The Don Quijote Honors College takes inspiration from its namesake, the Castilian classic Don Quijote de La Mancha. The basic story is famous- In the hot, dusty plains of 17th century Spain (think of a landscape remarkably similar to southwest Oklahoma), a gentleman whose obsession with novels of knight errantry results in him losing his mind—“until with virtually no sleep and so much reading he dried out his brain and lost his sanity,” a condition we can all commiserate with as finals week looms. His mind is filled with scenes of chivalry, monsters, and damsels-in-distress; he dubs himself a wandering knight, mounts his old nag of a horse, invents a fictitious princess to fall in love with, and sallies forth in search of adventure with his squire, Sancho Panza. In the process, the purity of Quijote’s ideals clashes rudely with the reality of an imperial Spain at the height of its power. This is the struggle that the Honors College hopes to epitomize with the Don Quijote project—the idealist (and perhaps somewhat crazy) attempt to gain a true intellectual foundation, a true general education, in an age where universities are increasingly outdated yet paradoxically seem to remain vital to one’s success. On the surface the novel is a mere satire of the contemporary literature, yet it encompasses much more. Besides being the philosophical roots of the Honors College initiative, Don Quijote is an incredibly rich work whose main character is challenged by his books to make meaning in his life by combating injustice. He inspires admiration, pity, and humor. We can therefore both identify with him and reflect on the ridiculousness of his actions and the cruelness with which his world responds.
By satirizing the literature of the time, Cervantes wrote what is widely considered to be the first modern novel. It is also an underhanded critique of the two prevailing power structures of the time: the church and its Inquisition, and the ruling noble class. Scholars have pointed out the irony of Don Quijote’s existence; that a book questioning the very nature of reality would be written under the close dogmatic scrutiny of the Inquisition. Once again, fiction is a tool of protest, used to send the message that freedom and diversity of thought still exist despite intense coercive pressure. Our hero, after all, is using his obsession with chivalric novels to invent the reality that he wants to live in.
Meanwhile, the nobility saw in the works of knight errantry the image of how they preferred to think of themselves: as guardians and defenders of the church, the weak, and the poor. They liked to think of themselves as chivalric. However, their fascination with the fantastical works of knight errantry was a mere veneer that hid stagnation, as the Spanish nobility of the time was the epitome of laziness and idleness. For the most part, they extracted rent from their peasants and passed the remainder of their time in leisure. Thus, Don Quijote, which mocks the contemporary chivalric literature, is a clash between the one man determined to uphold the chivalric ideal and the existing status quo. Spain at that time was a pragmatic world, a burgeoning capitalist economy built on institutional injustice that did not want or need such righteous crusaders. We see the reality with each of Quijote’s misadventures that these chivalric ideals are long since outdated. Quijote is “crazy” for ascribing to such beliefs, as well-intentioned as they may be. This is the inspiration that French revolutionaries of the 19th century saw in the novel, as they fought against exactly the same power systems for a more just and equal society.
For all the nobility of his goals to revive knight errantry, Don Quijote nevertheless gets the holy snot beat out of him. He crashes into windmills, has teeth knocked out by a hail of projectiles, and is repeatedly bludgeoned, beaten, and duped. At this point, it is useful to examine the life of the author, Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes did not live an easy life. After having lost his hand in a famous battle against the Turks, he lived constantly in poverty. Despite the success of the first volume of Don Quijote, most of the profits went to the publishers, and the author died nearly penniless, having written the second volume of Don Quijote a year before his death and ten years after the first volume. The differences between the two parts of the novel reflect the bitterness and disillusionment that Cervantes must have felt. Volume one is lighthearted in its humor, and is fairly straightforward. Don Quijote followed by his faithful squire Sancho Panza get themselves into all kinds of trouble as Quijote tries to prove himself to his fictional lady Dulcinea. Meanwhile, Sancho tries to get the riches he was promised by his master. Volume two is more complex, but also darker as well. One of the main elements of the story is that the success of the first part is reflected in the storyline of the second part. The characters in volume two have read volume one, just as the reader has. Quijote’s fame precedes him, and in fact in various parts of the book he quibbles with Sancho over how he was represented in the preceding works. Because the other characters know of Quijote’s madness, he becomes the butt of all sorts of cruel jokes. They toe the line between funny and sadistic, and Quijote’s reactions are uncharacteristically complex, compared to the first volume.
It is sad to see the other characters take advantage of Quijote this way, because it is precisely Don Quijote’s madness that gives meaning to his life. A member of the idle nobility (a hidalgo: more like a landed gentleman, to be precise), the picture we have of Quijote before he assumes the mantle of knight errantry is that of a bored, ageing bachelor. His life has little purpose or meaning. By immersing himself in novels of knight errantry, he becomes enamored (read: obsessed) with them. Eventually mere fantasy does not suffice, and so a knight errant is born. Becoming a knight errant, despite the various failures he suffers, gives meaning to Don Quijote’s life. Through his madness, Quijote answers the existentialism in his life. Essentially, his attempt at knight errantry is an attempt to state that reality is what one makes of it. In his mind, at least, he really was a knight errant, and that inn really was a castle, and those sheep really were an enemy army. Whether that inspires admiration or pity depends on the reader, as does whether or not Quijote ultimately succeeds in a meaningful way. What is clear is that the ambiguity of what is and is not “reality” in the novel is the basis for its richness of interpretation.
As a final note, it is important to mention the translation. I use the 1995 translation by Burton Raffel, which I can recommend more than any of the other English translations I have seen. The translator’s note before the text shows the seriousness with which Raffel approaches the task. He does an excellent job of making the book extremely readable, without sacrificing the character and wittiness of Cervantes’ writing. The main qualm I have with Cervantes’ original writing is that the main plot constantly stops for various mini-tales. Sometimes these make sense within the plot, such as when a damsel-in-distress laments to our hero how she came to be in her dire situation. Other times, however, the flow of the story is broken up when the characters find a manuscript—often of a parable or the like—and read it to one another at an inn. These seem like filler and do not add much to the story, and more than anything distract the reader from the main plot. Thankfully, the quality of the actual storyline makes up for these infrequent interludes.
What makes the novel particularly relevant to the Honors College is that, at its heart, Don Quijote is a book about books. Don Quijote makes fun of books yet at the same time professes the power they have to inspire us. And if we look at the discourse it has inspired, Don Quijote is truly a masterpiece. I have purposefully chosen to focus on Quijote’s character, but just as much can be written about the squire Sancho Panza and the fictitious lover Dulcinea. Quijote sallied forth from his estate, inspired to the point of madness by his beloved books to right wrongs. While his effectiveness is unclear, his character issues a resounding challenge to us all to grapple with the reality of the virtues and ideals with we hold dear.