The Work: Part 1
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1168
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 an injury done to her by a giant and to seek Don Quixote’s help.
En route to the village, they stop at an inn, where Don Quixote goes to sleep in the garret where wineskins are kept. Dreaming that he is engaged in a struggle with a giant, he begins to slash at the wineskins. Half awake, he mistakes the wine for the flow of blood. Even after thoroughly waking, he continues the battle and begins to look for the giant’s head on the floor, persuaded that he has cut it off. Sancho is so convinced that he looks for it too and assures the innkeeper’s daughter that he saw the monster.
Among the persons at the inn are a student and a former soldier with a Morisco maiden. Both soldier and student inspire lengthy discourses from Don Quixote on war and peace, on the treatment of students, on the treatment of soldiers, and on the comparisons between the professions of arms and letters. Artillery, Don Quixote says, is a diabolic device by which an infamous arm may take the life of a valiant knight without his knowing from where the blow came. Peace is the greatest blessing desirable in this life. The end of war is peace.
The student’s chief hardship is poverty. He must suffer hunger, cold, destitution, nakedness. The soldier is the poorest of the poor, dependent upon wretched pay, which comes late or never, and upon such booty as he can amass, to the peril of his life and conscience. On the day of battle, they place upon his head a doctor’s cap to heal the wound inflicted by some bullet that may have passed through his temple or left him mutilated. It is far easier to reward scholars than soldiers, for the former may receive posts, while the latter receive any compensation that their master has a disposition to give. Men of letters argue that, without them, men of arms cannot support themselves; men of arms reply that, without them, there can be no letters, since by their efforts states are preserved. To attain eminence in letters requires time, loss of sleep, hunger, headaches, and indigestion; to be a good soldier costs as much and more. The former soldier, pressed to tell his story, is revealed as a former captive of the Moors and enslaved by them. The captive’s tale has many elements derived from Cervantes’s own experiences in Algiers, and Cervantes himself appears briefly as a character in the tale.
Sancho, the curate, and the barber finally get Quixote home. Back home, he is warmly greeted by the townsfolk and taken to his house, where the niece and the housekeeper care for him. Quixote and Sancho do mention the possibility of a third sally, but the author does not know what will happen.