Any analysis of Don Quixote should examine Cervantes’s motivation for writing what might be considered the first modern novel. By doing so, the reader will better understand why the protagonist, Don Quixote, changes from the beginning to the end of the novel.
In the early 1500s, stories of chivalry and heroic knights appeared to provide the litmus test for fine literature. Tales of fantastic adventures and heroic exploits prevailed in literary circles in Spain. Despite the few well-written works of that era, most of the stories were poor imitations that failed to separate fantasy from reality. Cervantes felt strongly that people succumbed to the influence of these imitative writings to the point where they would often imitate chivalric responses to encounters in Spanish culture. In matters of honor and loyalty to country, many did not differentiate between fiction and reality, and he believed this attitude caused a cultural deterioration. Cervantes penned Don Quixote to minimize the influence of the prevalent literature of the era.
The protagonist in this novel changes from start to finish. The author intentionally presents Don Quixote’s deterioration throughout the story as a mirror of the reality of contemporary Spanish civilization in the seventeenth century. Like many Spaniards, “he passed his time in reading books of knight-errantry.” As a result, he begins to believe that like his fictional heroes, he can seek adventure, fight for noble causes, and save damsels in distress:
A world of disorderly notions, picked out of his books, crowded into his imagination; and now his head was filled with nothing but enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, complaints, amours, torments, and abundance of stuff and impossibilities: insomuch, that all the fables and fantastical tales which he read seemed to him now as true as most authentic histories.
Don Quixote is written in two parts. In the first part, readers are encouraged to believe that the idealism the protagonist displays is laudable. His fine personal qualities and high moral principles reflect the realistic standard of behavior in Spanish society. However, as the novel progresses, the dividing line between appearance and reality becomes blurred. The hero is less enthusiastic and becomes reluctant to pursue fantastical knightly adventures.