The genius of the Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha, Sñr Don Quixote, lies partly in the juxtaposition of his lunacy against absurd social norms. Cervantes splits open the idiocy of social conventions by the non-conformity of his ludicrous knight ‘errant’. Don Quixote does not fit within the social constructs of his day and the characters he meets regularly depart from his company in discussion of his madness: “they left him and continued their journey, during which they had much to talk about, from the history of Marcela and Grisóstomo, to the madness of Don Quixote.”
But in the episode preceding this passage, Cervantes’ caustic irony splits open the normative chauvinism of the group of male shepherds who consider Don Quixote to be mad. Cervantes portrays them in their ignorance, despite their apparently acceptable views, by leaving reason to be defended by a woman (albeit a beautiful one) and a madman.
Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and the shepherds, who are at this point travelling together, come across the funeral procession of the young shepherd Grisóstomo. Telling the tale, Ambrosio, one of the funeral party, says: “He loved deeply and was rejected; he adored and was scorned; he pleaded with a wild beast, importuned a piece of marble, pursued the wind, shouted in the desert, served ingratitude and his reward was to fall victim to death in the middle of his life, which was ended by a shepherdess whom he attempted to immortalise so that she would live on in memory.” The shrill cry of a masculine group, forming around their lost companion. The tone is clichéd and anti-intellectual, it shows no appreciation that the poignancy of love is bound as much to the imminency of loss as to the strength of feeling of the lover. It says only, he loved, was unrequited and this is somehow an offence of the subject of his love.
A short while later the group, now travelling together, comes upon Marcela, the shepherdess in question. Ambrosio, in his ludicrous almost camp manner, accuses her of several ridiculous things including coming “in your arrogance, to tread on this unfortunate corpse”, a string of accusations which prompt an exceptional response from the beautiful shepherdess.
“The lover of the beautiful thing might be ugly and since ugliness is worthy of being avoided, it is absurd to say: “I love you because you are beautiful; you must love me even though I am ugly”… According to what I have heard, true love is not divided and must be voluntary, not forced. If this is true, as I believe it is, why do you want to force me to surrender my will, obliged to do so simply because you say you love me? But if this is not true, then tell me: if the heaven that made me beautiful made me ugly instead, would it be fair for me to complain that none of you loved me?… if chastity is one of the virtues that most adorn and beautify both the body and soul, why should a woman, loved for being beautiful, lose that virtue in order to satisfy the desire of a man who, for the sake of his pleasure, attempts with all his might and main to have her lose it?… it is correct to say that his obstinacy, not my cruelty, is what killed him.
… I am free and do not care to submit to another… The limits of my desires are these mountains, and if they go beyond here, it is to contemplate the beauty of heaven and the steps whereby the soul travels to its first home.”
After her astounding and excellent soliloquy she departs into a dense thicket of forest, intending not to be followed. “And some – those who were pierced by the powerful arrow of the light of her beautiful eyes – gave indications of wishing to follow her, disregarding the patent discouragement they had heard.” But Don Quixote refuses to allow them: “Let no person, whatever his circumstance or condition, dare to follow the beautiful Marcela lest he fall victim to my fury and outrage.”
The truth in Cervantes, it seems, is like a paste-board knight, riding on a lean old donkey, frail, regularly beaten but determined in the face of ignorance, convention and stupidity. Don Quixote forever challenges accepted convention with his naive honesty, is dubbed mad and ignoble as a result and pays no attention to his critics. For that, we can only salute him.