The Balance of Power: A Struggle for Interpretation in Don Quijote

It is difficult to read more than one or two pages of Don Quijote de la Mancha without coming across an example of the union (or conflict) between the extraordinary and the mundane. Indeed, Cervantes uses this juxtaposition repeatedly as his principal comic device, generally at the expense of poor, mad Don Quijote, whose overzealous perception of the ordinary world around him drives the novel. At the same time, the squire Sancho Panza consistently comes down on the side of reality – but only when immediately faced with the obvious error of his master’s sensory perception of the world. That is, Sancho accepts and even appears enthralled by Quijote’s eloquent description of the chivalric life, but when faced with either the absurdity or potential peril of action according to the knightly code, he turns back to what he knows: the safe, everyday world with which he is familiar. As we will see, this schema becomes especially apparent in the contiguity of and seeming discontinuity between Chapters 20 and 21. These two chapters seem to run in opposite directions: while Sancho dominates the first with his aborted story and his secretive defecation, Quijote takes over the second with his excitement at Mambrino’s helmet and his high-minded narration of the knight’s life. Yet these ostensibly incongruent aspects of the chapters do fit together, in the manner outlined above, when seen in light of the adventure of the fulling-mill in Chapter 20. It all starts with an unknown noise in the night, which sparks a battle between our two heroes for the supremacy of interpretation.Don Quijote and Sancho respond to the noise in characteristically opposing ways. Excitement rushes into the heart of the knight, who considers the eerie noise a prime opportunity for him to demonstrate his honor: “Yo soy aquel para quien están guardados los peligros, las grandes hazañas, los valerosos hechos” (p. 179 ). Quijote sees such mysterious danger as his destiny, and he repeatedly says that he would welcome a heroic death during his adventures if God’s wills it, even giving Sancho instructions in case he does not return. Though his master’s impassioned outline of his duties moves Sancho to tears, the squire maintains his preference for survival over principle, fearing the dual prospect of both losing his friend and facing the terrifying noises alone.Because Don Quijote holds fast to his sense of duty, Sancho must underhandedly steal domination of the chapter from him in order to prevent him from going off in search of danger. In order to do so, Sancho ties Rocinante’s feet together, rendering the horse immobile, and Don Quijote reluctantly resolves to wait until dawn. Sancho offers to entertain his master until sunrise by telling him stories, thus taking usurping control of the dialogue and the chapter from Don Quijote. Above Quijote in this hierarchy of power, however, sits the historian-narrator who truly oversees the story. Throughout the text, the narrator supports Don Quijote, not necessarily by agreeing with the mad knight’s interpretations, but by accepting their plausibility and never deriding him for his lunacy. The narrator reads his history fully expecting Quijote’s experiences to mirror those of other caballeros andantes, and he repeatedly extols the knight, calling him “luz y espejo de la caballería manchega” (92), for instance. We must thus consider him idealistic like Quijote, tied to chivalric conventions despite his protagonist’s repeated misinterpretations. He does not always agree with the mad knight’s interpretations, to be sure, but he also never derides his subject for his lunacy. It is fitting, then, that Sancho’s initial attempt to exert influence over the flow of events should include the narration of a competing story, a story that deals with shepherds rather than knights-errant. Sancho thus usurps power not only from his immediate master but also from his narrator.Though the historian-narrator comes down on Quijote’s side of this central conflict, the biting satire of chivalric romance throughout the novel suggests that Cervantes himself supports Sancho. From this viewpoint, the narrator becomes a sort of straw man that Cervantes has set up as a vehicle of irony. Sancho’s usurpation thus acquires a double meaning, first as a means by which the squire can keep his master from going off in search of danger, and second as a means by which the author can insert his sarcastic voice into a false history. Though Sancho’s story does not necessarily reflect Cervantes’ own literary preferences, the forced break in Don Quijote’s pseudo-chivalric romance does square with the author’s low opinion of the genre.Although Sancho’s explicit intention in telling his story is merely to divert his master, it quickly becomes clear through the style and content of the tale that he is simultaneously trying to calm himself down. The tale begins:’En un lugar de Estremadura había un pastor cabrerizo, quiero decir que guardaba cabras; el cual pastor o cabrerizo, como digo de mi cuento, se llamaba Lope Ruiz; y este Lope Ruiz andaba enamorado de una pastora que se llamaba Torralba; la cual pastora llamada Torralba era hija de un ganadero rico, y este ganadero rico…’ (182)Stylistically, by doubling each name or occupation – as an object of one clause and the subject of the next – Sancho gives his story a deliberate pace, a repetitive beat that serves to pacify him, just as a stable rocking motion soothes a crying baby. When Quijote complains about the monotony of this manner of storytelling, Sancho justifies it by claiming, “De la misma manera que yo lo cuento…se cuentan en mi tierra todas las consejas, y yo no sé contarlo de otra, ni es bien que vuestra merced me pida que haga usos nuevos” (182). These “usos nuevos,” though explicitly referring to storytelling conventions, also refer obliquely to ways of thinking, of perceiving the world, and, in this particular adventure, of acting in the face of potential threat. “Mi tierra,” then, describes the source not only of Sancho’s literary style but also of his interpretation of the unknown noise. He tells this kind of story at this particular point in the novel specifically to distract himself from the possibility that Quijote is right – and to remind himself of his old customs and his home, where he would feel safe, where strange noises in the night would always have innocent explanations.After Don Quijote cuts Sancho’s story short, the squire suddenly feels the urge to defecate. Though explicitly a normal physiological process, the timing of this particular urge makes it clear that, subconsciously, Sancho is still trying to remove himself from the terror of the unknown by falling back into the mundane. Cervantes makes this implication plain through Quijote’s initial reaction to the awful smell: “Paréceme, Sancho, que tienes mucho miedo” (186). Don Quijote has tried to reassert his dominance over the course of events by stopping Sancho’s story and trying again to ride Rocinante; his literary usurpation foiled, Sancho must now try a less linguistic, more animalistic approach in order to maintain interpretive control. If his pastoral story ran counter to Don Quijote’s chivalric romance, the undignified act of defecation serves as a polar opposite to the glorious deeds of knights-errant. Indeed, if we were to graph the progression of chivalric honor in these two chapters, this short scene of Sancho’s defecation would surely mark the nadir.When morning comes and our two protagonists find that the actual source of the strange noise has been a fulling-mill, we learn that both were incorrect in their shared assumption of a menacing origin. Yet, while Sancho is thrilled to find such an ordinary machine as the cause of the noise, the sight enrages Don Quijote. Looking at Chapter 20 figuratively, we could say that, when the noise was still unknown, a struggle began between Quijote and his squire to determine what would be the cause; Sancho won this struggle by tying Rocinante’s legs together, by telling his story in his chosen style, even by defecating – in short, by refusing to allow Don Quijote to control the chapter. Quijote’s anger at the sight of the fulling-mill, though, leads him to reassert his dominance over both Sancho (“es menester hacer diferencia de amo a mozo, de señor a criado y de caballero a escudero,” 190) and the course of the novel. Indeed, as we will see, Chapter 21 is dominated by Don Quijote; after the shame of Chapter 20, the knight jumps at the opportunity to use Mambrino’s helmet to reestablish his vision.Don Quijote and Sancho do argue briefly at the start of Chapter 21 over whether the approaching man is wearing the helmet – an argument that, placed chronologically as the border between two opposing spheres of influence, encapsulates the juxtaposition of these two chapters and the greater conflict between realism and idealism throughout the text. Incredulous at Sancho’s questioning, Quijote asks his squire whether he does not in fact see a knight approaching with a golden helmet on his head. Sancho responds, “Lo que veo y columbro…no es sino un hombre sobre un asno, pardo como el mío, que trae sobre la cabeza una cosa que relumbra” (192). This “no es sino” construction perfectly describes Sancho’s way of thinking and perceiving: he sees ‘nothing but’ a man with something glittering on his head, and so he cannot make the leap to claim that it is Mambrino’s helmet. When Sancho brings up the recent fulling-mill adventure in the course of his doubting, Don Quijote quickly quiets him: “Ya os he dicho…que no me mentéis, ni por pienso, más eso de los batanes” (192). The knight is certainly aware of his previous misinterpretation, but he refuses to let it alter his interpretation of the approaching man or of his knightly duties. He simply wants to strike it from memory, both his and Sancho’s, and Sancho does indeed drop his objection. Of course, unfortunately for poor Don Quijote, the misadventure of the batanes did make it into the historian-narrator’s manuscript, and on to the reader.After Sancho cedes the argument, the historian-narrator himself steps in with a few sentences telling the ‘true story’ of the barber and his basin. Yet this truth is of no consequence, for two reasons. First, any rational reader would assume from the start that Sancho was right and Quijote wrong; we do not need the narrator to tell us so. This section could easily be eliminated without confusing any readers as to the actual identity of the approaching man’s hat. Secondly, and more importantly for our purposes, what the man actually wears has no impact on the balance of interpretive power between Quijote and Sancho. Sancho has already surrendered, and Quijote has assumed control again.At first glance, this short interruption by the narrator seems to support the squire’s interpretation by confirming the inaccuracy of Don Quijote’s interpretation. A closer look, however, shows us that the real point of this paragraph is not to point out errors but to explain them matter-of-factly, conceding but not belaboring Don Quijote’s misconceptions – and therefore not betraying the narrator’s affection for chivalric romance and his whimsical protagonist. Writes the historian-narrator, “Ésta fue la occasion que a don Quijote le pareció caballo rucio rodado, y caballero, y yelmo de oro; que todas las cosas que veía con mucha facilidad las comodaba a sus desvariadas caballerías y malandantes pensamientos” (192-3). As always, though he admits Don Quijote’s madness, the narrator defends his interpretation as potentially correct. That it is not correct in this case falls not on the narrator’s shoulders, for he only passes on to us a manuscript he supposedly found, but on Cervantes’; by forcing his narrator to recount further proof of Quijote’s madness, the author is obviously supporting Sancho’s sensible view of the approaching man. In other words, the substance of this paragraph (the true story of the basin) comes from Cervantes and thus backs Sancho, while the form of its narration represents the voice of the historian and thus absolves, if not supports, Don Quijote’s view of the world.Back on the road, Sancho asks his master what good comes out of chivalrous deeds performed anonymously, without official fanfare or widespread accolades. This simple question allows Don Quijote to return to the helm of the novel. He tells his squire that he must wander the countryside and build up a reputation before he can go to court and receive his just due – which he defines elaborately as including a lovely princess, a place in the royal army, and eventually succession through marriage to the throne itself. Quijote explains, “No lo dudes, Sancho…porque del mesmo y por los mesmos pasos que esto he contado suben y han subido los caballeros andantes a ser reyes y emperadores” (199). We see in this sentence that Quijote details the process at least partly to convince Sancho of his understanding of how things work. In Chapter 20, Sancho demonstrates his dudas; Quijote thus takes the opportunity in Chapter 21 to tell him, “No lo dudes.” By the end of Don Quijote’s impressive speech, he has indeed won over the squire, such that the chapter ends with Sancho yielding control back to his master and Quijote accepting that mantle: – Quédese eso del barbero a mi cargo – dijo Sancho – , y al de vuestra merced se quede el procurar venir a ser rey y el hacerme conde. – Así sera – respondió don Quijote.Y alzando los ojos, vio lo que se dirá en el siguiente capítulo. (202)The reason for the juxtaposition of Chapters 20 and 21 thus boils down to a simple shift in power, just one swing in the novel’s central conflict over interpretation. To borrow language from modern history, Chapter 20 falls under Sancho’s sphere of influence. He tries to ‘will’ the strange noise to be harmless and ordinary, and he succeeds – after the chapter’s caesura, constituted as it is by Sancho’s calming story and the mundane activity of defecation, the origin of the noise can only turn out to be ordinary. Enraged at his own misinterpretation and Sancho’s uncontrolled laughter at his master’s failure, Don Quijote pounces on the next available opportunity, that of the barber’s basin, to reassert his understanding of the world and reclaim control of his servant and his story. Thus Chapter 21 comprises Don Quijote’s sphere of influence in this scheme. Though Sancho’s character is more interesting than he may seem at first, the novel must remain Quijote’s story to go on for more than thirty chapters as it does – without his repeated misunderstandings, there would be no adventures. In other words, stepping outside the novel, Cervantes must allow Quijote’s misinterpretations – and the historian’s sympathetic narration of them – to drive the plot in order to show how silly they are, how pernicious fantastic works of fiction can be to one’s rationality.

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