Study Guide

Don Quixote Themes

  • Madness

    Is Don Quixote actually a madman? Most characters in Don Quixote would definitely say yes, since this dude has all the characteristics of a madman—namely, a crazy set of ideas that lead him to pose a danger to both himself and others. But on the other hand, the values of chivalry aren't the worst values in the world, if you take away the violence part. Things like loyalty, humility, and honor are definitely things the world has always had in short supply. But the real question is whether you're willing to take the bad with the good when it comes to Don Quixote's craziness.

    Questions About Madness

    1. Do Don Quixote's actions fit your definition of "insane"? Why or why not?
    2. Why do you think Don Quixote suddenly snaps out of his wacky ideas at the end of the book? Does the text give any evidence for why this happens?
    3. Why is it so hard for people to convince Don Quixote that the knights in his books never existed? Use specific examples from the text to support your answer.
    4. For the most part, do the characters in Don Quixote deal with the Don's madness in a productive way? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In Don Quixote, the madman might actually be the only "sane" person in the text.

    Don Quixote ultimately shows us that it's stupid and destructive to get too involved with fictional stories.

  • Society and Class

    In 17th-century Spain, your social class told people everything they needed to know about you. You're a good person? Who cares? You're rich? Meh. Well, half-meh. All that mattered was whether you came from a noble family, which usually also meant that you were rich. On more than one occasion in Don Quixote, lovers are kept apart because of their social class, and it's hard to tell just how far Cervantes is willing to go in criticizing this fact. On the one hand, he seems to suggest that the quality of a person's character is what matters. But at other times, he suggests that intermarriage between different classes is only fine if it doesn't become widespread.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What social class would you put Don Quixote in? Is he high, low, middle, upper-middle? Use evidence from the text to support your answer.
    2. Why does Sancho Panza's wife discourage him from trying to become rich and powerful? What's her main argument against it? Do you agree with her?
    3. In general, do people from "noble" families tend to act well or poorly in this novel? Are they nice people on the whole, or does Cervantes ever suggest that rich people are bad?

    Chew on This

    In Don Quixote, we see that being rich doesn't necessarily make a person good. But coming from a noble family definitely does.

    Cervantes is willing to criticize the prejudices of social class but only up to a point. He still supports the idea that good breeding can make one person better than another.

  • Mortality

    Death lurks everywhere in Don Quixote, and who can be surprised, considering how Don Quixote himself constantly challenges people to deadly duels? In fact, when you consider how much trouble he gets himself into, it's a surprise that the guy doesn't die within the first 100 pages.

    But death is more than a punch line to the humor of Don Quixote's adventures. It's also something that characters in this book like to wax poetic about. For Sancho especially, death represents the great equalizer, the thing that eventually happens to everyone, whether they're rich and powerful or humble and powerless. For him, death helps give people a good perspective on how fame, wealth, and power really don't mean as much as we think they do. We all end up in the same place.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Why does death tend to come up a lot in the love songs and love poems we encounter throughout Don Quixote? Is there some kind of basic connection between love and death in this book? If so, what is it?
    2. Why does Sancho like to talk about death so much? What main lesson does he take from the thought that all humans die? Use specific examples from the text to support your answer.
    3. Why do you think Cervantes chose for Don Quixote to die at the end of this book? Do you agree with the decision? Why or why not?
    4. Do you think this book treats death as a serious subject, or as something that people should joke about? Or both? Use examples from the text to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    In Don Quixote, death is the only true cure for madness as strong as Don Quixote's.

    For Cervantes, death is never a solution for anything. If someone you love doesn't love you back, move on.

  • Gender

    Whether it's ladies dressing like men, men dressing like ladies, men telling women what to do, or women telling men what to do, there are more than a few issues swirling around the theme of gender in Don Quixote. For the most part, the question of gender seems to come up when men are talking about what a good woman should do. No doubt about it, this novel has some creaky ideas about sex and gender. But what is strange is that Cervantes goes to such lengths to write—over and over again—about what makes for a good man and a good woman. It's almost a hang-up, which suggests that Cervantes might have been sensing that the role of women and the relations between the sexes would soon begin to change in the modern world.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Overall, do you agree or disagree with the gender roles portrayed in Don Quixote? Why or why not?
    2. When we look at something like gender in an old novel like Don Quixote, do you think we should just let it go and say times were different back then, or is criticizing the book's ideas about gender an important part of overcoming inequality and other issues today? Why?
    3. According to Don Quixote, what makes for a good man? Use specific examples from the text to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    In Don Quixote, Cervantes is obsessed with showing that men and women should stick to their traditional social roles and keep quiet about it.

    Don Quixote ultimately shows us that women should have the right to choose their own husbands, as long as they don't choose people who are below their social class.

  • Loyalty

    If you had to sum up Sancho Panza's relationship with Don Quixote in a single phrase, it could be: "Sancho is very loyal (sort of)."

    Sancho's loyalty is always tied to his self-interest. He follows Don Quixote around with the hopes of gaining a lot of money... or even a kingdom to rule over. On the other hand, there are several tender moments in this book when Sancho claims he'd rather die than leave his master's side. When it comes to loyalty, Sancho is a real paradox, and in Don Quixote, Cervantes uses the theme of loyalty to make a larger point about how almost everything in life is relative: things can change depending on a given situation.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. How would you describe Sancho's loyalty to Don Quixote? Why does Sancho always stand by his master?
    2. Apart from Sancho, do any other characters give us good examples of loyalty? Use specific examples from the text to support your answer.
    3. Do you consider Don Quixote loyal to his beloved Dulcinea, even though she doesn't exist? Can you be loyal to an idea, or only to another person? Why?
    4. What, in your mind, is the biggest breach of loyalty in this book? Can you think of any betrayals that are especially harsh? Use specific examples from the text to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    In Don Quixote, Cervantes shows us that loyalty is not something you can always count on. People's loyalty often changes with different situations.

    In Don Quixote, Cervantes suggests that loyalty isn't necessarily a selfless thing. It can actually be very selfish.

  • Race

    When Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, Spain had a pretty tense relationship with Africa and the people who came from there (called Moors by the Spanish). Part of the background context for the second part of this book, in fact, is the expulsion of all African people from Spain in 1609.

    The short version of the story is that the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate invaded what are now Spain and Portugal in the 8th century and ruled much of this area until 1492, when the last Islamic city fell to the Christian armies of the Reconquista, or "reconquest." After 1492, Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain. In 1609, the Moriscos, or Moors who had converted to Christianity, were also expelled.

    Wait, even the Christian Africans were expelled from Spain? That's a lot of racial tension, and it definitely spills over into the text of Don Quixote. It seems like no character in the novel ever passes up a chance to criticize people from Africa.

    Questions About Race

    1. In your opinion, does Cervantes criticize racism in this book, endorse it, or simply acknowledge that it exists without further commentary? Use specific examples from the text to support your answer.
    2. How do characters react to the idea of the captain marrying the Moorish woman Zoraida starting at Part 1, Book 4, Chapter 12? Do you find the reaction surprising?
    3. When you read the word "Christian" in this book, do you think that Cervantes actually means "white" when he writes it? Are black Christians still treated just as badly as any other black people?
    4. What eventually happens to the Moorish character Ricote and his daughter? Do you think they get what they deserve? Why?

    Chew on This

    In Don Quixote, Cervantes is willing to highlight the existence of racism in Spain, but not to outright criticize it out of fear of political backlash.

    Overall, Don Quixote argues that the expulsion of the Moors from Spain was a good thing.

  • Manipulation

    What do you get when an old man suddenly thinks that he's a knight and starts riding around the countryside trying to slay giants? That's right: you get a lot of practical jokers who want to mess with the guy for their own amusement. Apart from reactions of total confusion, the most common response that characters in Don Quixote have toward the title character is: "Hey, let's mess with this guy!" As you can imagine, this makes for some interesting plot twists, as well as some interesting commentary on how human beings should treat one another.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. Of all the characters who take advantage of Don Quixote's confused mental state, who do you think is the worst? Why?
    2. Which characters treat Don Quixote the best in this book? Why?
    3. If you were a character in this book and you ran into Don Quixote, what approach would you take to dealing with him? Do you think it would be effective in helping him? Why?
    4. Do you think that Sancho Panza has a manipulative relationship with Don Quixote? How so? How not so?

    Chew on This

    In Don Quixote, Cervantes shows us that there is no limit to what human beings will do to one another for their own amusement.

    In Don Quixote, you can gauge how moral or immoral a character is based on how much they try to manipulate Don Quixote.

  • Violence

    With all of the humor in Don Quixote, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that this book is chock full of violence. We're barely a quarter into the thing before the Don gets half of his teeth knocked out by rocks hitting him in the face, and Cervantes never spares us the gory details when Don Quixote and Sancho are lying on the ground with bloody faces and broken ribs.

    Whether we notice these things or whether we ignore them because we're too busy laughing, there's no denying that there are clear physical consequences to Don Quixote's madness. It's actually amazing that it's a fever that ends up killing him, when you think of all the other times in this book when he probably should have died.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Before you checked out this theme section, did you think of Don Quixote as a violent book? Why or why not?
    2. Do you think that this book ever becomes cartoonish or unrealistic in its portrayal of violence, or does it always show clear consequences to Don Quixote's actions?
    3. Does Cervantes make enough of an effort to show the true human cost of Don Quixote's actions? Does the novel pay proper respect to all of the people (or animals) Don Quixote wounds and harms throughout the book? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In Don Quixote, Cervantes gives us a realistic description of what would happen to someone who actually went out into the world and tried to be a knight.

    In Don Quixote, Cervantes does a poor job of showing the physical consequences of madness.