Don Quijote: The Disullusionment of a Don

Cervantes’ Don Quijote is one of the most widely known and highly regarded pieces of Spanish literature from the medieval time period.  The story follows the adventures of a “Don Quejana” from a small rural village in the La Mancha region of Spain, who, after spending countless hours in his library pouring and obsessing over chivalric volumes of the past, dubs himself Don Quixote, a self-made knight errant cut from the same die-cast as his favorite literary heroes.  Brainwashed from his excessive readings of chivalric novels, Don Quijote dedicates himself to the heroic life of a knight errant, complete with his poetic exaltation of love, endless pursuit of justice and chivalry, and duty to sally forth in search of adventures all the while following the long-ago established code of honor.  Cervantes’ tells the tale of the hero Don Quijote in two different parts that were published separately but intended to go together in one volume.  While Part I of Don Quijote consists of a series of entertaining jaunts through the rural Spanish countryside where Don Quijote serves as the lovably disillusioned agent, or cause of the often lighthearted adventures that are indirectly aimed at mocking knight errantry, Part II on the other hand sees the title character become the object of other character’s severe and cruel actions, and eventually fall into melancholy after realizing the harsh, serious realities of the present day society which is discovered to be totally lacking of the chivalric code Don Quijote so believed in.

libraryDon Quijote’s had barely begun his journey when he comes to the realization that “…he had not been officially constituted a knight,” and therefore, according to his own established laws of chivalry, could not raise his sword against any other knights of noble order (17).  The following adventure at the inn where he obtains his knighthood is one of the first ways in which Don Quijote serves as a narrative agent and drives forward the lighthearted plot; the scene also parodies the ceremony of knighthood and the ridiculousness of the chivalric stories in which Don Quijote believes.  The first parody occurs when Don Quijote envisions the rustic inn he sees in the distance as “…a castle, with four tall towers topped by gleaming silver spires…” (18). This is one of the first of many examples in the novel which humorously put on display Don Quijote’s laughable belief that he is a literary knight errant of the past.  Cervantes continues to parody Don Quijote when he assumes the two young prostitutes standing outside the inn are “noble virgins” of the castle court, to which the ladies openly laugh at the aged knight errant’s lofty introduction (19).  The greatest parody in this moment however occurs during the actual “knighting” ceremony.  The innkeeper, “…already suspicious of (Don Quijote’s) sanity…) seems to have accepted Don Quijote’s request in order to “have some fun” with him and provide entertainment to his guests, and in a broader sense, the reader (22).  Other eve of the ceremony, Cervantes provides the reader with slapstick humor as Don Quijote beats back a muledriver who attempted to disrupt his sacred armor.  Deciding to grant Don Quijote “…his damned knighthood before there were any more disasters…” the innkeeper promptly conducts the ceremony much to the amusement of the guests, who see the ceremonial instruction book as the inn ledger and the two aforementioned prostitutes as noble ladies and witnesses of the resolute ceremony (25).  The false pomp and circumstance surrounding the actual ceremony, as well as the situational humor that Cervantes grants the reader, are meant to show the loveable nature of Don Quijote’s insane beliefs at this point in the book, and also serve as a comment on the fact that knight errantry, a product of literature, has little place in the real world.

Another notable adventure in Part I of Don Quijote deals with the “golden reward” of Mambrino’s helmet, a literary character which Don Quijote references in the beginning of the tale.  At this point in the narrative Don Quijote has recruited a Squire from his hometown.  Sancho, a portly, uneducated fellow, often questions his mad master’s beliefs and false visions, yet remains committed to continue the insane journey based on the reward he is promised, that is, the governorship of a faraway island.  The episode begins as Don Quijote and Sancho journey through a rainstorm and spy off in the distance a man on a horse adorned with a shiny helmet like object whose reflection is visible through the weather.  Jumping to comedic conclusions, Don Quijote claims, “…unless I’m much mistaken, he who comes toward us, right now, wears on his head Mambrino’s golden helmet…” and vows to obtain the golden prize through battle (120).  This assumption again proves that for Don Quijote, “…it was the easiest thing in the world to make anything and everything fit into his wild chivalric ideas and all his crazy thoughts…” (120).  Furthermore, in this instance, we see how in Part I of the book Sancho serves as a comedic foil to Don Quijote, as he “…couldn’t keep from laughing…” out loud at his master’s loveable, humorous insanity.  Again, Cervantes provides the reader with slapstick style comedy by painting the image of a poor barber being suddenly startled by a charging foe, opting to throw himself from his horse and run off in the rain like a mad fool.  This episode again points to the lighthearted nature of Part I of the book, and the ways in which it mocks the beliefs of knight errantry, specifically how Don Quijote is so disillusioned by his own vows that he believes a barber basin to be a relic of knight’s old.  In Part I Sancho seems to add to this humor; the purpose of his character will change however as the pair’s journey continues into Part II.

Whereas Part I of Don Quijote focuses on the often comical adventures and dqdmisunderstandings of the title character and his loyal squire as they pursue a life a knight errantry, Part II takes a much more cynical tone and comments more on society as a whole.  In Part II, the tricks played on Don Quijote become much crueler, the episodes that Don Quijote is subjected serve a much more serious purpose than solely just for humor, and it becomes evident that Sancho just wants to go home because his master is getting crazier and more desperate to prop up his own false beliefs.  Two of the main characters in the second half of this book are the unnamed Duke and Duchess.  It could be argued that their palace serves a microcosm of actual society, and is used to reveal its potential flaws.

Having read the first volume of That Ingenious Gentlemen, Don Quijote de la Mancha, the Duke and Duchess are delighted in Chapter 30 to meet their favorite literary characters Don Quijote and his Squire.  The Duke and Duchess, “…having learned from that book exactly what form of lunacy afflicted Don Quijote…” were not really excited just to meet the knight however (519).  Instead, they aimed to “…indulge in his madness…” only in order to coax some entertainment value from the situation.  Even though the Duke and Duchess, much like Don Quijote, had read all of the books of chivalry with enjoyment and fondness, they understood that they were indeed only fiction, and that anyone who would dedicate his life to such a lifestyle was truly a fool.  This disparity of beliefs goes to show how foolish Don Quixote really is for believing what he does.  Indeed, his insanity in Part II becomes much less laughably innocent, and more indicative of a fool who has failed to evolve with the times.  One of the most depressing moments occurs after dinner in the palace, where a custom of beard-washing is made up by the Duke in order to ridicule Don Quijote.  After the knight errant is lathered with eight inches of soap and left to wait in front of the court, the Duke grows worried that the stifled laughter in the courtroom will ruin the joke and orders his servants to lather himself (530).  However, it’s obvious to the reader that the totally oblivious Don Quijote with his “…tightly closed eyes and his bear all puffy with soap…” would have continued with the joke no matter what, believing it to be an actual ceremony (530).  Indeed, it becomes clear here that Don Quijote’s eyes are in fact tightly closed to the realities of the real world.

After a series of events where Don Quijote becomes more and more aware of his foolish ways, he finds himself on a galley where he encounters a past foe named Sampson or, The Knight of the White Moon.  Throughout the story, Don Quijote has dedicated his life and adventures to the exaltation of his promised love, Dulcinea del Toboso, whom he has never actually met.  This new foe, upon seeing Don Quijote, challenges, “I come to do combat with you, and test the strength of your arm, by making you acknowledge that my lady, whoever she may be, is incomparably more beautiful than your Dulcinea del Toboso” (703).  Dulcinea is indeed the last, if not only thing motivating Don Quijote to continue his knight errantry.  Therefore he readily accepts the challenge in order to defend his lady’s honor just as knight errants of the past would have done.  Though Don Quijote has defeated Sampson earlier in the novel, he falls in this episode and therefore must agree to Sampson’s request that he resume the pastoral life and forget his chivalric journey.  Looking up to his opponent after defeat, Don Quijote is notably “…bruised and stunned…” and “…not raising his visor, and speaking like someone from inside a tomb…” seeming to have lost his will not to mention the last battle he will fight as a knight errant (704).  If the previous episode represents the last defeat of Don Quijote, another significant instance represents the burial of the portion of Don Quijote’s mind that truly believed himself to be a knight errant alive in the contemporary world.  As the defeated Don Quijote and his Squire leave Barcelona towards La Mancha, the title character laments, “I have fashioned (my fortune), but not with the wisdom I should have shown…” accepting his defeat and the foolishness with which he believed himself a true knight errant (709).  Thinking it pointless to carry Don Quijote’s rickety armor for the entirety of the journey, Sancho recommends, “Let’s just put all this weaponry and armor in a tree, like someone being hanged…” (710).  Though this action is not actually undertaken, the imagery of Don Quijote’s last vestiges of knight hood, his armor, hanging from a tree, represent his defeat in the world of knight errantry and his banishment to the position of a “…mere country squire…” (710).

Don Quijote begins as humorous, lighthearted tale of a laughably disillusioned old man and his humorous journeys throughout the Spanish countryside.  However, by the end of the novel, both he and the narrative tone that unfold change drastically as the cruel, harsh realities of the world are exposed.  Don Quijote’s vision of a golden age of knight errantry and a world dictated by the chivalric code is discovered to no longer exist in contemporary society.  After the former knight errant discovers this sad truth, it’s not long before he simply apologizes for the harm he has caused and dies a pastoral country squire.  Though the ending is rather depressing, the reader should be able to see that Don Quijote’s own life was bettered by his fantastic sallies even if they were entirely delusional, and that even if it only exists in imagination, knight errantry and the principles that support it still had some relevance in this contemporary Spanish society.