The success of Don Quixote de la Mancha is all the more remarkable considering that it was spawned by Miguel de Cervantes’ feelings of frustration and rejection. After returning wounded from military service and five years of captivity in North Africa, Cervantes found slight success as he began his literary career, especially in his attempt to write for the theater. His domestic life brought little happiness, and he was justly disappointed when the Spanish crown for which he had fought denied him the bureaucratic appointment he sought in Spain’s American colonies. Having to settle for a position as tax collector in Seville, he was arrested and imprisoned for performing his job improperly. According to legend, Cervantes began writing Don Quixote de la Mancha in jail.

In addition to his personal misfortunes, he saw his Spanish navy, the Armada, suffer a complete reversal of fate between 1571, when Cervantes helped defeat the Turks at Lepanto, and 1588, when the Armada was destroyed by the English navy. Don Quixote de la Mancha has the wistful tone that could only be produced by an almost-sixty-year-old author, remembering what it was like to have been a young, heroic dreamer, who has seen his own personal plans and those of his country fall through. The only fault of Cervantes—and of Don Quixote—is having dared to dream in the first place.

When Don Quixote sees windmills and imagines them to be giants, or when he sees two flocks of sheep and imagines them to be two armies converging in battle, his delusions of grandeur are a metaphor for the...

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