In the first half of the novel, Quixote and Sancho seem like caricatures of idealism and realism. Philosophical idealism holds that reality is primarily a set of ideas, private mental constructs; political idealism holds that ideas can meaningfully transform the human world. Philosophical realism holds that reality is primarily material, and that its qualities exist independently of human perception and interpretation. Quixote sees the world around him as a set of beliefs about honor, goodness, gallantry, and courage, and as an opportunity for social change on a large scale; Sancho sees a world filled with detail, with sounds, smells, and textures, and as an opportunity to eat well and sleep deeply. Quixote is tall and skinny, a stereotypical dreamer, while Sancho is squat and round, a bit of a glutton, a lover of earthly things. Quixote tries to fit the world into a set of pre-determined rules, while Sancho faces each event on its own terms.
In parallel with this philosophical scenario, the novel engages with notions of literary realism. The novel as a whole mocks the absurdities, omissions, and general failures of realism in chivalry novels, because its premise is a character who tries to live in the world as though chivalry novels were perfectly realistic. Quixote’s endless difficulties and humiliations can be traced to the failures of realism in chivalry tales. But though the narrator acknowledges that chivalry tales are unrealistic, he also makes fun of characters who believe that literature should be realistic exclusively. The priest, especially, is the target of this mockery. The priest’s conversations with the canon and with the innkeeper show that any one person’s attempt to define realism in literature will necessarily fail to be objective, and will instead reflect that person’s private vision of the world. The narrator’s disdain for the priest’s ideas of literary realism is also a rejection of philosophical realism. These realisms don’t take into account the one consistent truth of the novel – the idea that the world is a collection of different perspectives.
Yet the narrator does not come out squarely on one side or the other; the world he creates is tangled, and gives no easy answers. Like public and private truth, realism and idealism must ultimately be integrated, until the difference between them almost disappears. Quixote and Sancho do not remain stereotypes, with distinct sets of qualities: they grow out of their stereotypes into more complete human beings.
Literature, Realism, and Idealism ThemeTracker
Literature, Realism, and Idealism Quotes in Don Quixote
And to what can my barren and ill-cultivated mind give birth except the history of a dry, shriveled child, whimsical and full of extravagant fancies that nobody else has ever imagined – a child born, after all, in prison, where every discomfort has its seat and every dismal sound its habitation?
… from beginning to end [the book] is an invective against books of chivalry ... All that has to be done is to make the best use of imitation in what one writes.
In short, our hidalgo was soon so absorbed in these books that his nights were spent reading from dusk till dawn, and his days from dawn till dusk, until the lack of sleep the excess of reading withered his brain, and he went mad. … The idea that this whole fabric of famous fabrications was real so established itself in his mind that no history in the world was truer for him.
And since whatever our adventurer thought, saw, or imagined seemed to him to be as it was in the books he’d read, as soon as he saw the inn he took it for a castle with its four towers and their spires of shining silver.
An ass you are, an ass you will remain and an ass you will still be when you end your days on this earth, and it is my belief that when you come to breathe your last you still will not have grasped the fact that you are an animal.
I don’t understand how that can be so, because to my mind there isn’t a better read anywhere in the world … at harvest time, you see, lots of the reapers come in here on rest-days, and there are always some who can read, and one of them picks up one of these books, and more than thirty of us gather around him, and we enjoy listening to it so much that it takes all our worries away.
It is possible that, since you have not been knighted, as I have, the enchantments in this place do not affect you, and that your understanding is unclouded, and that you can form judgments about the affairs of the castle as they really and truly are, rather than as they appeared to me.
But one man had been plunged into the deepest depths of despair, and that was the barber, whose basin, there before his very eyes, had turned into Mambrino’s helmet, and whose pack-saddle, he was very sure, was about to turn into the splendid caparisons of some handsome steed.
…whereas drama should, as Cicero puts it, be a mirror of human life, an exemplar of customs and an image of truth, there modern plays are just mirrors of absurdity, exemplars of folly and images of lewdness.
Speaking for myself, I can say that ever since I became a knight errant I have been courageous, polite, generous, well-bred, magnanimous, courteous, bold, gentle, patient and long-suffering in the face of toil, imprisonment, and enchantment.
I am merely striving to make the world understand the delusion under which it labours in not renewing within itself the happy days when the order of knight-errantry carried all before it. But these depraved times of ours do not deserve all those benefits enjoyed by the ages when knights errant accepted as their responsibility and took upon their shoulders the defense of kingdoms, the relief of damsels, the succour of orphans and wards, and chastisement of the arrogant and the rewarding of the humble.
And so, O Sancho, our works must not stray beyond the limits imposed by the Christian religion that we profess. In slaying giants, we must slay pride; in our generosity and magnanimity, we must slay envy; in our tranquil demeanor and serene disposition, we must slay anger; in eating as little as we do and keeping vigil as much as we do, we must slay gluttony and somnolence; in our faithfulness to those whom we have made the mistresses of our thoughts, we must slay lewdness and lust; in wandering all over the world in search of opportunities to become famous knights as well as good Christians, we must slay sloth.
…Don Quixote was amazed by what was happening; and that was the first day when he was fully convinced that he was a real knight errant, not a fantasy one, seeing himself treated in the same way as he’d read that such knights used to be treated in centuries past.
My mind has been restored to me, and it is now clear and free, without those gloomy shadows of ignorance cast over me by my wretched, obsessive reading of those detestable books of chivalry. Now I can recognize their absurdity and their deceitfulness, and my only regret is that this discovery has come so late that it leaves me no time to make amends by reading other books that might be a light for my soul.
You must congratulate me, my good sirs, because I am no longer Don Quixote de la Mancha but Alonso Quixano, for whom my way of life earned me the nickname of “the Good”. I am now the enemy of Amadis of Gaul and the whole infinite horde or his descendants; now all those profane histories of knight-errantry are odious to me; now I acknowledge my folly and the peril in which I was placed by reading them; now, by God’s mercy, having at long last learned my lesson, I abominate them all.