Daniel S. Burt in his book, The Novel 100: A Ranking of the Greatest Novels of All Time (2004), places at the pinnacle of his list a work that has been lauded as a masterpiece ever since its publication in the 17th Century.
Don Quixote, a novel written by the Spaniard, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616), can be read on many levels and is far more than a tale of a deluded man believing himself to be a knight errant, tilting at windmills - vastly more. In fact the entire work runs nearly 1200 pages in the Everyman English translation by Samuel Putnam, and the much alluded to windmill joust, appears in Chapter VIII, well short of the first hundred page mark of the novel.
First modern novel
So important a work is Don Quixote, that Carlos Fuentes Macías, an enormous figure in 20th Century Latin American literature, has remarked about the novel: " Don Quixote is the first modern novel ever written and certainly the fountainhead of European and American fiction. Here we have Gogol and Dostoevsky, Dickens and Nabokov, Borges and Bellow, Sterne and Diderot in their genetic nakedness, once more taking to the road with the gentle man and the squire, believing the world is what we read and discovering that the world reads us".
Don Quixote is the tale of a good-hearted, intelligent man who, having read, it seems, far too many works on the Age of Chivalry, goes out into the world to play his part as a knight-errant. Blinded by this seemingly Impossible Dream, he bumbles his way from one beating and misadventure to the next. He becomes the brunt of derision, held up to scorn by those who 'befriend' him, unwittingly becoming their patsy for amusement.
Being pure, sincere, trusting and ardent, Don Quixote cannot even envisage the duplicity that surrounds him. Even after the most savage of beatings, and greatest failures on his quest, Don Quixote sees hope and is resolute, spurred on by the romantic tales of the past.
His vision of the purpose of living has been forged by what he has read, and this world view gives him the strength to endure and to see the potential for beauty in everything that the world deems as ugly and unworthy. He persists because if he fails, he fails his Lady Dulcinea, the source of inspiration for embarking on his journey.
He cannot fail her, he loves the thought of her, and a "thought" she is, for as the journey goes on, we come to realise that Don Quixote has never seen her; in fact she may very well not exist. But somewhere in the world there must be such a lady of his dreams, a lady who would want him as her champion and he must strive to make such a lady, wherever she is, proud of him.
The whole content of Don Quixote's life is therefore founded on something that may or may not be real. But to Don Quixote, his lady is real - she must be real - for all his desire, with all its goodness and ardour, cannot be unreal.
The reader comes to understand that we all have a Lady Dulcinea in our lives, for that "lady" is what makes our lives worth living. It is the summum bonum - the highest goal of living.
Don Quixote is therefore a novel that questions our summum bonum, for one man's madness can be perceived by another man as profundity.
By Don Quixote's side is his "squire", Sancho Panza, in reality a peasant who embarks on the journey in the hope of returning a wealthy man. Sancho is the common man. He has no desire to vanquish evil and rescue the downtrodden. Rather, Sancho wants to elevate his family beyond their rustic rural existence.
He wishes to marry his daughter to money or status, and his jolly, not so slim wife, he desires to see as a surfeited lady away from the scrubbing board and piggery.
Despite Sancho's mean existence, the reader comes to understand that he loves his wife dearly, and she him, and he wants to be a good father. Yet as the tale continues, Sancho, who attains the post of governor of what he believes is a small island, gives up this public office in order to remain with Don Quixote. Sancho would rather accompany the "knight-errant" on a passionate and perhaps meaningless odyssey of living and finding some Truth in the world, be it a penniless and hungry adventure, than to be the pampered chief bureaucrat of bureaucrats.
Sancho comes to realise that the foolish "knight" is perhaps more sane than the majority of people who live their lives striving after goals that are so temporal that they speedily crumble into ashes in their hands before they have had the time to sit and relish them.
The quest on which he has followed his Master has been an inward journey of the soul, for he has learned wisdom through companionship with a man whom the world believes is mad.
In one of the most beautiful parts of the novel a conversation opens up between the knight and his squire. Don Quixote questions Sancho: "Tell me, have you not seen some comedy in which kings, emperors, pontiffs, knights, ladies, and numerous other characters are introduced? One plays the ruffian, another the cheat, this one a merchant and that one a soldier, while yet another is the fool who is not so foolish as he appears, and still another the one of whom love has made a fool. Yet when the play is over and they have taken off their players' garments, all the actors are once more equal."
"Yes," replied Sancho, "I have seen all that". "Well," continued Don Quixote, "the same thing happens in the comedy that we call life, where some play the part of emperors, others that of pontiffs - in short, all the characters that a drama may have - but when it is all over, that is to say, when life is done, death takes from each the garb that differentiates him, and all at last are equal in the grave."
"It is a fine comparison," Sancho admitted, "though not so new but I have heard it many times before. It reminds me of that other one, about the game of chess. So long as the game lasts, each piece has its special qualities, but when it is over they are all mixed and jumbled together and put into a bag, which is to the chess pieces what the grave is to life."
"Every day, Sancho," said Don Quixote, "you are becoming less stupid and more sensible" ( Cervantes, 1949, p. 682).
Since lying at the heart of Cervantes' novel is a rich tap root of wisdom, it is a work that calls to mind Desiderius Erasmus' quote that sometimes it is difficult to discern if a person is a foolish wise man, or a wise fool. In any event one cannot help but love Don Quixote, for despite all his madness, he is a good man, and there are many sane men in the novel who are bereft of that particular virtue, something that makes their saneness all the more insane. At novel's end, one is left questioning as to what qualifies a man to be more mad: that he is delusional, or that he is immoral?
Dr Andrew Thomas Kania is Director of Spirituality at Aquinas College in Perth, WA, and also lectures at Oxford University. Part II of this article will appear in the May AD2000.