Here are Don Quixote’s vital stats, lest we lose ourselves in a Land Without Context:
- The book’s full title is The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.
- The author’s full name is Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. (He added “Saavedra” himself as an adult.)
- Don Quixote was published in two volumes appearing in 1605 and 1615.
- Set in Spain around the same time, the book is narrated by Cervantes himself, mostly in the third person.
In a move that, today, we’d deem “totally meta,” Cervantes built his work around a nobleman driven mad by the chivalric romance novels of the era—who promptly embarks on his own chivalric adventure. In the first volume, Don Quixote dons a suit of armor and sets out on a quest for adventure with his “faithful squire,” Sancho Panza, and his aging “steed,” Rocinante.
In spite of his knightly ideals, Don Quixote does more harm than good: He abandons the weak and poor he swore to protect, liberates a dangerous galley slave, and dedicates his “heroic” deeds to an unwitting peasant woman he imagines to be a princess. Don Quixote himself is often injured and humiliated—and the positive outcomes of his actions are, more often than not, accidental.
The second volume is more of the same, but this time his exploits are engineered by a Duke and Duchess for their own entertainment. He is led to believe, for example, that his lady love, Dulcinea, has been transformed by an evil enchantment into an ugly farmhand. The Duke and Duchess convince Sancho Panza that, in order to lift the enchantment, he must give himself 3,300 lashes—on his bare ass. When he resists, Don Quixote threatens to give him twice as many.
Don Quixote’s friends scheme throughout the novel to bring him back home, for his own sake and that of his victims, with occasional success. The end of the novel sees Don Quixote “vanquished” by the faux “Knight of the White Moon” and forced into retirement. He dies of a fever shortly thereafter, cursing the chivalric principles to which he devoted the final years of his life.
From what we have since gathered, Cervantes followed the age-old wisdom “write what you know.” What he knew, as it happened, was:
- service in the Spanish army,
- capture by Algerian pirates,
- enslavement by the Moors,
- a resulting mistrust of foreigners, and
- an era of Spanish dominance and defeat.
Many of the tales found within Don Quixote are anchored in both Cervantes’ personal experiences and the nation’s collective history, from battles at sea to the exile of the Moors. Naturally, he couldn’t resist including some of his own reflections on the cultural shifts of the 16th and 17th centuries, which saw Spain’s rise as an imperial power as well as the destruction of its “invincible” Armada. Cervantes was critical (obviously) of the continued popularity of chivalric values, of the Catholic church, and of the rigid class structure of contemporary Spain. Don Quixote was, seemingly, an attempt to bridge the gaps between old and new, especially when it came to morality.
Interpretations of the text have shifted over the years: Read as a comic novel at first publication, it was later viewed as a work of social commentary and then as a tragedy. It is, possibly, all of these things, or something else entirely, to Cervantes and to the 21st-century reader. What’s safe to say is that, like the other Great Books of the post-Renaissance period, it helped to lay the foundations of the modern novel.
And, for all its protagonist’s blunders, it didn’t do Spanish language or culture any damage, either.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
I always have an appetite for well-crafted parody, and nearly every bite of Don Quixote is delicious.
For her sake I left my father’s house, and for her sake I put on these clothes, in order to follow her wherever she might go, as the arrow follows its mark or the sailor his star.
Oh, how we mortals wait and hope in vain!
At first how sweet the promise, then bitterly
it vanishes in shadow, smoke, and dream.
“Eat, Sancho my friend,” said Don Quixote, “sustain life, which matters to you more than to me, and let me die at the hands of my thoughts and by means of my misfortunes. I, Sancho, was born to live by dying, and you to die by eating.”