The Deadly Idealism of the Hero in Cervantes’s Don Quixote

This paper was written for Professor Krienke’s ENGL 4378 class at Sam Houston State University on December 3, 2013.

The Deadly Idealism of the Hero in Cervantes’s Don Quixote

            Noted as being the first classical model of the modern romance novel, Don Quixote (also referred to as The Man of La Mancha) is Miguel de Cervantes’s crowning achievement. Published in 1605 (Part One) and then again in 1615 (Part Two), Don Quixote is considered to be the most influential work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age. It is also regarded as one of the most important pieces of work from the Spanish literary canon. According a 2002 World Library list, Don Quixote is one of the world’s 100 best books ever written. Sources for the novel include Amadis de Gaula (a knight-errantry story published in 1508 by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo), Joanot Martorell’s Tirant lo Blanch (1490, described in Chapter VI of Don Quixote as “the best book in the world”), the Italian poem Orlando furioso (mentioned by Quixote when he has to take the magical helmet of Mambrino, an episode from Canto I of Orlando), and also Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (uncertain publication date, presumably somewhere in the range of 158-180 AD) which is also known as the The Metamorphoses. Along with his experiences as a galley slave in Algiers, other influences for Cervantes include examples within Italian and Spanish folklore. As a result of this work, Cervantes coined two popular phrases: “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” (por la muestra se conoce el paño), which is more commonly known as “the proof is in the pudding”, and “who walks much and reads much, knows much and sees much” (quien anda mucho y lee mucho, sabe mucho y ve mucho).

The novel can be seen as a comic satire on chivalric romance. Though novels of this type were quite popular during the time of Cervantes (1547-1616), the genre was starting to become an object of ridicule for some literary critics. Through this novel, Cervantes was able to illuminate various aspects of human nature. His novel’s hero being a raving madman, much less a main character, was a topic of much debate at the time. However, this choice had purpose; it was apparently more of “the impression of ill-being or insanity, rather than a finding of dementia or psychosis in clinical terms, that defined the madman for Cervantes and his contemporaries.” (Boruchoff 2) Hence, his madman defied the typical interpretation and allowed Cervantes the flexibility to pursue Don Quixote as a human character, rather than a victim of his psychosis. This pursuit was not only one regarding human nature, but also a burlesque approach to criticism of the romance genre.

Don Quixote is not only a unique hero, but also one that people are able to relate to; he is a representation of everyone who has ever defied the rules of conformity – the status quo – and has been an object of scorn and ridicule due to their actions and beliefs. Don Quixote is unable to “flee the society that refused him, nor participate as an equal in its activities. His precarious circumstance at the margin is inherent in the duality of his image, making his condition as a pariah one with the scorn to which he is therefore subject. In this way, the study of madness illuminates the status of all those who could not or did not conform to the expectations of an ethos grounded in a collective concept of human relations.” (Boruchoff 2) In this way, then, the hero becomes a kind of everyman in that he represents the underrepresented pieces of society – the ones who were simply regarded as insane or subversive.

Through this novel, Cervantes was also able to discuss and point out several aspects of human nature. He was an author that felt he was too severely condemned by his critics. The first part of Don Quixote, since it was published in individual sections, had several mistakes throughout the text. Cervantes himself illuminated these errors in the preface to part two, but did not choose to correct them for the aforementioned reason. Cervantes enjoyed painting an accurate picture of human nature and did so successfully in this work. Don Quixote is a great example of the defiance of human normality; the hero functions as a representative of those who are underrepresented, otherwise known as subversives. He is a testament to the choice of choosing one’s own reality and one’s own system of morality – no matter how insane or idealistic it may be.

Set in central Spain, the hero of Cervantes’s novel is an eccentric middle-aged man from a region known as La Mancha. He squanders his fortune and neglects “even the management of his domestic affairs.” (Cervantes 1991) Over time, he becomes extremely obsessed with romance novels and the chivalric morality presented within their pages. During his times of leisure, he gives “himself up with so much delight and gusto to reading books of chivalry” that it begins to take over his life. He replaces his reality with that of the books he has read and come to love because he cannot resist their allure; “so true did all this phantasmagoria from books appear to him that in his mind he accounted no history in the world more authentic… he was better pleased” with the text in his romance novels than the true nature of reality (Cervantes 1992). This unhealthy obsession bleeds into his reality and begins to infiltrate his daily life. “Having lost his wits completely,” he decides to become a knight-errant and ride off in search of adventure in order to win everlasting glory and honor for himself. His decision to take up his lance and sword to defend the helpless and destroy the wicked worries his family. They understand that his desires are simply fueled by his literary obsession and increasing age. However, he is extremely “excited by these agreeable delusions” and hurries to put his plan into practice (Cervantes 1992). Though they are truly delusions, Quixote is excited about them nonetheless. Through this journey, he becomes the “embodiment of the ideal (man’s eternal quest for the unknown, his longing for infinity), the ethical life the romantic life, the life of the imagination, poetry, heroism, or the rights of the individual.” (Mandel 154) His madness is only a defiance of convention and conformity rather than a true removal from sanity.

He ends up finding a ragamuffin horse and naming it Rozinante, which in his opinion is a “lofty, sonorous, and significant” name (Cervantes 1993). The irony in this is that rozin or rocin literally means an ordinary horse. Here lies the first hints of satire in Cervantes’s novel. What Quixote seems to think is grand and honorable is truly just ordinary; he is not grounded in reality and idealizing everything he encounters. He does this “to his satisfaction” – not for anyone else but himself (Cervantes 1993). It can be concluded, then, that Quixote operates on a strictly personal desire. It is not so much selfish but rather a longing within himself that he, until this moment, has been unable to quell.

In order to emulate the knights-errant from his favorite romance novels, Quixote ends up adding on to his name in order to achieve this end result: “Don Quixote of La Mancha.” (Cervantes 1993) He then decides that the last part of the equation requires a lady to which he must devote his love and his victories. He chooses a peasant girl who works on a farm that he used to have a crush on named Aldonza Lorenzo. Quixote, however, resolves to call her by another name – one that would “approach that of a princess or a lady of quality” – and so he decides to rename her Dulcinea del Toboso (Cervantes 1994). Quixote imagines a scene in which he defeats a brutal giant, resulting in his foe being sent as a prize to Dulcinea. When the giant goes to meet her, “he may kneel before her and humbly say: ‘Madam, I am the giant Caraculiambro, Lord of the Island of Malindrania, whom the never-adequately-praised Don Quixote of La Mancha has overcome in single combat. He has commanded me to present myself before you so that your highness may dispose of me as you wish.’” (Cervantes 1993) Yet again, here Cervantes is portraying the idealism inherent in Don Quixote’s new lifestyle. He makes a farm-girl into a princess and even adds on a hypothetical story about slaying a mythical creature. He attempts to make his dreams reality. This urge for substitution is a universal one; “for the structures of the world to match the structures of the mind”. However, the world often ends up disappointing us “and we form ideals in the pain of the mismatch.” (Phillips 373) This mismatch is a driving force within the novel. Quixote’s life is not good enough for him and so his imagination takes over.

Chapter two shows Quixote going off on his very first adventure as a knight-errant. Apparently the details for this chapter, according to Cervantes, were found in La Mancha’s archives. Prior to setting out on the road, Quixote’s intentions are stated, and they are truly good: “He was spurred on by the conviction that the world needed his immediate presence; so many were the grievances he intended to rectify, the wrongs he resolved to set right, the harms he meant to redress, the abuses he would reform, and the debts he would discharge.” (Cervantes 1994) Quixote, then, desires this adventure in order to enforce his morality upon the world. In short, he wants to right the wrongs in his society. His pure intentions, however, are almost halted by a staggering realization: he has not yet been dubbed a knight, and “in accordance with the laws of chivalry, he neither could nor ought to enter the lists against any knight.” (Cervantes 1994) His madness prevails, though, and he ends up resolving that he will dubbed a knight by the first person he meets on his adventure. This decision, again, proves his commitment to his romantic idealism. Though reality would bar him from true knighthood, his delusions offer him a way out. His life becomes a “standing resistance to the ordinary” (Mandel 154). His first stop is at an inn. He eats dinner there and decides to rest as well. During his stay, he mistakes the innkeeper for the keeper of castle. He also ends up mistaking two prostitutes for princesses. In a comic scene, Quixote ends up reciting poetry to the two ladies, who laugh at his error but play along anyway. The prostitutes consequently remove his armor and feed him dinner at the inn. Quixote refuses to remove his helmet (only because it is stuck on his head) but he still enjoys this experience because he believes that he is in “a famous castle” where two princesses are entertaining him (Cervantes 1998). Yet again, this is an example of the hero’s idealism – he makes something seemingly ordinary into something absolutely extraordinary. Though it can be attributed to his madness, he nonetheless practices idealism in these experiences he mistakes for great adventures.

At this moment, Don Quixote realizes that he has still not been knighted and so begs the innkeeper to do him the honor. Though the innkeeper is bewildered by his request, he eventually consents “so that he might have some sport that night” (Cervantes 1998). Much like the prostitutes mistaken for princesses, the innkeeper humors Quixote – not out of sympathy but simply out of amusement. They see the folly in his delusions, but do not wish to shatter his illusions out of cruelty. The innkeeper also sees this as an excuse to take advantage of Don Quixote and attempts to gain some money from him, but he has none. Disappointed, the innkeeper instructs Don Quixote to carry money with him at all times.

Throughout the rest of Part One, Quixote continues on his path to glory, though not always in such an honorable manner; he often injures the people around him (like those he harms at the inn’s well) adding a squire to his quest whose name is Sancho Panza. His attempts to right wrongs (like that of the young boy being whipped by the farmer) seem to be fruitless; he causes more trouble than he remedies. Though the boy even tells Quixote that his master is not a knight, our hero chooses to ignore his statement, saying, “He will not [hurt you]. I have only to command and he will respect me and do my behest. So I shall let him go free and guarantee payment to you, provided he swears by the order of knighthood that he has received.” (Cervantes 2003) As Quixote rides away feeling satisfied, the boy is whipped even more severely. This moment is another example of people taking advantage of his delusional state.

In his travels, he ends up in combat – these are not only physical battles, but also battles with reality. When beaten down by those who represent realism, he fights back with his delusions and loses (seen when the merchants break his lance).

On his second expedition, Don Quixote converts into more of a bandit than a rescuer. He steals and harms justifiably angry citizens who are baffled with his ridiculous behavior. He perceives these citizens (also representative of realism) as opposing threats to his knighthood or to the world overall. As a representation of the ideal, Don Quixote becomes “infinite… absurd” as a consequence of his delusional desires (Phillips 374). His illusions, as time progresses, become increasingly unable to appease him and his morality or at least his desires for an improved morality. This is mostly due to the fact that the people involved in his life play tricks on him; they take advantage of his madness. For example, Don Quixote meets a Duke and Duchess who make a servant dress up as Merlin. They then proceed to tell Don Quixote that Dulcinea’s enchantment—which they know to be a ruse—can be undone only if Sancho whips himself 3,300 times on his naked buttocks. These absurd undertakings continuously occur throughout the work. Unknowing of these conspiracies, Don Quixote becomes more and more frustrated, unable to realize the reality of the situation – because he lives only in his illusions. This is also alluded to when a young woman falls in love with the hero in the home of the Duchess. Don Quixote refuses to relinquish his love for Dulcinea, and so the love affair is never consummated. The court is highly amused by the fact that Quixote would rather be fueled by his delusions rather than enter a real relationship with a beautiful woman. Yet again, he is unable to cope with the pressures of reality and this is why he must continue to live in his illusions.

By the end of the novel, Quixote is desperately clinging to what is left of his idealism – even after such an absurd act as venturing to call windmills his soon-to-be-attacked enemies. As time progresses, Don Quixote begins to see the error of his ways and renounces, with his dying breath, his romantic idealist delusions that formerly invigorated him. He is no longer “sweeping himself off his own feet” (Mandel 157). In the end, Quixote is beaten, exhausted, and tattered. He ends up disavowing all the chivalric so-called truths he resolved to follow so fervently in the beginning of the novel and dies from a fever. With his death, knights-errant become extinct; this is also a representation of the death of the idea of chivalry.

Brian Phillips describes this death (the death of the idealism Don Quixote so fervently swore to uphold and protect) quite successfully:

“I had stepped into a bookstore, I was paging through Don Quixote, when I noticed that I could see myself in the window next to me. I could see the Times Square signs superimposed in my image, but the light on the glass was such that I could not see the crowd outside. And it seemed to me that if the crowd faded away, if I were left alone, or if anyone were, beneath these hulking forms, then the absurdity I had found comic a moment ago would suddenly seem almost frightening. For it was clear that one would never be able to escape them. Wherever one went, they were absolute; they compelled devotion; they were better than real life. And yet there was no sense in them. All one’s thoughts would be of a woman brushing her teeth. The stadium of beauty was a stadium of monsters. The ideal became insane, and it was terrible.” (Phillips 374)

Hence, Quixote’s mad idealism was more than just a romantic view of life – it deteriorated life. With the story of Don Quixote being drawn to a close, the possibility of the romance genre being taken seriously has also met its demise. In this, Cervantes is able to accomplish his goal of satirizing the genre and its most infamous characteristics. Don Quixote’s death is representative of the death of romantic idealism as well as his relinquishment of it – it might be beautiful, but it is deadly indeed.


Boruchoff, David A. “On the Place of Madness, Deviance, and Eccentricity in Don Quijote.” Hispanic Review 70.1 (2002): 1-23. JSTOR. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.

Discusses the concept of madness present in the book ‘Don Quijote de la Mancha.’ Examination on the discourse, topography, and institutions with which it found expression in traditional culture; System of value present in the equation of difference with heterodoxy and schism in Christian theology; Description on the words and actions of the character Don Quixote.

Mandel, Oscar. “The Function of the Norm in ‘Don Quixote’” Modern Philology 55.3 (1958): 154-63. JSTOR. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.

Discusses Cervantes’s satire of the romance genre. Tackles the perspective of “the norm” in this piece of literature. Relates the protagonist/hero as a sort of Christ character – true idealism. His life is truly a great example of resistance against the norm in order to pursue romantic idealism. Mandel notes that Quixote transitions from being viewed as a “buffoon” to being eventually viewed as a “martyr.” He is more lovable than his normal counterparts. Part Two shows Don Quixote as much less quixotic as the one in Part One; he formerly attacked the sane people, and in Part Two, they attack him instead. His sanity increases over time.

Phillips, Brian. “The First-Person Don Quixote.” The Hudson Review 58.3 (2005): 372-98. JSTOR. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.

This essay presents the opinion of the author on the book “Don Quixote,” by Miguel de Cervantes. The author says that this book has both comedy and tragedy. According to the author, Don Quixote is a book about the human experience of the aesthetic image. The main character is a shining example of romantic idealism. The first part of Don Quixote appears in Spain in 1605. He says that he supposes that any profound thing becomes more interesting the more it inspires disagreement, but Don Quixote goes beyond all bounds. The author also discusses that why Don Quixote is narrated in the third person rather than in the first.

Wilkie, Brian, James Hurt, and Cervantes. Don Quixote. 2001. Literature of the Western World. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 1990-2030. Print.