Though I started college as an English major, with the intent of honing my writing skills and someday making my living as a writer, I did not finish my undergrad in that major. Instead, I had grown frustrated with my department (not the last time in my entire college career I would do so, see grad school) and decided, as they say in the world of drama, to go off book. In this case, I ended up designing my own major, comprising elements from English, psychology, and speech communications. All to avoid one man. I was successful in this venture and have not regretted the education I left there with. However, it did leave me with some holes in my reading, which I have only recently started to rectify. I recently finished Thoreau’s Walden, which, if you’re a reader of this blog, you were aware that I wrote on it a few times. Yesterday I picked up Don Quixote for the first time. My goal is to have it halfway completed by the end of the day. So, while I take a break from reading, I thought I would go ahead and write up this week’s blog.
Having never read the story before, I wasn’t sure what to expect, though it has become such a part of popular culture that I knew of fighting windmills and that the musical, (which I’ve never seen) Man of La Mancha was based on the story. That’s really it. What I couldn’t have known was that Don Quixote is a slapstick comedy, on par with anything Mel Brooks has ever done. There’re witty asides, toilet humor, pratfalls, and one loyal squire who occasionally makes sport of his coocoo for Cocoa Puffs master. It has it all. I have laughed out loud more times than I care to admit over a story written over three hundred years ago. But, there’s more to the book than that, there are definite serious elements.
For those who haven’t read it, the story begins by telling us that a middle-aged country gentlemen, who spends all his time reading books about knights of yore and that of chivalry, has gone mad with all this reading, and gone off in search of adventure after renaming himself Don Quixote of La Mancha, with the intent to fight for his lady fair (who has no idea she is thus regarded), a comely lass from a nearby village, whom he renames Dulcinea. Upon his adventures, he mistakes inns for castles, windmills for dragons, and sheep for opposing armies. These things are used for comedic effect, which is done quite well. At different times in history, the story has been read in different lights, depending upon the time. At the time I’m reading it, I see the story, though hilarious, also from a different angle. Don Quixote’s madness is seen as something to be made fun of, and the idea that one could go mad from too much reading amuses me and makes sense, as it should to anyone pursuing higher education.
However, seen from a different angle, one could see the loyal knight’s misadventures as a manifestation of schizophrenic behavior, or, given his age, simply dementia. Were the novel written today, our hapless hero may well have been seen as a tragic hero, instead of one to simply laugh and point fingers at. But, reading the novel this way is to fall into what we call in academia, historical bias. Meaning, to read a work written a long time ago through the lenses of current mores and social sensibilities. It is something I and my fellow grad school classmates received more than one lecture against.
Also, this novel did something way ahead of its time: it made a stand for women’s independence in the form of Marcella the shepherd, beloved of Chrysostom, who did not return his feelings. Her spurning his love was seen as a betrayal, by Chrysostom, as well as by his male comrades, especially when, out of grief, he took his own life. When the men tried to turn on Marcella in defense of their fallen brother, she turned the tables on them and gave her own sermon on the mount, with the subject being women’s independence. She gave such a stirring speech, I had to read it out loud. It is so on point with today’s mindset, that I could hear the sass in her voice and see the side to side head bod each time she made her case. The points she brought up were such as, why should she, even after she told a man she wasn’t interested in him, be responsible for whatever stupid thing he did in her name? Also, it was her contention that she just wanted to be left in peace, though the men didn’t seem to care about that. “I was born free and, so that I might live free, I chose the solitude of the fields…My life is free and I do not wish to be subject to the will of another person. I neither love nor hate anyone. I do not deceive this man nor entice that man. nor do I jest with one man or amuse myself with another.” Then, after saying a bit more about how the forests and God’s creation was more than enough for her, she dropped the proverbial mic and turned her back on the men and went back into the forest. Once she was gone, Don Quixote stood up for her right to do as she pleased, and thus declared her the most virtuous of all. However, the other men didn’t pay the crazy man any heed, as they had just buried their brother and needed someone to blame. All that said, I was cheering Marcella’s “go girl” speech the whole time. It’s a rousing moment for women everywhere. It is my hope that Marcella got her wish and was able to live out the rest of her days alone in the forest, with nothing but nature surrounding her, abiding by her will alone.
Over the next few days as I finish this novel, I’m not sure what ending awaits Don Quixote. I’ve promised myself not to Google it ahead of time. Will he eventually find a real enemy to slay, and actually win a fight? Will he win the heart of Dulcinea, whose real name is Aldonza Lorenzo? Or will his niece and the town priest, who have already burned most of his books and sealed off the rest in his study, succeed in breaking his spirit and turning him into just the retched old man who has lost his wits, as they perceive him to be? I am anxious to find out. I’m rooting for him, as Don Quixote, nee Alonso Quixano, is the ultimate underdog we all want to succeed.