Don Quixote is one of the classics of world literature, the "great forefather of the novel" in critic Lionel Trilling's phrase, and widely acknowledged as Spain's national masterpiece. It has entertained readers of all kinds for more than three hundred years and has been translated into all the major world languages. A selective bibliography of criticism published on Cervantes from 1894 to 1970 lists no less than 660 entries.
One anecdote, although of questionable authenticity, illustrates the book's entertainment value. Reportedly, King Philip III was standing on the balcony of his palace when he noticed a student reading a book on the bank of the Manzanares River. The student interrupted his reading from time to time to slap his forehead in laughter. The king remarked, "Either that student is out of his mind or he is reading Don Quixote." Much of the novel's humor derives from the difference between Don Quixote and the knights errant on whom he bases his behavior. Knights perform useful deeds, restoring queens to their thrones, helping kings repel invaders, and eliminating menaces to public order. Don Quixote, however, sets prisoners free and attacks armies of sheep. Pigs run toward him, and he thinks of it as an "adventure."
Quite apart from its humor, Don Quixote treats interesting dilemmas that remain as relevant today as they were three hundred years ago. For example, the conflict between appearance and reality is dramatized in the famous scene in which Don Quixote attacks windmills, thinking them to be giants, while his squire Sancho Panza tries to persuade him that his targets are in fact windmills. This episode raises an interesting point: to what extent do people see what they want to see, and to what extent is perception objective? Cervantes also questions whether people should believe all that they read. Don Quixote's behavior results from reading too many romances of chivalry---stories where a knight in shining armor saves a damsel in distress---and then trying to live according to chivalric ideals. Cervantes's novel is a cautionary tale in that Don Quixote's actions often lead to disaster. Cervantes's warning is particularly relevant today because many people sometimes base their actions and opinions on what they read and what they see on television or at the movies.
Part 1 Summary
Don Quixote opens with a prologue. Much of the prologue, however, is devoted to a discussion of what a prologue should include, offering the reader some insight into what a seventeenth-century audience might expect.
Don Quixote is the story of Alonso Quijano, an aging gentleman of La Mancha. He reads so many chivalric romances that he loses his sanity. As the narrator reports: "With virtually no sleep and so much reading, he dried out his brain and lost his sanity."
Don Quixote decides to become a knight-errant, which is a knight who travels the countryside performing good deeds and seeking adventure. He puts on an old suit of armor, mounts a bony old horse he calls Rocinante, and renames himself Don Quixote de La Mancha. He also appoints a peasant woman, Aldonza Lorenzo, as his ladylove, and renames her Dulcinea del Toboso. Like the knights of old, Don Quixote performs good deeds in the name of Dulcinea, although she does not know that she is the object of the older man's attention.
Don Quixote then rides in search of adventure. Just as he considers himself a knight, he imagines that a local inn is a castle and the innkeeper a castellan. As a result of his madness and odd behavior, a group of travelers beat him.
After the beating, he makes his way home, where he is interrogated by the local priest and barber. Concerned, they decide to cure him of his madness by burning his books. Don Quixote attributes the missing books to a thieving wizard.
Soon he sets off on another adventure, this time accompanied by Sancho Panza, a rude peasant. In a very famous scene, Don Quixote mistakes some windmills for giants and rushes at them with his spear. When Don Quixote realizes...
(The entire section is 1,105 words.)