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By viewing Cervantes’ Don Quixote as a type of saintly hagiography, and Quixote’s actions and motives as following the example of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Don Quixote turns into San Quixote, a knight who fights not on the plains of Spain but on a spiritual plane, by means of his illuminating imagination…

Gallivanting through the rolling Spanish landscape, sallying forth without hesitation on another courageous mission, Don Quixote rides into the mind of the reader upon his aged nag and in his tattered and crudely-fashioned armor. His shocking appearance and eccentricities may prompt the reader to attempt to brush him off as ridiculous, but Don Quixote’s passion and personality cling closely to the reader’s mind. We can easily call Don Quixote a “madman,” but his intelligence and kind spirit are reasons for a reevaluation. As we look at the world through Don Quixote’s eyes, his actions and motives bear a similarity to the protagonist of an unexpected genre.

In his perceived insanity, Don Quixote takes on not only the identity of a knight but also the identity of a saint. Thus, Don Quixote’s tale falls under the genre of a hagiography, a text about the life of a saint. One saint that stands out as an analogue to Don Quixote is Ignatius of Loyola, a famous Spanish saint who founded the Society of Jesus—the Jesuits—and whose death and subsequent beatification and canonization occurred during roughly the same time period as Don Quixote’s writing. The book Don Quixote evokes a hagiographic form thanks to Don Quixote’s mission, and the idea of a “San” Quixote arises because of his actions and their connections to Jesuit practices.

In the story, Don Quixote meticulously imitates various legendary knights; similarly, St. Ignatius of Loyola acts as a pattern of sainthood. Saints’ lives tend to overlap in certain situations and reflect similar themes because they are all ultimately following the path of holiness. One might argue, therefore, that Don Quixote resembles not just one but various other saints. Nonetheless, St. Ignatius appears to have a strong claim as a foundational model for Cervantes’ hero. Since St. Ignatius is never explicitly mentioned, we cannot be sure that Cervantes purposely intended this connection. However, Cervantes definitely had Jesuit influences in his life that likely translated to his writing. In his youth, Cervantes visited Rome during a time of great growth in Jesuit membership and had a close relationship with clergymen who were Jesuits or who followed Jesuit practices. In his book on Ignatius of Loyola, Frédéric Conrod argues that Cervantes’s deep familiarity with St. Ignatius’s principles is sufficient to suggest that they manifested themselves in Cervantes’s writing.[1] 

Critics and fellow characters see Don Quixote as insane, but Don Quixote’s “madness” actually follows Jesuit practices, which support the idea of his possessing saint-like attributes. As Don Quixote begins his transformation into a knight, the historian-narrator tells us that Don Quixote’s avid reading and resultant lack of sleep cause him “to lose his mind.” Don Quixote clearly leaves the world of reality that the other characters inhabit, so he is easily identified as insane both by the book’s characters and by many literary scholars. Henry W. Sullivan, for instance, subjects Don Quixote to modern psychoanalysis by using Lacanian diagnostics and determines that Don Quixote suffered a “psychotic break” due to a predisposed psychic structure.[2] 

However, readers must not forget that Don Quixote is not actually a patient but a complex literary character. The previously described characterization and diagnosis are not wholly accurate because they ignore a hagiographic reading. If the world were simply material, then Don Quixote would simply be insane. But, as a saint, Don Quixote would be aware of a spiritual realm to which others may not be attuned. St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote the Spiritual Exercises, a book that teaches his method of meditation and prayer, where imagination is used as a place to train the mind and soul in order to “see the face of evil and… recognize it in the outside world.”[3] If the reader views Don Quixote’s “madness” in the context of St. Ignatius’s teachings, then it could be argued that Don Quixote’s alternative world is really a spiritual training ground. Just as he educates himself in the ways of knight-errantry, Don Quixote prepares himself spiritually with St. Ignatius’s practices. In this training, the Jesuit exercises give Don Quixote a new type of vision that allows him to see the world at a spiritual level. As a saint, Don Quixote ignores others’ ridicule, and his “madness” allows him to recognize evil and see a deeper truth about sin that the other characters cannot.

For instance, Don Quixote is able to recognize evil where others cannot when he sees corruption within the Church. In one of his adventures, the knight comes across a “procession of penitents” who are carrying “the holy image of the Blessed Virgin,” but he perceives the group as a band of villains who have kidnapped “a noble lady” and accordingly ambushes them. At first, this appears to contradict the idea of Don Quixote as a saint because he is attacking a religious group. A saint follows Christ and the Church; he does not harm them. However, Don Quixote’s attack does make sense if the reader views it as a criticism or an attack on a corrupt body of the Church. Once again, Frédéric Conrod provides insight; here he sheds light on the religious and political situation during Cervantes’s life, especially during the period when Don Quixote was written. Cervantes held the reformist Jesuits in high regard during the Counter-Reformation, in contrast to the “obviously corrupted hierarchies of the Roman institution.” [4] Don Quixote thus aligns himself with St. Ignatius of Loyola by exposing corrupt religious orders through insights gleaned through Jesuit spiritual exercises. Don Quixote’s actions are justified in the scene described by the understanding that the penitents may actually represent incorrect Church teachings or corruption.

Further supporting this theory, Don Quixote commands the penitents to “release that beauteous lady [the image of Mary] whose tears and melancholy countenance are clear signs that [they] take her against her will, and have done her some notable wrong.” In Don Quixote’s mind, the penitents have offended the Virgin Mary to the point that she weeps profusely, and yet they continue to abuse her. By appropriating Mary, they could actually be seen as kidnapping Mary in order to use her for their own unholy purposes. Don Quixote does his duty as a saint by rescuing the Blessed Virgin from this corrupted procession. Through his “madness,” or rather imaginative spiritual ability, Don Quixote recognizes the evil being committed and sets out to right it when no one else can see it.

Additionally, Don Quixote acts almost as a redeemer because he sees the inner good and potential in people who live sinfully. On his first adventure, Don Quixote meets two noble maidens waiting leisurely in front of a castle; they are actually two women of “easy virtue”—prostitutes—standing by an inn. Even though these women have a perverse occupation that leads others to sin, Don Quixote sees them as washed clean of their trespasses. Don Quixote treats them with respect, and through his actions, he attempts to remind the women of who they can be. With Christ, their sins can be forgiven, and they can find themselves once again clean. Despite their current state, the women could become, by faith, like maidens again. Despite their low-born status—they are daughters “of a cobbler” and of a miller—Don Quixote’s beautiful imagination allows them to transcend the barriers of reality and to achieve a status higher than what they actually could in this world. 

Despite their social situation, the two women are still daughters of God, the King of Heaven and Earth. In this sense, they truly are noblewomen. They are ladies in the highest court imaginable, and that court is more real than any earthly one because it will last forever. Don Quixote sees a Christian future and potential for the two women that they had most likely forgotten. Don Quixote reminds the women of Christ’s promise, and through his actions towards them, redeems them.

When reflecting on Don Quixote’s role as a redeemer, one may note that such a role seems more befitting a literary Christ figure than a saint. In fact, Rebekah Marzhan touches upon this idea in her essay, “Don Quixote and Jesus Christ: The Suffering ‘Idealists’ of Modern Religion.”[5] Though Don Quixote may be Christ-like, such an interpretation does not contradict the notion of Quixote as a saint. A saint strives to imitate Christ in character and action, so when Don Quixote appears Christ-like, he actually becomes more saint-like. Also, it is not Don Quixote himself who redeems; he is only afforded a window into a vision of salvation. He then shares this vision with those he meets, such as the two women of “easy virtue,” so they too can enjoy this wonderful gift of “madness” that Don Quixote possesses. 

Don Quixote also shows his saint-like qualities by helping the oppressed. Usually, Don Quixote is unable to see things as they are in reality, yet when he meets a chain of galley slaves, all of whom are criminals, he does not mistake them for anything fantastical. He speaks kindly and listens to them because he wants to understand their personal lives and how they reached their present situation. In listening to the men’s stories, Don Quixote recognizes their humanity, and this act is one of comfort to a person in a situation that may seem hopeless. An act of kindness can alleviate the pain of even terrible circumstances. Even though this scene may not seem directly to relate to St. Ignatius’s imaginative exercises, it actually demonstrates the exercises’ practical outcome. Don Quixote does not need imagination in this scene because he can see the situation clearly as a result of his spiritual training. Don Quixote fulfills the duty of a saint by serving the prisoners simply through his kind understanding.

Don Quixote goes even further than merely offering emotional support by giving the prisoners a controversial second chance. Striking as quickly as an unexpected lightning bolt in the middle of a calm sky, Don Quixote attacks the guards and frees the prisoners from bondage. While this seems heroic, in his essay, “Don Quijote and Moral Theology: What a Knight and his Squire Can Teach Us about Christian Living,” Michael J. McGrath points out this scene’s troubling implications. Though Don Quixote has good intentions, his actions “are not in accord with the standards of good and right conduct” because he has broken the law by freeing the criminals.[6] But Don Quixote justifies his actions by appealing to God’s law and claims that slavery is too cruel a punishment and that God shall punish criminals instead. Though Don Quixote does break the law, it is the law of man. In his apparent misconduct, Don Quixote upholds the higher law of God, which makes his actions good. By freeing these men, Don Quixote gives them a second chance to live uprightly, and he himself acts as an example for them to follow. A saint should always help guide people back to God, and Don Quixote does so by living as an example of compassion and mercy. One can even interpret this scene as the prisoners being slaves to sin, and men having condemned them. Yet, Don Quixote provides hope and attempts to set these men once again back on the right path by affording them a second chance through mercy. Don Quixote cannot actually save the prisoners, but he can free them, so they may do better in the future. Thus, he ministers to the oppressed, and his mission as a knight allows him to live as a saint.

Though Don Quixote may have charged in unexpectedly, he is a welcome character in one’s mind. By viewing Cervantes’ Don Quixote as a type of saintly hagiography, and Quixote’s actions and motives as following the example of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Don Quixote turns into San Quixote, a knight who fights not on the plains of Spain but on a spiritual plane, by means of his illuminating imagination. His perceived “madness” allows him to traverse the most winding and treacherous terrain because he sees the mountains of truth and potential that others cannot see.

Don Quixote teaches the reader how to live as a better Christian. He teaches us to look deeper to find the good in those whom society has cast aside, to be critical of corrupt religious practices, and to help our fellow-man in distress. In studying Don Quixote, we remind ourselves to discern the truth because appearances are often deceiving. Imitating Don Quixote, we can then carry our own type of lance that will slash through the veil of assumptions that blinds us. Our faith requires that we rely on God to guide us to see another, more truthful, level of existence, even if others may think we are mad to do so.

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Notes:

[1] Conrod, Frédéric. Loyola’s Greater Narrative. [Electronic Resource] : The Architecture Of The Spiritual Exercises In Golden Age And Enlightenment Literature, 98-99.

[2] Sullivan, Henry W., Grotesque Purgatory: A Study of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Part II, 114.

[3] Conrod, Frédéric, 96.

[4] Conrod, Frédéric, 94, 99.

[5] Marzhan, Rebekah. “Don Quixote And Jesus Christ: The Suffering “Idealists” Of Modern Religion,” 2.

[6] McGrath, Michael J. “Don Quijote And Moral Theology: What A Knight And His Squire Can Teach Us About Christian Living,” 4. 

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2 replies to this post
  1. Although I’ve always meant to, to my shame I’ve never read Cervantes’ Don Quixote and now I know I must. Thank you Brittany for piquing my interest all the more in this classic.

  2. Here’s an MA thesis for you: comparison of Don Quixote with similar characters from literature, incl. Prince Myshkin from “The Idiot,” the main character in Walker Percy’s “Lancelot,” and Guy Crouchback of Waugh’s Sword of Honour Trilogy.

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