Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is the story of a middle-aged man from La Mancha who, as a result of reading books, becomes obsessed with the chivalric code. This causes him to lose his hold on reality, and he embarks on a number of delusional adventures. The question is whether these delusions are the result of genuine madness or merely an intensified from of day-dreaming. Evidence from both the text itself and elements of form and context appear to suggest the latter. Don Quixote becomes obsessed with an ideal that is outdated. His problem is that he is unable to relate to the ideals of his time, and thus chooses to enter the world of what he perceives as a "glorious" past. As will be seen, this is a process of choice rather than an involuntary submission to psychosis.
At the start of the book, Don Quixote is portrayed as a middle-aged man. He is at a stage in his life where there is little to hope for in the future, and most accomplishments lie in the past. To substitute his lost youth, the main character buries himself in stories of the past. He does this to such an intense degree that he feels the need to bring his fantasies to the context of his physical world. This is then the catalyst for his apparent madness.
The ordered and relatively logical way in which Don Quixote goes about preparing for and finding adventure furthermore suggests that his fantasies are chosen rather than imposed upon him:
The first thing he did was to scour a suit of armour that had belonged to his great-grandfather... when he had cleaned and repaired it as well as he could, he perceived there... was only a single head-piece.... with some pasteboard he made a kind of... vizor, which being fitted to the head-piece, made it look like an entire helmet. (Cervantes 5).
He fashions his fantasy world exactly according to the ideals in his books, and Cervantes frequently suggests that he "lost his understanding" (Cervantes 4). He for example decides to defend the helpless and destroy the wicked. In order to do this, he engages a laborer, Sancho Panza, to be his "faithful squire." In keeping with the main character's fantasy of glory and wealth, Sancho is promised governorship of an isle. Other elements of the fantasy include Rocinante, Don Quixote's ancient barn horse, and Dulcinea del Toboso, a peasant woman. The main character sees the horse as a beautiful, muscular animal, and the peasant woman as a beautiful princess.
It is evident then that Don Quixote's fantasies are based on a fundamental dichotomy between the way things are and the way the main character wishes they were. He is on his way to old age, as is his horse. His "squire" is a simple, befuddled man and the "princess" is an unremarkable woman. Another dichotomy related to this is the world in which Don Quixote attempts to have his glorious adventures. He finds the reality of his social context unappealing, and thus chooses to enter a fantasy where the world views him as a great and chivalrous knight, and where chivalrous ideals are appreciated. Indeed, he seems to take great satisfaction from the idea that the world needs him:
These preparations being made, he found his designs ripe for action, and thought it now a crime to deny himself any longer to the injured world, that wanted such a deliverer." (Cervantes 7).
While Don Quixote then becomes more and more deeply enmeshed in the romance of his adventures, his grip on reality progressively loosens.
This loosened hold on reality is evident in Don Quixote's second adventure. Here his concern has moved from protecting the weak to attacking and stealing from innocent citizens in the name of his ideals. He for example abandons a boy to an evil farmer, taking in good faith the man's word that no harm will come to the boy. He also steals a barber's basin under the belief that it is a mythic helmet, and makes himself ill for the sake of his mistaken belief in the healing powers of the Balsam of Fierbras. Throughout everything Sancho remains faithful to his calling as squire, despite the fact that he is often the victim of the consequences arising from his master's actions.
The first part of the novel ends with Don Quixote's friends, the priest and the barber, arriving to take him home. Even the sight of his old friends does not remove Don Quixote's self-deception, and he believes himself under the force of enchantment. Unable to resist, he accompanies his friends to the end of his second expedition.
In the second part of the novel, it is interesting to note the progressive and powerful nature of Don Quixote's daydreaming. While Sancho for example represented the reality that Don Quixote was trying to flee in the first part, the "squire" becomes more susceptible to Don Quixote's world in the second. He for example participates in the fantasy by telling the main character that Dulcinea was transformed into a peasant girl by an evil enchanter. In this part of the work, until the end of his life, Don Quixote's main goal becomes undoing the enchantment (Auerbach 102). In the second part of the novel Don Quixote himself becomes the tragic victim of his own self-deception. His fantasy life makes him prone to abuse by persons such as the Duke and Duchess he meets during this stage of the journey. They for example make him believe that the cure for Dulcinea's predicament lies in Sancho whipping himself 3,300 times. Other fantasies endorsed by the Duke and Duchess include adventures such as slaying a giant and restoring a princess and her lover who were turned into metal figurines. It is also here that Sancho receives his promised governorship of a fictitious isle. An onslaught arranged by the Duke and Duchess however result in Sancho being wounded, after which he decides to give up his governorship in favor of happiness and peace as a laborer.
In the end, Don Quixote's ideals and fantasies destroy him. Before dying of fever, he forswears all chivalric codes. At his death he appears to briefly reconnect with reality; long enough at least to draw up a will:
Don Quixote's last day came, after he had made those preparations for death, which good Christians ought to do; and by many fresh and weighty arguments, showed his abhorrence of books of knight-errantry." (Cervantes 934)
Don Quixote's willing exile from reality can be paralleled with the fiction created by Cervantes. It is indeed through reading books that Don Quixote begins his journey into a world of fantasy. Cervantes tells his story as if it is part of history, and claims to have translated it from a manuscript by Cide Hamete Benengeli. In this way the narrator enters his own story to become part of the fantasy. Like Don Quixote's daydreams, this is a willing immersion, where the characters themselves are allowed to modify and comment on the story as it is told.
When Don Quixote's nature as daydreamer rather than madman is accepted, the story becomes all the more tragic. The main character chooses fantasy in order to escape what he finds unacceptable in reality. This ironically means his demise at the end. The reader might then read the novel as both a personal and political warning. Personally, the fact that Don Quixote was intelligent makes his tragedy all the more poignant (Auden 81). Indeed, this poignancy is intensified at the end of the novel with the main character's death, and those mourning him. The warning lies in the fact that the rational and the intelligent are no less susceptible to justifiable foolishness than the less intelligent or less enlightened. Politically, the novel warns against an over-idealization of political and philosophical systems of the past. Refusing to adjust to the reality of the world tends to destroy rather than uplift.
Such a reading relates to the context from which Cervantes wrote the novel. The world in which he lived and worked was in turmoil. Value systems were replaced rapidly, and many during this time found the adjustment difficult. This turmoil is described within the character of Don Quixote. He is unable to adjust to a value system that to him is a degradation of morals when compared to the chivalric code. The problem is that his attempt to force those around him to understand this results in misunderstanding and disaster for both himself and Sancho, the mediator. In the same way Cervantes is the mediator between the story and the reader. Cervantes enters and exits his fantasy world at will in order to make it accessible for the reader. With this he demonstrates that it is wiser to enter the fantasy world while one is aware that it is fantasy, rather than entering it to the point of no return.
Furthermore it has been suggested that Don Quixote's daydreaming stems from…