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What is the main point of Don Quixote?

Illustration by Gustave Doré depicting the famous windmill scene

What is the main point of Don Quixote?

Don Quixote de la Mancha attempts to push the boundaries of what separates fiction and reality. He accepts the conventions and beliefs of chivalric literature and reimagines his world around them. In his novel Don Quixote, author Miguel de Cervantes uses Don Quixote’s form of escapism to provide a deeper commentary on both the role of readers and its relation to the Spanish Inquisition. 

Where is the line between fiction and reality?

What are the consequences of accepting fiction in the lived world? Cervantes provides commentary on these questions in his novel Don Quixote, where the protagonist reimagines his world on the basis of chivalric literature. Don Quixote and other characters attempt to uphold idealized standards set in fiction, and face real consequences for doing so. Cervantes cautions against reimagining reality in terms of fiction and hints towards the inevitable influence of literature on its reader. 

Don Quixote’s comical inability to distinguish between fiction and reality shows the powerful effects of literature on its readers. Don Quixote de la Mancha uses literature as an escape from reality. He reinvents himself from an old gentleman whose “complexion was weathered, his face scrawny, his face gaunt” to the self proclaimed knight errant “Don Quixote”

(Cervantes, Don Quixote, 23). Don Quixote is illusioned by what he has seen in chivalric novels to the point where his identity and life are guided by them. He reimagines his horse with “hooves that had more cracks than his master’s pate” and “more flaws than Gonnella’s horse” as being “the foremost nag in all the world” (Cervantes, Don Quixote, pg. 22). He further describes a “castle complete with four towers and spires of gleaming silver” with “highborn maidens” (Cervantes, Don Quixote, 26). Yet in reality, the “castle” is a run down inn and these “maidens” are prostitutes. He reimagines the physical world around him in order to uphold the expectations of a true knight portrayed in fiction.

The issue for Don Quixote becomes that he is unable to distinguish between the worlds of fiction and reality.

He continues to reject reality and imposes his delusional views on others as seen in telling the Innkeeper to both “take great care of his horse because it is “the best mount that walked this earth” and that “on the morrow thou wilt dub me a knight” (Cervantes, Don Quixote, 27, 30). Don Quixote attempting to pull the Innkeeper into his worldview resembles the Spanish Inquisition and their desire to spread beliefs of Christianity. Cervantes uses the insanity of Don Quixote to provide a commentary on the absurdities of imposing a belief on others, acting as a criticism towards Spain. 

Illustration to The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. Volume II.

Don Quixote’s preconceptions are challenged when asked for payment for his stay at the Inn as “he did not have a copper blanca. Because he never read in the histories of knights errant that any of them ever carried money” (Cervantes, Don Quixote, pg. 31). The authors’ omission of this minute detail suggests that fiction is not practical in the real world. This dialogue reveals the disconnect between reality and fiction, as both spheres operate under different principles. Cervantes mocks the lack of realism in chivalric literature through the absurdities of Don Quixote’s character and actions. Cervantes further illustrates the power of literature on its reader. As Don Quixote believes so wholeheartedly in what is portrayed in chivalry that he cannot see any other reality. 

The consequences Don Quixote faces on his journey emphasize the dangers of failing to distinguish fiction from reality.

Upon encountering a mule worker while standing vigil, Don Quixote gave him “so heavy a blow on the head that he knocked him to the ground”. And the man was “so badly battered that if the first blow had been followed by a second, he would have no need for a physician to care for his wounds” (Cervantes, Don Quixote, pg. 32).

Don Quixote then attacked a second mule worker and broke his head “in more than three pieces because he cracked his skull in at least four places” (Cervantes, Don Quixote, pg. 33). These acts of violence warn of the dangers that accepting fiction has for both the reader and society. By over exaggerating Don Quixote’s insanity and adding elements of comedy, Cervantes attempts to open the readers’ minds to the profound idea that fiction becomes a part of their lived reality. 

Don Quixote’s journey as a knight revolves around him being a figure that creates justice in the world.

He seeks adventure on the principles of “righting all manner of wrongs, by seizing the opportunity by placing himself in danger and ending those wrongs…” (Cervantes, Don Quixote, 21). He intends to engage in everything that a knight errant would have in the books.

After encountering a beaten boy, Don Quixote proclaims to the farmer, “Discourteous knight. It is not right for you to do battle with one who cannot defend himself” and demanding him to “take up your lance” and “pay him now without another word” (Cervantes, Don Quixote, pg. 36). By referring to the farmer in terms of a knight. Don Quixote demonstrates how he is trapped in the realm of fiction. Don Quixote leaves the boy, as he believes:

“It is enough for me to command and he will respect me” (Cervantes, Don Quixote, 37). Don Quixote has faith that the

Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, by Gustave Doré.

farmer will pay Andres as this encounter corresponds to the scenes he has read. Cervantes appears to use Don Quixote to ridicule the practice of blindly accepting precedent and convention. Moreover, serving as a mockery of 16th century society during the Inquisition. He uses the following of chivalric novels as a metaphor to the following of Christianity. Don Quixote exits believing he has “righted a wrong”. And had given a “happy and noble beginning” to his chivalric adventures (Cervantes, Don Quixote, 38). Don Quixote’s actions reveal his detachment from reality. He follows through on the actions of what a knight should do. But has no regard for the safety of the boy or the implications of his actions. Cervantes illustrates the gap between intentions and consequences. As Andres becomes given “so many lashes that he left him half-dead” (Cervantes, Don Quixote, 38).

Don Quixote’s need to follow the conventions of fiction creates consequences for everyone involved.

As later depicted in his encounter with a group of merchants. He stops them, demanding them to “confess that in the entire world there is no damsel more beauteous than the empress of La Mancha” (Cervantes, Don Quixote, 39). His ridiculousness is amplified in response to the trader who wished to see Dulcinea, “If I were to show her to you … where would be the virtue be in your confessing so obvious a truth” (Cervantes, Don Quixote, 39). The language of a “confession,” signals some connection between Don Quixote and the Church. Cervantes appears to use Don Quixote to ridicule the practice of swearing on faith, as a criticism of the Church. Don Quixote ends up becoming beaten by the merchants for his absurdity, further depicting the consequences of accepting fiction as truth. 

Illustration to Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (the edition translated by Charles Jarvis)
Cervantes’ satirization of authoritative figures hints towards the inevitable influence of literature on judgment and morality.

The priest, niece, and barber participate in an “Inquisition” scene after determining the books to be the root of Don Quixote’s insanity. The characters put the

books on trial to determine whether or not to “make a pile of them and set them on fire” (Cervantes, Don Quixote, 46). The judgment and burning of these books resemble the persecution of non-Christian believers during the Inquisition. The books serve as a metaphor for heretics, as the Spaniards attempted to prevent outside influence in a similar manner of the priest and Don Quixote.

These characters become convinced that they are making the right moral decision in order to save Don Quixote from the “incurable” and “contagious disease” of these books (Cervantes, Don Quixote, 50).

The priest serves as the main character in this judgment as he decides that Diana. And the books of that genre “do not deserve to be burned like the rest, because they do not. And will not cause the harm that books of chivalry have” (Cervantes, Don Quixote, 50). The priest’s confidence in his own set of moral codes reveals his own hypocrisy. He is unable to recognize that literature has influenced his definition of morality in the same manner as Don Quixote. Cervantes seems to suggest that the power of literature is universal. Moreover, as it shapes the way any reader constructs their versions of reality. 

The barber agrees with the priest’s decision to save The Mirror of Chivalry. For he “understood that the priest was so good a Christian and so loved the truth that he would not speak a falsehood for anything in the world” (Cervantes, Don Quixote, 48). Cervantes’ characterization of the barber further serves as a criticism of 16th century society. As he blindly accepts the word of religious authority.

Don Quixote on a 1 Peseta banknote from 1951.
Cervantes shows the absurdities of trusting the priest as a judge, for what literature is acceptable.

As his perspective of what is acceptable is shaped by the same literature. In his prologue, Cervantes hopes his work can help the readers find their own “relief at finding so sincere and uncomplicated a history” of Don Quixote (Cervantes, Don Quixote, 5). Cervantes portrays Don Quixote as a truthful account of history, which the reader knows to be false. While the priest and barber use literature to define truth, their logic is inherently flawed as these pieces of literature are not entirely truthful. The hypocrisy of these authoritative figures emphasizes Cervantes’ idea that reality is composed of both truth and falsehood. 

Cervantes depicts the effects of literature in two extremes:

In conclusion, Don Quixote’s and the Priest’s complete acceptance of fiction and truth as reality respectively. His use of satire and consequences shows that literature cannot become accepted by the reader as completely true or fictional. Cervantes suggests the line that separates truth from fiction must ultimately become integrated to form our reality. In Don Quixote, Cervantes examines the profound effects that literature has on its readers. He displays that what the reader consumes inherently shapes their perception of reality, specifically on judgment and truth. Furthermore, the work of Cervantes leaves many fundamental questions for me on the nature of truth. Based on Cervantes’ criticism of accepting literature as truth. In addition, how is it possible for there to be many definitions of truth? Laslty, how are we able to make judgements if our definitions of truth are different?

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What is the main point of Don Quixote?