Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, like the existentialist writers Søren Kierkegaard and Pär Lagerkvist, believed that the fulfillment of an individual human life consisted of a constant struggle to attain the unattainable condition of divinity. Kierkegaard based his struggle on his ineradicable need of God and his assumption that one cannot need what does not exist. Lagerkvist based his own struggle toward holiness on longing, which enriches the individual in proportion to its intensity. Unamuno’s struggle was a matter of will, a refusal to accept, as reason dictated, the reality of his own mortality; he wanted nothing short of immortality: all or nothing, as Dr. Montarco demands.

Dr. Montarco’s madness amounts to his flouting of reason, which is represented in the story by the townspeople and their ethos. Reason is requisite to livelihood, which in turns depends on conformity. The imagination is, however, for both Unamuno and his character Dr. Montarco, the stuff of life; and reason, as the author insists in one of his essays, cannot predispose itself to the revelation of life. Dr. Montarco, like Unamuno, reveres Don Quixote as the greatest madman who ever lived. By Dr. Montarco’s berating the churchman in Don Quixote de la Mancha for calling this madman a fool, Unamuno distinguishes the madness that characterizes genius and discloses true life from the foolishness of those who mistake livelihood for life. The irony is that Cervantes’s...

(The entire section is 502 words.)