Don Quixote [in progress]

[This is a post-in-progress in the style of Shmoop, an awesome site for high school students or undergrads who want to learn more about literature with a down-to-earth, fun, and accessible approach. It’s kind of like a fun version of Cliff notes that isn’t about shortcuts, but rather provides food for thought and teaches appreciation for literature].

In a Nutshell

Don Quixote is a novel by Miguel de Cervantes, published in 1605 (Part 1) and 1615 (Part 2). The book is the story of a sometimes delusional, sometimes coherent old man who takes it upon himself to fight the evils of the world and protect the innocent. Don Quixote becomes crazy by reading too many chivalric romances about legendary heroes like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In order to achieve a new golden age of peace and prosperity, Don Quixote sets out from his small village and begins a series of comical misadventures with his squire Sancho Panza at his side. Along the way, he is constantly ridiculed, battered and bruised and accomplishes very little. After many adventures and injuries, Don Quixote returns to his village, where he becomes sane again and dies.

Don Quixote contains more than just this simple plot, however. As Whitman would say, it contains multitudes. In fact, the first volume tells more stories about other characters than it tells about Don Quixote and Sancho. The episodic format of Don Quixote‘s chapters allows the author to jump between several story lines and characters. The novel encompasses all aspects of Spanish society of the time and has something to say to everyone and about everything.

Picassos version of Don Quixote and Sancho

Picasso's version of Don Quixote and Sancho

Why Should I Care?

Scholars consider Don Quixote to be the first modern novel. In a sense, it contains all other novels. One scholar even claimed that “all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote” (hover for source). Don Quixote uses a variety of literary devices you may recognize: an unreliable, subjective narrator (or a series of narrators); suspense and cliffhangers; nested narrations (like the play within the play in Shakespeare’s Hamlet); nods to the audience; and realistic dialogue.  The stories in the book take on a variety of styles, yet they manage to form a coherent whole. This is the true accomplishment of Cervantes’ novel, in that it takes previous forms and genres like the epic, the novella and the romance and turns them into something more than just a sum of their parts.

A great example of the novel’s modernity is its self-aware take on authorship and publishing itself. In the beginning of the second part of the novel, Don Quixote and Sancho are talking to a local egghead. He asks them about a few consistencies in the first part of the book, which everyone has already read. Don Quixote responds that

the author of this history can’t have been a wise man, but some ignorant, senseless blabberer, who started to write it without knowing what he was doing, letting everything go however it wanted…and that’s how it will have to be with my history: there’ll have to be footnotes before anyone can understand it. (Burton Raffel translation, p. 378)

What’s fascinating about this scene is that the popularity of the first part of Don Quixote is already taken for granted and actually figures into the plot of the second part of the book. It’s kind of like when an actor in a movie looks straight into the camera and says something to the audience. That is, one aspect of Don Quixote‘s modernity is its self-awareness and ability to reflect upon its own status as a literary work. Both the author and reader are already present in the text. Don Quixote the character is worried about Don Quixote the book. Don Quixote the book is, in turn, about literature itself.

Another salient aspect of the novel is the perpetual fight of idealism against the harsh reality of reason. Is Don Quixote truly crazy just because he sees giants instead of windmills, and damsels in distress instead of peasant girls? Sancho Panza’s initially rational character would seem to suggest otherwise, as Sancho becomes more and more taken by the web of fiction Don Quixote spins as the novel progresses.

Don Quixote makes us question what it means to read and write as well as what we see and feel as human beings. Do we yield to authority and call everything by its name, or do we dare to imagine new worlds?


Part 1

Don Quixote (DQ) becomes crazy after reading too many chivalric romances. After arming himself a knight and dedicating his exploits to a common peasant girl with a bad rep he has never met, he sallies forth from his village on an old and gaunt horse, Rocinante, and his hand-me-down rusty armor. After a few misadventures and bodily injuries, DQ returns home to rest. While he is recovering, the local priest and barber burn books from his library that they believe caused him to go loco. After resting up a bit, DQ convinces his neighbor Sancho Panza, a day laborer, to join him on his quest, promising him an island to govern. In their first famous adventure together, Don Quijote believes that nearby windmills are giants. He attacks them, only to be thrown off his horse and badly wounded in the process. Sancho scolds DQ with an “I told you so.”

The text soon takes a step back and discusses the manuscript history of Don Quijote, explaining that the “author” found it incomplete. While on a visit to Toledo, he finds a few scraps of paper written in Arabic that he has translated by a Spanish Moor. The rest of the book, supposedly, is the work of an Arabic historian, Cide Hamete. Later on, in a rare moment of clarity, DQ condemns his own present “iron age” by contrasting it with the golden age, when simplicity, honesty and communal possessions were a way of life. Nearby goatherds, to whom DQ is speaking, don’t understand any of his highfalutin’ talk.

DQ and Sancho retreat to the Sierra Morena mountains, where DQ finds a notebook belonging to a certain Cardenio who becomes one of the focal points of another story arc, the first major one besides that of DQ and Sancho. Cardenio fell in love with the beautiful Luscinda, and tells his master Fernando about her. His words ignite desire in Fernando, who sends Cardenio away on “business,” but in reality wants to be near Luscinda, whom he subsequently rapes. In the middle of telling this story, Cardenio goes crazy with rage and runs off. Meanwhile, DQ lovingly describes Dulcinea to Sancho, who knows her as a common farm girl. DQ writes her a letter Sancho is supposed to deliver but later forgets. Cardenio returns and continues his story: Fernando is attempting to force Luscinda into marriage, which her parents favor because they are less well off. Cardenio arrives too late to the ceremony and hides behind a curtain while Luscinda says “I do.” Soon, DQ and his entourage, which now includes the village priest and barber, spy Dorotea. It turns out that Fernando had also told Dorotea he’d marry her in order to get with her. After doing the deed, though, he leaves her high and dry and skips town as before. After telling her story, Dorotea helps to calm DQ’s shattered nerves by pretending to be a princess who needs a giant killed. Sancho ruins things by telling it like it is about Dulcinea, but DQ refuses to listen and slaps him a few times with his lance. They make up and the party goes to a nearby inn.

While inside, the priest finds a psychological thriller of a novella called The Story of the Man Who Couldn’t Keep from Prying and reads it aloud (!). The other story arcs take a back seat while we hear yet another story-within-a-story. This one’s about two good friends, Anselmo and Lothario (note the name). Anselmo marries Camilla, a local babe. Since she’s so hot, however, Anselmo starts to worry if she’s messing around. So he makes Lothario pretend to hit on her. At first, Lothario refuses and just pretends to woo her. Camilla is a good girl and refuses Lothario’s advances. After a while, though, he falls in love with Camilla and starts chasing her seriously. She can’t hold out and ends up falling for him. (After this part, everyone at the inn goes to bed, but DQ wakes up and starts attacking giants, which turn out to be huge skins full of wine. The inkeeper is livid.) Anselmo comes home to find Lothario and Camilla have made off with a bunch of money and skipped town. In reality, Camilla’s hiding in a nunnery, but Anselmo doesn’t know and suddenly dies angry and embittered. Lotario, we find out later, was killed in a battle. Camilla finds this out and also dies. End of story within a story within a story. Still with me here?

DQ’s entourage suddenly encounters Fernando and Luscinda. Dorotea gets all bent out of shape and convinces Fernando he really loves her, forcing him to marry her. Luscinda faints but Cardenio catches her. It all ends happily with the original couples back together again and everyone cries a river, even Sancho, though he denies it later. Just as soon as you think we’ve wrapped up all the loose ends and can get down to the business of DQ and Sancho, two new characters arrive at the inn: a rescued Christian captive and a Moorish woman. They just escaped from Algiers. The Moorish woman unveils herself and is also beautiful (like Dorotea and Luscinda). But she doesn’t speak the lingo, so the captive has to tell yet another story. But before he starts, DQ launches into another speech that wonders which is better: force or knowledge. Unsurprisingly, DQ favors force since people who study too much are poor, ugly, and sickly while soldiers get things done.

When DQ’s finally done rambling, the captive’s tale begins. He was a soldier–like Cervantes himself–taken captive at the Battle of Lepanto near Greece, one of the unlucky few in an otherwise massive victory over the Ottoman Empire. After serving a few years a galley slave, he finally becomes the property of Hazén Bajá, the king of Algiers. While in Bajá’s bagnio (prison), he spots a woman’s white hand that’s attached to a long stick with a bag at the end. It contains money and a note. The captive and a friend wonder who lives in the house and why she’s helping them, so they enlist the help of a renegade who knows Arabic. He translated the note for them and it turns out the hand belongs to Zoraida, who is secretly a Christian and wants to escape from Algiers. With the cash she gives the captive, he can get out of prison and commissions a boat. He also scopes out Zoraida’s dad’s massive house. When the captive returns with the boat, everyone’s ready to escape. But Zoraida’s dad wakes up and has to be tied up and taken with. As they get underway towards Spain, they untie the father who tries to figure out what the hell’s going on. When he finds out Zoraida’s really a Christian, he tries to off himself by jumping into the ocean. They rescue him and leave him on a beach as they sail away.

After a few more misadventures, DQ is captured and put in a mobile jail and taken away by mule. On their way back to his village, they encounter a lawyer who wonder’s what’s up with the old man. DQ starts blathering about chivalric romances, but by this time Sancho has picked up on DQ’s craziness and starts talking in the same way. The lawyer’s surprised that they’re not both in the jail. Sancho responds, “So what if I want islands? Other people want worse things.” They all converse further on the merits of chivalic romances, and the lawyer says that they’re a monstrous creation with way too many characters, impossible events, and heavy on battles while light on meaning. However, he adds that a good writer could make one that would be a coherent whole and combine the successes of epic and lyric poetry, drama, tragedy and comedy, concluding that “an epic can be written in prose as well as verse,” alluding to the epic nature of the Quixote itself.

After a few more adventures, the party arrives back in DQ’s village. DQ is taken back home to rest, and his household was worried sick. Sancho’s wife bitches him out for skipping out on her unannounced. Another adventure is about to start when the book abruptly ends with the narrator saying he couldn’t find any more papers that told the rest of DQ’s story.

Volume 2: [Coming Soon]


Don Quixote

DQ is a old, single, and lives with his niece and a maidservant. He is a lowborn noble that manages to scrape by on what’s left of his estate, though he has spent a good chunk of his savings on books (much more expensive then). Scholars take different views of DQ: some think of him as a tragic hero and an idealist in a corrupt and fallen world, while others view him as a radical or sociopath. There are about as many interpretations of Don Quixote (and Don Quixote) as there are chapters in the book. If there’s one thing that’s constant in the book, it’s DQ’s convictions and love for Duclinea.

Sancho Panza

DQ’s neighbor. Later becomes his squire early in Part I. Sancho is at first a realist who serves as a foil to DQ’s craziness and idealism. After spending more time with DQ, however, Sancho finds himself more and more attached to the charms of chivalric romance and fanciful tales. His language and attitude, at first common and realistic, becomes more and more like DQ’s eccentric speech and rhetorical flights of fancy. In Part 2, Sancho actually does get his promised island, though it’s all a sham organized by the Duke and Dutchess (see below). In any case, he turns out to be a better squire to DQ than a governor.

The Village Priest

Not named in the book. He is the one of the few people in the village that can read and knows quite a bit about chivalric romances. He tries several times to bring DQ back to his senses. He means well, but he’s a bit weird sometimes. Like when he dresses up as a princess to try to get DQ to come along on a rescue mission. DQ may be crazy, but he knows a priest from a princess.


Real name: Aldonza Lorenzo, a peasant girl from Toboso, a village close to DQ’s. DQ never actually meets her, and only knows of her (presumably) because of local gossip. The text says that she has “the best hand around for salting pork of any in La Mancha.” But for DQ, she is a beautiful princess akin to King Arthur’s Gwinivere. DQ dedicates all of his exploits to her and defends her honor. In a sense, she’s just a figment of DQ’s imagination. DQ doesn’t seem to care if she’s real or not half of the time and doesn’t make any efforts to visit her. Rather, she’s always the unreachable love object.

Sansón Carrasco

A student from DQ’s village who becomes a major figure of the second part of Don Quixote. He’s a university-educated snob who takes great pride in his presumed intellectual superiority. His pretensiousness is often criticized in the book. For example, when he finds out that Sancho is made governor of the island nation of Barataria, he states “That very well could be–but dubitat Augustinus” [Augustine puts that in doubt]. He is a skilled reader and the first to identify several inconsistencies in the first part of Don Quixote, like how the DQ and Sancho are talking about Sancho’s stolen donkey even though this was never explained in the book. Later in Part II, he attempts to bring DQ back to his senses. Ironically, this can only occur if Carrasco dresses as another wandering knight. Near the end of the book, Carrasco suits up as “The Knight of the Half Moon” and defeats DQ on the beaches of Barcelona, thus forcing him to retire to his village and end his questing.

The Duke and Dutchess

These misanthropic royal types take sick pleasure in setting DQ up for failure. They read and loved Part I of DQ and are more than happy to create ruses and more opportunities for DQ to fail miserably. Widely held to be a criticism of Spanish royalty who had nothing better to do.

Film Adaptations (partial listing)

Don Quixote is infamous for its inability to be adapted to film. However, many have tried. Check out some of these versions:

Don Quixote de la Mancha (Rafael Gil, 1947)

The first sound film adaptation and perhaps the most faithful to Cervantes’ original.

Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2002)  (clip)

This film documents Terry Gilliam’s failed attempt to make a movie based on Don Quixote called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2010?).

Man of La Mancha (Arthur Hillerman, 1972).  (clip)

Film version of a musical adaptation.

Orson Wells’ Don Quijote (Jess Franco, 1992)  (clip from beginning)

The famed Spanish horror/B-movie director takes Orson Wells’ footage and makes it into a modern classic.

Honor of the Knights (Albert Serra, 2006) (trailer)

This version focuses on the conversations and times between Don Quixote’s adventures. Everything not in the book is here. Be warned: it’s very…very……….slow.

Quotes [coming soon]

English translations

Don Quixote has been translated into just about every language in the world–something the prologue to Part 2 predicted way back in 1615. The most recent English translations are the ones by Raffel and Grossman. Grossman’s is faithful and very readable for modern readers, while Raffel’s is fun to read and creative from a literary standpoint.

Useful Links

Online text in English (older Ormsby translation from 1895. Searchable.)

Critical edition in Spanish by the Centro Virtual Cervantes, part of the Cervantes Institute. This is actually the best (Spanish) edition ever produced, with an incredibly array of notes, illustrations, bibliography, and everything you could ever want to know about Don Quixote.


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