We, as language-users, constantly name ourselves, others, settings, actions, and events in an order that makes sense to us. We may not always use Don Quixote’s romantic language nor share his chivalric plot line, but he is only doing what all of us do: trying to make sense of the noise and confusion of life through narrative language. (Actually, you may think that you do not participate in the world of the chivalric romance, but I know you as you are: a furtive romantic, a closet hero.)
Like language, narrative refers to concept rather than reality. The structuralist description of the sign can be extended to narrative, since both words and stories are symbols played out across time. A word occurs as a sequence, as when we say or read “T – U – N – D – R – A.” Similarly, a narrative may be defined as signs in a series. The story then can be considered a sign itself, an arbitrary signifier, referring not to events in the real world, but to a subjective concept of what happened, is happening and will happen.
(Diagrams of the plot from Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy)
While Miguel de Cervantes was writing a tale about a mad knight, scientists were discovering and describing a rational order to the cosmos. Between the publication of the first book of Don Quijote in 1605 and and the second in 1615, Johannes Kepler proposed the first two laws of planetary motion, and Galileo Galilei made telescopic observations that proved the heliocentric model of the solar system proposed by Copernicus sixty years earlier. To these scientists, the universe appeared to be an organized system, operating according to observable, objective laws.
In his article “Chaotic Quijote: Complexity, Nonlinearity and Perspectivism,” Cory A. Reed argues that Cervantes’ metafictional novel anticipates chaos theory: “Like chaos theory itself, Cervantes’ novel challenges the reliability of determinism, objectivity, and literalism that would soon be adopted by the Newtonian and Cartesian models of scientific investigation” (Reed 738). In contrast to the scientists of his day (and all others up until Albert Einstein and Werner Heisenberg), Cervantes represented reality as contradictory, random and subjective.