Essay: Madness in Don Quixote: Distorting Reality to Develop the Self

Madness in Don Quixote:

Distorting Reality to Develop the Self

by A.D. Shaffer

{Graduate Studies; originally written for Humanities 530 Spring 2015}

In preference to the chivalric past of the Medieval world, Alonso Quixada considers everyday life in the 1600s to be limited to the realms of necessity – lackluster and boring. Alonso feels that there is much more to life than eating and sleeping. The majority of his waking time is spent reading books written of the legends of old, leaving him to crave a return to the Golden Age. Alonso’s obsession with tales of the knighthood dominate his mind so thoroughly that he develops a fictional persona, Don Quixote of La Mancha, and assumes an altered reality in which his imagination holds free reign, leaving everyday peasants to appear as princesses and windmills to be giants. Seized by his refusal to settle for a dull life, Alonso embraces madness to transpose him to glory through self-fulfilled delusions of grandeur.

Alonso aggrandizes the realms of fantasy and adventure in comparison to the complacent boredom of real life. Disgusted with his lot, he mourns the absence of adventure and lack of passion displayed in mundane reality. Alonso’s housekeeper says, “Miserable me! I am certain of it, and it is as true as that I was born to die, that these accursed books of chivalry he has, and has got into the way of reading so constantly, have upset his reason; for now I remember having often heard him saying to himself that he would turn knight-errant and go all over the world in quest of adventures” (Cervantes 212). This deep dissatisfaction aids the authority of his imagination to supplement delusional acceptance in which distorted realities appear for his pleasure. Average life is not enough to satisfy Alonso: “That is to say, Don Quixote goes mad as a vicarious atonement for our drabness, our ungenerous dearth of imagination” (Bloom 125). Figs and soft bread are not excitement or joy for Alonso, he would rather be a hero on adventure.

Alonso is not content with reality’s bland appeal and believes the zeitgeist of life resides in the past. Kierkegaard discusses the importance of memory in contrast to reality: “A life in recollection is the most perfect imaginable; memory gives you your fill more abundantly than all of reality and has a security which no reality possesses” (50). An experience itself is up for debate as per how the individual remembers the occurrence. The past holds allure because it is unchangeable; however, interpretation of the past is up for emotional consideration. The mind holds onto significant details while discarding the ordinary or repetitive actions. The present is subjected to life’s necessities, and reality, as described in Either/Or, is found lacking:

“When I became older, when I opened my eyes and saw reality, I started to laugh, and haven’t       stopped since. I saw the meaning of life was getting a livelihood, its goal acquiring a titular office, that loves rich desire was getting hold of a well-to-do girl, that the blessedness of friendship was to help one another in financial embarrassment, that wisdom was what the majority assumed it to be, that enthusiasm was to make a speech, that courage was to risk losing ten dollars, that cordiality consisted in saying ‘You’re welcome’ after a dinner, that fear of God was to go to communion once a year. That’s what I saw, and I laughed” (Kierkegaard 51).

Over two hundred years separate Don Quixote and Either/Or, but both display reality as wanting and glorify the aesthetic by means of intense subjective determination. The latter is found through the writings of Author A, a melancholic poet unsatisfied with the meaning of life. The former is understood by the hallucinations of Alonso’s madness in which he plans to return passion to life by way of adventuring through a fictional character. Years of reading about adventure has prepared the knight-errant, so Don Quixote believes, to be able to perceive the fantastical happenings as real and fully breathe life to his imaginations.

Don Quixote does not create something from nothing; he distorts what is really there for that which he wants to see. He is often talking or thinking to himself as to what the heroes he read about would do in the situations presented. The windmills, in example, are structures that Sancho and Don Quixote can both see on the horizon, but the Don choses to believe they are instead giants readying an attack. After Don Quixote falls from the windmill sail, his faithful squire Sancho said, “did I not tell your worship to mind what you were about, for they were only windmills? and no one could have made any mistake about it but one who had something of the same kind in his head” (Cervantes 255). In justification to reality, Don Quixote resorts to additional delusionary authority and claims that an enchanter transformed the giants into windmills to ensure the Don did not receive victory.

The misadventures in which Don Quixote and Sancho participate are derived from the stories about knighthood and chivalry from Alonso’s personal library. He is noted for contemplating on his memory of various stories to understand the created anti-reality he finds himself in: “All that night Don Quixote lay awake thinking of his lady Dulcinea, in order to conform to what he had read in his books, how many a night in the forests and deserts knights used to lie sleepless supported by the memory of their mistresses” (Cervantes 259). To assume the position of knight-errant, Don Quixote forces himself to behave as one, to include abstaining from sleep and fulfilling meals. The effects of hunger and insomnia support Don Quixote’s delusions, and he is content to stay awake dwelling on the beauty of a country girl who he’s convinced himself is the most beautiful princess in the whole world. Dolcinea’s beauty and honor act as the motivations for Don Quixote’s questing, as he believes his valiant deeds will reflect her purity and goodness; therefore increasing his own infamous adventures.

Although Don Quixote strives for honor and justice, his delusions upset his recognition of right from wrong, and he is understood as a backward hero or, as Sobre calls him “The Hero Upside-Down”. The Don confuses monks for enchanters and criminals for victims during his adventures with Sancho. Sobre demonstrates the critics as forgiving of Don Quixote, examining his madness under a positive light: “Don Quixote is a complete fool; his folly, however, is the most sublime of virtues in this rotten world; therefore Don Quixote is saintly, a sublime hero – or so this reasoning goes” (Sobre 129). Don Quixote means well despite his insane actions and avoidance of logic. Sobre notes the qualities of a hero to include longing for respite from duties demanded of one’s country, but Don Quixote is the opposite: “Don Quixote is a bored man who daydreams; once he embarks on his trip, however, he shuns solace and pleasure. … Our hidalgo finally manages to find adventures; adventures seldom find him” (135). Logic holds no lure to the backward hero as logic belongs in the realm of reality.

Reason and logic are found in the Don’s squire. While Sancho attempts to offer reason occasionally, he ultimately enables Don Quixote to continue his quest in hopes of receiving an island as reward. Sancho is not insane, he is uneducated. The promise of the reward came from Don Quixote as offering in payment to services rendered. However, Sancho is noted as a dim-witted and ignorant farmer whose lack of understanding in higher cultures acts as means to allow the authority of the Don to override that of logic. Sancho is hoping for the best – and if he can’t have money he will settle for an island – so long as he returns some profit over to his wife. Don Quixote relies on Sancho’s simplicity as the more intelligent characters in the story are loathe to believe his tales: “Only ignorant people or fools admire him or consider him in any way superior – and often only as a result of their acceptance of a social hierarchy beyond discussion” (Sobre 137-38). The respectable characters in the piece look with disdain upon the knight-errant for his refusal to accept reality.

In creating his new self, Alonso is deemed mad and noted for confused thoughts throughout the piece. Madness can be seen as diabolical actions of the devil for the time period: “In Christian divinity, the Holy Ghost and the Devil battled for possession of the individual soul. The marks of such ‘psychomachy’ might include despair, anguish, and other symptoms of disturbance of mind” (Porter 17). The characters that live with Alonso attempt to take actions to cure him, namely the removal of his personal library as the housekeeper and niece insist the books are to blame for his madness. The curate wants to examine the books, but the niece demands all the titles should be submitted to the flames as all are guilty of instilling a false reality in the mind of her disillusioned uncle (Cervantes 219). They burn the books and seal up the library with a false wall, but then rely on the weakness of Alonso’s mind to believe that an evil enchanter came and whisked the library away with magic.

The library is burned to encourage Alonso back to reason, but he interprets the removed library to signify the end of reading and beginning of action. Much is allowed for the powers of enchantment, and Bloom addresses the importance of the sorcerer to move the story forward: “The Don supposes the sorcerers to exist, and Cervantes pragmatically realizes them as crucial components of his language. Everything is transformed through enchantment, is the Quixotic lament, and the wicked sorcerer is Cervantes himself” (122). Understood reality begins inside the conscious mind, once Alonso grips the truth he is no longer willing to live. An average life falls short in comparison to the adventures of knighthood. Without his madness, Alonso is a shell of his fictional self.

The novel personifies the hopes and dreams of humanity. Cervantes saw through the eyes of imaginative wonder and wanted to grace his audience with the abilities of personal fancy: “Cervantes, the champion of perspectivistic truth, wanted his readers to hear multiple parodies at the same time: for instance, simultaneous parodies of chivalric romance and popular religious beliefs” (Kallendorf 196). Cervantes allowed for the implications of unrequited love, madness, and exorcism to tempt his readers into cathartic expression by suggesting the existence of madness as a response to the mundane. Don Quixote speaks of the power of perception, affording the individual the ability to determine the self.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Riverhead

Books, 1994. pp. 119-36.

Cervantes, Miguel de Saavedra. Don Quixote. Project Gutenberg Ebook #996: 27 Jul

  1. Web. Accessed 6 Apr 2015.

Kallendorf, Hilaire. “The Diabolical Adventures of Don Quixote, or Self-Exorcism and the Rise

of the Novel.” Renaissance Quarterly, 55.1 (2002), pp. 192-223. Web. Accessed 13 Apr 2015.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Either/Or: A Fragment of Life. Ed. Victor Eremita. Trans. Alastair Hannay.

New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

Porter, Ray. Madness: A Brief History. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Sobre, J.M. “Don Quixote, the Hero Upside-Down.” Hispanic Review, 44.2 (1976), pp. 127-41.

Web. Accessed 13 Apr 2015.

Picture c/o:  https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/25/Don_Quixote_10.jpg

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