Don Quixote de la Mancha Summary
by Miguel de Cervantes

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The Work: Part 1

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Don Quixote is a parody of the romance of chivalry, as Aubrey F. G. Bell has described it, “a multiplicity of heterogeneous thoughts, events, episodes, scenes, and characters” welded together in a harmonious whole and bound together by “humor and the consistency of two chief characters,” Alonso Quijano of the village of La Mancha and an illiterate peasant whom he recruits as his squire.

Quijano, or Don Quixote, as he renames himself, is close to fifty, lean and gaunt, and has spent most of his time reading books of chivalry, selling many acres of his land to buy more of these books. Finally, his wits weakened, he decides to put into practice all that he has read. He polishes old pieces of armor and doctors a piece of a helmet with cardboard reinforced with iron strips, and he sets out to find someone to dub him a knight. The innkeeper at a nearby inn humors him. Alarmed at his absence, his niece finds him and brings him back to his village, where she and the curate decide to burn Quixote’s library of more than one hundred books.

Quixote chooses as his lady a good-looking farm girl who lives nearby, Aldonza Lorenzo, whom he renames Dulcinea. Since a squire is necessary, Quixote persuades a neighboring farmer, Sancho Panza, to follow him, with promises of adventure and the prospect of winning an island, over which Sancho is to become governor. Embarked upon his second sally, they find windmills, which Quixote imagines to be giants. Despite Sancho’s warnings, Quixote charges them and is unhorsed by one of the wings. Now seeing that these are really windmills, Quixote explains them as the work of a magician who has changed what are truly giants into windmills. There follow a series of episodes, many of them derived from folklore, in which Quixote suffers setbacks. Two flocks of sheep are imagined to be a Christian army fighting a pagan army—the bleating of the sheep mistaken for the neighing of horses, the sound of trumpets, and the roll of drums.

They meet a man on horseback with something on his helmet that gleams like gold. Quixote is convinced that it is the gold helmet of Mambrino, a famous enchanted helmet of folklore. Bearing down upon the horseman, who is a barber traveling from one village to another to perform some bloodletting for one man and to trim the beard of another, Quixote dismounts and puts to flight the barber, who abandons his headgear, which is actually a basin atop his head to protect it from the rain. Quixote picks it up and proceeds to wear it on his own head.

When Quixote and Sancho meet a chain gang of galley slaves, all criminals, Quixote concludes that now is the time to right wrongs and aid the wretched. When the guards refuse to unshackle them, Quixote charges, and in the turmoil the criminals break their chains and the guards alternate their blows between Quixote, Sancho, and the thieves. In the confusion, the guards flee, abandoning their weapons. The criminals now turn upon Quixote and Sancho and steal their clothing. Chagrined at the succession of defeats and fearing further pursuit, Quixote and Sancho retreat to the mountains of Sierra Moreno, where, Quixote reasons, there is a setting better adapted to the adventures that he seeks, a place for the marvels like those of which he has read.

There, Don Quixote meets a double pair of lovers, Cardenio and Luscinda, Fernando and Dorotea. Cardenio is betrayed by his friend Fernando, who tries to win Luscinda away from Cardenio while breaking his engagement to Dorotea. Cardenio becomes mad, a foil to Don Quixote’s madness. Don Quixote, as helper of damsels in distress, becomes involved, and the lovers are all eventually reunited. This preoccupation with love inspires Quixote to send a love letter and a love poem to Dulcinea with Sancho, who returns to the home village. There, he joins the curate and the barber in a plot to bring Quixote back home. Dorotea will pretend that she is a distressed princess who has come from Guinea to seek redress for...

(The entire section is 1,168 words.)