Now that Don Quixote is acclaimed the best storybook of all time, curiousity will ask, What’s in that book? Here’s a little explanation, the best I can do and you’ll find satisfactory, I hope. Also, this is quite a good and befitting time to remember this great work of art as it was first published on the 16th of January 1605.
The book is fully titled, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha or preferably El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha having been originally written in Spanish by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. It was published in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615.
The book follows the adventures of Alonso Quijano, an hidalgo (Spanish gentleman of noble birth) who reads so many chivalric novels that he decides to set out to revive chivalry. He adopts the name Don Quixote and recruits a simple farmer, Sancho Panza, as his squire.
In the first part, Alonso Quixana, the protagonist of the novel, is a retired country gentleman nearing fifty years of age, living in an unnamed section of La Mancha with his niece and housekeeper. While mostly a rational man of sound reason, his reading of books of chivalry in excess has had a profound effect on him, leading to the distortion of his perception and the wavering of his mental faculties. In essence, he believes every word of these books of chivalry to be true though, for the most part, the content of these books is clearly fiction. Otherwise, his wits are intact.
He decides to sally forth as a knight-errant in search of adventure. He dons an old suit of armour, renames himself “Don Quixote,” pronounced (/ˌdɒn kiːˈhoʊtiː/) and names his skinny horse “Rocinante”. He designates Aldonza Lorenzo, a neighboring farm girl, as his lady love, renaming her Dulcinea del Toboso, while she knows nothing of this. He sets out in the early morning and ends up at an inn, which he believes to be a castle. He asks the innkeeper, whom he thinks to be the lord of the castle, to dub him a knight. He spends the night holding vigil over his armor, where he becomes involved in a fight with muleteers who try to remove his armor from the horse trough so that they can water their mules. The innkeeper then dubs him a knight to be rid of him, and sends him on his way.
Don Quixote next “frees” a young boy who is tied to a tree and beaten by his master and makes his master swear on the chivalric code to treat the boy fairly. The boy’s beating is continued as soon as Quixote leaves. Don Quixote has a run-in with traders from Toledo, who “insult” the imaginary Dulcinea, one of whom severely beats Don Quixote and leaves him on the side of the road. Don Quixote is found and returned to his home by a neighboring peasant.
After a period, he returns to health and Don Quixote approaches his neighbor, Sancho Panza, and asks him to be his squire, promising him governorship of an island. The uneducated Sancho agrees, and the pair sneak off in the early dawn. It is here that their series of famous adventures begin, starting with Don Quixote’s attack on windmills that he believes to be ferocious giants.
Sancho and Don Quixote go on, and fall in with a group of goatherds. Don Quixote tells Sancho and the goatherds about the “Golden Age” of man, reminiscent of both Ovid and the later Rousseau in which property does not exist, and men live in peace. The goatherds invite the Knight and Sancho to the funeral of Grisóstomo, once a student who left his studies to become a shepherd after reading Pastoral novels, seeking the shepherdess Marcela. At the funeral Marcela appears, delivering a long speech vindicating herself from the bitter verses written about her by Grisóstomo, claiming her own autonomy and freedom from expectations put on her by Pastoral clichés. She disappears into the woods, and Don Quixote and Sancho follow. Ultimately giving up, the two stop and dismount by a pond to rest. Some Galicians arrive to water their ponies, and Rocinante (Don Quixote’s horse) attempts to mate with the ponies. The Galicians hit Rocinante with clubs to dissuade him, which Don Quixote takes as a threat and runs to defend Rocinante. The Galicians beat Don Quixote and Sancho leaving them in great pain.
These encounters are magnified by Don Quixote’s imagination into what he deems as chivalrous quests of great knighthood. Don Quixote’s tendency to intervene violently in matters which do not concern him, and his habit of not paying his debts, result in many privations, injuries, and humiliations (with Sancho often getting the worst of it). Finally, Don Quixote is persuaded to return to his home village. The author hints that there was a third quest, but says that records of it have been lost.
In the second part, it is assumed that the literate classes of Spain have all read the first part of the history of Don Quixote and his squire. Cervantes’s meta-fictional device was to make even the characters in the story familiar with the publication of Part One, as well as with an actually published fraudulent Part Two. When strangers encounter the duo in person, they already know their famous history. A Duke and Duchess, and others, deceive Don Quixote for entertainment, setting forth a string of imagined adventures resulting in a series of practical jokes. Some of them are quite sadistic, and they put Don Quixote’s sense of chivalry and his devotion to Dulcinea through many tests.
Even Sancho deceives him at one point. Pressured into finding Dulcinea, Sancho brings back three dirty and ragged peasant girls, and tells Don Quixote that they are Dulcinea and her ladies-in-waiting. When Don Quixote only sees the peasant girls, Sancho pretends that their derelict appearance results from an enchantment.
Sancho later gets his comeuppance for this when, as part of one of the duke and duchess’s pranks, the two are led to believe that the only method to release Dulcinea from her spell is for Sancho to give himself a surplus of three thousand lashes. Sancho naturally resists this course of action, leading to friction with his master. Under the duke’s patronage, Sancho eventually gets a governorship, though it is false, and proves to be a wise and practical ruler; though this ends in humiliation as well. Near the end, Don Quixote reluctantly sways towards sanity: an inn is just an inn, not a castle.
His days of knighthood comes to an end after his battle with the Knight of the White Moon (actually a young man from Don Quixote’s hometown) on the beach in Barcelona, in which the reader finds him conquered. Bound by the rules of chivalry, Don Quixote submits to prearranged terms that the vanquished is to obey the will of the conqueror, which in this case, is that Don Quixote is to lay down his arms and cease his acts of chivalry for the period of one year (a duration in which he may be cured of his madness). Defeated and dejected, he and Sancho start their journey home.
Part Two of Don Quixote is often regarded as the birth of modern literature, as it explores the concept of a character understanding that he is being written about. This is a theme much explored in writings of the 20th Century. Soon after, he retires to his bed with a deathly illness, possibly brought on by melancholy over his defeats and humiliations. One day, he awakes from a dream having fully recovered his sanity. Sancho tries to restore his faith, but Alonso Quixano, for that is his true name, can only renounce his previous existence and apologize for the harm he has caused. He dictates his will, which includes a provision that his niece will be disinherited if she marries a man who reads books of chivalry. After Alonso Quixano dies, the author emphasizes that there are no more adventures to relate, and that any further books about Don Quixote would be spurious.