During the era of Miguel de Cervantes, the ideals of chivalry and knighthood were the prominent themes in literature. Romantic tales of valiant knights and love captured the imaginations of medieval readers, and this influence proved still to be strong during the Renaissance. In the fifteenth century, these medieval values clashed with the new emphasis on reason. The influence of both sets of values can be seen in the Miguel de Cervantes’s novel, Don Quixote. In this work, Cervantes illustrates the idealistic character of Don Quixote, who is possesed by chivalric ideas of heroism and valor. Don Quixote sets out to reform the world along with his sensible
companion Sancho Panca. After an ill-starred career as a knight-errant, Don Quixote renounces his ideals and is restored to excessive sensibility. At the same time, Sancho Panca champions the very ideas that Don Quixote comes to reject. Through his use of names and through the naive ideals of Don Quixote and his subsequent exchange of beliefs with Sancho Panca, Cervantes reveals the need for a proper balance between the extremes of idealism and rationalism.
The subject of names is a prevalent one in Cervantes’s work. Cervantes begins the work with the peculiar declaration, “In a certain village in La Mancha, the name of which I do not choose to remember,” Don Quixote makes his residence. The anonymity of the village parallels Cervantes’s ambiguity when discussing Don Quixote’s real name. He explains that he “is said to have gone by the name of Quijada, or Quesada, although it is most likely that he was called Quijada.” Cervantes’s deliberate manner of “forgetting” and his vagueness in relating Don Quixote’s real name contrasts sharply with Don Quixote’s own naming of things. In taking on his new role as knight-errant, he assumes the name Don Quixote de la Mancha, which, according to him “reveals his lineage and honors his fortunate country.” In fact, “Quixote” signifies the armor that a knight wears to protect his thigh. In choosing this inglorious name, the title character shows his distorted sense of what is admirable.
Don Quixote also selects the “satisfactory name, Rosinante, for his horse,” connoting a hack or nag. Furthermore, when he selects a “healthy, buxom, country wench” to fall in love with, he gives her the name Dulcinea del Toboso, which he regards as “romantic, musical, and expressive, like the names he had chosen for himself and his horse.” With such bizarre names that do not suit their subjects, Don Quixote’s skewed perspective on life is shown. While Cervantes goes to one extreme and decides to forget the name of a town, Don Quixote intentionally picks out ridiculous names for himself, his horse, and his lady. With the absurdity of these extremes, Cervantes asserts the necessity of finding the middle ground.
With the name of Quixote, the title character is presented as a comical, ludicrous figure. Cervantes refers to him often as the “poor gentleman” who has “lost his senses” and who has the “brain of a madman.” During his time as a knight-errant, Don Quixote travels far and wide “seeking adventures” and “righting wrongs.” In his mission to save the world, Don Quixote is inspired by the books he read of knights, chivalry, and honor. Everything he does is modeled on these romantic stories, into which Don Quixote immerses himself completely. He explains to Sancho Panca that “knights-errant are not permitted to complain of any wound they receive.” But he permits his squire to complain, as he “had not read anything to the contrary in his books of knight-errantry.” Another instance of Don Quixote’s reliance on the model of his books occurs when “stays awake thinking of his Lady Dulcinea” because he “read about those knights-errant who passed many sleepless nights in woods and deserts remembering their ladies.”
Thus, Don Quixote shapes his whole life around the fictional accounts of imaginary figures and looses control of his own life. During his adventurous journey, his “squire,” Sancho Panca, accompanies this would-be knight. This devoted servant is much more temporal than his master, and Sancho revels in such pleasures as plentiful food and a luxurious slumber. Sancho Panca shows his practicality when he warns Don Quixote of the foolishness of some of his missions. When Don Quixote plans to attack the perceived giants in “fierce and unequal combat,” Sancho implores him to “see correctly” that the “giants” are merely windmills. In addition to bestowing rational advice on his master, Sancho puts his trust in God, saying at various points, “God’s will be done,” and “Lord have mercy upon us.” While Don Quixote puts his faith in his tales of chivalry, Sancho relies on God for mercy and guidance, and with his rational behavior represents a great contrast to the senselessness of his master.
The traits of master and servant are reversed, however, when Don Quixote is defeated in battle and returns home to renounce all his previously held beliefs. Suffering a severe sickness, Don Quixote is eventually restored to consciousness, and he at once declares that God is merciful and that he is now “cleared of those dark shadows of ignorance that clouded his understanding from incessant reading of those detestable books of chivalry.” This startling reversal in thought causes his friends to think that his “sudden and easy transition from madness to sanity is a certain signal of his approaching death.” Cervantes thus equates sanity with death: at a time when most people begin to lose their minds, Don Quixote is at his most rational. Another drastic transformation occurs in Sancho Panca. Upon seeing his master renounce his beliefs, Sancho entreats him to once again espouse chivalric ideals. Sancho encourages him to “Get up and go walking in the fields” with the hope that “behind some bush they may find Lady Dulcinea.” It is now Sancho who defends the absurd ideas that once deluded Don Quixote. It is unusually easy for both characters to exchange beliefs. Cervantes is therefore expressing the impossibility of remaining faithful to extreme beliefs such as those Don Quixote and Sancho Panca hold at different points in their lives. The logical conclusion, thus, is to find a middle road to which one can hold firm.
The balance between idealism and reality is often difficult to find. The struggle to reach a middle ground is illustrated in Miguel de Cervantes’s novel, Don Quixote. Through the characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panca, Cervantes illustrates the challenges individuals face to balance their lives with a mix of idealistic and rational thought. Cervantes establishes this struggle through the issue of names. In Cervantes’s forgetting the name of the village and in Don Quixote’s deliberately giving absurd names to things, the folly of adopting extreme notions is shown. Cervantes follows with examples of excessive idealism and rationalism. In connecting sanity with death, Cervantes seems to dismiss rational thought as pointless. But his portrayal of Don Quixote’s foolishness in his knightly adventures also illustrates a kind of futility. And in the two characters’ reversals at the end, Cervantes reveals that it is worthless to only adopt a single way of thinking.
The two ends of idealism and pragmatism, however, must both exist in a person’s life. If not for Sancho’s rationalism, Don Quixote’s journey would have been quite difficult. Likewise, without Don Quixote’s fantasies, Sancho’s life would have lacked entertainment. Such a story as Don Quixote’s would not exist if not for the imagination; at the same time, it would be ridiculous to accept this story as truth and not consider it from a realistic point of view. Through this charming, yet sobering, tale, Cervantes illustrates that a proper balance between idealism and practicality must be achieved, and that without both principles, life is fruitless.