Lionel Trilling famously stated, ”All prose fiction is a variation of the theme of ‘Don Quixote’.” Therefore I try, in the most literal way possible, to find our famous knight and squire in the pages of every novel I read.
Well, I recently finished all 1,304 pages of “Les Misérables,” and I couldn’t find them.
Not to worry, though. I’ve donned a new pair of spectacles, and I can see them now.
I’m sure you, as a perceptive reader, will agree with me that Grantaire and Enjolras are in a Don Quijote and Sancho Panza kind of marriage:
Grantaire replied, ‘I’m official magistrate and master of poetry!’
Enjolras, who was standing on the ridge of the barricade, gun in hand, raised his stern, handsome face. As we know, there was something of the Spartan and the Puritan in Enjolras. He would have perished at Thermopylae with Leonidas and burned down Drogheda with Cromwell.
‘Grantaire,’ he shouted, ‘go and wallow in your drunkenness elsewhere! This is a place for the spirited, not for the sot. You’re a disgrace to the barricade!’
This tetchy remark had a striking effect on Grantaire. It was as if a glass of cold water had been thrown in his face. He suddenly seemed to sober up. He sat down at a table by the window, rested his elbows on it, gazed at Enjolras with an indescribable tenderness and said to him, ‘You know, I believe in you.’
I can report one more sighting of the dynamic duo of La Mancha in post-Revolutionary France. Those who have followed Don Quixote’s career will recall the time when he and Sancho encountered a chain gang on the Spanish plain:
Don Quixote looked up and saw coming toward him on the same road he was traveling approximately twelve men on foot, strung together by their necks, like beads on a great iron chain, and all of them wearing manacles. Accompanying them were two men on horseback and two on foot; the ones on horseback had flintlocks, and those on foot carried javelins and swords; as soon as Sancho Panza saw them, he said: “This is a chain of galley slaves, people forced by the king to go to the galleys.”
“What do you mean, forced?” asked Don Quixote. “Is it possible that the king forces anyone?”
“I’m not saying that,” responded Sancho, “but these are people who, because of their crimes, have been condemned to serve the king in the galleys, by force.”
“In short,” replied Don Quixote, “for whatever reason, these people are being taken by force and not of their own free will.”
“That’s right,” said Sancho.
“Well, in that case,” said his master, “here it is fitting to put into practice my profession: to right wrongs and come to the aid and assistance of the wretched.”
“Your grace shouldn’t forget,” said Sancho, “that justice, which is the king himself, does not force or do wrong to such people, but sentences them as punishment for their crimes.”
Don Quixote’s naïveté practically equals that of Cosette upon encountering a similar chain gang in “Les Misérables”:
Cosette: ‘Father, what on earth is in those carts?’
Jean Valjean replied, ‘Convicts.’
‘Where are they going?’
‘To the prison hulks.’
At that moment the volley of blows dealt by numerous hands intensified, including swipes with the flat of the sword. It was a kind of frenzy of whips and clubs. The convicts cringed, a hideous submission was extorted by this punishment, and with the look of chained wolves in their eyes all fell silent.
Cosette trembled in every limb. She persisted, ‘Father, are they men?’
‘Sometimes,’ said the poor wretch.
This was indeed the chain gang that set out before daybreak from Bicêtre and was taking the Le Mans road in order to avoid Fontainebleau, where the king was.
Previous sightings of the Spanish knight and squire, sometimes together, sometimes not:
Regency England, on the Longbourn estate
Regency England, in an ancient abbey
At a remote castle in pre-Regency England
Southern Texas, near the Rio Grande
Mississippi, on the Phelps farm