So who might be closer to a real-life Don Quixote? I think a better example might be George W. Bush.
I can’t claim to know his personal intentions, but my impression of him through his public persona is that he has (or at least had) a deluded view of the world. Given his upbringing, lifestyle, success, and the people he surrounded himself with during his presidency, this hardly seems surprising. And I think it’s likely that he really thought his actions as president were the morally right things to do, just as Don Quixote constructs moral justifications for everything from freeing the galley slaves to slaughtering the hotel wineskins. And Don Quixote too is quick to anger, unrepentant of his mistakes, certain of his understanding of right and wrong, and not convinced by reason.
But Don Quixote was one man, and his actions involved a very limited number of people. Unfortunately, I think Bush surrounded himself with Ahabs and trusted the information they gave him, maybe on the assumption that they also were knights of chivalry. By the time it became obvious that Bush’s giants were actually windmills (read: among other examples, that Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction), he’d already committed too much to the effort. Too much industry, money, policy, and rhetoric--and too many lives--to make any deathbed reversal meaningful.
(I recently saw [the first half of] Longford and read Lord Longford's Wikipedia entry, and he seems like another Don Quixote candidate. I haven't done enough research to make a good case, but what I've seen so far is quite interesting.)
Now that I've read Don Quixote, I keep finding references to him. They've probably always been there, but now I'm trying to understand more specifically what they mean.
For example, I recently saw Central Ohio's darling dairy farmer, Warren Taylor, referred to as Don Quixote. Was the writer saying that he doesn't understand the world around him? That he's delusional?
Then I saw Lost in La Mancha, the documentary about Terry Gilliam’s failed (so far) attempt to make a move of Don Quixote. The movie really wants to make a claim that Gilliam is Don Quixote, deluded into thinking that this movie dream of his is possible, despite the evidence to the contrary. But that never quite worked for me either.
And here's the reason. I get the impression from this movie that Gilliam understands exactly what he's up against. He has experience making movies, even big productions. Some of them have been hits, and others have not. He's pursuing one specific idea, one that he knows will be a challenge but one that he's willing to try again and again until he makes it happen.
Gilliam's not Don Quixote. He's Ahab.
Moby Dick's Ahab was an experienced whaling captain with years of success. After losing his leg, Ahab becomes obsessed with finding the whale that did it--a whale that happens to be white and therefore recognizable as an individual he can track across the globe. And he does. He charts his course through waters not based on where the best whaling is, something he understands from his previous experience, but based on where he's heard rumors that the white whale has been spotted. At one point, the Pequod comes across another whaling ship that requests assistance--the captain's son has been lost during a hunt, and the captain is scouring that part of the ocean to find him. Certainly, Ahab, who even has children at home, could relate to this desperation, but he can't tear himself away from his own search. (Luckily for Ishmael, the captain is still searching for his son after Ahab has battled and lost to the whale.)
Don Quixote would never do this. Don Quixote has a skewed understanding of the way the world works, but he tries always to do what is most noble and right, albeit by his own definition. When Don Quixote agrees to help (what he sees as) a damsel in distress, she makes him promise not to grant any other promises of help until he completes her mission. He has a really difficult time sticking to this, in part because of his short temper and in part because he so quickly recognizes injustices and feels a compulsion to right wrongs. After Don Quixote attacks his first giant, he doesn't keep attacking it once he sees that it's a windmill.
Don Quixote's actions are completely coherent *given his delusion*, but he is under a delusion. Ahab, on the other hand, understands perfectly well what he's facing and what he's asking of other people, but he is intent on reaching his goal.
I'm not recommending that Terry Gilliam give up on his white whale, a movie production of Don Quixote. If I can cross references here a bit, I feel a bit like the Duke and Duchess, encouraging him on in something that may not be good for him or others, but that is fascinating to watch. I want to cheer for Gilliam in a way I could never commit to cheer for Ahab, maybe because he's a real human and therefore more sympathetic. But he's still Ahab.
So who might be closer to a real-life Don Quixote? I have an idea, but I'd love to hear yours too. Tune in next week to hear mine!
When I read Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, I was blown away by the subtlety of the characterization and the quiet but steady pace of the plot. It’s one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read, and it’s hard not to compare The Paying Guests to the things I loved about it.
The Paying Guests falls little short of that bar. It starts strong in the same way--the subtle way the reader gets to know Frances through the omniscient narration, especially--but by the second act, it falls into something more straightforward that relies just on the tension of the plot and the stated actions of the characters.
Similarly to The Little Stranger, The Paying Guests begins by revolving around the collapse of a grand house after the family has lost its money. In the former work, the slow collapse of the house cleanly reflected the collapse of the family and possibly their sanity. In the latter, it’s more of a plot point, something to keep Frances constantly busy and to bring Mr. and Mrs. Barber into the lives of Frances and her mother.
When the novel opens, it seems like Frances doesn’t do much other than repair and maintain the house, cook meals, tend fires, and sit in the sitting room with her mother. She occasionally accompanies her mother to bridge or church or a movie. Then she takes a wistful walk through London, and we see her try to shake off the spinster persona. As we start to learn more about her, we see how wrong this persona is, and it immediately becomes irrelevant. Whereas the narrator’s voice in the first act seemed to encourage it somewhat, it's dropped so entirely and so soon that it seems odd that it was ever an issue.
This is certainly not the only change in tone between the first act the rest of the novel, but it’s one I can mention because it doesn’t reveal any major plot points. Later, there are some sex scenes that make it hard to believe the word “subtle” could ever be applied to anything in the book. They’re not gratuitous, but Sarah Waters so excels at that quiet cloaking tone that the scenes feel like someone has flicked on the light just after your eyes have adjusted to the dark.
All this said, The Paying Guests is still a good book that I would recommend. The plot is engaging, and the characters are worth getting to know. But it didn’t meet my expectations.
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