Is Don Quixote an idealist or a realist?

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On almost every scale that others have applied to him, Quixote measures up as idealist. His very name has become synonymous with idealism, and even his delusional behavior of tilting at windmills has long been a metaphor for taking on impossible challenges.

Yet it seems worth considering Quixote's own perspective...

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On almost every scale that others have applied to him, Quixote measures up as idealist. His very name has become synonymous with idealism, and even his delusional behavior of tilting at windmills has long been a metaphor for taking on impossible challenges.

Yet it seems worth considering Quixote's own perspective on his behavior. While the narrator dismisses him as mad and mocks his errors of vision and judgment, Quixote himself often conveys his awareness of his real surroundings and his motivations.

Quixote has been a military man and seen terrible things. He knows full well that the world is generally harsh and unforgiving—a fundamentally realist position. He knows, as well, the weight of mortality, with the severe limits aging places on people. One reason he set off is this awareness of his impending demise.

Quixote's frequently expressed awareness of the harshness of reality reveals him as a realist. His desire to help others as a path to improving his life confirm that realism—he cannot make time run backward, so it is realistic to make the most of the time he has left.

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Don Quixote is an idealist. He has become an icon of idealism. The phrase "tilting at windmills," for example, has become a shorthand term for taking on an impossibly idealistic, doomed project.

According to Cervantes' book, Don Quixote reads so many romances about medieval knights of valor going about the countryside protecting and helping people in distress that his mind turns. He finds the world of romance so much more appealing than the practical everyday world around him that he chooses to live in a world where he can act the part of a heroic knight, and Sancho can be his squire. In modern parlance, he tries to "become the change he wanted to see."

Of course, the rest of the world doesn't understand the quest to live in a better, more ideal version of this world. Like any extreme idealist, Quixote often found himself beaten up and injured for his pains. People were more likely to make fun of him as a crazy old man than to enter sympathetically into his dream.

Cervantes used Quixote to explore the difference between the ideal and the real, and to show what happens when the two intersect. Part of his genius is the extent to which he leaves the reader with mixed feeling about Quixote's idealism.

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Don Quixote is most certainly an idealist. To quote the words of the musical, he "dreams the impossible dream." While many of his desires are realistic, his choice to pursue them and certainty in attaining them is idealistic.

Some might consider Don Quixote insane, as he really does go overboard with some of his actions. However, he can also be seen as simply being self-indulgent. He has dreams he pursues, which is more than most of us can say. He will pursue them at any cost. 

One of the most important themes of the novel is love, which is important because often people become overly idealistic when they follow love. There is an old saying that we see those we love with rose colored glasses, and one could also say that Don Quixote sees the entire world with rose colored glasses! Hence, he is the perfect idealist.

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Quixote is an idealist.  Perhaps, he ends up learning the harsh truth of the world, but his defining elements are ones of idealism.  He pursues a conception of the good that only exists in his own mind and he has little care for how others perceive him.  Quixote lives in the world of dreams.  His defense of Dulcinea's honor might be completely antihetical to what reality presents, yet that is irrelevant to him.  What Quixote believes is in his own mind and his own pursuit of it is idealistic, in its very nature.  The idealism present in Quixote is what makes the novel so compelling in that he passionately speaks to what it means to be human in terms of believing in one's dreams and appropriating the world in accordance to one's own subjectivity.  In this element, one sees the overwhelming idealism present in the character of Quixote.

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