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Don Quixote | Study Guide

Miguel de Cervantes

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Don Quixote | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What was Miguel de Cervantes's purpose for writing Don Quixote?

Cervantes wrote Don Quixote as a satirical commentary on traditional chivalric romances that were popular in 16th- and 17th-century Spain. He says as much in the book's prologue, when his (probably fictional) friend says, "The whole thing is an attack on romantic tales of chivalry." These stories, which idealized love and war, were told in verse. At the time, poetry was reserved for fiction, while prose indicated that a text was nonfiction. Cervantes wanted to publish a fictional text in prose. To do that, he had to get past the censors of the Catholic Church. The Church had moral issues with chivalric romances, as Cervantes indicates through the characters of Pero Perez and the cathedral priest. They thought such tales filled the head with impossible ideals that cannot be achieved by mortals. Cervantes figured out that he could get fictional prose past Church censors if he wrote about the dangers of accepting these outlandish stories as truth. In the end, he achieved his goal. Don Quixote shows what happens when lofty ideals are accepted as reality while also poking fun at the censorship of the Church. Cervantes published his fictional prose, which is considered by many to be the first novel ever written.

In Don Quixote, what is the cause of Don Quixote's possible madness?

Don Quixote's madness may be attributed to his obsession with chivalric romances. Nearing 50 years old, he has a comfortable life and too much time on his hands. He has collected more than 100 books in his home library, which is impressive considering the cost of books, the small number of editions printed, and the low literacy rate in 17th-century Spain. He reads nonstop to the detriment of his estate and his hobby of hunting, and with almost "no sleep and so much reading he dried out his brain and lost his sanity." Yet his madness extends only as far as the topic of knights and chivalry. He is still able to think rationally about other topics, which confounds those around him. By all appearances, Don Quixote seems to be suffering from a midlife crisis. His occupation, which Cervantes doesn't explicitly mention, doesn't seem to be fulfilling. Hunting clearly bores him, as he has no problems giving it up for the more exciting world of fiction. He is dissatisfied with the course his life has taken. Reinventing himself as a knight-errant is perhaps the 17th-century equivalent of an older person today deciding to buy a sports car or dress in the latest fashions.

In Don Quixote, why does the narrator refer to the examination of Don Quixote's books in Part 1, Chapter 6, as an "inquisition"?

Through the narrator, Cervantes is referring to the Spanish Inquisition, which took place from 1478 to 1834. It was a religious movement to rid Spain of heretics, or people who did not follow the widely accepted religion of the region, which was Catholicism. Like the questioning and exile of Jews and Muslims, the culling of Don Quixote's library was a movement led by a man of the cloth to get rid of "dangerous" books that ruined Don Quixote's mind. Even the books' final fate mirrors the sentences handed out during the Spanish Inquisition: some are sent far away, others are dropped into a dry well, and the rest are burned. Pero Perez, the priest, even suggests that one be given "a dose of rhubarb," a known laxative, as its penance. Cervantes uses this "inquisition" to both flatter the Church and show the absurdity of its practices. On one hand, his characters follow Church practices to rid themselves of chivalric romances, which the clergy believed to be morally dangerous. On the other hand, Cervantes does it in such a way that it highlights the bigotry and intolerance of the Church. Pero Perez and Master Nicholas are particularly vicious to the books they have read and disliked, just as members of the Inquisition attacked those who weren't "good Catholics."

What does Mambrino's helmet symbolize in Don Quixote?

Don Quixote thinks a golden barber's basin (which said barber wears on his head to protect himself from a rainstorm) is actually a helmet belonging to a Moorish king, Mambrino. Legend has it that the person who wears the gold helmet cannot be harmed, but Don Quixote wants it because it is rumored to have been worn by other famous knights-errant. The basin-as-helmet symbolizes Don Quixote's insanity and his complete disconnection from reality where matters of knight-errantry are concerned. From the moment he spies it on the barber's head, he is convinced it is what he needs to complete his quest. He is relying on his imagination, not reality, to dictate his decisions. He has a clear vision of how things should be and doesn't give a second thought to how they really are. If he wants a barber's basin to be a helmet, then a helmet it shall be.

What does Fierabras's Balm symbolize in Part 1 of Don Quixote?

Fierabras's Balm, a curative mixture that supposedly can heal a man even if he has been cut in half, symbolizes the difference between Don Quixote's idealism and Sancho Panza's realism. The lunatic knight drinks it, becomes terribly ill, then feels completely restored. Sancho Panza, on the other hand, drinks a smaller amount of the potion and thinks he's going to die. The recipe, based in oil, would make even the strongest stomach recoil, but Don Quixote is so convinced that it works that he feels better after he takes it. Don Quixote fervently believes that everything will turn out in his favor, and his beliefs become reality. Sancho, on the other hand, doesn't have his master's powerful imagination. He is stuck with the reality of the situations his master creates and bears the hardships of each folly.

In Don Quixote, how do Don Quixote's and Sancho Panza's ideas about justice in Part 1, Chapter 22, illuminate their characters?

Don Quixote follows a moral code that requires him to "undo compulsion and give aid and assistance to all sufferers," including the prisoners he and Sancho Panza meet who are being sent to work as galley slaves on one of the king's ships. It does not matter that the prisoners broke the law; they are being held against their will, and he believes it is his duty to free those in captivity. Sancho Panza, however, thinks the prisoners are merely serving their punishments. He explains to Don Quixote that justice "is neither compelling nor injuring people like this, but only punishing them for their crimes." Don Quixote's idealized view of justice means that all wrongs are righted, no matter the context. Sancho Panza operates in the realm of reality, where it is perfectly acceptable and necessary to punish others for their wrongdoings.

In Don Quixote, what are the similarities and differences between the madness of Don Quixote and Cardenio?

Both Cardenio and Don Quixote are mad with obsession: Cardenio with Luscinda and Don Quixote with chivalry and knighthood. Both have their lucid moments in which they speak elegantly and logically about topics that don't pertain to their particular Achilles' heels. Cardenio's madness is an actual physical affliction that, when triggered, sends him into a state of frenzied anger. He becomes violent and unpredictable and remembers none of his actions when he finally calms down. His madness stems from heartbreak and the dissolution of the life he planned with Luscinda. When they reunite, his madness suddenly disappears. Unlike Cardenio, Don Quixote's insanity doesn't change his demeanor. He acts and speaks logically throughout the course of his adventures. The only thing that indicates his flawed mental state is when he talks about his reality of being a knight-errant. His madness isn't the product of unhappiness. On the contrary, it brings him more pleasure than he has experienced in a long time.

Explain the dramatic irony of Sancho Panza's assertion in Part 1, Chapter 24, of Don Quixote that "there was no need to take a crazy man's words seriously."

Dramatic irony is a literary technique wherein humorous or insightful commentary about a particular situation is understood by the audience but not by the story's characters. Sancho Panza's assertion to Don Quixote that "there was no need to take a crazy man's words seriously" is in reference to Cardenio. This is ironic because Sancho Panza, of all people, is the one person who does take a crazy man's words seriously. If Sancho took his own advice and did not take his master's crazy words seriously, he could be safely at home with his wife and children instead of roaming the countryside exhausted, bruised, hungry, and humiliated. His obliviousness to the relevance of his own advice is intended to be humorous.

How is Sancho Panza affected by his journey to meet Dulcinea del Toboso in Don Quixote?

Sancho Panza never actually meets Dulcinea del Toboso. Don Quixote sends his squire to Toboso with a message for his ladylove, but Sancho is intercepted at the inn by Pero Perez and Master Nicolas. At first, he refuses to reveal his master's whereabouts or actions, but he eventually folds and tells them everything. They decide that Don Quixote needs to be brought home, so they tell Sancho Panza to pretend that he went to Toboso and spoke with Dulcinea. A plan unfurls that casts the priest as a damsel in distress and the barber-surgeon as her squire (which is later changed upon the arrival of Dorotea). Sancho Panza's short journey has big consequences. He learns the power of a lie, discovering that his imagination can run just as wild as his master's. At that point, most people would recognize that Don Quixote is indeed insane. Yet Sancho Panza finds himself pulled even deeper into Don Quixote's imaginings. His concept of reality is blurred even further by Pero Perez and Master Nicolas's plan. Even though he is there from the inception, he doesn't understand that it's all a farce. He is no longer in on the joke; he is the joke.

What role does virtue play in Don Quixote?

Virtue is the quality of having high moral standards. When the narrator speaks about virtue, it's mostly in reference to a woman. He uses the word to talk about both her behavior and her virginity. Women who were virtuous—who did not flirt, who did not show off, and who acted like proper ladies—are considered to be far more desirable as wives than women who fulfilled their more base desires. Ruining one's virtue, even through rumor, is enough to disgrace an entire family. A man's virtue, on the other hand, remains intact despite aggressive flirtation and intimate relations outside of marriage. For example, Dorotea runs away from home because her virtue has been called into question both by her secret marriage to Don Fernando and the fact that the person who helped her escape was a man. She feels she can't face her parents because "their honor and reputation lay entirely in [her] goodness and virtue, in which they trusted." Yet Don Fernando, who seduces Dorotea with promises of marriage, has sex with her, then abandons her, has no qualms about how his actions reflect his own morals. It's fine for men to fool around, but women must be held to a higher standard. This raises more questions than Cervantes is able to answer, which is exactly the point. Cervantes's emphasis on virtue highlights the inherent inequalities in social standards for men and women in 17th- century Spain. He wants readers to recognize and question the disparity between the treatment of the sexes and evaluate the fairness of such a dramatic double standard. His desire to engage readers on this topic indicates that he personally feels these different rules for different genders are out of date.

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