Critic’s Corner Column: The madness of ‘Don Quixote’ reveals wisdom

ALLEGRA THATCHER
CRITIC’S CORNER COLUMNIST

Current culture would like us to believe that what we can see is all that exists. Reality is merely what is before you; it’s what you can understand and nothing else. The Spanish author Cervantes challenges this belief, which has been held by people for centuries, in his lengthy work, “Don Quixote.”

In the midst of a humanist, rationalist society, Cervantes questions the idea of reality and the real by making his protagonist a “madman” who believes himself to be a knight errant from the Middle Ages, and this leads to many entertaining and often violent adventures which challenge his society’s views.

However, Don Quixote’s madness leads him to propose many ideas which ring surprisingly true. In one scene, he and his sidekick Sancho approach an inn which he believes to be a castle, and he accordingly treats the prostitutes sitting outside as if they were princesses. In truth, these women have committed the sin which they now identify themselves.

Don Quixote’s misunderstanding of who the prostitutes are leads the reader to re-evaluate society’s projection onto them, by which they allow themselves to be defined. They were born to be princesses, daughters of God, who is the King. If we can’t look past a title or sin by which we have labelled people, we can never treat them as they ought to be treated according to their human dignity.

In another incident, the imagined “knight” comes upon a servant being beaten by his master for losing some sheep. When he hears that the servant has never even been paid for his work, Don Quixote tells the master to pay the sum he owes, and makes him vow to do so.

In this way, Don Quixote once again returns to the basic value of human dignity, as well as the Christian idea that no man is superior to another. Just because society sees the master as having the ultimate say doesn’t mean that it is truly just for him to compromise the dignity of his servant by imposing his authority and beating him. Don Quixote once again makes us wonder exactly what the right thing to do would be, and whether justice goes beyond the visible.

While reading the book, we begin to wonder why Sancho, the sidekick, is willing to put up with this madman who mistakes windmills for giants and inns for castles. Sancho has left home and family upon the promise of gold and power by Don Quixote, though from the reader’s perspective it is extremely doubtful that he will get either. We wonder why he holds on once he witnesses this to be so. Is he also insane?

Yet upon further reflection, Sancho is all of us. We all want more than an average, normal life with work every day and no new adventures. Though Sancho continues to be unfulfilled (to be honest, I haven’t finished the book yet so I’m not sure whether he does get his gold or island), he continues to follow Don Quixote, holding out that some day he will see what Don Quixote sees, and that this will bring him into a higher reality than just what he can see.

Cervantes brings home the truth that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.” (1 Corinthians 1:27) What may seem like madness or foolishness may contain greater elements of truth than that which we can see to be reality on a material level.

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