dON qUIXOTE: PART II
Don Quixote, schadenfreude, and Black Mirror
schadenfreude: enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others -mERRIAM-WEBSTER
Published in 1615, Part II of Don Quixote has a Deadpool level of meta-awareness, making it a truly modern novel. Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and all the other characters know about the real first novel written ten years earlier and a fake "fan fiction" sequel that was written the year before.
In-universe, Don Quixote has become famous for his special brand of madness.
His desire to act as a knight in shining armor has made him the butt of every cynical joke. A rich Duke and Duchess find him so entertaining that they bait him to do foolish things.
The ordeal crushes Don Quixote until he is forced to return home. He denounces knight errantry and dies defeated in his bed, a broken, old man.
What to steal
In the first part of Don Quixote, I howled at his tilting at windmills and the problems he caused himself and the people around him. Every inn-keeper was a king, every prostitute a princess. Each encounter left him more bruised and busted. He tried so hard and got so little. And it was. so. funny.
Making the other characters aware of Don Quixote's madness changes the tone of the story. Suddenly, every laugh is malicious. Characters like the Duke and Duchess want to see Don Quixote and Sancho hurt and humiliated. They use a sick man for their own personal entertainment. It's disgusting...hateful...wait...wasn't I doing the same thing in Part I?
Wasn't I enjoying his pain and suffering? Didn't I chuckle when his madness led him to do something absurd?
Reflecting the story back at the reader creates a cognitive dissonance that is both unsettling and self-revelatory.
Depressing twist? Did someone say Black Mirror? (spoilers)
Ah, Black Mirror, the UK anthology series turned Netflix darling that keeps me up at night with techo-nightmares about the near-future. Somehow, this futuristic show perfectly demonstrates the Don Quixote twist, especially in the episode White Bear.
White Bear centers around a woman, Victoria Skillane, who inexplicably wakes up in a dystopian world where people are hunted down by masked sociopaths. Zombie-like characters record the terror of the hunted people and follow them everywhere. We watch in horror and excitement as the protagonist joins up with other survivors and they fight their way through the hunters to a place where they can disrupt the signal that is powering all the chaos.
Just as the excitement reaches it peak, the twist is revealed. Victoria is an accomplice to a child-murderer and all the trials of the episode have been part of her punishment. The other "survivors" and the hunters are actors. The people recording are visitors there to see her suffer. They wipe her memory so they can watch her suffer again and again.
This episode follows the same beats as the parts of Don Quixote:
- We engage with the protagonist, enjoying the action/suffering of the character as a form of entertainment while maintaining emotional distance.
- The narrative reveals that there are in-universe characters enjoying the suffering of the protagonist in the same detached way we are.
- We experience cognitive dissonance/emotional discomfort.
Why do we feel emotional discomfort and how does this benefit a narrative?
Through these stories, we identify with the protagonists. I admired Don Quixote's sincerity and his desire to do good in the world, even though he ruined everything he touched. I felt sympathy for Victoria Skillane, even after learning that she committed a terrible crime.
As much as we might care about the protagonists, there will always be an emotional gap between fiction and reality. The mob of people in White Bear and the Duke and Duchess in Don Quixote exist on the same "level" as their protagonists, making their actions seem reprehensible. We as readers and viewers exist "separate" from these fictional characters, allowing us to enjoy the story no matter how bad things may get.
But, in meta-narrative stories, in-universe behavior reflects on us, acting as a mirror for us to see ourselves as both separate from and part of the story.
Meta-narrative stories can make us more empathetic, more unsettled by the violence that exists here in the real world. There are execution videos online. There are "comedians" who tell jokes at the expense of those with mental and physical disabilities. Do we accept these things as equally "harmless" entertainment, something to be viewed from the same emotional distance as other media? Or are we horrified to have become a casual voyeur?
This level of reflection can give a story universality and stay with the reader far longer than a popcorn-plot that doesn't make the reader ask: "Could that be me?"