The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha (Spanish: El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha), the full title of Don Quixote, is written by Miguel de Cervantes. The novel was published in two volumes (in 1605 and 1615)and is widely considered to be the most influential work of literature to emerge from the Spanish Golden Age and, some say, the entire Spanish literary canon. It often appears on lists of the Great Books (capital G, capital B) and is considered by many to be one of the greatest works of fiction ever published. In fact, the editors of 1001 Books write, “Don Quixote stands at the head of a long line of fictions of which fictionality itself is the principal substance. . . . [I]t is the knowing reader rather than the characters or the action that is the implied subjects of address. Indeed, Cervantes here invents the novel form itself, by inventing the reader ” (33).
Overview of the plot
Cervantes begins this novel with a fictional chronicler for Don Quixote, a Moor names Cide Hamete Benengeli. The story focuses on a retired gentleman named Alonso Quixano who has become obsessed with books of chivalry. He believes every impossible, exaggerated, and improbable act of chilvary to be completely true. Soon, he appears to be completely crazy from this obsession and his lack of food and sleep while reading.
The book is arranged in a series of episodes, like many of the books already reviewed from this list. Don Quixote leaves on his first quest in the tradition of a knight errand, with armor and all. He begins by renaming himself Don Quixote of La Mancha and his horse Rocinante. His lady love is a local farmer’s daughter, Aldonza Lorenzo, renamed Dulcinea del Toboso, though of course she knows nothing about this. His first stop is an inn which transforms in his mind to a castle and the innkeeper becomes Lord of such. He asks the innkeeper to dub him a knight, and he gets in a fight with men who want to water their mules (but his armor is in the way). The innkeeper, trying to keep peace, dubs him and sends him off. Don Quixote then finds a boy tied to a tree and “rescues” him, though the boy is quickly punished / beaten after Don Quixote leaves. Next, he runs into some traders who insult his imaginary love and then leave him beaten on the side of the road. Don Quixote is found and rescued by Pedro Crespo, a peasant from village.
While his niece and the housekeeper burn most of his books of chilvary and plot the closing of his library by telling him that a magician has been at work, Don Quixote plans his escape. He approaches Sancho Panza and promises him a governorship if he will serve as his squire. They sneak off at dawn to begin the second quest. This quest includes an attack on windmills (giants, of course) and meetings with innkeepers, prostitutes, goatherds, soldiers, priests, escaped convicts, and scorned lovers. Unfortunately, Don Quixote has a habit of interfering in matters not of his business and a habit of not paying his bills, so the quest is marred by a series of humilations of which the “squire” usually gets the worst. Eventually, Don Quixote has had enough and is persuaded to return home.
Cervantes says that accounts of a third quest have been lost.
The second part of the book (published ten years later) focuses on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, who are supposed to be famous because of their adventures in part one. While the first half of the book is mostly a farce or series of farcical episodes, the second half focuses on the more serious theme of deception. Don Quixote is subjected to cruel practical jokes. His friend Sancho Panza deceives him as well, bringing back three peasant girls to play the role of the Don’s lady love, telling him that he is a victim of a magical spell that only allows him to see peasants instead of his beautiful love. For his service, Sancho Panza eventually gets his governorship of an imaginary island and proves to be wise beyond his station, though it doesn’t end well. However, Don Quixote becomes greatly depressed by the deceptions around him and in the process regains his sanity and denounces chilvary, but he dies a very unhappy man.
The book includes many minor stories as well, but for brevity sake, I am not going to include them here.
This novel makes fun of chilvary and becomes a spoof (yes, like Scary Movie or a Leslie Nielson film). And, that is what makes it most interesting. It borders two periods of the novel, nestled between the chilvaric romance and the modern novel. Disconnected stories with little introspection (medieval romance) are replaced with the modern notion of the individual and his* psychological journey / transformation (* we will leave the “his” for now, as most of these first ones have been male-dominated; I am sure that I will have a lot of fodder to write about this more, especially with “sensational” novels in the nineteenth century). Don Quixote is supposedly the first novel in which menopause, eating disorders, and introspection are given voice (I know that’s arguable).
The cultural importance of this book cannot be under estimated. The GradeSaver site or this list of cultural influences is just the beginning. And though I don’t know of any off-hand, I am pretty sure there are books published on the subject for one who wants more details. If only for the cultural references, one should be familiar with this book.
Don Quixote is available from Google Books in many forms. A searchable eText version is available at the Literature Network. Lesson plans are available for this novel at Discovery Education. You might also visit the Don Quixote Virtual Museum which has awesome links to many cultural references.