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.