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Don Quixote | Themes

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Though written in the early 17th century, Don Quixote covers a variety of themes still applicable today. Some of the themes are used to point out how harmful fanciful stories about chivalric knights can be, while others are a commentary on society at large.

Idealism versus Realism

Don Quixote is the ultimate idealist. He constructs a moral code built around unrealistic expectations and outdated beliefs, then he fully immerses himself in a fantasy world that soon becomes his reality. He turns a regular peasant woman into a virtuous, beautiful maiden worthy of being a knight's ladylove, and he sees castles in the frameworks of humble country inns. When things don't turn out as expected, he blames it on unseen magicians and their enchantments. Don Quixote's idealistic nature keeps him happy even when situations are less than desirable, such as in Part 1, Chapter 10, when he and Sancho Panza are forced to sleep under the stars: "Every time this happened to him he thought himself ... more conclusively a true knight."

The fallout from Don Quixote's idealism usually ends up on the shoulders of Sancho Panza, a realist by nature. Sancho Panza sees things as they are, not the way they should be, and unlike his master he doesn't see giants where windmills stand. His happiness is contingent on the meeting of basic needs: a full stomach, a comfortable place to sleep, and an easy journey. Unlike Don Quixote, Sancho Panza knows his own physical limitations. When they are surrounded by angry muleherds in Part 1, Chapter 15, Sancho Panza points out two men cannot take on a group of 20. That reasoning means nothing to Don Quixote, who says, "I'm worth a hundred." Both men end up beaten and battered.

Cervantes doesn't support the idealism found in traditional chivalric romance novels, but he acknowledges that small doses of it have their use. Don Quixote's idealism is the incentive behind the adventure, but it is Sancho Panza's realism that allows them to continue the journey.

Honor and Virtue

The ideas of honor and virtue go hand in hand in Don Quixote. The best men are honorable; the most desirable women are virtuous. In 17th-century Spain, it wasn't just who you were but how you acted that determined your value. Chivalric romance stories are the ultimate example of honor and virtue, which is why Don Quixote has dedicated himself to the protection of both.

A woman's virtue encompassed her modesty and her chastity. As Lothario says in The Man Who Couldn't Keep from Prying (Part 1, Chapter 33), men need to "clear their paths for [women] so that they can ... achieve the perfection ... of being virtuous." Virtue was so important that it wasn't unusual for women to marry men they didn't love, particularly if they had already consummated the relationships. Dorotea is a good example of this situation. Don Fernando gives her the choice between rape and marriage, and she chooses marriage so as not to sully her reputation. After wedding in secret, he leaves her for another woman, yet she still wants to be with him so as not to be publicly scorned.

The men in Don Quixote are subject to a different set of social standards, namely those relating to honor, which defines who they are in the eyes of the community at large. Honor, it seems, is even more important than a person's morals. This is evident in the story of The Man Who Couldn't Keep from Prying when Lothario decides it is better to do the immoral thing and seduce his best friend's wife than to have his honor called into question. Don Quixote, too, feels strongly about maintaining his honor, which is why he jumps into fights at the slightest insult. Both honor and virtue should be defended at all costs, for the lack of either lowers social status almost as much as the absence of wealth.

Love

Love is a common thread in Don Quixote, particularly in how it relates to marriage. In the various stories told throughout Part 1, love is presented as immediate and all-encompassing and as an excuse for bad behavior. Cervantes blames this perversion of what it means to be in love on the idea that chivalric romances were accepted as fact. For young men in particular, "love is really nothing more than desire and wants nothing greater than delight" (Part 1, Chapter 24). Yet after desire is sated, the love mysteriously disappears. That's because, in most cases, characters confuse lust for love.

Cervantes, in general, isn't impressed with romance. "Passion will always defeat us, unless we flee from it," he notes in The Man Who Couldn't Keep From Prying (Part 1, Chapter 34). It drives men like Cardenio crazy, and women like Marcela are persecuted for not returning affections. Yet Cervantes does believe in the value of a good pairing, for "the marriage of true lovers was the best of all possible endings" (Part 2, Chapter 22).

Insanity

Is Don Quixote actually insane? Cervantes explores this question throughout Don Quixote without ever coming to a formal conclusion. Insanity, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder. While most people find Don Quixote's dedication to knight-errantry a symptom of madness, Sancho Panza initially takes it as a matter of fact. He has known Don Quixote his whole life and therefore trusts him to be the same man he was 10 years ago, albeit with different interests. Don Quixote is higher born than Sancho Panza, is educated, and speaks eloquently. Compared to Cardenio, who falls into inexplicable fits of violent rage, Don Quixote looks perfectly sane to Sancho. He even tells the lion keeper in Part 2, Chapter 17, that Don Quixote is "not crazy. Just reckless."

Yet Don Quixote comes across as absolutely insane to dozens of other characters in the book, ranting about the veracity of chivalric tales and boasting about his own strength and bravery. They have a difficult time reconciling how someone who seems so crazy can also display "a fine intelligence and a clear, calm understanding" of the world at large: "If you avoid the subject of knighthood, you've had no way of knowing him for anything but a man of great good sense" (Part 1, Chapter 31).

Cervantes also raises questions of insanity with regard to other characters in the book. Is madness contagious, as it seems to be when Sancho Panza starts believing in the enchantments that appear to plague him and his master? Can it be cured, as occurs with Cardenio after he is reunited with Luscinda? And most importantly, what do people mean when they say someone is insane? For some characters in the book, insanity means both mental and physical change in personality. For others, insanity is the exhibition of different lifestyles and different sets of beliefs. Readers of Don Quixote, like the characters within, must answer these questions for themselves.

Class

Don Quixote is, among other things, a commentary on class in 17th-century Spain. The upper class is depicted as idle, lazy, and not altogether nice, as evidenced by the Duke and the Duchess. They view those socially beneath them as nothing more than playthings for their amusement. Government leaders, too, are cast in an unforgiving light, such as when Don Quixote notes "that one needs neither great skill nor much learning to be a governor," which is why inexperienced, dim-witted Sancho Panza is perfect for the job (Part 2, Chapter 32).

Sancho Panza is on the other end of the class scale. Peasants are depicted as hard workers with very little to show for their toil, which is in line with Spain's economy at the time of writing. In general, peasants and the middle class come across as much kinder and more giving than the upper class, which actually has the means to help others. In Part 2, Chapter 5, Teresa Panza says that being poor is much better than being rich, because when you're poor you appreciate everything you have.

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