The Madness of Doctor Montarco

by Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549

The narrator introduces Dr. Montarco as a competent physician who is admired and trusted by his patients. The trust begins to waver when it is observed that the doctor is a writer who eschews the composition of medical treatises in favor of writing strange and fanciful fiction. He ignores the objections of his clientele and rejects dissuasion by the narrator. His patients begin to desert him. This happened once before; the doctor, with his wife and two pre-teenage daughters, had to leave his native town when his practice dwindled because of his professional dualism.

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Montarco insists that he practices medicine to cure people and to gain his livelihood, and that he does on his own time what he wants to do and not what others want him to do. His personal contempt for patients to whom he is professionally solicitous may be justified, but it signals the instability that will be instrumental in his being institutionalized. Don Servando expresses the sentiment of the patients when he tells the narrator that Montarco is a good doctor but appears to need treatment for a mental ailment. Characteristically overreacting, Montarco calls Don Servando a fool.

As the doctor’s practice disintegrates, his verbal aggression becomes excessive and his mental acuity shows signs of diminishing. One sign is his erroneous ascription of the phrase “appetite for divinity.” Another sign is his denial that he disdains the people whose opinions he clearly scorns.

The narrator’s presentation of his partial responsibility for having Montarco committed to an asylum as an act of friendship is another element of characterization that may be missed by readers who unquestioningly accept the act as such. It is clear that the narrator, who had at first remonstrated with Don Servando in defense of Montarco, now accedes to the will of the townspeople and, instead of continuing the defense of his friend, joins those who insist on closeting Montarco’s nonconformity. The effect of the act is further to aggravate the doctor’s instability.

In the asylum, Dr. Atienza recognizes that Montarco’s madness is not organic but has been induced by pressures to conform. As an inmate, Montarco spends his time reading Miguel de Cervantes’s El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612-1620; better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha), especially the part in which Don Quixote answers the churchman who has found fault with his mad whims and calls him Mr. Fool. Visited by the narrator, Montarco angrily expatiates on the prohibition in Matthew 5:22 against calling one’s brother a fool.

Leaving Montarco, the narrator engages in a long conversation with Atienza and concludes that Atienza has benefited from Montarco’s company. Thereafter Montarco’s illness becomes physical as well as mental. He passes through pathological depression to death; his last utterances, punctuating his obstinate silence, are repetitions of his refrain of “All or nothing.” He leaves behind him a thick manuscript, entitled All or Nothing, with instructions that it be burned on his death. The narrator claims not to know whether Atienza has carried out “the last wish of the madman”; his ostensibly sympathetic concern is accordingly marred by his using the judgmental label “madman” instead of the phrase “my friend.”

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