delusions. Later, his friends begin to play tricks on him and disguise themselves in order to get him to give up his quest and return home. In the beginning of the novel, you always know exactly what is real and what is fantasy. By the middle of Part II, however, the distinctions sometimes are blurred. For example, when Don Quixote has a bad dream in the cave of Montesinos, you are no longer certain whether the dream is just another delusion-or whether it is a product of the mind of his sane alter ego, Alonso Quixano. Besides all of these complications in the plot itself, you are constantly reminded that what you are reading is "only a book." The narrator-and his imaginary creation, the historian Cide Hamete-both interrupt the story frequently to comment on the action. And in Part II, even the Don and Sancho are aware that they are only characters in a book-in fact, in two books: Part I of Don Quixote and the bogus sequel produced by an anonymous contemporary of Cervantes.
Cervantes was certainly familiar with Aristotle's statement that art was a "mirror of reality." He understood that by using a trick mirror it was possible to purposely distort reality, creating illusions that took on a life of their own. While Don Quixote's unrealistic view of the world is a product of his insanity, the author finds ways to remind you during the course of the book that he can alter the reality of his novel just for fun. During the course of the story, the Don and Sancho-who on some levels seem real, despite their many improbable adventuresconstantly interact with characters who have obviously just stepped out of the pages of other genres of literature. Although some literal-minded readers consider the appearance of these rather shallow characters to be a flaw in the novel, you should keep in mind that Cervantes introduces them purposely, as just another playful twist on the theme of reality vs. illusion.