How does Don Quixote’s perception of reality affect other characters’ perceptions of the world? Does his disregard for social convention change the rules of conduct for the other characters?
In many ways, Don Quixote is a novel about how Don Quixote perceives the world and about how other characters perceive Don Quixote. His tendency to transform everyday people and objects into more dramatic, epic, and fantastic versions of themselves forces those around him to choose between adapting to his imaginary world or opposing it. Some, such as the barber and the priest, initially try to coax Don Qui-xote back into a more conventional view of the world and away from his unconventional life as a knight-errant. To get Don Quixote to communicate, however, they must play along with his world, pretending to believe in his wild fantasies. By the end of the novel, these characters achieve a more harmonious relationship with Don Quixote’s fantasy world, recognizing its value even if they do not believe it is literally true.
Those who oppose Don Quixote—namely, Sampson Carrasco and the Duke and Duchess—find their lives disrupted by Don Quixote’s perceptions of the world. Sampson temporarily becomes a knight to seek vengeance on Don Quixote, sacrificing his own perceptions of the world because he is obsessed with altering Don Quixote’s world. The Duke and Duchess find that the people and events around them actually match Don Quixote’s vision much more closely than they expected, as adventures such as Sancho’s governorship and the adventure of Doña Rodriguez fit well into Don Quixote’s world and not so well into their own.
What attitude does the novel take toward social class? How is social class a factor in relationships between characters?
The differences between social classes operate on many levels throughout Don Quixote. The novel emphasizes Sancho’s peasant status, the Duke and Duchess’s aristocratic status, and Don Quixote’s own genteel upbringing. But the novel does not mock any one class more than the others: Sancho’s peasant common sense makes noblemen appear foolish, but his ignorance and lack of education make him appear foolish just as often. Furthermore, Don Quixote almost invariably sees beyond the limiting boundaries of social class to the inner worth of the people he meets. His good nature typically leads him to imagine that people are of higher social classes than they actually are—prostitutes become ladies, innkeepers become lords, and country girls become princesses.
Social class in the novel often appears as an impediment to what a character truly wants. Most of the pairs of lovers in the novel, for instance, must overcome difficulties of class difference to achieve their love. Only through disguises, tricks, and acts of imagination can characters overcome their social circumstances and act according to their true values.
Like Hamlet’s madness, Don Quixote’s insanity is the subject of much controversy among literary critics. Is Don Quixote really insane, or is his behavior a conscious choice? What might account for the change in his behavior over the course of the novel?
Early in the novel, Don Quixote seems completely insane, failing to recognize people and objects, wantonly attacking strangers, and waking up in hallucinatory fits. As the novel progresses, however, this madness begins to seem more a matter of Don Quixote’s own choosing. He occasionally implies to his friends that he knows more than they think he does. Moreover, he often tries to fit his madness into the forms of behavior prescribed by books of chivalry, as when he meticulously plans out his penance in the Sierra Morena. In the Second Part, whenever Don Quixote feels melancholy or dissatisfied with his life as a knight-errant, his behavior becomes much more sane, and he fully controls his own actions. Near the end of the novel, he spends an entire chapter describing to Sancho what their shepherd life will be like—essentially planning out a new form of madness—and seems to be completely sane. When he finally dies, it is as his real self, Alonso Quixano.
There are several possible interpretations for what appears to be Don Quixote’s gradual recovery of sanity over the course of the novel. The simplest explanation may be that Don Quixote is insane in the beginning and his condition slowly improves. Second, it could be that, in his first passionate burst of commitment to knight-errantry in the First Part, he acts more rashly than he needs to and eventually learns to regulate his eccentric behavior. Alternatively, it could be that Don Quixote is consistently sane from the beginning and that Cervantes only slowly reveals this fact to us, thereby putting us in the same position as Don Quixote’s friends, who become aware of his sanity only by degrees. Or it could be that Cervantes began his novel intending Don Quixote to be a simple, laughable madman but then decided to add depth to the story by slowly bringing him out of his madness in the Second Part. Finally, it must be remembered that Cervantes never gives us a verdict on Don Quixote’s mental health: despite the evidence, the question is still open to interpretation.