I can see how Emma Bovary is a female Don Quixote. Mme. Bovary, at crucial moments, mistakes real phenomena for fictional phenomena of a particular literary genre – just as Don Quixote does. Emma Bovary was not even the first. In 1752, Charlotte Lennox published The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella. To be accurate: Emma Bovary is not a female Don Quixote, she is a variant of Don Quixote who happens to be a woman.
Emma Bovary is only one of a many literary Quixotes. Lennox’s Arabella was based, in part, on a French satire, whose heroine imagines herself to be a legendary Roman woman from the 6th century BC whose exploit, leading a group of virgins in an escape from an invader, happened to captivate the 18th century imagination. Others are Catharine Morland of Northanger Abbey and Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility, Pechoring of Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time, who imagines he lives in a Byronic world and, of course, Walter Mitty.
“Quixotic” is not the right adjective for Emma Bovary et. al. “Quixotic” has come to describe – and aptly – both those who do foolish, fruitless things on the basis of foolish, fruitless beliefs, as well as the foolish, fruitless things they do. The invasion of Iraq was a grand quixotic blunder, perhaps the most impressive since the French declared war on Prussia in 1870. Anyone who bites off more than he can chew, who repeats destructive behavior hoping for a better outcome next time, who believes right will always triumph over might, might be described as quixotic. Quixoticism is not necessarily informed by an identification with a literary genre, but to be called quixotic, behavior must include an endeavor, a mission, it must be a crusade of sorts.
Emma Bovary is not quixotic. Yes, she sees certain elements of her life as episodes in a romantic novel, but she passively allows herself to be swept up in them; she does not take a stand. We need a new term for confusing reality and fiction. How about quixotal? (Pronounced quick-sot’l; or – why not get fancy? – quick-sot’l.)
Come to think of it, I’m quixotal, myself, and so are a lot of people. (Remember, as Don Quixote himself says, he may be mad, but he is not a madman. Only certain situations draw him into his chivalric alternative universe or – while we’re about it, we might as well coin another word – his chivalric alternity.) It is not far-fetched to imagine that while in the ennui of waiting to cross the Kingston Bridge in rush hour, I might enter the desolately comic world of modern short fiction from Chekhov to Cheever, and see myself as a sort of composite short story character. The drivers around me would be experiencing the same melancholy boredom, but not as melancholically bored characters from bleak slice-of-life short stories – unless some of them also are quixotal.
Actually, probably more people are quixotal now than ever. Waiting to cross the bridge, I might well be surrounded by others immersed in a pleasurable, personally meaningful fictional world, living this moment of inactivity, forced introspection, as country music characters, reality show characters, Harlequin Romance characters. So I think we'd better pare away from our definition of quixotal, people whose occasional immersion in fiction-based alternities does not effect their behavior. People like us simply are daydreamers.
Instead of just daydreaming rush-hour drivers, the country music character in the Ram 1500 who pulls out his Smith and Wesson when someone in a Honda cuts ahead of him in the line to the tollbooth, the reality show character who cut ahead of him, and the Harlequin Romance character who had been falling for the guy driving the big pickup even before seeing his ruggedly handsome self leaning out the window with a long, shiny pistol, are quixotals.
I doubt many politicians are quixotal. Quixotic, yes, but I don’t think that much foolish political behavior is caused by an absorption in a literary genre. Anthony Weiner exhibits all the symptoms of a quixotal, but I cannot imagine in what weird niche of the fictional he’s finding his inspiration. I guess you could say that some conservatives’ quixotic reliance on market forces to solve the world’s problems is based on the alternity posited by Ayn Rand and so is quixotal as well. I would not grace believing in one’s own publicity with the term “quixotal,” nor simply modeling oneself after another character, fictional or real.
The quixotal becomes immersed in a vast fictional milieu (imaginary, but in the sense that it has been imagined for, not by, him or her) in which not only he or she plays a role, but in which everyone else also is participating. To the guy in the pick-up, the guy in the Honda is taunting him, challenging his manhood by intruding on his territory. To the guy in the Honda, the guy shooting at him from the pick-up truck just because he’d been outsmarted in the first-to-the-tollbooth game is not playing by the rules.
Criminals often reveal themselves as quixotals. Clearly, the Columbine killers were; their delusory world was the world of video games. More often, surely, quixotals are the victims of criminals; their lapses into alternity are easily manipulated. Quixotalism may be behind some youngsters’ joining ISIS – those who are moved by the heroic images of martyrs and fighters instead of the righteous rigors of fundamentalism. And in some police forces, whose commanders feel that their officers seem to be living out television police shows, there are programs to curb quixotalism.
Then there are quixotal marriages. I am not referring to those married couples who share a quixotal attraction to the same fictional genre. A few of those may be found among the couples we say are “peculiar, but still seem happy.” Let’s call them quixotal folies à deux. A quixotal marriage is one that is based on a quixotal misunderstanding – let’s say, between a country music cowboy in love with a sexy lady who’s foxy enough to know not to keep him tied down while she stands by him through thick and thin and a sweet young thing in love with a rugged, charming blackguard who is so obsessed by her body that he has nothing else on his mind but incessantly ravishing her. It will only take a few days of a honeymoon for reality – now with an angry, bitter edge – to set in.
Now we must pose that important question, first asked in 1066 and All That: is quixotalism a good thing or a bad thing? On the one hand, it might well account for more good deeds than bad ones (thanks to the fact that most writers of fiction are decent folk). On the other hand, it is probably better for us, and everyone else, if we live in the immediate, unique reality rather than a contrived fictional version of it.