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(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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

(Novels for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,105 words.)