The Great Don Quixote

I just finished reading Don Quixote for the first time, and I feel like an idiot. For some reason I had in my mind that DQ would be a chore, so I avoided it. Instead I found it a great novel for the beach. If you’re not in a hurry, it’s extremely entertaining.

It’s also odd, to an extreme. Not quite as odd as Tristram Shandy, but close. Maybe as odd as Catch—22. There’s something of Shakespeare’s buffoons here, something of Fielding’s Tom Jones, and a lot of Dickens’ gargoyles. But DQ rises above all these. It meanders along at its own sedate pace, interjecting stories and authorial comments randomly. There’s very little plot, and innumerable pointless tangents, yet it’s almost always surprising and interesting. We are left with two remarkable achievements: an unforgettable main character, and an indelible friendship.

C.S. Lewis thought novels were a bastardized literature, because they used the trick of suspense to bind readers, rather than beauty of language or depth of thought. Certainly DQ does not sin much in that way. It offers plenty of love stories and violent fights, it is true, but they are presented in such an offhand manner they don’t drive the plot. It’s the character of Don Quixote that captivates: the dreamy reader so captured by romantic tales he actually leaves his books and sets out to live them. He believes in what he has learned from his books more than he believes the evidence of his own eyes. He’s brave, obtuse, wise, loyal and callous. He will cheerfully see his friend Sancho suffer terrible pain in order to fulfill his misguided romantic ideals; but then, he asks nothing of of Sancho that he does not ask of himself.

DQ exists in the foggy boundary between dreaming and waking, between fantasizing and thinking rationally, which is also the boundary between literature and life. DQ plays on how literature distorts our thinking, making us dream irrationally of our own heroism, but at the same time making us more than we otherwise ever could be.

Don Quixote, after all, does absolutely no good on his rambles. He manages only to inflict considerable pain and to have it inflicted on him and Sancho. He rescues no maidens, saves no afflicted people. The prisoners he sets free are quite evidently criminals who should have stayed in chains. In the end, though, Don Quixote’s life is deeply mourned. He has become more famous than the knights-errant in the books he read. And more significantly, he is greatly loved.

Is that how it is when we read? Do stories make us dream like Don Quixote? Perhaps it is more true to say that we are born with dreams, and literature gives us room to play them out. The world is full of Don Quixotes, bashing around blindly and ridiculously attempting to live the heroic life. Foolish we are, but so much more human, so much closer to God’s intent, when we live by dreams.

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2 Responses to “The Great Don Quixote”

  1. ‘the dreamy reader’ « As the Deer Says:

    […] Tim Stafford read Don Quixote for the first time and loved it. It’s the character of Don Quixote that captivates: the dreamy reader so captured by romantic tales he actually leaves his books and sets out to live them. He believes in what he has learned from his books more than he believes the evidence of his own eyes. […]

  2. David Graham Says:

    Your descriptions of Don Quixote are true but, if I may say so, a little heavy handed. They give the impression of a rather cheerless, somber novel when, in fact, there is a lot of humor embedded in Cervantes’ writing of the loony knight errant. It’s been over 20 years since I read the book and I can still recall the smiles and laughter the tale provoked.

    My favorite saying from Don Quixote is, “the middle course of valor lies between the extremes of cowardice and rashness.”

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