Deconstructing Madness in Crime and Punishment and Don Quixote

June 3, 2019 by Essay Writer

Madness and sanity seem to exist on opposite poles of a binary; one is defined by the absence of the other. However, this binary, though present in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, is problematic. The protagonists – who are meant to represent the mad extreme – straddle the line that separates sanity from madness, and they thus refuse to be so easily classified. While the authors demonstrate that such a binary cannot explain a complex human character, they extend their argument one step further: madness is not an agent that results in irrational human behavior, but a description of such behavior. One is not irrational because he is mad; one is considered mad by society because he is behaving irrationally. To gain an understanding of the reason for certain behavior, one must consider each thread in the web of causes that shape identity and effect action.Cervantes encourages the reader to conclude that Don Quixote is undoubtedly mad. The reader is easily convinced because the third-party narrator is presented as objective and omniscient. The narrator describes Don Quixote as having “utterly wrecked his reason” and fallen “into the strangest fancy that ever a madman had in the whole world” (Cervantes 33). If Quixote represents the mad extreme of the binary, the narrator corresponds to the opposite pole. Thus, the reader himself, who is aligned with the narrator, finds his position next to the narrator on one extreme. Sancho Panza, who serves as a voice for the reader, further convinces the reader that Don Quixote is entirely delusional. He voices the reader’s unbelief and outrage that Don Quixote allows his fantasies to have such disastrous real world effects. For example, when Don Quixote asserts that he will avenge “the outrage which they have done to Rocinante,” Sancho replies skeptically, “How the devil can we take revengeŠwhen there are more than twenty of them, and we are only twoŠ?” (Cervantes 112). Sancho humbly voices his disbelief again and again. In responding to a typical adventure resulting in personal injury, Sancho says, “It’s my opinion that the creatures who amused themselves at my expense were not phantoms or enchanted, as your worship says, but flesh-and-blood men like ourselves” (Cervantes 133). The narrator also makes a clear distinction between what Don Quixote’s imagines and what is real. Even the most clear situations “[do] not prevent Don Quixote from imagining what [is] neither visible nor existing” (Cervantes 135). The simple binary that classifies both Quixote and Sancho in the beginning, however, does not exist for long; Cervantes begins to explore how madness and sanity can overlap.It becomes increasingly clear that Don Quixote’s madness is not seamless; the reader catches Don Quixote in moments of perfect clarity, during which he seems entirely capable of rational thought. Quixote is able to discuss politics with the priest in the barber “with such intelligenceŠthat the two examiners had no doubt whatever that he was quite recovered and in complete possession of his wits” (Cervantes 472). He becomes increasingly able to recognize the limits of his imagination and increasingly willing to relinquish the fantasy once it begins to push these limits. When Quixote mistakes a church for Dulcinea’s palace, for example, he realizes “immediately that the building was no royal castle, but the parish church of the place” (Cervantes 521). Similarly, Sancho Panza – and other characters that represent reason – exhibits madness amidst his rationality. The reader doubts exactly how reasonable Sancho can actually be if he continues as Quixote’s squire despite the fact that he recognizes the folly of Quixote’s actions. He does so because he believes that “an adventure might occur that would win him in the twinkling of an eye some isle, of which he would [be made] governor” (Cervantes 66). The canon later notes this contradiction as he marvels “at Sancho’s foolishness in so ardently desiring the courtship of his master had promised him” (Cervantes 443). The strange concurrence of madness and sanity in these characters is remarkably similar. The priest and the barber, for instance, compare the madness of these two characters, commenting that “the pair of them seem to be cast in one mould, and the master’s madness would not be worth a farthing without the squire’s foolishness” (Cervantes 482). By demonstrating how madness and sanity can coexist, Cervantes begins to break down the binary he originally put in place.The reader is given further reason to be suspicious of Don Quixote’s madness. There seem to be a certain order and sense to his madness, described by the narrator as “well-reasoned nonsense” (Cervantes 443). Firstly, his madness is limited to the topic of chivalry – he can comment rationally on almost any other issue. For example, when Quixote is being returned home for rehabilitation in, the canon notes that he displayed “excellent senseŠin his conversation and in his answers” and “only [loses] his stirrupsŠon the subject of chivalry” (Cervantes 435). Once inside the fictional chivalric world he has created for himself, however, Quixote’s behavior and reasoning is both consistent and rational. He carefully follows the guidelines outlined by the canon of chivalric literature with which he is so familiar. For example, “Don Quixote [often does] sleep but [thinks] about his Lady Dulcinea, to conform to what he [has] read in his books about knights spending many sleepless knights in woodland and desert dwelling on the memory of their ladies” (Cervantes 70). All of his actions are entirely consistent with what is expected of a knight errant. Quixote has clearly not lost the ability to reason, as such inability would be universally present.Citing “madness” as the reason that Don Quixote has suddenly refashioned himself as a knight errant becomes a less and less satisfactory explanation for his behavior. If not it is not because he is mad, the curious reader will question, why does Quixote behave in a manner that is entirely delusional? Cervantes urges the reader to make a critical shift in his reasoning; he urges the reader to regard madness not as a cause for irrational behavior, but rather as a description of it.It is important to consider the function that Quixote’s behavior serves. What need does it fulfill? Quixote, before he became a knight errant, lead a comfortable yet boring life, with a “habitual dietŠon [which] he spent three-quarters of his income” and essentially “nothing to doŠ[but to give] himself up to the reading of books on knight errantry” (Cervantes 31). It is no wonder that he took such pleasure in reading chivalric novels, which allowed him to vicariously experience honor, victory, and true love. If one enjoys something vicariously, it is reasonable to assume that he might enjoy experiencing it in real life. This would explain why Quixote “hastened to translate his desires into actionŠimpelled to this by the thought of the loss the world suffered by his delay, seeing the grievances there were to redress, the wrongs to right, the injuries to amendŠ” (Cervantes 33-35). Becoming a knight errant, therefore, responded to Quixote’s thirst for adventure, honor, renown, and a purpose. One sees that Sancho, too, allows himself to be deluded in order to fill a specific need: to provide for his family and elevate his social status.If madness is not the cause of certain behavior but a description of it, the reader must question by what criteria the behavior is judged and who determines this criteria. Quixote’s behavior is considered mad because it responds to a world that is inconsistent with what most people view as reality. It is unfortunate for Don Quixote that he cannot be a true knight. Don Quixote does not Don Quixote authors both his identity and his purpose: he has adopted the identity of a knight errant, as defined by his chivalric novels, and he transforms everyday situations into adventures and conquests so that he something to do, a purpose.In the final pages of Don Quixote, Cervantes furthers his argument that behavior and thus identity changes as our internal needs change. When Quixote has essentially been defeated as a knight errant – and is required to stay in the village for a year – he decides to a shepherd, to “give play to [his imagination] and devise the scheme of the pastoral life [he is] meant to follow” that “could give free rein to his amorous thoughts, whilst occupying himself in that pastoral and virtuous calling” (Cervantes 930). Shepherding befits the more melancholy Don Quixote and would allow him to mourn his defeat lost love and amongst male friends. However, this need abruptly changes once again when Quixote “a fever [seizes] him” and sends him to his death bed (Cervantes 935). A sudden conversion to Christianity follows, with a sober renunciation of his folly as a knight. While this may seem to the reader that he has finally surrendered to reality and returned to his true self, Cervantes alerts us that something more may be happening. Just as Quixote is renouncing “those detestable books of chivalry,” he bemoans the fact that his imminent death “leaves [him] no time to make amends by reading other [religious] books which might enlighten [his] soul” (Cervantes 35). This aligns his conversion to Christianity with his conversion to knight-errantry; Christianity is merely another identity that one can don like a cloak. Cervantes, however, seems to suggest that there is no such thing as absolute identity, and that even socially accepted, “sane” identities (such as Christianity) are constructed rather then intrinsic.There are many parallels in the way that Cervantes and Dostoevsky treat madness. Like Cervantes, Dostoevsky aims to convince the reader in the beginning that his protagonist, Raskolnikov, is mad. Through free and direct discourse, Dostoevsky opens a window onto Raskolnikov’s mental processes. This entrance into the mind of the protagonist is a departure from Cervantes, whose narrative voice remains distinct from that of the protagonist. Dostoevsky transports the reader inside Raskolnikov’s head by blending the narrative voice with Raskolnikov’s internal monologue. One of Raskolnikov’s thoughts, for example, slips into the narration: “But to stop on the stairsŠto have to dodge all the while, make excuses, lie – oh, no, better to steal catlike down the stairs somehow and slip away unseen by anyone” (Dostoevsky 3). Conversely, a technique that Dostoevsky uses to capture Raskolnikov’s disjointed thought process leaks into the narration as well. The ellipses – often used to illustrate how Raskolnikov’s thoughts run into one another – are usually contained inside of the quotations of his inner thoughts. Sometimes, however, they seem to escape: “Now its peculiar ring seemed suddenly to remind [Raskolnikov] of something and bring it clearly before himŠHe jumped, so weak had his nerves become this time” (Dostoevsky 6) . Even Raskolnikov’s first transcribed thoughts – which babble about babbling – echo with insanity: ” ŒI learned to babble over this past month, lying in a corner day in and day out, thinking aboutŠcuckooland’ ” (Dostoevsky 4) . The narrative description of Raskolnikov furthers the notion that he is mad: “There was something strange in him; his eyes seemed even to be lit with raptureŠ there seemed also to be a flicker of madness in them” (Dostoevsky 12). As the novel unfolds, there is more and more evidence that suggests that Raskolnikov is mad. This evidence includes mainly actions and thoughts that seem inconsistent, contradictory, asocial, without a rational motive, or independent of causality. For example, after Raskolnikov reads his mother’s letter, he exhibits what seem to be contradictory emotions: sadness and malicious delight. His “face was wet with tearsŠbut when he finished, it was pale, twisted convulsively, and a heavy, bilious, spiteful smile wandered over his face” (Dostoevsky 39). Such examples that suggest that Raskolnikov is mad are innumerable.While Dostoevsky clearly wants Raskolnikov to appear mad, the divide between madness and sanity in Crime and Punishment is even less clear than in Don Quixote. The first binary that becomes problematic is that the world inside Raskolnikov’s mind is mad and the world outside is orderly and sane. This binary weakens as the reader catches glimpses of complete lucidity and even calculation in Raskolnikov’s reasoning and behavior, until it becomes clear that Raskolnikov, like Don Quixote, is concurrently sane and mad, a seeming paradox that it is not altogether surprising for someone whose name is derived from raskol, the Russian word for split. In one scene, Raskolnikov cries out at this mother and sister “with exaggerated irritation,” but “was partly pretending” (Dostoevsky 246). Yet another binary – which places Razumikhin at the sane extreme and Raskolnikov as the mad extreme – parallels the binary that Cervantes sets up between Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. It functions in a similar fashion. Razumikhin exhibits his own sort of madness: he is always drunk, which obscures his reason and makes him socially overbearing. Perhaps the most striking binary that Dostoevsky destabilizes is that between the reader and Raskolnikov, which classifies the reader as sane and Raskolnikov as mad. However, Dostoevsky, by granting the reader access to Raskolnikov’s inner world, facilitates a connection between reader and protagonist. By the time that Raskolnikov has committed the murder, the reader finds himself as caught up in the emotion and excitement as Raskolnikov is, experiencing a vicarious feeling of anxiety about the possibility of apprehended and release after the crime is finally committed.Dostoevsky, like Cervantes, suggests that madness has no agency in itself, but is merely a behavioral classification. The reasons why Raskolnikov commits the murder are purposefully left ambiguous, and perhaps remain unresolved – even by the end of the novel. Dostoevsky presents several possible explanations as to why Raskolnikov committed the crime, including financial gain, humanitarian reasons, mental illness, and environmental influences, to name a few. While each proposal has merit and seems plausible, none of them are alone enough to explain Raskolnikov’s behavior. Environment, for example, is cited as one possible cause. Given the terrible poverty of his situation, it is no wonder that he is driven to desperation. Svidrigailov remarks that “one seldom finds a place where there are so many gloomy, sharp, and strange influences on the soul of a man as in Petersburg (Dostoevsky 467). Razumikhin describes him as “a poor student, crippled by poverty and hypochondria, on the verge of a cruel illness and delirium” (Dostoevsky 268). Some people believe that “if society itself is normally set up, all crimes will at once disappear, because there will be no reason for protesting and everyone will instantly become righteous,” while others are staunchly against this theory because “nature isn’t taken into account” (Dostoevsky 256). When none of this theories seem to be sufficient, it is concluded “that the crime itself could not have occurred otherwise than in some sort of temporary insanity, including, so to speak, a morbid monomania of murder and robbery, with no further aim or calculation for profit” (Dostoevsky 536). This conclusion, however, seems terribly insufficient, leaving the reader with a cold dissatisfaction. The political theory that Raskolnikov subscribes most vehemently to is that there are two classes of people: the ordinary and the extraordinary. As much as Raskolnikov wants to believe that his crime was a trial of sorts to see whether or he was a Napoleon or a louse, the truth seems to be that he already knows that he is no Napoleon. He says to himself, “I had to have known beforehandŠEh! but I did know beforehand!” (Dostoevsky 274). Raskolnikov perhaps comes closest to understanding by concluding that he “just wanted to dareŠthat’s the whole reason!” (Dostoevsky 418). It is this unidentifiable, visceral, nearly compulsive urge that originates from deep within the subconscious.While Dostoevsky cannot help the reader to fully demystify the human subconscious, he can induce pang – however slight – of the same subconscious urge to kill that Raskolnikov himself experiences. This, perhaps, is Dostoevsky true stroke of genius. This urge exists completely outside of the realm of madness, as defined by society. It is also important to remember that Dostoevsky was writing in a post-Freudian time, and Dostoevsky seems to encourage the reader to theorize about Raskolnikov’s subconscious activity. Raskolnikov’s dreams about the horse and the apocalyptic world beg for such analysis. In this dream, he is a little boy walking with his father. They come across a drunken crowd of people trying to force an old mare to drag a load that is far too heavy for her. Raskolnikov, as the child, feels utterly powerless because he cannot provoke a response from his impotent father and cannot stop the whipping, even when he puts his own body between the horse and the whip (Dostoevsky 56). This dream suggests another possible motive for the crime: Raskolnikov wants to do something to oppose his feelings of impotence and powerlessness in life. When Porfiry says, “Human nature is a mirror, sir, the clearest mirror,” he is perhaps referring to the fact that our behavior is a manifestation of the activity happening on a subconscious level that we cannot understand rationally (Dostoevsky 342). The subconscious is like a black box that consolidates innumerable causes and results in a particular action or thought. However, how these causes interact inside this dark box is a very complicated matter, one that Dostoevsky certainly does not fully resolve. It is likely that the activity and workings of the subconscious are beyond even the retrospective theorizing of the conscious mind. Because the subconscious mind is so difficult to understand, the actions that it effects could be mislabeled by society as induced by madness.Dostoevsky and Cervantes both argue that madness is defined by society and is the description rather than an agent. In this, they acknowledge the universality of urges and desires to fill our subconscious needs. There is, however, something that sets Don Quixote and Raskolnikov apart from the average person. The difference seems to lie in the fact that Quixote and Raskolnikov respond to these urges with little consideration of how their fulfillment will work in the framework of society. Raskolnikov, for example, overhears two young men in a pub discussing whether they would “kill the old womanŠfor the sake of justice,” seeing as she is “a stupid, meaningless, worthless, wicked, sick old crone…harmful to everyone” (Dostoevsky 65). They are contemplating the exact same idea as Raskolnikov; the difference is that Raskolnikov actually follows through. Raskolnikov suggests that all men have urges and desires, yet choose not to respond to them as a result of “cowardice;” man fears “a new step, [his] own new word” (Dostoevsky 4). Cervantes also shows the universality of these urges. While Cervantes does not make the reader see delusion as reality, he has effectively induced the same visceral urge to refashion ourselves according to our needs that originally drove Quixote. And we are certainly not alone. Sancho, the priest, and the barber – all of who are figures aligned with the reader as voices of reason and sense – become terribly excited with Quixote’s new proposal. While “astonished at Don Quixote’s fresh craze,” the priest and the barber “gave in to his new project, applauding his folly as wisdom and offering to join him in its pursuit” (Cervantes 933).While both Cervantes and Dostoevsky acknowledge that identity is always relative to society, they do not denounce this influence altogether or advocate that one simply create a fictional world in response to his individual needs. Both authors issue a warning against allowing subconscious desires to triumph over reason or to result in asocial behavior. This is illustrated particularly well in Raskolnikov’s apocalyptic dream, in which the human race is infected by trichinae that make each person think “the truth [is] contained in himself alone,” and as a result, they cannot ” agree on what to regard as evil, what as good” (Dostoevsky 547). This dream shows the large-scale implications of such behavior. Similarly, Cervantes certainly presents a bitter side to knight errantry, especially in the melancholy that follows it.

Read more
Leave a comment
Order Creative Sample Now
Choose type of discipline
Choose academic level
  • High school
  • College
  • University
  • Masters
  • PhD

Page count
1 pages
$ 10