Don Quixote is an often misunderstood book. While many modern readers see it as a goofy story about a madman who thinks he is a knight, in reality the book goes so much deeper than this. In the book, Don Quixote is a older gentleman of the lower middle class in Spain who goes mad after reading extensively in a popular genre of the day: books of chivalry. Today most of these books have been relegated to obscurity, which makes it difficult for the modern reader to understand some of the humor Cervantes masterfully wove into the story.
“Books of chivalry” in Cervantes’ day were fantastical stories full of flowery, melodramatic writing that tended to celebrate folk tales and fiction stories about knights and their ladies. In Don Quixote, Cervantes exaggerated this extravagant language to show its absurdity. While on his first journey, Don Quixote composed a letter to his courtly love, Dulcinea, which included the befuddling phrase, “The ability to reason the un-reason which has afflicted by reason saps my ability to reason, so that I complain with good reason of your infinite loveliness.” As the narrator, Cervantes then noted that it was a sentence which “even Aristotle couldn’t have comprehended if he’d come back to life just for that purpose.”
Don Quixote was a scathing social commentary of its day, similar to The Simpsons in the 1990’s or Deadpool more recently. As a literary work, it never took itself seriously or allowed itself to delve too deeply into an elusive “meaning of life.” Instead, Cervantes celebrated the absurdity and madness of life through the eyes of the buffoonish Don Quixote, who he seemed to believe might be the most clear-sighted of all the characters in his book: “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”
Almost all of the characters in Don Quixote were readers, including the commoners who might not have been able to read if the book were realistically set. In one scene, the curate, the innkeeper, and the barber, who were friends of Don Quixote, went through his library and burned the books they considered most harmful to his mind. As they did this, they discussed the merits and potential dangers of each one on their friend’s already distressed mental state, showing that they had read most of them. However, these characters, although supposedly sane, were portrayed by Cervantes as dense, not fully grasping what each of the books was really about.
Another reading character was that of Cardenio, the hopeless romantic who lived on berries in the mountains and suffered from lapses of insanity because of the loss of his true love. If Don Quixote served as social commentary for the ideas of the time, Cardenio represented the ideal hero in most of the “books of chivalry” of the time. When the reader was first introduced to Cardenio, he had been living in the mountains for some time, barely able to live in his state of emotional distress. With the help of Don Quixote and his loyal squire Sancho Panza, Cardenio was eventually reunited with the woman of his affection, and all ended happily. It was a story within the greater story, satirizing the popular literature of Cervantes’ time period and demonstrating how ridiculous it was.
Don Quixote remains some of the most biting social satire of all time, even hundreds of years after it was written. It comments on many trends of the time that modern readers are unfamiliar with, particularly the popular “books of chivalry.” In its pages, Cervantes seems to show his readers how absurd life really is, and that only by accepting life’s pettiness can we ever be truly happy.