The heroism of Don Quixote is by no means constant: he is perfectly capable of flight, abandoning poor Sancho to be beaten up by an entire village. Cervantes, a hero at Lepanto, wants Don Quixote to be a new kind of hero, neither ironic nor mindless, but one who wills to be himself, as José Ortega y Gasset accurately phrased it.
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza both exalt the will, though the knight transcendentalises it, and Sancho, the first post-pragmatic, wants to keep it within limits. It is the transcendent element in Don Quixote that ultimately persuades us of his greatness, partly because it is set against the deliberately coarse, frequently sordid context of the panoramic book. And again it is important to note that this transcendence is secular and literary, and not Catholic. The Quixotic quest is erotic, yet even the eros is literary.
How important a consideration it may or may not be, clearly Cervantes never attempted to reconcile the contradictions that one finds in Don Quixote. The lack of consistent intentions – a characteristic found in much of Shakespeare – is troublesome in a long prose work. On the stage, effect succeeds effect, and the audience has no time to impose critical strictures; but a book is necessarily an invitation for reflection, and a lack of unified effect can be serious. Much of Don Quixote is lost in the shadow of Cervantes’ confused intentions. What stands out vibrantly are the gestures of magnificent foolishness, the warm regard that the Don has for Sancho, and the strong – if unstressed – conviction that nothing in the real world of so-called sanity has the grandeur of Don Quixote’s delusions. Although these estimable virtues are both abundant and laudable, it is doubtful if they can entirely offset the defects of the book, or provide as fully rewarding a reading experience as reading, for example, Homer or Shakespeare.