Don Quixote de la Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes - Essay

Miguel de Cervantes


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Don Quixote de la Mancha Miguel de Cervantes

Novel published in 1605 (Part I) and 1615 (Part II).

The following entry presents criticism of Cervantes's novel Don Quixote.

Don Quixote de la Mancha is considered one of the masterpieces of world literature. The novel narrates the travels of an insane old man who, believing he is a knight-errant, leaves his village of La Mancha and searches for adventure on the highways and in the villages of seventeenth-century imperial Spain. While the two parts of the novel, published in 1605 and 1615, can be read as a unified whole, they differ considerably in style and approach. The first part is considered by many critics to be a straightforward parody of chivalric romances, while the second part is a more ambitious, self-referential work that involves the reader in an examination of the nature of literature itself. Both parts of the work are rich in humor, social and political commentary, and psychological insight. Some of the major themes that Don Quixote explores are love, imagination, morality, societal norms, class, honor, and the relationship between art and nature. Since its publication, Cervantes's novel has inspired the work of the world's great writers, artists, and composers, including Jorge Luis Borges, William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Henry Purcell, Friedrich Mendelssohn, and Richard Strauss. It remains as popular today as when it first appeared and is admired for its depth and complexity as well as for its appeal as a supremely entertaining story.

Biographical Information

Cervantes was born in Alcalá de Henares, a small town near Madrid, in 1547. His father was an itinerant surgeon whose work took his family all over Spain. Despite moving about a great deal, Cervantes received some early formal education in the school of the Spanish humanist Juan Lopez de Hoyos, who taught in Madrid in the 1560s. In 1569, Cervantes traveled to Italy to serve in the household of an Italian nobleman. A year later, he joined the Spanish army. After seeing active duty in Italy and being imprisoned in Algiers for five years, he returned to Spain in 1580. In 1584, when he was thirty-seven, he married a woman twenty years his junior and shortly thereafter obtained a position as a government official in the south of Spain. In 1585, he published his first prose work, La Galatea, a pastoral romance. He then began writing for the theater and composing short stories. By the time the first part of Don Quixote appeared in 1605, Cervantes was a well-known author. The novel was an immediate success, going through six editions in its first year of publication. The work was translated into English and French, bringing Cervantes international recognition. In the years that followed, he published a collection of short stories, a satiric poem, some of his theatrical works, and the second part of Don Quixote. His final prose work, The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda, a Byzantine romance, was completed shortly before he died in 1616.

Plot and Major Characters

Don Quixote tells the story of Alonso Quejana, a Spanish country gentleman who is obsessed by books of chivalry. He spends all his time reading these tales of knights, squires, magicians, and damsels until he goes mad. He convinces himself he is a knight, finds himself a steed (an old nag he calls “Rocinante”), and dubs himself Don Quixote de la Mancha. He also chooses a lady, a country girl named Aldonza Lorenzo who is famed for her skill at salting pork, and gives her the title of Dulcinea del Toboso. He then sets out on his adventures, dreaming of fame and glory. He soon manages to convince a shrewd but illiterate peasant farmer, Sancho Panza, into accompanying him as his squire in return for the promise of a governorship of an island after their brave exploits are over. This story is told in two parts. The first part of the work is a more straightforward narrative that parodies tales of chivalry and romance, as Don Quixote sets out with his squire on a life of glory and chivalric adventures, determined to defend the helpless and destroy the wicked. After his exploits, he is brought home by two of the men from his village who hope to cure him of his madness. The second part of the novel is more complex, as the don learns about the book that has been written about him and his deeds. He and Sancho set out again on a series of adventures, but many of these encounters are staged by characters who know of the pair's previous adventures, and the lines between fiction and reality become increasingly blurred. Once again after his adventures Don Quixote returns home, but his time he renounces the tales of chivalry and is cured of his madness.

Major Themes

The main concern of the first part of Don Quixote is to parody the popular idea of chivalry and romance. Cervantes points out the often comical relationships between chivalry and everyday life, and Don Quixote in his madness serves to illustrate how misguided indeed these romantic notions are. His encounters with other characters also satirize the society in which these characters exist and comment on the codes of behavior reflected by their actions. The character of Don Quixote also reinforces the idea that the old system of morality, the chivalric code, is in disrepair, as nobody except Sancho Panza understands him or his values. Although love is sometimes celebrated in the novel, Don Quixote's devotion to Dulcinea mocks romantic ideals, as the object of his adulation is a woman he has never even seen. A related theme to that of chivalry, and one that was not much written about in Cervantes's day, is that of equating social class with personal worth. Cervantes attacks the conventional idea that aristocrats are respectable and noble. In the second part of the novel, for example, he contrasts the Duke and Duchess's malice with Sancho's compassion, showing the peasant to be wise despite his low social status. Similarly, goatherds and shepherds in the novel exhibit a philosophical cast of mind while aristocratic characters are often intellectually shallow. Among the many recurring symbols in Don Quixote are those that take the form of books and manuscripts. These underscore the importance and influence of literature in everyday life. They also point to the larger theme of the relationship between art and reality. In the second part of the novel, for example, the question of authorship and storytelling is a preoccupation of the characters as well as the narrator. This idea is especially associated with Don Quixote's madness.

Critical Reception

Don Quixote was an instant success when it was first published in Spanish, and Cervantes achieved international fame after the novel was translated into English and French in 1606. The work remained popular throughout Europe in the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century, but it was viewed generally as a light entertainment. In England during the mid-eighteenth century, what had previously been regarded as a burlesque tale began to be taken seriously as a more complex work. During the Romantic era of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the figure of Don Quixote was regarded by many as a Romantic hero. Due to the relative neglect Cervantes's novel had been receiving in Spain during the same time, in 1780 a new edition of Don Quixote was commissioned, and with the novel's reissue Cervantes's protagonist was elevated in his homeland to the status of cultural icon. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, critics became interested in the character of Don Quixote as a psychological study. In the later twentieth century, critical attention began to shift away from the figure of the protagonist to the structure of the novel. Many recent critics have been interested in the work's narrative structure, seeing the novel as a prototypical example of a work composed by a highly self-conscious writer, as Cervantes playfully subverts the authority of the text and calls into question the enterprise of literature itself.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

El cerco de Numancia (play) 1585

La Galatea (romance) 1585

*El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (novel) 1605

Novelas exemplares [Exemplary Novels,] (short stories) 1613

Viage del Parnaso [adaptor, from "Viaggio in Parnasso" by Cesare Caporali di Perugia] (poetry) 1614

Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses (plays) 1615

*Segunda parte del ingenioso cavallero don Quixote (novel) 1615

Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda [The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda] (romance) 1617

El trato de Argel [The Commerce of Algiers] (drama) c. 1580

Galatea: A Pastoral Romance (romance) 1791

Obras completas de Cervantes. 12 vols. (novels, short stories, romances, dramas, and poetry) 1863-64

Don Quixote of la Mancha [translated by John Ormsby] (novel) 1883?

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha [translated by Samuel Putnam] (novel) 1949

Adventures of Don Quixote [translated by J. M. Cohen] (novel) 1968

Interludes of Cervantes, [edited by S. Griswold Morley] (plays) 1969

Don Quixote: The Ormsby Translation Revised [edited by Joseph R. Jones and Kenneth Douglas] (novel) 1981

El cerco de Numancia (play; edited by Robert Marrast) 1984

Don Quixote [translated by Edith Grossman] (novel) 2003

*Following first publication and translation, El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha and Segunda parte del ingenioso cavallero Don Quixote have appeared as the single work Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Margaret Church (essay date 1971)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Church, Margaret. Introduction to Don Quixote: The Knight of La Mancha, pp. xiii-xxxvi. New York: New York University Press, 1971.

[In the following essay, Church notes the thematic and structural connections between Don Quixote and other works of fiction, suggests a psychological basis of the novel's structure, and discusses the difference between the 1605 and 1615 portions of the work.]

That Don Quixote, one of the most loved and widely read books ever written, should need to be “explained” suggests the paradox of all criticism. The critic interprets a book that has already been interpreted and understood by many, and yet, if the book has...

(The entire section is 9454 words.)

Ruth El Saffar (essay date 1975)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: El Saffar, Ruth S. “The Dynamics of Character-Author-Reader Interaction in Don Quixote.” In Distance and Control in Don Quixote : A Study in Narrative Technique, pp. 15-44. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: North Carolina Studies in Romance Languages and Literatures, 1975.

[In the following essay, El Saffar examines how Don Quixote is built around the tripartite nature of its characters as they function at different points in the roles of character, narrator, and spectator.]


Don Quixote, in addition to being a novel about a man who made himself a...

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Anthony Close (essay date 1977)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Close, Anthony. “Don Quixote as Burlesque Novel.” In The Romantic Approach to Don Quixote: A Critical History of the Romantic Tradition in ‘Quixote’ Criticism, 1-28. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

[In the following excerpt, Close takes issue with the Romantic approach to Don Quixote that was established in the 1800s and views the work rather as a burlesque, a study of character, and a precursor of the modern novel.]


Most criticism of Don Quixote since about 1800 has followed the main lines of the approach to the novel initially adopted by the German Romantics. This I call...

(The entire section is 8974 words.)

John J. Allen (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Allen, John J. “The Narrators, the Reader, and Don Quixote” and “The Governorship of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote's Chivalric Career.” In Don Quixote: Hero or Fool?, Part II, pp. 3-15; 19-36. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1979.

[In the following essay, Allen examines the relationship between the reader and narrator in Don Quixote.]

The relationships established at the outset of Don Quixote between the narrator, the reader, and the protagonist are not difficult to characterize. The narrator's humility, openness, and lack of pretensions seem genuine. The ingratiating and flattering invitation to shared irony is very attractive...

(The entire section is 11890 words.)

Carroll B. Johnson (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Johnson, Carroll B. “Psychiatry and Don Quixote.” In Madness and Lust: A Psychoanalytical Approach to Don Quixote, pp. 11-31. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983.

[In the following essay, Johnson comments on Cervantes's knowledge of contemporary medical theories and ideas about psychology and madness and argues that in Don Quixote the novelist anticipates many of the discoveries of modern psychiatry.]

Let us begin on the familiar terrain of English literary history and observe the evolution of twentieth-century scholarly interest in Elizabethan theories of personality and psychology as keys to understanding character and...

(The entire section is 7601 words.)

Donald W. Bleznick (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bleznick, Donald. “Don Quijote as Spanish Myth.” In Studies on Don Quijote and Other Cervantine Works, edited by Donald W. Bleznick, pp. 1-19. York, S. C.: Spanish Literature Publications Company, 1984.

[In the following essay, Bleznick provides an analysis of Don Quixote, suggesting that he is an archetypal hero who captures the essence of the Spanish character and a mythic figure who arose from the Spanish collective unconscious.]

The enduring, universal appeal of Don Quijote springs in large measure from Cervantes' genial creation of a literary figure whose words and deeds are timeless and not bound by geographic limitations. An...

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James A. Parr (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Parr, James A. “Extrafictional Point of View in Don Quijote.” In Studies on Don Quijote and Other Cervantine Works, edited by Donald W. Bleznick, pp. 20-30. York, S. C.: Spanish Literature Publications Company, 1984.

[In the following essay, Parr discusses narrative point of view in Don Quixote.]

A recent, thoughtful statement about point of view reads as follows: “All too frequently … point of view has been conceived in terms of a single, surface-structure relationship between narrator and narrated event. Such a relationship leaves no room for exploring the relationships of narrator to audience or narrator to authorial voice. Even more...

(The entire section is 3876 words.)

Maureen Ihrie (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ihrie, Maureen. “Classical Skepticism and Narrative Authority in Don Quijote de la Mancha.” In Studies on Don Quijote and Other Cervantine Works, edited by Donald W. Bleznick, pp. 31-37. York, S. C.: Spanish Literature Publications Company, 1984.

[In the following essay, Ihrie proposes that the role of the author in Don Quixote should be understood against the background of the Renaissance interpretation of classical Greek skepticism toward authority.]

The ambiguously complex authorial presence in Don Quijote de la Mancha remains one of the most intriguing inventions of the work, partially because the unique assemblage of...

(The entire section is 2410 words.)

Mary A. Gervin (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Gervin, Mary A. “Don Quixote as Existential Hero.” CLA Journal 32, no. 2 (1987): 178-88.

[In the following essay, Gervin explores what she perceives as Don Quixote's disaffection with life and his deluded view of reality in the first part of the novel.]

Although Miguel de Cervantes lived and wrote during the period of rebirth and discovery of the Golden Age of Spain, he was doomed by circumstance to be skeptical about the optimistic hopes and dreams of the humanists around him. Having every reason to consider himself an abject failure, Cervantes had had little success at any ventures until Don Quixote was published. Professed by the author to be a...

(The entire section is 3404 words.)

Eric J. Ziolkowski (essay date October 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ziolkowski, Eric J. “Don Quijote's Windmill and Fortune's Wheel.” Modern Language Review 86, no. 4 (October 1991): 885-97

[In the following essay, Ziolkowski considers what the windmill in Don Quixote represents as a symbol.]

The knight's combat with the windmills in Part i, Chapter 8, of Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605) is the most famous episode in what many view as the first and prototypical modern novel, a work that has been the most widely translated, published, read, and discussed text of that genre in literary history. By the time Miguel de Cervantes wrote the Quijote's second part (1615) he was evidently aware that the windmill...

(The entire section is 8104 words.)

Edward Friedman (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Friedman, Edward. “Reading Inscribed: Don Quixote and the Parameters of Fiction.” In On Cervantes: Essays for L. A. Murillo, edited by James A. Parr, pp. 63-84. Newark, Del.: Juan de la Cuesta, 1991.

[In the following essay, Friedman discusses how in Don Quixote Cervantes explores the relationship between literature and life.]

A blessing on Cide Hamete Benengeli, who has written the history of your great deeds, and a double blessing on that connoisseur who took the trouble of having it translated out of Arabic into our Castilian tongue for the universal entertainment of the people.

(II, 3,...

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Julio Rodríguez-Luis (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Rodríguez-Luis, Julio. “On Closure and Openendedness in the Two Quijotes.” In On Cervantes: Essays for L. A. Murillo, edited by James A. Parr, pp. 227-40. Newark, Del.: Juan de la Cuesta, 1991.

[In the following essay, Rodríguez-Luis examines the narrative function and implication of the endings of the two parts of Don Quixote to offer insights into the composition of the work as a whole.]

The question of closure in Don Quijote has received minimal attention in spite of its importance for understanding the composition of the work.1 Studying the narrative function and the implications of Don Quijote's ending, or, more...

(The entire section is 5516 words.)

R. M. Flores (essay date fall 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Flores, R. M. “Don Quixote as a Genre of Genres.” Romance Quarterly 40, no. 4 (fall 1993): 211-25.

[In the following essay, Flores argues that the first sentence of Don Quixote sets the stage for the rest of the novel and that the first chapter explores the major themes and devices of the novel as a whole.]

My intention here is twofold. I propose to show: (1) that the first sentence of Don Quixote is both a record of intention and a promise of things to come, and (2) that the first chapter of the novel is a compendium of the ideas, creative devices, and literary caveats that dominate the entire work.

Cervantes sets us...

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Manuel Durán (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Durán, Manuel. “From Fool's Gold to Real Gold: Don Quixote and the Golden Helmet.” In Studies in Honor of Donald W. Bleznick, pp. 17-31. Newark, Del.: Juan de la Cuesta, 1995.

[In the following essay, Durán maintains that chapter twenty-one of the first part of Don Quixote, which deals with the adventure of Mambrino's helmet, is a microcosm of the entire novel.]

Reading Don Quixote is like biting into a plum pudding: some chapters are more rewarding, more full of juicy bits of fruit than others. Chapter XXI of Part I, “which treats of the high and richly rewarded adventure of Mambrino's helmet, together with other things that happened to...

(The entire section is 5767 words.)

James A. Parr (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Parr, James A. “Some Narratological Problems in Don Quixote: Five Instances.” In Studies in Honor of Donald W. Bleznick, pp. 127-42. Newark, Del.: Juan de la Cuesta, 1995.

[In the following essay, Parr examines narrative technique in Don Quixote.]

It is no exaggeration to say that the plot, the main characters, the interpolated stories, and the complementarities among main and accessory actions have, together, dominated critical discourse on Don Quixote. It is also fair to say that the telling of the tale has generally taken a subordinate position to what in Anglo-American critical parlance is traditionally called “showing.” In the terms...

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Diana de Armas Wilson (essay date December 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: De Armas Wilson, Diana. “‘Ocean Chivalry’: Issues of Alterity in Don Quixote.Colby Quarterly 32, no. 4 (December 1996): 220-35.

[In the following essay, de Armas Wilson explores the relationship between Don Quixote and the “quixotic” Spanish conquerors of the books of chivalry and shows how Cervantes's knight-errant does not aspire to but rather mimics the conquistadors of the Golden Age of Spain.]

Although Don Quixote stridently identifies himself with the fictional figures of his favorite books—chivalric heroes such as Lancelot or Amadís or Renaldo de Montalbán—he has of late been assimilated, in studies of spiraling scholarly...

(The entire section is 6733 words.)

Howard Young (essay date 2000)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Young, Howard. “Game of Circles: Conversations Between Don Quixote and Sancho.” Philosophy and Literature 24, no. 2 (2000): 377-86.

[In the following essay, Young explores the complex friendship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by analyzing their intimate conversations, which he says express their tenderness, love, respect, anger, frustration, and growing closeness.]

Accolades accumulated during the centuries weigh heavily upon Don Quixote de la Mancha (Part 1, 1605; Part 2, 1615) making it a behemoth of a classic, not only in terms of its size and tendency on occasion to ramble, but also due to the enormous applause it has received from authors...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Allen, John J. Don Quixote: Hero or Fool? Part II. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1979, 120 p.

Expanded version of an earlier monograph that explores the reader's evolving relationship with the protagonist in Don Quixote.

Anderson, Ellen M. “Dreaming a True Story: The Disenchantment of the Hero in Don Quixote, Part II.” Essays on Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice, edited by Marlene Kadar, pp. 171-89. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

Explores how history, story, dream, and enchantment are used to describe the progress of the protagonist's disillusionment and...

(The entire section is 960 words.)