Don Quixote Part I: The Madness and the Cruelty

On the second page of Don Quixote, the main character goes nuts. He’s been reading books of chivalry, as many as he can get his hands on, and indeed more than he should, selling acres of precious arable land in order to buy more (sounds like some bloggers I know). The books are written in a convoluted syntax that he spends hours trying to untangle. And this is the result:

With these words and phrases the poor gentleman lost his mind, and he spent sleepless nights trying to understand them and extract their meaning, which Aristotle himself, if he came back to life for only that purpose, would not have been able to decipher or understand…. The truth is that when his mind was completely gone, he had the strangest thought any lunatic in the world ever had, which was that it seemed reasonable and necessary to him, both for the sake of his honor and as a service to the nation, to become a knight errant and travel the world with his armor and his horse to seek adventures and engage in everything he had read that knights errant engaged in, righting all manner of wrongs and, by seizing the opportunity and placing himself in danger and ending those wrongs, winning eternal renown and everlasting fame. (20-21)

So Don Quixote, who (it becomes clear in the course of the narrative) on all other topics is sane, intelligent, gentle, courteous and kind, has run mad because of his reading. He refuses to entertain the possibility that any of the knights he has read about were fictional, or even exaggerated: those who suggest such a thing are lying, or merely incredibly ill-informed. Repeated opportunities to become well again — to come home for a cure, to stop reading the chivalric romances that did the damage to begin with — meet with indignant refusals. Don Quixote’s madness is chosen. It is a cherished part of his identity; his dearest friends cannot convince him to abandon it.

But a voluntary madness inspires mockery and cruelty, even in those dear friends. As Don Quixote moves along on his adventures, most people are quick to realize he’s completely looney-tunes, and they are just as quick to laugh and point, to bring their friends to witness, and even to egg him on to further antics. Those who don’t realize he’s mad are simply angry at his actions — when Don Quixote recklessly attacks a flock of sheep, for instance, believing them to be knights, he gets a bad beating himself from the angry shepherds. This happens a number of times. But with increasing frequency, people recognize the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance for what he is — a lunatic — and they mock him and play tricks on him.

Characters play on his madness to get him to do what they want him to do: the quick-witted Dorotea, for instance, pretends to be a princess in distress so he will promise to come with her to an invented country. Everyone else is in on the joke, tittering behind their hands. Worse, an innkeeper’s daughter lures him to a high window with words of courtly love, and when he responds with gentle kindness, she leaves him tied, dangling from the window:

“Thou should’st remember, too, that one who loveth sweetly doth not punish severely.”

But no one was listening to these words of Don Quixote, because as soon as Maritornes attached the halter to his wrist, she and the innkeeper’s daughter went away, convulsed with laughter, and left him so securely tied that it was impossible for him to free himself. (381)

These episodes — and there are many of them — reminded me that in Cervantes’s day, or not long after, people paid good money to come to places like Bethlem Royal Hospital (Bedlam!) to see the mad. It was good entertainment, great for a cheap laugh. Don Quixote’s bruises, broken bones, lost teeth, tilting at sheep and windmills, and unshakable belief that an ugly peasant girl is a beautiful lady are all hilarious good fun. Aren’t they?

Except that when we meet Cardenio, the Ragged One of the Gloomy Face, madness takes a different form, and meets a different response. Cardenio’s crazy fits, brought on by the treachery of his best friend and the apparent infidelity of the woman he considered his wife, are met with concern and pity by everyone in the story. Don Quixote, in keeping with his knightly persona, wants to know what has “compelled [Cardenio] to live among the wild beasts estranged from [his] true self, as demonstrated by [his] dress and [his] person,” and offers to devote himself to Cardenio’s aid. The irony, of course, is that Don Quixote, too, is estranged from his true self, living out in the open seeking adventures, and his dress and person are deliberately deranged.

But while the Don meets only paroxysms of hearty laughter, nasty tricks, and eventually the deep humiliation of an oxcart (see the story of Lancelot, who also lost his reason, for the complex symbolism of that episode), Cardenio gets quite another response. The priest, the barber, and even the goatherds seek to help him as much as they can. Eventually he finds himself reunited with his lost love, and in full possession of his faculties. Is this a question of voluntary versus involuntary madness? Is it a question of being inside a story, versus in the frame? Why do we laugh at Don Quixote and mourn for Cardenio? Why is cruelty permitted for the gentle Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, and not for the gentleman of the Gloomy Face?

I can’t quite make up my mind about Don Quixote’s madness. We’re told he’s mad, but if he is, then (as it says in Part II), “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) His soul is honorable, generous, compassionate, and humorous, if a bit one-track. Watching him at the butt of trickery, cruelty, and laughter (or perhaps enchantment) is an experience that unfolds slowly and richly, and has much more left to offer me.

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7 Responses to Don Quixote Part I: The Madness and the Cruelty

  1. saladcheese says:

    Excellent run-through. I’ve got Cervantes on the docket for when I have to read a work of Spanish fiction. Seems daunting, but so do a lot of the classics. Cheers!

    • Jenny says:

      Let me encourage you not to find it daunting. As I mentioned, the language is very accessible, and it’s got something for most tastes. It’s long, but if you’re willing to invest the time, I think you’ll find it well worth it.

  2. cbjames says:

    Is it that his madness brings out qualities that society cannot believe really exist all in one person? That it’s madness to want to be a true knight in “our time” says something about “our times.” I’ve still not read this book, though I’ve often thought of doing just what you are now. From this post, and the others you have done, I think it’s a book that would be well worth the effort.

    • Jenny says:

      That’s a great insight. People do take time to assure him that there were never knights errant, and also that there are none now, both of which DQ takes offense at. But the main thing simply seems to be that knight errant= madness, and that leaves him vulnerable. It reminds me of the part in Gaudy Night when Peter Wimsey falls asleep in the punt, and Harriet Vane muses on the way death makes you solemn but sleep makes you want to play tricks on the person. Madness, too, apparently.

  3. Donna says:

    Interesting commentary on DQ…”chosen madness”…I never really looked at it that way. But when he is engaged in other topics, particularly when he gives advice to Sancho, he does seem quite lucid. What did you think of Dorotea when she decides to go along with his “madness” and let’s him be her knight errant? Is that funny or manipulative? There is the romantic in us who wants Don Quixote to “reach the unreachable star” in the same way we want King Arthur and his Round Table Knights (“might FOR right”) to succeed. But romantic or realistic, the humor only lasts until we realize we are laughing at someone who is being abused by others.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, quite. I gave that example above, with Dorotea. We admire her for being quick-witted and clever, but we can see it’s cruel, too. It’s so complex. My question is why his madness inspires mockery and abuse, when other examples of madness do not. Is it because his madness is actually folly? I’m going to write more about that distinction later.

  4. rebeccareid says:

    I saw so much of DQ as Cervantes mocking other people: he’s mocking the people who, like DQ’s friends, saw novel reading as “dangerous.” So Cervantes is satirizing that by having DQ take said novels seriously. You make a good point, though. Why do we accept it as funny as we mock DQ? maybe because as we read a chivalric novel we know it’s a joke. We laugh because DQ didn’t take it as fiction and we know he should have. It is a confusing concept to consider. Good post!

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