Melville & Eliot’s debt to Cervantes

Professor Anna Nardo, a fellow Mission Impossible participant, has written a provocative essay in which she investigates literary connections between Don Quixote and other novels we have read.  She is kindly making the essay available to all MI’ers.  Professor Nardo builds a strong case for the claim that 19th Century literature owes a deep debt to Cervantes.  Quixote foreshadows many later characters — such as those in Herman Melville’s and George Eliot’s novels — through questing, delusions, or monomania.  Some parallels are obvious, some less so.  Professor Nardo explores them all thoroughly.  We thank her for her generosity in sharing her insights with us and we welcome your comments.  The essay is below:

Dear Fellow Mission Impossible Readers:

We have shared so many books, and some of you have completed every year’s challenge.  So I thought it might be time to look back and try to draw some connections. What follows is my attempt to pursue a hunch I had about Don Quixote, Moby-Dick, and Middlemarch.  I offer this exploration to my fellow readers as an extended exercise in beginning to draw connections.

Anna K. Nardo


Although Herman Melville and George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) were born in the same year (1819), their classic novels, Moby-Dick (1851) and Middlemarch (1871-72), could not seem more different.  While Melville spins a fantastic yarn that launches an American captain on a voyage across vast seas to find a murderous white whale, Eliot traces a tangled web of human interaction—personal, intellectual, religious, and political—in a small provincial town in mid-nineteenth-century England.  Despite the differences of perspective shaped by their different genders, educations, and cultures, both Melville and Eliot are, I believe, heirs of Miguel de Cervantes. It has been said that “every novel bears Quixote within it” (Ortega y Gasset 162), but not every novel announces this presence, as do both Moby-Dick and Middlemarch.  

The central conflict of Cervantes’s novel is, of course, the clash between the poor hidalgo’s crazed imagination as he insists on reenacting the fictions he has read in romances of knight errantry, and the very real people and events that he encounters as he pursues his quest along the dusty roads of seventeenth-century Spain.  Throughout the novel, however, Cervantes continually problematizes the reader’s assumptions about how we can know what is real. Early in their novels both Eliot and Melville nod to Don Quixote as they begin their own stories of illusions, delusions, and heroic quests that clash with a reality whose relation to human ideas and ideals is no less problematical than the reality of Cervantes’s novel.  I wish to explore this shared preoccupation with knowing reality in order to illustrate how the great American novel Moby-Dick and the great British novel Middlemarch rewrite for their own cultures the great Spanish novel Don Quixote.  My hope is that my fellow Mission Impossible readers will share my enthusiasm for listening to the echoes of authors conversing with each other across the barriers of oceans and centuries.


Because Eliot explicitly alludes to Don Quixote as she opens her novel, we will tune into these echoes first by reviewing the referenced episode, in which Don Quixote insists that a lowly barber’s brass shaving basin is, in reality, the legendary golden helmet of Mambrino. When, after one of his crazy attacks on innocent travelers, Don Quixote discovers that his home-made helmet has been shattered, he vows to “win by force of arms another similar helmet . . . belonging to some other knight” (56), thereby imitating the knight Rinaldo who wins and defends a golden helmet belonging to the Moorish king Mambrino in Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.  Later, after other outrageous adventures along the road, Sancho and his master glimpse in the distance an itinerant barber who is wearing his brass basin over his hat to keep it dry in a shower.  Turning to his squire, the knight remarks,

“Just tell me: don’t you see that knight riding toward us on his dappled grey horse, wearing a golden helmet on his head?”

“What I can see,” answered Sancho, “is just a man on a donkey, a drab one like my own, who’s wearing on his head something that glitters.”  

“And that’s Mambrino’s helmet,” said Don Quixote.  (119-20)

Once the knight has confiscated the “helmet” from the terrified barber and once Sancho has seen it up close and opines that it “looks exactly like a barber’s basin,” Don Quixote explains this deceptive appearance by the logic of chivalric romances:  someone unaware of its great value must have melted down the golden helmet so that, although it “looks very much like a barber’s basin . . . for someone like me, who knows just what it is, the transformation is of no importance” (121). What, of course, Cervantes knew was that Don Quixote’s logic echoes the philosophical distinction that the Catholic Church used to explain how what is visible as bread and wine is transformed into the “real presence” of the body and blood of Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist.    

The doctrine of the “real presence” of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, despite the persisting outward appearances of bread and wine, became a matter of great debate during the Protestant Reformation.  In what is now Germany, France, and elsewhere in Europe during the sixteenth-century, controversies over the Eucharist, among other theological doctrines, precipitated long and bloody civil wars. In Spain, church and state united to defend the Catholic position with all the power of the Holy Inquisition.  In the barber episodes, Cervantes, however, comically inverts the Eucharistic conversion: instead of mere surface appearances of bread and wine (the “accidents”) being transformed into the “substance” of body and blood, the “substance” (the golden helmet of Mambrino), according to Don Quixote, has been transformed into “accidents” (a mere barber’s basin). Through the countervailing power of humor, Cervantes defends his satirical inversion of Thomas Aquinas’s philosophical explanation of the “real presence” against any suspicion of blasphemy or heresy.  

Moreover, Cervantes later stages a return of the angry barber in order to demonstrate that, in daily life, how we know what is real has little to do with the precise hair-splitting of scholastic philosophy.  Indeed, Cervantes seems to suggest that defining what is real may have more to do with keeping the peace.

After a series of improbable and hilarious adventures, Don Quixote and Sancho meet up with their old friends the priest and the barber from their village—along with a judge and four sets of lovers, one of whom is a spunky young woman named Dorothea, and each of whom has a strange story to tell.  Just as all their stories seem to be reaching a happy ending, the robbed barber shows up at the inn where all these stories have converged, and demands the return of his basin. Since the barber and the priest from Don Quixote’s village have cooked up a plot, with Dorothea’s help, to get the deranged hidalgo home by going along with his fantasies, the village barber decides to keep up the game by addressing the itinerant barber thus:

“Mr. Barber—or whatever you are—please understand that I too ply your trade . . . and have a detailed knowledge of all the instruments of the barber’s profession . . . this object we see in front of us, and which this worthy gentleman holds in his two hands, not only is not a barber’s basin but is, indeed, just as far from being one as white is from being black, or the truth is from being a lie, and I also affirm that . . . this is a helmet.” (309-10)  

Those present who know of Don Quixote’s mania go along with the game, even solemnly taking a vote to confirm their agreement with his delusion, but everyone else present at the inn thinks Don Quixote’s friends are nuts.  The ensuing debate about whether the brass basin is really the golden helmet of Mambrino erupts into a melee with swords drawn and teeth broken. When it seems that this chaos will spoil all the happy endings achieved at the inn, ironically it is Don Quixote, lost in his delusion that the inn is a castle where hostile enchanters perpetrate all manner of transformations, who saves the day.  He finds a precedent in his chivalric romances for making peace among all the warring factions: the priest will represent one king and the judge will represent another in a reenactment of a peace-making scene from Orlando Furioso.  Backed by the authority of church (the priest) and state (the judge) and aided by discreet payments to the robbed barber, peace is restored:

until the day of judgment . . . in Don Quijote’s mind—the barber’s basin continued to be a helmet and the inn a castle.  So everything being quiet and, thanks to the efforts of the judge and the priest, everyone [was] now on friendly terms. (313)

Here in the episodes surrounding the helmet of Mambrino (and in myriad other episodes that suggest that what you know as real depends on your perspective), Cervantes poses the questions—albeit in a comic key—about the nature of reality that puzzled philosophers, theologians, judges, and even kings in seventeenth-century Europe.  Is reality an essence beneath surface appearances? Is reality what everyone agrees is reality? Is reality what the authorities of church and state decree? Are the ideals of imaginative fiction a gilded lie, or can they become a guide for action in the real world? Thus in Don Quixote, Cervantes questions the fundamental cultural assumptions of Counter Reformation Spain.  In Middlemarch and Moby-Dick we will see different manifestations of this same line of questioning as it arises in Victorian England and the early American republic.  Because Eliot opens her story with an explicit allusion to Don Quixote, we will pursue this questioning first in Middlemarch.


As if to announce that Middlemarch will continue Cervantes’s project, Eliot chooses the dialogue, quoted above, between Don Quixote and Sancho at their first sight of the barber as the epigraph to her novel’s second chapter—the episode in which the pious young Dorothea Brooke meets her future husband, Mr. Casaubon, for the first time.  As Don Quixote sees the golden helmet of Mambrino beneath the surface appearance that Sancho sees as a barber’s basin, near-sighted Dorothea sees in the face of this aging scholar a “great soul,” with whom she could share “some spiritual communion.” Of course, her sister Celia, playing Sancho to Dorothea’s Don Quixote, sees only “a dried bookworm towards fifty” with a “sallow” complexion and “two white moles with hairs on them” (20-22).  Unlike her namesake, the plucky Dorothea of Cervantes’s novel, who disguises herself as a boy to escape disgrace, then sets out to find her noble lover—Dorothea Brooke lives the sheltered life of a young Victorian heiress. Her passionate longing for “the completest knowledge” (29) that would lead to “an ideal life” (45) is mocked and thwarted at every turn by her family and friends. So, after her first glimpse of Mr. Casaubon, she transforms this provincial clergyman into “a living Bossuet [a seventeenth-century French theologian], whose work would reconcile complete knowledge with devoted piety; here was a modern Augustine [the fourth-century preeminent Church Father] who united the glories of doctor and saint” (25).  Like Don Quixote, who configures reality through the chivalric romances he has read, Dorothea Brooke creates an imaginary husband out of the scraps of highest wisdom that she read at school. And, like Cervantes’s Dorothea, she too escapes—only Eliot’s delusional Dorothea thinks that she is escaping from the stifling pettiness of her life by embarking on a marriage that she imagines will be a heroic quest: “I should learn to see the truth,” she fantasizes, “by the same light as great men have seen it by. And then I should know what to do, when I got older: I should see how it was possible to lead a grand life here-now-in England” (29). Dorothea Brooke’s namesake may be Cervantes’s heroine, but she is Don Quixote’s heir.

In this introduction, Eliot establishes the narrative pattern that structures the rest of her epic novel.  Multiple characters embark on quests—some delusional, others potentially heroic—all of which, however, must be tested by confrontations with the “embroiled medium” (290) of life in Middlemarch—a town whose very name suggests the mundane (“middle”) reality through which we humans must “march.”  Moreover each character’s quest engages some larger current of nineteenth-century European thought that was grappling with the fundamental question Dorothea asks: what constitutes complete knowledge of the truth that will justify effective action?

Although he is a clergyman, Casaubon does not share his wife’s desire to build cottages and visit the poor.  Indeed, he dismisses her attempts to enact biblical teachings as mere “Quixotic enthusiasm” (421). Buried in books, Casaubon is a scholar who has devoted his career to researching The Key to all Mythologies, an attempt to demonstrate “that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed” (24)—that is, of biblical revelation.  Like Don Quixote crazed by reading chivalric romances, Casaubon has read so intensely that he has weakened his vision and, by his own admission, turned his mind into “something like the ghost of an ancient, wandering about the world and trying mentally to construct it as it used to be, in spite of ruin and confusing changes” (18). With no interest in the Bible as a book to live by, with no knowledge of German or the oriental languages needed to conduct original biblical scholarship, tormented by self-doubt and petty jealousy of other scholars—“Poor Mr. Casaubon,” laments Eliot’s narrator, ends his quest “lost among small closets and winding stairs . . . [having] lost sight of any purpose which had prompted him to these labours.  With his taper stuck before him he forgot the absence of windows, and in bitter manuscript remarks on other men’s notions about the solar deities, he had become indifferent to the sunlight” (197). While Dorothea enacts the idealism of Don Quixote’s quest, in Casaubon Eliot shows us the dark underbelly of the dogged pursuit of a delusion—a dark side that Cervantes acknowledges in Quixote’s violence.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, comparative mythology and biblical scholarship had made great strides in examining records of the Middle East from biblical times.  The result of this research pointed, in fact, to the opposite of Casaubon’s theory. Whereas he insisted that all Middle Eastern mythology was a corruption of biblical revelation, these mostly German scholars had demonstrated that Old Testament stories like Noah’s ark derived from earlier mythic sources.  Some scholars even went so far as to argue that Jesus’s New Testament miracles were additions from earlier myths with no historical basis. Eliot herself had translated two important works of what came to be called the Higher Criticism: David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus and Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity.  This ferment in nineteenth-century religious thought contextualizes Eliot’s dramatization of Casaubon’s failure and Dorothea’s disillusionment.  

When Dorothea, who had imagined marriage as a quest for “the completest knowledge,” learns from Will Ladislaw, that Casaubon is ignorant of German, oriental languages, and recent biblical scholarship, she begins to glimpse that her husband’s quest is a failure (208, 221-22).  Later, when she fears that her ailing husband will ask her to continue The Key to all Mythologies after his death, she sees clearly for the first time that his life’s work has been little more than “sorting . . . shattered mummies, and fragments of a tradition which was itself a mosaic wrought from crushed ruins—sorting them as food for a theory which was already withered in the birth like an elfin child” (478).  As Cervantes juxtaposes Don Quixote’s imaginary golden helmet of Mambrino to the real barber’s basin that Sancho sees, Eliot confronts Dorothea with the reality that her imaginary husband—a modern Milton or Bossuet or Pascal or Saint Augustine, as she once thought—is in reality what Celia saw in the first place, “a dried bookworm towards fifty.”   

Although Dorothea eventually comes to see the reality beneath both her own and her husband’s delusions, she never renounces her idealism.  Like so many nineteenth-century intellectuals whose faith was shaken by Darwin’s theories of evolution and the biblical analysis of the Higher Criticism, and like Eliot herself, who became an agnostic—Dorothea, by mid-novel, has ceased to pray.  Yet, despite the disillusionment of her marriage, she has found something to believe in—“That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil—widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower” (392).  In the face of doubt, disillusionment, and frustration, Dorothea forges a secular religion that mirrors Don Quixote’s idealism: in the face of failure at every turn and the havoc he wreaks, Don Quixote continues to believe that, like a true chivalric knight, he is fighting on the side of light against the forces of darkness.

Lydgate, the new doctor in Middlemarch, also enters the novel as an idealistic quester, but, unlike Casaubon’s, his quest is not, as Eliot describes it, delusional.  He is a scientist dedicated to identifying a hitherto unseen reality beneath the appearances of human anatomy. As a school boy, the young Lydgate was propelled toward his quest when he stumbled across a description of the valves of the heart in an anatomy book:  suddenly “the world was made new to him by a presentiment of endless processes filling the vast spaces planked out of his sight by that wordy ignorance which he had supposed to be knowledge. From that hour Lydgate felt the growth of an intellectual passion” (144).  Unlike Casaubon’s antiquated pedantry, Lydgate’s research intends to further current advances in his field. In the late eighteenth century, the French anatomist Marie François Xavier Bichat had begun to investigate the fundamental structure, the “webs or tissues,” that form organs.   When, after studying medicine in Paris, Lydgate arrives in Middlemarch in 1829, the “sequence to Bichat’s work,” explains Eliot, was “already vibrating along many currents of the European mind,” and the young doctor intends to join the search for “the primitive tissue” (148). When Middlemarch was published in 1871-72, at least, some of Eliot’s readers knew that the quest that so enthralled her fictional doctor did indeed eventuate in identifying the cell as the basic unit of animal structure (Theodor Schwann, 1839).  Moreover, Lydgate’s quest seems as heroic as Dorothea’s—to seek knowledge of the truth that will guide action. As both a research scientist and a practicing doctor who hopes to reform medical practice, Lydgate sets out “to do good small work for Middlemarch, and great work for the world” (149).  

Choosing this provincial town because it will, he believes, give him greater freedom to pursue new medical methods, he arrives with no intention of becoming “enamoured” of anything other than “the primitive tissue,” the “fair unknown” to which he will dedicate his “ideal constructions” (165, 272).  Here, in order to describe Lydgate’s scientific quest, Eliot pointedly chooses the language of Troubadour love poetry (144), the literary tradition out of which Don Quixote’s invents his own “fair unknown,” Dulcinea. No knight errant can undertake a heroic quest, says Don Quixote, without devotion to a beloved:  a beautiful, highborn lady, whom he may never have met, becomes the impulse behind all the knight’s noble actions. Thus, when Eliot describes “the primitive tissue” as a “fair unknown,” “which must be wooed with industrious thought and patient renunciation of small desires” (144), she aligns Lydgate with Don Quixote’s heroic idealism.  Even though Lydgate may be idealistic, his science is not delusional. Dulcinea, whom Don Quixote admits he has never seen, is a mere fantasy. By contrast, even though a scientific hypothesis may originate in an idea, a mental “invention,” as Eliot terms it, the scientific method of “provisionally framing its object and correcting it to more and more exactness of relation” (165) guides the scientist’s quest to know what is real.  The “fair unknown” of the scientist’s quest is no mere fantasy.

Life in Middlemarch, however, confronts Lydgate with another sort of reality about which he does harbor delusions. When it comes to knowledge about “the complexities of love and marriage,” Lydgate “felt himself amply informed by literature, and that traditional wisdom which is handed down in the genial conversation of men” (164).  Eliot’s narrator sounds an ominous note when describing Lydgate’s musings about meeting the lovely Miss Rosamond Vincy. Instead of following the scientific method that tests assumptions by verifying facts, Lydgate sees in Rosamond an elegance, refinement, and beauty “that excluded the need for other evidence” to verify that she was the perfect example of “docile” womanhood (164).  During the courtship that supplants his devotion to his “fair unknown,” the “primitive tissue,” Lydgate replaces evidence with emotion: he

felt as if already breathed upon by exquisite wedded affection such as would be bestowed by an accomplished creature who venerated his high musings and momentous labours and would never interfere with them; who would create order in the home and accounts with still magic, yet keep her fingers ready to touch the lute and transform life into romance at any moment. (352)  

Here the biting irony of Eliot’s narrator reveals Lydgate’s delusions about his blonde and pink bride; the real Rosamond is a narcissistic social climber, who finds his phials of macerating tissue disgusting, expects to be kept in style, and disobeys his every order.  Struggling with debts, professional jealousies, ignorant gossip, and appearances that link him with the suspicious death of a patient, Lydgate confronts the truth: in order to earn money to maintain his wife, he must leave Middlemarch, abandoning his plans to direct a new fever hospital.  His heroic quest for knowledge that will guide action dissolves in the “embroiled medium” of the realities of life in a provincial English town.

Just as Eliot compares Lydgate to a knight wooing, but failing to remain faithful to a “fair unknown,” she resorts to the language of chivalric romance to describe Will Ladislaw’s unswerving devotion to Dorothea.  Meeting her unexpectedly on her honeymoon in Rome, when Casaubon had forsaken her to bury himself in libraries, Will begins to imagine his older cousin as a dragon or Minotaur who has carried off a beautiful young maiden to his lair (209, 220), and later when they return to Middlemarch Will imagines himself as a chivalric knight, watching over Dorothea “whatever fire-breathing dragons might hiss around her” (470).  Of course, Eliot’s narrator encourages our laughter as Will transforms Dorothea into his Dulcinea. In Rome, he must stifle an impulse “to embrace her slippers, and tell her that he would die for her” (221). Back in Middlemarch, Will adopts, but chafes at the role of Dante or Petrarch, poets who had dedicated hundreds of sonnets to idealized women they had only glimpsed from afar: “in later days,” remarks the narrator with wry understatement, “it is preferable to have fewer sonnets and more conversation” (361).  Although smiling at his exaggerations, Eliot creates in Will an idealist who quite seriously and self-consciously enacts a literary ideal—“verifying in his own experience that higher love-poetry which had charmed his fancy. Dorothea, he said to himself, was for ever enthroned in his soul” (469). Whereas Cervantes mocks Don Quixote’s attempt to live out a literary fantasy—the chivalric ideal of the knight errant whose ladylove inspires noble deeds—Eliot charts Will’s realization of just this ideal.

When Dorothea first sees him sketching in Lowick garden, Will is little more than an aimless dilettante, bankrolled by his cousin.  But his love for her and his desire to do only what she would approve sets before him an ideal of honor that he feels he must preserve from all tarnish in order to be worthy of the lady “enthroned in his soul.”  Intending to protect her, he leaves off wandering the continent where he has been dabbling first in art, then in literature, and returns to Middlemarch just at a turning point in English political history. Will begins to find his vocation in the debate surrounding electoral reform.  When passed in 1832, the First Reform Bill equalized representation in the House of Commons, granting more seats to the populous industrial cities and eliminating seats in “rotten boroughs” with small electorates dominated by wealthy landlords. Moreover, it regularized the qualifications for the franchise and began a long process of expanding the electorate.  When Will becomes the assistant to Dorothea’s uncle, who is running for election as a reform candidate, and takes over the direction of a local newspaper, he discovers his talent for politics. Although his candidate is a scatter-brain, who needs to reform the management of his own estate and who gets pelted with eggs during his first political speech, Will does not abandon his discovery (albeit accidental and belated) of a quest worthy of dedication.  He sets off for London, eventually, becoming “an ardent public man, working well in those times when reforms were begun with a young hopefulness” (836).

At every stage of Will’s transformation from dependence and dilettantism to independence and dedication to his vocation, his decisions are determined by his ideal vision of Dorothea.  And Eliot’s skeptical narrator even drops her ironic stance to generalize about the efficacy of such devotion: “The remote worship of a woman throned out of their reach plays a great part in men’s lives” (218).  Imagining what Dorothea would think, Will rejects a legitimate legacy as ill-gotten gains from a dubious source, and in order to preserve his honor, he leaves Middlemarch for London after Casaubon’s will characterizes him as a base fortune hunter.  Although Will must part from Dorothea to find his own way in the world, he makes it clear that “it was his love for her only which he was resolved not to declare but to carry away into banishment” (771). Despite the harsh reality of a separation that may last years, Will dedicates himself to the chivalric ideal of an unattainable beloved, which he knows is a poetic fiction:  they would live for each other, he believes, “as in a world apart, where the sunshine fell on tall white lilies, where no evil lurked, and no other soul entered” (804). But, asks Eliot, is such a fiction a delusion or an enabling ideal? And can any ideal survive the all-too-real pettiness and prejudice of the Middlemarch world that stifles Dorothea and thwarts Lydgate’s quest?

In the conclusion to the story of Will and Dorothea’s love, Eliot complicates, as does Cervantes, the reader’s understanding of the power of ideals shaped by fiction.  In part two of Don Quixote, Sancho, who often serves as the novel’s reality principle, undergoes a transformation.  First, in order to cover up a lie, he concocts a fiction worthy of chivalric romance: that a peasant wench they meet along the road is really Dulcinea under the spell of an evil enchanter.  Later, on the assurance of the mocking Duchess, Sancho comes to believe the very fiction he had created. Second, when accused of being crazy for following such a deranged master, Sancho replies, “I’ve got to stay with him; we’re from the same village, I’ve eaten his bread, I really like him . . . and, more than anything else, I’m loyal” (538).  This illiterate peasant has now become a model of the primary virtue of the true squire in chivalric romances—loyalty. Finally, when Don Quixote renounces his knightly identity, reverting to his given name, Alonso Quijano, then takes to his bed and dictates his will, Sancho urges him to re-enter the world of fiction: they should continue their plans to live as the shepherds of pastoral romance, he pleads.  In the end, Don Quixote, who returns to reality, dies, but Sancho, who would embrace his master’s fiction, lives on. Here and elsewhere throughout his sprawling novel, Cervantes suggests that humans live by fictions: some are laughable; others embody noble ideals.

The complicated ending of Middlemarch reframes, in the context of nineteenth-century thought, the same questions that Cervantes poses about the fictional, the ideal, and the real.  In spite of all appearances that Lydgate is complicit in a murder, Dorothea has complete faith in his innocence and his plans for a new fever hospital.  Hearing her “childlike picture of what she would do” in his defense, Lydgate feels so buoyed by her sympathy that he does “not stay to think that she was Quixotic” (763).  At this turning point, nearing her novel’s end, Eliot reminds the reader of how it began—with a comparison of her heroine to Don Quixote. Unlike her earlier defense of Casaubon against Celia’s disgust at his appearance, which Eliot compares to Don Quixote’s delusion that a barber’s basin is the golden helmet of Mambrino, here Dorothea bases her defense of Lydgate on observation of his medical skill during her own and Casaubon’s illnesses.  

Acting on faith based on evidence, she sets out to try to repair Lydgate’s fractured marriage to Rosamond by restoring the wife’s confidence in her husband’s integrity as a doctor.  But the sight of Will in what appears to be a compromising tête-à-tête with Rosamond confronts Dorothea with apparent evidence that her faith in Will has been illusory. Although deeply disillusioned with Will, Dorothea persists in her quest to save Lydgate’s marriage, with even more determination now that she suspects both Rosamond and Will of infidelity.  By sharing with Rosamond the pain of her own marital experience, without a word of reproach, Dorothea accomplishes a small miracle. Her generous sympathy so shocks Rosamond that, for one brief moment, the narcissist glimpses a reality beyond her own fantasies of coquetry, and confesses that what Dorothea actually saw was Will’s rejection of Rosamond’s temptation.  Despite deceptive appearances, Will has been true to his unattainable beloved, the ideal celebrated in the literature of chivalric romance that has guided his transformation from dilettante to political activist.

Thus Dorothea’s “Quixotic” defense of Lydgate not only saves his marriage (albeit not his career as a scientist), but also her own and Will’s future together.  In this simple act of kindness, not in the grand plans she had imagined, Dorothea reconciles evidence, faith, and action. And in so doing, she finally finds what she longed for in her delusional marriage to Casaubon—the knowledge of truth that guides action toward an ideal life.  Although Eliot calls her idealistic heroine “a foundress of nothing,” Dorothea’s story embodies the struggles of nineteenth-century theologians, scientists, politicians, and artists to redefine and act on knowledge of what is real.


Whereas Eliot charts the spiritual and intellectual quests of respectable men and women from a provincial English town, Melville launches a crew of daring, wild, even  desperate men from the four corners of the globe on a very real quest—a whale hunt through the waters of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. As the Pequod sets sail, the narrator/sailor Ishmael introduces the reader to the crew’s three mates and their harpooneers in two chapters entitled “Knights and Squires”:  the stalwart Nantucket Quaker, Starbuck; the happy-go-lucky Cape-Cod man, Stub; the pugnacious Martha’s Vineyarder, Flask; the Pacific Islander, Queequeg; the Gay Head Indian, Tashtego; and the African, Dagoo. Acknowledging the cultural and racial hybridity of all American enterprise, Ishmael sings a paean to “that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God . . . His omnipresence, our divine equality!” (114).  Here, in order to exalt the “immaculate manliness” of these whalers, Ishmael employs the language of chivalric romance, characterizing the mates and harpooneers as the “Knights and Squires” of this quest to hunt the monster of the seas. Moreover, Ishmael justifies his promise to “ascribe high qualities” to these commoners as he narrates their quest by calling on “thou just spirit of equality . . . thou great democratic God! . . . who didst clothe with doubly hammered leaves of finest gold, the stumped and paupered arm of old Cervantes” (114).  Indeed, the now famous author of Don Quixote was once a humble soldier/sailor, who lost the use of his left arm in the 1571 naval battle of Lepanto, the turning point in the wars of the Christian powers against the Ottoman Turks.  In calling on God to “Bear me out” (114) in his own his own narrative—just as God inspired the soldier/sailor Cervantes—Ishmael, a humble school master turned sailor and now story-teller, aligns himself with the author of Don Quixote.

Like Cervantes, Ishmael tells the tale of a monomaniac on a quest.  Captain Ahab is obsessed with avenging the loss of his leg by finding and killing the white whale Moby Dick that severed it during a whale hunt.  Brooding on his loss, Ahab has transformed a brute creature into the embodiment of evil. As he announces the goal of his quest to the crew, Ahab declares, “I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him”  (162). In his after-the-fact rendering of what happened to the Pequod, Ishmael characterizes Ahab as a tragic version of Don Quixote, whose obsession to reenact the knight errant’s quest to fight evil Cervantes had rendered as comic. What makes Ahab’s quest tragic is its basis in metaphysical doubt. The loss of his leg has impelled him on an interior quest, and he, like Eliot’s heroes, wants to know the truth.  Struggling to find the meaning behind the violence of a brute’s bite, Ahab has come to believe, he tells Starbuck, that “All visible objects . . . are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond” (161-62).  But rather than confront the possibility that there is no meaning to what happened to him, just brutal accident, Ahab chooses to interpret Moby Dick as the embodiment of “inscrutable malice,” and he launches his quest to wreak his hate on “That inscrutable thing”—less on a ferocious mammal than on a truth he cannot know.

As Sancho reminds Don Quixote that the giants, opposing armies, and golden helmet that his master sees are mere windmills, sheep, and a barber’s basin, Starbuck becomes the reality principle that exposes Ahab’s quest as delusional.  Starbuck reminds his captain that the white whale is a “dumb brute . . . that simply smote thee from blindest instinct” (161), that the crew signed up to bring a ship full of sperm oil to market, not to pursue a vendetta, and that Ahab has a young wife and child waiting in Nantucket.  While Ishmael characterizes Ahab as a tragic version of Don Quixote, he transforms Cervantes’s comic reality principle, Sancho, into a tragic figure as well. Indeed, meditating on Starbuck’s fate in the coming narrative leads Ishmael to preview his narrative strategy: even to the “meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways,” he says, “I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces” (114).   

Thus as a self-conscious story-teller, Ishmael announces to the reader from the outset of the voyage that his reading (specifically of Don Quixote and tragic literature) will provide the lens through which he will tell his tale.  We will have more to say about the lens of tragedy later. But for now it is sufficient to note that Ishmael structures his story, in which a mad captain on a quest encounters various ships each with its own story, just as Cervantes structures Don Quixote, in which a mad hidalgo on a quest encounters various travelers on the road each with their own stories.

Nowhere is Ishmael’s appropriation (and transformation) of Cervantes’s novel more apparent than in the chapter entitled “The Doubloon,” in which the meaning of a talismanic golden object is disputed.  As Cervantes used the transformation of a barber’s basin into the golden helmet of Mambrino to raise fundamental questions about appearance and essence, Ishmael uses a golden doubloon to problematize the process of knowing.  In order to motivate the crew, Ahab nailed the gold coin, minted in Ecuador and molded with cryptic symbols on its face, to the mast, and proclaimed that it was the prize of whoever would be the first to sight Moby Dick. During long months of voyaging, says Ishmael, “the mariners revered it as the White Whale’s talisman” (427), and he assures the reader that “the strange figures and inscriptions stamped on it” must have meaning, for “some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the Milky Way” (427).   Here Ishmael proclaims that, like Ahab, he too is a seeker after meaning, and like Ahab he entertains the possibility that there may be no significance lurking beneath “things.” Whereas Ahab, who considers, but rejects this possibility, chooses to strike out against “inscrutability,” Ishmael, who acknowledges, but refuses to believe that the world might be a mere cipher, searches for meaning in every object, action, and event. In “The Doubloon” he stages a miniature drama in which captain and crew try to interpret the figures stamped on the doubloon—three mountains topped by a flame, a tower, and a cock, with over-arching symbols of the zodiac. This drama, however, only problematizes Ishmael’s own statement of assurance about the existence of meaning.  One-by-one Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, and other sailors approach the doubloon, and each reads its meaning idiosyncratically. Ahab sees in its symbols images of his own Satanic pride that will lead to woe; Starbuck sees an ambiguous glimmer of hope; Stubb sees the jolly cycle of life; and Flask, ignoring the symbols, calculates how many cigars the doubloon will buy. It is half-crazy Pip, the African-American cabin boy, who encapsulates the point of this dramatic scene by repeatedly conjugating, “I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look” (432). If finding meaning becomes merely a proliferation of solipsistic exercises in which everyone looks and sees only a reflection of him/herself, then where is the “certain significance” of which Ishmael had seemed so assured?  In this pivotal chapter, Ishmael addresses the central problem of his story by reimagining the episode in which Don Quixote looks at a barber’s basin and sees a reflection of the chivalric romances that fill his brain.

As may already have become apparent, Ahab is not the only Don Quixote figure in Moby-Dick.  On the first page of his narration, Ishmael tells the reader that, although not a monomaniac, he is a melancholiac, who goes to sea to try to dispel what he calls “the damp, drizzly November in my soul” (1).  While narrating his mad captain’s quest for vengeance against the white whale, Ishmael sets out to pursue his own obsessive interior quest to try to understand “the ungraspable phantom of life” (3) that Narcissus saw staring at his own image in water.  Pursuing this larger philosophical quest to know the truth of life, he takes as his test case the whale, the largest of mammals—along with the bewildering objects and processes of the whale fishery and the fateful events of the Pequod’s last voyage. In an attempt to comprehend “the entire whale host,” Ishmael resorts to the classification nomenclature of book size—a system that would not help a visitor to a library who was looking for information:  “I. The FOLIO WHALE; II. The OCTAVO WHALE; III. The DUODECIMO WHALE” (133). He offers this scheme apparently as a serious attempt at the “classification of the constituents of a chaos,” but all the while he mocks the futile attempts of bookmen like himself to know the whale. Ruefully, he admits, “though of real knowledge there be little, yet of books there are a plenty” (129-30). Not exactly driven mad by books like Don Quixote, Ishmael—who suffers from “the spleen” and struggles not to let the “hypos” get the upper hand, lest he start attacking people in the street—is no less a disturbed, bookish man.

Indeed, Ishmael seems to have read every available book about whales, every tale of sea voyages from the Old Testament Jonah to the shipwreck of the Essex, which was rammed by a sperm whale in 1820, as well as treatises on comparative mythology, paleontology, biology, botany, and law, not to mention the classics of world literature.  Like Eliot’s questers, whose stories raise the central questions about knowledge that preoccupied nineteenth-century Englishmen, Ishmael’s meanderings range through the all the available ways of knowing anything for sure. And as Eliot set her story during the elections prior to the first reform bill, Melville has Ishmael confront the burning questions of the day about the new American republic:  its dedication to a capitalism that slaughters whales as it exterminated the buffalo; its democratic ideals that will have to come to terms with the Queequegs, Tashtegos, Dagoos, and Pips in its midst; even its future as a heroic experiment or doomed folly.

Not content with book knowledge alone, Ishmael adduces his first-hand experience of whaling—which he obsessively details in chapter after chapter of cetological information.  But whether he is describing the whale’s spout (Is it water or air?) or his tail (Do whales gesture meaningfully to each other with their tails?) or the “dead blind wall” (335) of the front of the sperm whale’s head, Ishmael’s quest for scientific knowledge of the whale ends in despair:  “Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will” (376). Unlike Eliot, who believes that the scientific method opens a path toward truth because “the very breath of science is a contest with mistake”(739), Melville’s narrator concludes that every “human science, is but a passing fable”  (345). Nevertheless, Ishmael neither abandons his quest for meaning, nor like Ahab lashes out in a blind rage at the possibility of meaninglessness.

Instead, while meditating on the tools of the hunt, the prey of the hunt, the motives of the hunters, and the events of the hunt, Ishmael intends less to discover than to make meaning.  For example, he turns the process of weaving a mat into an elaborate analogy in which necessity (the fixed warp threads of the loom), free will (the woof threads that weave in between), and chance (the wooden sword that strikes the woof at different angles with different strengths) are reconciled (212-13).  He interprets the joyful experience of squeezing congealed lumps of spermaceti in order to liquefy them, and squeezing his mates’ hands in the process, as a demonstration that the basis of “attainable felicity” is not “the intellect,” but human community (415). He even tries to make sense out of Moby Dick’s whiteness.  After citing myth after myth in which whiteness engenders terror, he asks, “Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the Milky Way?” (193). He creates meaning for “The Whiteness of the Whale” by interpreting it symbolically, as an emblem of the void to which we will all return.   At times, Ishmael admits, “a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns” (225). Be the universe an immense emptiness or a prank, Ishmael obsessively pursues his quest to give meaning to things and events, even though his tongue-in-cheek tone often undermines the seriousness of his interpretive flights of fancy.

In the end, in order to comprehend the fatal events of the Pequod’s last voyage, Ishmael, like Don Quixote, resorts to literature—to the fictions of meaning-makers who came before.  Fulfilling the promise he made early in his narration to “weave round [his characters] tragic graces” (114), Ishmael bestows tragic stature on the quixotic Ahab as he sails toward his death by alluding to

  • Milton’s Satan, who curses the sun and vows “evil be thou my good” (when Ahab embraces the lightening and vows, “defyingly I worship thee”—chapter 99)
  • Hamlet, who jokes with a gravedigger (when Ahab converses with the carpenter making Queequeg’s coffin—chapter 108)
  • King Lear, who clings to Tom-o-Bedlam (when Ahab takes mad Pip as his philosopher—chapter 125)
  • Macbeth, who believes the witches (when Ahab credits the riddling prophesies of Fedallah—chapter 135)
  • Spenser’s allegorical Red Crosse Knight, who defeats the dragon on the third day of their fight (when Ahab battles Moby Dick and succumbs on the third day of the chase).

After having narrated the tragic denouement, Ishmael prefaces his epilogue with a quotation from Job—“And I only am escaped alone to tell thee” (567)—but, in the end, the tale he has told offers no answers to the meaning of this tragedy.   The only response Job received to his questions about the meaning of his suffering was God’s voice in the whirlwind: “Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? . . . Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears? . . . None is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me?  . . . whatsoever is under the whole heaven is mine . . . . “ (Job 41: 1, 7, 10-11). Man cannot comprehend the leviathan (the sea monster Ishmael had identified as the whale) much less his omnipotent creator. As in Job’s story, the only response Ishmael offers to the questions raised in his story about men who pursue the leviathan with hooks, barbed irons, and spears is Moby Dick’s apocalyptic destruction of ship, crew, and captain.  

Both the physical quest of Ahab, the mad sea captain, and the metaphysical quest of Ishmael, the obsessed bookman, end in an unresolved confrontation with a reality that is as inscrutable as it is brutal.  The quest of their predecessor Don Quixote to enact the fictions he had read in chivalric romances ends in a return to reality’s dullness, and then he dies. Neither Ahab nor Don Quixote survives their confrontation with reality; only Ishmael remains to try to make meaning out of the quest for meaning by telling a story.  


According to the twentieth-century philosopher Ortega y Gasset, the modern realistic novel arose from the contrast Cervantes drew in Don Quixote between the imaginary stories of chivalric romance that have driven his hero mad and the surrounding real world of whores, muleteers, and innkeepers.  Of course, the realistic characters are as much authorial inventions as the chivalric hero Orlando, but in Cervantes’s novel, art now included a realistic world that a reader could enter and that Cervantes sets out to distinguish from imaginary realms beyond the reader’s mundane world (Ortega y Gasset 133-37).  Throughout Don Quixote, however, Cervantes blurs the clarity of the very distinction his fiction is creating between the real and the imaginary.  He invents an unreliable Moorish author, Sidi Hamid Benengeli; his reality principle Sancho Panza comes to believe his own fictions; and myriad episodes complicate the basis of belief.  What kind of belief should the audience to a puppet show or the reader of a fiction experience? When a monkey or a talking head divines the secrets of questioners what should one believe?  Can faith create the thing believed in—an ideal beloved or even, perhaps, God? While creating the modern novel, Cervantes investigated the very assumptions about reality that undergird his creation.

As we have seen, Eliot and Melville, his heirs in the lineage of the modern realistic novel, likewise examine the basis of their own genre and come to different conclusions.  Even in the “embroiled medium” of Middlemarch reality, Dorothea Brooke pursues a “contest with mistake” that leads her to knowledge that guides effective action. On the high seas, Ishmael confronts a brutal reality that is wholly inscrutable.  


Works Cited


Cervantes, Miguel de.  Don Quijote.*  Translated by Burton Raffel, Norton, 1999.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch.*  Edited by Rosemary Ashton, Penguin, 1994.

Melville, Herman.  Power Moby-Dick:  The Online Annotation.*  Edited by Margaret Guroff,, 2008.

Ortega y Gasset, José.  Meditations on Quixote.  Translated by Evenlyn Rugg and Diego Marín, University of Illinois Press, 2000.


* I have not chosen the most scholarly editions of these novels, but rather editions that are readily accessible and have helpful notes for a non-specialist reader.



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