Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Don Quixote, which is composed of three different sections, is a rich exploration of the possibilities of narration. The first of these sections, comprising the chapter covering Don Quixote’s first expedition, functions chiefly as a parody of contemporary romance tales. The second section, comprising the rest of the First Part, is written under the guise of a history, plodding along in historical fashion and breaking up chapters episodically, carefully documenting every day’s events. The third section, which covers the Second Part of the novel, is different since it is written as a more traditional novel, organized by emotional and thematic content and filled with character development. Cervantes alone reports the story in the first section, using a straightforward narrative style. In the second section, Cervantes informs us that he is translating the manuscript of Cide Hamete Benengeli and often interrupts the narration to mention Benengeli and the internal inconsistencies in Benengeli’s manuscript. Here, Cervantes uses Benengeli primarily to reinforce his claim that the story is a true history.
In the third section, however, Cervantes enters the novel as a character—as a composite of Benengeli and Cervantes the author. The characters themselves, aware of the books that have been written about them, try to alter the content of subsequent editions. This complicated and self-referential narrative structure leaves us somewhat disoriented, unable to tell which plotlines are internal to the story and which are factual. This disorientation engrosses us directly in the story and emphasizes the question of sanity that arises throughout the novel. If someone as mad as Don Quixote can write his own story, we wonder what would prevent us from doing the same. Cervantes gives us many reasons to doubt him in the second section. In the third section, however, when we are aware of another allegedly false version of the novel and a second Don Quixote, we lose all our footing and have no choice but to abandon ourselves to the story and trust Cervantes. However, having already given us reasons to distrust him, Cervantes forces us to question fundamental principles of narration, just as Quixote forces his contemporaries to question their lifestyles and principles. In this way, the form of the novel mirrors its function, creating a universe in which Cervantes entertains and instructs us, manipulating our preconceptions to force us to examine them more closely.
Don Quixote tries to be a flesh-and-blood example of a knight-errant in an attempt to force his contemporaries to face their own failure to maintain the old system of morality, the chivalric code. This conflict between the old and the new reaches an absolute impasse: no one understands Don Quixote, and he understands no one. Only the simple-minded Sancho, with both self-motivated desires and a basic understanding of morality, can mediate between Don Quixote and the rest of the world. Sancho often subscribes to the morals of his day but then surprises us by demonstrating a belief in the anachronistic morals of chivalry as well.
In the First Part of the novel, we see the impasse between Don Quixote and those around him. Don Quixote cannot, for instance, identify with the priest’s rational perspective and objectives, and Don Quixote’s belief in enchantment appears ridiculous to the priest. Toward the end of the Second Part, however, Cervantes compromises between these two seemingly incompatible systems of morality, allowing Don Quixote’s imaginary world and the commonplace world of the Duke and the Duchess to infiltrate each other. As the two worlds begin to mix, we start to see the advantages and disadvantages of each. Sancho ultimately prevails, subscribing to his timeless aphorisms and ascetic discipline on the one hand and using his rational abilities to adapt to the present on the other.
Distinguishing between a person’s class and a person’s worth was a fairly radical idea in Cervantes’s time. In Don Quixote, Cervantes attacks the conventional notion that aristocrats are automatically respectable and noble. The contrast between the Duke and Duchess’s thoughtless malice and Sancho’s anxiety-ridden compassion highlights this problem of class. Despite his low social status, the peasant Sancho is wise and thoughtful. Likewise, the lowly goatherds and shepherds often appear as philosophers. In contrast, the cosmopolitan or aristocratic characters like the Duke and Duchess are often frivolous and unkind. Cervantes’s emphasis on these disparities between class and worth is a primary reason that Don Quixote was such a revolutionary work in its time.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Some characters in Don Quixote show a deep concern for their personal honor and some do not. Cervantes implies that either option can lead to good or disastrous results. Anselmo, for example, is so overly protective of his wife’s honor that he distrusts her fidelity, which ultimately results in her adultery and his death. Likewise, Don Quixote’s obsession with his honor leads him to do battle with parties who never mean him offense or harm. On the other hand, Dorothea’s concern for her personal honor leads her to pursue Ferdinand, with happy results for both of them. In these examples, we see that characters who are primarily concerned with socially prescribed codes of honor, such as Anselmo and Don Quixote, meet with difficulty, while those who set out merely to protect their own personal honor, such as Dorothea, meet with success.
Other characters, especially those who exploit Don Quixote’s madness for their own entertainment, seem to care very little about their personal honor. The Duke and Duchess show that one’s true personal honor has nothing to do with the honor typically associated with one’s social position. Fascination with such public conceptions of honor can be taken to an extreme, dominating one’s life and leading to ruin. Sancho initially exhibits such a fascination, confusing honor with social status, but he eventually comes to the realization that excessive ambition only creates trouble. In this sense, Cervantes implies that personal honor can be a powerful and positive motivating force while socially prescribed notions of honor, which are often hollow and false, can be destructive if adhered to obsessively.
Though many people in Don Quixote’s world seem to have given up on romantic love, Don Quixote and a few other characters hold dear this ideal. Don Louis’s love for Clara, Camacho’s wedding, and the tale of the captive and Zoraida, for instance, are all situations in which romantic love rises above all else. Even in the case of Sancho and Teresa, romantic love prevails as a significant part of matrimonial commitment, which we see in Teresa’s desire to honor her husband at court. Ironically, Don Quixote’s own devotion to Dulcinea mocks romantic love, pushing it to the extreme as he idolizes a woman he has never even seen.
Don Quixote contains several discussions about the relative merits of different types of literature, including fiction and historical literature. Most of the characters, including the priest and the canon of Toledo, ultimately maintain that literature should tell the truth. Several even propose that the government should practice censorship to prevent the evil falsehoods of certain books from corrupting innocent minds like Don Quixote’s. However, we see that even the true histories in the novel end up disclosing falsehoods. Cervantes declares that Don Quixote itself is not fiction but a translation of a historical account. The fact that we know that this claim of Cervantes’s is false—since the work is fictional—makes Cervantes’s symbolism clear: no matter how truthful a writer’s intentions may be, he or she can never tell the whole truth. Despite these inherent flaws, however, literature remains a powerful force in the novel, guiding the lives of many characters, especially Don Quixote. Notions of authorship and storytelling preoccupy the characters throughout the novel, since many of them consider the idea of writing their own histories as their own narrators.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The books and manuscripts that appear everywhere in Don Quixote symbolize the importance and influence of fiction and literature in everyday life. The books instruct and inform the ignorant and provide an imaginative outlet for characters with otherwise dull lives.
Horses symbolize movement and status in the novel and often denote a character’s worth or class. The pilgrims outside Barcelona, for instance, walk to the city. The noblemen ride in carriages, and the robbers and Don Quixote ride on horseback. In Don Quixote’s mind, at least, the appearance of horses on the horizon symbolizes the coming of a new adventure. Indeed, Rocinante and Dapple play an important role in the journeys of Don Quixote and Sancho; they are not only means of transport and symbols of status but also companions.
The inns that appear throughout the novel are meeting places for people of all classes. They are the only locations in the novel where ordinarily segregated individuals speak and exchange stories. Inns symbolize rest and food but also corruption and greed, since many innkeepers in the novel are devious. Sancho often longs to stay at an inn rather than follow Don Quixote’s chivalric desire to sleep under the stars. These opposing preferences show Sancho’s connection with reality and society and his instinctive desire for comfort, in contrast to Don Quixote’s alienation from society and its norms. Even when he does stay at inns, Don Quixote is noticeably alienated from the major events that take place there, such as the reunification of the four lovers in the First Part.