There is a fascinating tale-within-a-tale in the midst of Cervantes' Don Quixote. It's a novel that the priest reads aloud to the travelers - El Curioso Impertinente (The Impertinently Curious Man) - and it's the story of a husband who uses a fiction to tempt his wife, in order to test her virtue. The characters in this story become wrapped up in an increasingly intricate fabric of lies and pretenses, until the truth ultimately destroys them all.
The question is - what does this story-within-a-story have to do with the overall tale of the Man of La Mancha? Are there themes in El Curioso Impertinente that are being played out in the story of Don Quixote as a whole?
There are, of course, many parallels, but to me the most interesting one is this.
In the story of the Curious Man, the fiction that begins the action arises from an ideal. The fiction is used to test the virtue of the characters. As with Don Quixote, who goes mad over fiction, and who sallies forth as a rather tawdry knight-errant, bringing his love for honor and the imagined Golden Age of Chivalry into a world that can't contain it, so in the tale-within-a-tale fiction and imagination are agents - catalysts - to bring about a reaction that is potential, but latent.
Had the husband (the Curious Man) not tested the fidelity of his wife and his best friend, things would have gone along comfortably enough, the three of them and the crafty maid living a life that's endurable but compromised beneath the surface, a pleasant but somewhat false status quo that's not tested, that is not subject to any kind of essay or trial. Yes, the trial (which seems foolish and impertinent on the husband's part) leads to tragedy, but that's because the characters are not up to the ideal that that fiction points to.
And we see that Don Quixote himself is a kind of catalyst and serves the same function in the overall story as the Impertinently Curious Man does in the tale-within-a-tale.
One of his first adventures involves our knight coming upon a boy who is being beaten by his master, who is trying to cheat the boy out of a portion of his wages and punish him before releasing him from his service. Don Quixote intervenes and challenges the cruel master, until he elicits a promise that he will release the boy and pay him what he is due. Trusting the honor of this scoundrel, Don Quixote rides off, thinking he has rescued an innocent victim from a cruel fate.
But after our mad knight rides off, the master treats the boy even worse. Later, the boy finds Don Quixote and says (more or less), "Thanks for nothing! Had you not come along, I would have received only one or two dozen lashes and at least a portion of my pay. After you rode off, he beat me without mercy until I ended up in the hospital, and he ended up paying me nothing! Curse you and all knights errant!"
By challenging the cruel master to live up to the ideal, the respect that a master owes a servant, Don Quixote makes things worse, and the depraved nature of the master is made all the more apparent. The status quo ante was a compromise - "He beats me, but not so bad, and he cheats me, but only to a point."
And, dear readers, is this not a picture of our own lives? "My husband cheats, but only online." "My friend isn't there when I need him, but at least he's there when I don't." "Our priest doesn't really preach about Christ, but at least he's not molesting the altar boys."
Hilaire Belloc calls this "our happy blending of good and evil things". It is a picture of the compromise with fallen nature that makes up our daily lives. But every now and then someone comes along (like, for instance, a mad knight, an impertinently curious man, or even, say, Jesus Christ) to challenge this comfortable compromise by showing us an ideal - perhaps an ideal that we can never completely achieve - and sometimes the presence of that ideal among us becomes an irritant, a catalyst, that causes a violent reaction that was potential but latent all along (like, for instance, the crucifixion).
Belloc's use of the phrase is worth quoting at length ...
The Catholic Church will have no philosophies. She will permit no comforts; the cry of the martyrs is in her far voice; her eyes that see beyond the world present us heaven and hell to the confusion of our human reconciliations, our happy blending of good and evil things.By the Lord! I begin to think this intimate religion as tragic as a great love. ... Yes, certainly religion is as tragic as first love, and drags us out into the void away from our dear homes.