Critical Essays Themes in Don Quixote



Quixotism is the universal quality characteristic of any visionary action. Acts of rebellion or reform are always quixotic, for the reformer aims at undermining the existing institution in order to change it. Often held up to ridicule, frequently destroyed, the quixotic individual has been responsible for many great deeds in history and, conversely, for many misdeeds, even as Cervantes shows Don Quixote being responsible for the sufferings of poor Andrew.

Many outstanding madmen in the world, trying to move lethargic populations to better themselves, have been isolated in history. Ignatius de Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, has a career as fanatic and visionary as the mission of Don Quixote. St. Teresa, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, Moses, and, above all, Jesus of Nazareth have lived and suffered and conquered by their quixotic visions. Against all the imposing odds of majority feeling strength of established institutions, belief in existing customs the quixotic heroes have pitted only the integrity of their faith and their will power.

Seeking only "truth" or "justice," the truly quixotic heroes have an internal vision so strong as to see through the illusion of external appearances. Don Quixote, for example, defies ubiquitous institutions so taken for granted that everyone thinks they are harmless windmills, though they may be threatening giants, inexorable machines destructive of the individual.

The clarity of the quixotic vision is further exemplified when Don Quixote, instead of seeing two dowdy prostitutes, sees ladies of quality, who respond kindly to his courteous greetings. Helping the knight to undress, assisting him at his meal, one can only conclude that his will power has transformed their outward identities to agree with the ideal image. This notion agrees with a psychological truism: if a man anticipates inferior performance from another, he will receive what he expects. The converse is also true.

Quixotism, then, is a will power defying materiality. It is the attempt to make a utopian vision a reality, but like all utopias, it is unacceptable in a world where absolute values cannot survive. Don Quixote, though he often triumphs over disillusions, must eventually face it, and die.

Although the gentle knight yearned for immortality through his deeds, he leaves us only his history to immortalize his life principle. Succeeding generations of readers, ungifted with imaginative powers and strength of will to be themselves quixotic, can read the biography of the valorous knight of La Mancha and, like Sancho Panza, partake of his visions and his fanaticism. Only once does a book about Don Quixote have to appear, for then the glorious ability to quixotize becomes the common heritage for every person to enjoy and understand.

In expressing and developing the quixotic individual, Cervantes has discovered and defined another avenue of exaltation and self-expression of the human soul. Thus it does not matter whether Don Quixote is a burlesque of chivalry, or whether the hero is a madman or an actor. What matters is that he is indelibly set free in our imaginations and discovers for us a new quality about the human spirit.

Truth and Justice

Connected integrally with the notion of quixotism, Cervantes explores the complexities of fact and fantasy, truth and lies, justice and injustice. Cervantes, with olympian detachment and dynamic character development, considers the problem relatively. The general proposition can be expressed as follows: if a madman sees truth in its most extreme clarity and his bewildered assistant sees some truths and some illusions, then those individuals most attached to everyday experiences are capable only of seeing the greatest number of distortions.

The guards of the galley slaves, the troopers of the Holy Brotherhood, are able to see justice merely as it is given in the lawbooks of society. Don Quixote, of course, scorns such limitations and declares that knights-errant are not bound by such imperfect doctrines. Gines de Passamonte and other prisoners liberated by the knight are equally disillusioned with the justice of society that has sentenced them. Because of this, they are ready to stone this liberator who hands them new laws to follow ("It is my will and desire," says Don Quixote, "That you . . . present yourselves to the Lady Dulcinea del Toboso . . . and then you will relate to her . . . the whole of this famous adventure which has won you your longed-for freedom . . . .") The prisoners declare the full extent of their freedom by violently rejecting their champion.

In the story of poor Andrew, whose master beats him because he is careless of the sheep, while the shepherd says that his master just looks for an excuse to get out of paying his wages, it is obvious that one of them is a liar. The lie which shocks Don Quixote, however, is the lie that the winner must give an excuse to the loser for beating him. The question of justice becomes farcical in disputes between a physically superior power and his weaker adversary. As the justice wrong or right is administered by the farmer's strong lash, dispute is eliminated; thus, might makes right.

On a more abstract level, Cervantes includes some little exercises to investigate further the nature of truth and justice. The parodistic problems Sancho solves during his government the judgments regarding the man crossing the bridge, the woman who says she is raped, the dispute between the tailor and the farmer are all examples of this application.

Another instance of Cervantes' scrutiny of relativity in truth and justice is his lack of moral judgment on the promiscuous activities of Maritornes. Physically unappealing, she takes lovers out of the promptings of her generous nature. Considering her impulse, the comfort she provides to weary and lusty muleteers is the essence of virtue and charity.

Reality and Fantasy

A discussion of the many facets of this reality-fantasy investigation throughout Don Quixote would fill many books, but some suggestions follow. The hero, as has been said, has the ability to change reality with the force of an idea. Fantasy and reality to the madman are aspects of a continuum which he does not have to lower himself to question; not so for Sancho, who is always in the throes of trying to understand the difference between the two qualities. The complete cynic, like Gines de Passamonte, is the supreme realist and can play upon the fantasy-reality confusions of others. It is, in fact, one source of his livelihood.

Gines' puppet-play is a suggestive device exposing another facet of this problem of truth-illusion. Don Quixote, his volatile imagination quickly fired, sees the play as reality and enters into the depicted fray. He easily realizes his mistake, however, and makes amends for the ruined puppets. The knight is just extending the possibilities of an ideal spectator, for the whole delight in stagecraft is this quality that illusion appears as life.

Once a work is identified as a play, the audience readily enters into the fantasy world and as easily retreats when the play is over. The difficulty arises, however, when the stagecraft goes unrecognized and is taken seriously, as when entire populations swallow the propaganda of their puppeteer leaders. Frequently throughout the novel, Don Quixote is made the puppet, with people like the duke and duchess or Don Antonio de Morena pulling strings to make him dance. These puppeteers, not having the control over their stagecraft as Gines de Passamonte, who does this for a living, are often themselves part of a larger jest set for the entertainment of the reader-spectator.

Altisidora is an example of a puppeteer who loses control. After pretending to sue for Don Quixote's love, she is genuinely piqued and vengeful when he remains unmoved. Perhaps she has been acting out a private fantasy all this time in order to gain for herself the love of such a constant and noble lover, although consciously she deems him ridiculous.

Dorothea, acting the part of Princess Micomicona, has been previously cited as an instance when an actress does not realize the reality of her performance. Samson Carrasco, attempting to usurp Don Quixote's immortality, provides a similar example. The puppet-governor Sancho, acting with sincerity, turns the joke to the jester's expense. Many other incidents can be cited to show "things are not what they seem."

To complete the plotting of the fantasy-reality continuum, Cervantes explores the truths of dreams, as in the adventure of Montesinos Cave. The crowing illusion, perhaps the most fitting, is when the dying hero renounces his mad life of knight-errantry, telling the weeping household that he is no longer Don Quixote de La Mancha, but Alonso Quixano the Good. At this moment of utter sanity, the hero expresses the wish that his past acts be consigned to oblivion. So zestful of life that he idealized human possibilities by trying to initiate a new Golden Age of innocence and contentment, Don Quixote now expresses the ironic futility of quixotism and underscores that fantasy and reality are phases on a continuum. The sane hero denies his past madness in a final affirmation that life is a dream, death the moment of reality. Sancho's inheritance is the stored-up spirit of quixotism which enables him to recognize the truth of ideals and either become a knight-errant himself or imbue his children with the imaginative spirit.

Minor Themes

Cervantes expresses other ideas in Don Quixote, and though these are of secondary importance, they at least deserve mention.

Romantic love is often depicted in the novel. Among all the various courtships that take place, their common quality is a love between the two people despite parental disapproval or unequal birth. Cervantes obviously disliked "arranged marriages" and idealizes a wedding of a mutually affected couple with the blessings of their families.

Sympathy for the Moorish population of Spain is another of the author's inclinations. Cervantes, who lived as a prisoner in Algiers, understands the Moorish people who lived as a sometimes-hostile and unassimilated subculture of Spain. Among deservedly banished Moors, many families contributive to Spanish cultural life and orthodox in their Catholicism were exiled as well.

Outstanding too is Cervantes' knowledge of the underworld culture of Spain. In a short novel, Rinconete and Cortadillo, he shows even more detailed knowledge of the thieves' government that ruled Barcelona. In Don Quixote, however, the author limits himself to sketches of Gines de Passamonte and to the outlaw community of Roque Guinart. The chain gang prisoners speak in the slang dialect used by rogues and gypsies.

Subordinate to the theme of law and justice, Cervantes introduces the bold theory, implicit in the story of Sancho's government, that a man of the people who knows and understands their problems can become a better governor than a man born to authority. Sancho became loved and respected by the citizens of his island, and they begged him to remain. To this day, Cervantes adds, laws are promulgated which are called "The Constitutions of the Great Governor Sancho Panza."

The author also mentions his esthetic standards of literature. Cervantes believes that the main business in art is "verisimilitude and the imitation of nature," which he expresses in Part I. Since everyone understands what he sees through the senses, or what is "true," it is thus the job of the artist to make the impossible appear possible without straining a reader's credibility. From this esthetically oriented beginning, Cervantes constructs the delightful fusion of fantasy and reality that is the medium of Don Quixote.

Cervantes indulges in literary criticism as well, remarking on the place of poetry, criticizing his famous contemporary, Lope de Vega, for overdone plays, referring to the perniciousness of books of chivalry, expressing himself on the inadequacies of translated works, and extending his comments to denounce the malpractice of booksellers and publishers. Conscious of his trade, Cervantes' remarks are those of a professional who maintains his vigilance over the world of letters as much as possible.