Don Quixote Part II: Madness, Folly, Lies, and Dreaming

I just spent more than a week helping my parents, who just retired, move from Tennessee to the Bay Area in California. I helped do the last, chaotic bit of packing, helped drive their two cars across the country, and helped sustain morale in the whirlwind that is letting go of a well-known community and church, beloved friends, a career, and even flora and fauna you’ve known for many years, for a whole new set of places and people. They have such a big job to face. Now that I am back from that particular madness, I’m ready to keep talking about Don Quixote!

In one of my last posts on Don Quixote, I talked about madness and cruelty. Who deserves pity in this novel? Why does Cardenio deserve our sympathy, while Don Quixote deserves only our censure and mockery? But in this second part, Cervantes dives deeper, into the question of what madness actually is, and whether Don Quixote is mad at all.

Towards the beginning of Part II, Don Quixote is discussing his own published history with his friend Sansón (more on this metafictional aspect in another post.) He says,

To say witty things and to write cleverly requires great intelligence: the most perceptive character in a play is the fool, because the man who wishes to seem simple cannot possibly be a simpleton. (p. 479)

Here, Cervantes begins to explicitly call the madness of Don Quixote and the folly of Sancho Panza into question, something he continues to do throughout the second part of the novel. (Madness, for early modern purposes, meant the loss of God’s gift of reason; this could happen for any number of reasons, including love. Folly meant acting in a way not in accordance with wisdom or intelligence or even custom.)

Throughout the second part of the novel, Don Quixote encounters people who already know him as a madman, because they have read the first part of the novel. (See, I can’t get away from the metafiction; it’s crucial to reading the story.) They expect certain behavior from him, because he is the Don Quixote. As in the first part of the novel — though to a much greater degree — they want to laugh at him. Some of his acquaintances take an almost incredible amount of trouble and expense to perpetrate their practical jokes — more than Ashton Kutcher ever dreamed of. In the case of the duke and duchess, for instance, we have demons, beard-washing, flying horses (and all the special effects necessary to achieve the impression of flight), bearded duennas, and so forth. Hilarious! They are falling about laughing!

But in the midst of all this bewildering enchantment, Don Quixote displays such unfailing courage, gentleness, and wisdom on every topic except knight-errantry (and even on that topic, given that it is not quite the right century for it) that the reader begins to wonder: who is mad here? The person who spends money like water to be cruel to a madman, or the man who reacts with courtesy and courage to the cruelty? Don Lorenzo says,

Not all the physicians and notaries in the world could make a final accounting of his madness: he is a combination madman who has many lucid intervals. (p. 571)

But we are not so sure. All the deceptions perpetrated on Don Quixote begin to look like the madhouse, and our Knight of the Lion — transformed from the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance — begins to look like the doctor.

This is played out again in a minor key when Sancho Panza finally becomes the governor of the ínsula he’s been coveting for so long. Everyone expects him to be a riotously, hysterically terrible governor, and his reign is set up as a prank. Little Sancho responds with an almost unbearable dignity, ruling his people, for however short a term, with intelligence and care, using native wit and understanding to make his decisions. At the end, he makes a set of sensible laws and “in short, he ordained things so good that to this day they are obeyed in that village and are called The Constitution of the Great Governor Sancho Panza.” (p. 797) So who is the fool? The one who set up the elaborate prank on an entire village, or the one who ruled it wisely?

These questions throw the episode of the Cave of Montesinos in a new light. In this somewhat peculiar section, Don Quixote spelunks into a deep cave and sees and has conversation with several well-known figures from Spanish legend, including Montesinos himself, Durandarte, and the Lady Belerma. He also sees his beloved Dulcinea, and is given information about her and her enchantment.

Of course, his companions don’t believe a word of it. Is it madness? (But is Don Quixote mad?) Is he lying? (But he is honorable.) Was it a dream or a vision? The supposed author of the book, the moor Cide Hamete Benengeli (more metafiction!) inserts a commentary here:

I cannot believe, nor can I persuade myself, that everything written in the preceding chapter actually happened in its entirety to the valiant Don Quixote…if his adventure seems apocryphal, the fault is not mine, and so, without affirming either its falsity or its truth, I write it down. You, reader, since you are a discerning person, must judge it according to your own lights, for I must not and cannot do more; yet it is considered true that at the time of Don Quixote’s passing and death, he is said to have retracted it, saying he had invented it because he thought it was consonant and compatible with the adventures he had read in his stories. (p. 614)

Aha. Two things here. First, this is allowing me to decide what I think. Most medieval and early modern literature is purely didactic: do this, think that, adhere to society’s rules, or your children will end up with no noses. What does the author (or the “author”) mean by giving me the power to determine whether or not Don Quixote is really mad?

Secondly, and crucially, this points to the ending — the heart-wrenching ending — in which Don Quixote renounces his knight-errantry and joins the world of the giants he has been tilting at all this time. For a thousand pages, we have seen the Knight of the Lion and his squire surrounded by those who mocked him, beat him, laughed at him, and played tricks worthy of Nero. Now, at his death, he gives in: they were right and he was wrong, they were sane and he was mad, all along. It is a… happy ending? Because he has recovered his reason? And yet we know, as discerning readers, that the compassionate heart of the novel has died. So, going back (briefly) to the Cave of Montesinos, if Don Quixote retracted his experience there when he was on his deathbed, and had become “sane,” but we understand the “sane” world as being both mad and cruel, then what must we really think of his experience?

There is so much more to this theme of madness, so much richness and complexity. I could never explore it all; there are thousands of books opening up this one book. But I’ll say I didn’t think I was going to get this much out of it. You should definitely read this. Metafiction up next!

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5 Responses to Don Quixote Part II: Madness, Folly, Lies, and Dreaming

  1. Tony says:

    If Cervantes had stopped at the end of the first book, ‘Don Quixote’ would be a footnote in literary history. It is the second book and this constant pondering as to the identity of the real madmen of the piece which makes it a great book. It’s ironic that the bits everyone seems to know come from Book One ;)

    • Jenny says:

      I’m sure you’re right about that. The first part was interesting, with the structural stuff and the characters, and the writing was good. But the second part made it brilliant. I was really blown away.

    • rebeccareid says:

      I completely agree. It’s the second book that makes it great!

  2. Donna says:

    Excellent review…and excellent comment by Tony. I just finished reading this with a discussion group and we could have gone on forever discussion this. Brava!

  3. rebeccareid says:

    Jenny, this is a great post! What a wonderful way of capturing why I was so sad to finish it. Even though I didn’t love it as I was reading. It is a rather sad ending, huh.

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