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Don Quixote de La Mancha
By Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616)
A Study Guide
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Plot Summary
Main Characters
Type of Work
Publication Background
Main Themes
Point of View
Imagery and Allusions
Plot Structure
Questions, Essay Topics
Biography of Cervantes
Free Text in English: Part I
Free Text in English: Part 2
This Page Was Revised in 2008

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005

.......Note: Two excellent translations of Don Quixoteone by Walter Starkie and the other by John Ormsbywere used in the preparation of the plot summary and accompanying notes.

.......In a village on the plateau of La Mancha in south-central Spain lives a country gentleman of fifty years named Alonso Quijano. As a hidalgo (a nobleman of the lower ranks) he lacks the money and lavish amenities of the higher Spanish nobles. Nevertheless, the rents he receives from his property enable him to live a modestly comfortable life. Residing with him in his home are his twenty-year-old niece, a middle-aged housemaid, and a man to saddle his horse, work his fields, and perform odd jobs. 
.......To maintain his tall, thin frame, Quijano eats meat hashes, bacon and eggs, lentils, and on Sundays an occasional pigeon. When he dresses up, he wears a handsome suit with a jerkin, velvet stockings, and—for special activities such as attending mass on holy days of obligation—velvet pantofles (slippers). 
.......His great passion in life is to discuss and read about knights of old and their weaponry, their battles, and their ladies. It is not uncommon for him to argue at length with the village priest and barber over who was the best of the knights. Among the names that surface in their arguments are Palmerin of England, Amadis of Gaul, and Amadis’s brother, Don Galaor.
.......One of Quijano’s favorite knights is Rodrigo Díaz de Divar, known as the Cid, who conquered Valencia and became a national hero. But Quijano says the Cid could not compare with the Knight of the Burning Sword, who killed two giants with one blow. He in turn could not compare with Bernardo del Carpio, who slew the fabled Roland of Roncesvalles. However, none of these heroes, Quijano believes, could compare with his favorite of favorites, Reinaldos of Montalban, who stole a golden idol of Mahomet. 
.......So taken with the tales of great knights is Quijano that he spends entire days reading books about them. At night, he continues his reading until the sun rises. Then the whole cycle begins anew. In time, his lack of sleep—and the burden of tales he carries in his brain—undermine his sanity. So disoriented does he become that he decides one day to take up knight-errantry himself, donning an old suit of armor left behind by his grandfather and a headpiece with a missing visor that he replaces with a cardboard flap. Further rummaging produces the necessary weaponry. A bony barnyard nag becomes his trusty steed, which he names Rosinante, and a peasant girl from the neighboring village of Toboso becomes his lady fair. It does not matter that he has never spoken to this damsel, called Aldonsa Lorenzo. Quixote thinks of her as his own and imagines she has a romantic name, Dulcinea del Toboso. He pledges to perform valorous feats in her honor. Finally, he has an innkeeper dub him Don Quixote de La Mancha, a name that took him eight days to invent. 
First Adventure
.......During his first adventure, he comes across a man named Juan Haldudo lashing his shepherd boy, Andrés, who is stripped to the waist and tied to a tree. Quixote thinks Haldudo is an evil knight. With his lance poised, Quixote challenges him to a joust. Frightened, Haldudo backs off, claiming that the boy is receiving what he justly deserves because he loses one sheep every day while watching over Haldudo’s flock. But Quixote, who sees himself as a champion of the weak and defenseless, says he will run Haldudo through unless he unties Andrés and pays him whatever he owes the boy for his labor. After releasing Andrés, Haldudo swears by the code of chivalry that he will pay him his due, nine months’ wages. Taking Haldudo at his word—after all, he swore a knightly oath—the mighty caballero rides off, satisfied that he has righted a wrong. Haldudo then seizes Andrés by the arm, ties him again to the tree, and beats the boy senseless. 
.......After riding two miles, Quixote encounters Toledo businessmen on their way to the city of Murcia to trade for silk. Halting Rosinante in the middle of the road, he sizes up these approaching “knights” and makes the following announcement: “Let all the world stand still if all the world does not confess that there is not in all the world a fairer damsel than the Empress of La Mancha, the peerless Dulcinea of El Toboso.”
.......The travelers at first try to reason with the crazed knight, to no avail. When he charges, Rosinante trips. Man and horse take a tumble. Then Quixote suffers a beating. 
.......After he returns home for money and a respite from his adventures, his well-meaning friends burn the books that steeped him in insanity and try to prevent him from returning to the field of battle. But Quixote is resolved to remain a knight. Because every knight needs a squire, Quixote persuades a peasant farmer, Sancho Panza, to assume the role after promising to bestow on him a domain to rule over. In contrast to the tall, lanky Quixote, Panza is short, with a proud belly, making them a peculiar-looking pair. 
The Tilt Against Windmills
.......When they ride off—Quixote on Rosinante and Panza on an ass named Dapple—they encounter a formidable enemy: windmills that Quixote hallucinates into evil giants. Although Pancho informs him that the monsters are really harmless wind machines, Quixote attacks, his lance poised. One of the circling vanes knocks him and Rosinante into a field. When he comes to, he says a magician must have turned the giants into windmills to thwart his heroic attack. 
.......But Quixote is undaunted in his pursuit of the wild and woolly knight life. After he rides forth again with Panza, he attacks two monks on mules as big as dromedaries, believing the friars are transporting a captive princess in a coach rumbling along some distance behind them. (The monks have nothing to do with the coach or its entourage but are traveling separately.) During the encounter, one monk falls off his mule and the other makes it to safe ground a short distance away. While Quixote talks with the lady in the coach, Sancho sets upon the fallen monk, trying to steal his robes as spoils of war. In retaliation, the monk’s two servants thrash Sancho and pluck out the hair of his beard. The monks then ride off.
.......Quixote tells the woman in the coach—a Biscayan lady on her way to Seville to meet her husband—that she and her retinue are to turn around and go to El Toboso. There, she is to report to the peerless Lady Dulcinea to recount the story of how the knight-errant Don Quixote de La Mancha rescued her. A squire in her retinue tells Quixote to go to the devil, and they fight with swords. A raging combat ensues in which Quixote loses part of an ear and half his helmet to the blow of a sword. Nevertheless, he manages to vanquish the squire. When Quixote is about to deal a death blow, the Biscayan lady and her servant women persuade him to spare the squire with a promise that they will go to Toboso to report to Dulcinea.
.......In another rousing adventure, Don Quixote encounters shepherds and their sheep, believing them to be a vast army on the march. When he attacks, Panza shouts, "Come back, Señor Don Quixote; I vow to God they are sheep and ewes you are charging! “
.......Quixote begins spearing the ewes, and the shepherds—using their slings—bombard him with huge rocks that unhorse him. Then they knock out his teeth and crack his ribs before moving on with their flocks.
.......Cupping a hand to his mouth to stop his teeth from falling out, Quixote tells Panza, “All these tempests that fall upon us are signs that fair weather is coming shortly, and that things will go well with us, for it is impossible for good or evil to last for ever; and hence it follows that the evil having lasted long, the good must be now nigh at hand.”
Attack on a Funeral Procession
.......Quixote indeed has good fortune on his next adventure, when he attacks a funeral procession escorting a litter draped in black. He believes the litter holds the body of a wounded or slain knight who was the victim of villainy. In no time, he drives off the mourners, pallbearers, and priests, and Panza commandeers supplies of food they left behind. What good fortune! However, a young man who had fallen off a mule and broken a leg remains behind. When Quixote asks him who killed the “knight” on the litter, the young man answers, “God, by means of a malignant fever that took him.”
.......During a rainstorm the following day, Quixote and Panza encounter a barber traveling to a nearby town to serve two customers, one a sick man who needs to be bled and the other a bewhiskered fellow who needs a shave. To assist him in performing both services, the barber has a brass basin which, because of the rain, he wears on his head to protect his hat. Quixote perceives the barber as a knight, his donkey as a dappled steed, and the brass basin as the fabled golden helmet of Mambrino. When Quixote charges him, the barber falls from the donkey and runs away, leaving the basin behind. Quixote claims his prize. 
.......Later, he and Panza come upon a line of chained prisoners being marched to service as galley slaves. After Quixote speaks with them, he determines that their offenses are minor and tells their overseers to release them. When the overseers do not comply, Quixote attacks them. In a free-for-all, the prisoners liberate themselves. Believing that the prisoners now owe him a favor, Quixote asks them to go to Toboso to inform Lady Dulcinea of his heroism. But they refuse his request. What is more, they attack Quixote and Panza, raining stones on them. Then they strip them of certain articles of clothing. 
.......After other adventures, Quixote and Panza stop at an inn, where the great knight experiences the adventure of adventures: a dream in which he slays many giants with heroic thrusts of his sword. Alas, in the light of day, the giants turn out to be the inkeeper’s goatskins of wine. 
Quixote Captured
.......Eventually, the barber and the priest—concerned about the mad Don—execute a plan in which, with the help of a woman who pretends to be a princess, they capture him in a cage and return him to his village. However, there is no containing the great knight, who, by this time, is the subject of a book recounting his exploits. Although his niece, Antonia, pleads with him to give up the life of a knight-errant, he resolves to sally forth on new adventures. Sancho Panza is also ready to ride off, pointing out to his skeptical wife, Teresa, that he will one day be governor of his own island—as Quixote has promised. 
.......Quixote wishes to see Princess Dulcinea at her castle before he leaves. Earlier, while out righting wrongs, he had written a letter to her that Panza was supposed to deliver but did not, for he is well aware that Dulcinea is a simple country maid and not a princess. Nevertheless, he does his best to fulfill his master’s wish. Seeing three peasant girls, he tells Quixote that one of them is Dulcinea and the other two her ladies-in-waiting. However, he says, because a magician has put a spell on her, she appears quite ordinary—ugly, in fact. After Quixote approaches her, he tells Panza, “She gave me a whiff of raw garlic that made my head reel, and poisoned my very heart.” However, Quixote accepts Panza’s word that Dulcinea—beauty of beauties—was the victim of enchantment.
.......Quixote and Panza then continue on in search of new adventures. In Quixote’s first major enterprise, he agrees to do battle with the Knight of the Mirrors, who sets a condition on the combat: If he defeats Quixote, the Don must give up knight-errantry for a year. Quixote accepts the challenge. While Sancho Panza stands by with the other knight’s squire, who has an unbelievably large nose, Quixote strikes his adversary squarely with his lance, unhorsing him. The defeated knight lies in a daze. When the Don removes his adversary’s helmet, he notices that he looks exactly like Samson Carrasco, a student whose father, Bartholomew, is a neighbor of Panza. Carrasco had returned home to La Mancha from the university at Salamanca at about the same time that Quixote and Panza returned to the village after their first round of adventures. At that time, Carrasco told Panza that he had read the book about him and Quixote, written by Cide Hamete Berengena. When meeting the Don the first time, Samson said:
......."Let me kiss your mightiness's hand, Senor Don Quixote of La Mancha, for, by the habit of St. Peter that I wear, though I have no more than the first four orders, your worship is one of the most famous knights-errant that have ever been. . . . “
.......At Quixote’s request, Carrasco agreed to write verses that the Don could present to Dulcinea. He also encouraged Quixote to take on new adventures at a time when the curate, the priest, and Quixote’s niece were trying to persuade him to remain home. 
Quixote Victorious
.......Now here he is a man with the same countenance as Carrasco lying at Quixote’s feet. The Don concludes that a wizard had cast a spell making the Knight of the Mirrors resemble Carrasco. When Sancho sees the face, he crosses himself many times—convinced that a wizard has indeed worked some magic—and urges his master to finish off the knight. After Quixote raises his sword to strike a death blow, the defeated knight’s squire rushes up and informs Quixote that the man is indeed Carrasco. This time, the squire no longer has a large nose but one of normal size, and Panza recognizes him as Tom Cecial, a neighbor who is a famous gossip. 
.......Ultimately, it comes to light that Carrasco was in cahoots with the curate and the barber in a scheme to trick Quixote into giving up knight-errantry—the condition the “Knight of the Mirrors” set forth before his duel with Quixote. Of course, no one expected the Don to win the duel.
.......Quixote follows this adventure with one in which he brawls with actors he at first mistakes for evil beings because of the costumes they wear. But this incident is nothing compared with the next, which begins when Panza sees a cart approaching flying flags indicating that it is transporting property of the king. In preparation for battle—for Quixote believes something sinister is afoot—he grabs his helmet from Panza, unaware that the squire had been using it to mix curds he bought from shepherds. When he puts it on, the whey runs down over his face. He scolds Panza for loading the helmet with curds, but Panza blames the devil and his enchanters for the deed. Quixote accepts this answer, cleans the helmet and himself, and confronts the cart driver and a man sitting next to him. 
.......“What cart is this? What have you got in it? What flags are those?”
.......The driver tells Quixote that his cart contains two caged lions which the governor of Oran is sending the king as a gift. The man next to him, the lion keeper, says that they are the largest lions ever brought from Africa, one male and one female in separate cages. The two men are in a great hurry to reach their destination to feed the lions, for they have not eaten all day and are very hungry. 
.......“Mere whelps,” Quixote calls them, saying he is ready to show the enchanter who sent them to him that he cannot be intimidated. 

Knight of the Lions
.......Threatening the keeper with his lance, he orders him to open the cages. Panza pleads with Quixote not to confront the lions. But the Don, determined to have his way, dismounts and draws his sword while Panza and the driver seek refuge a safe distance away. After the keeper opens the cage of the male, the gigantic beast stretches, yawns, pokes his head out the door a moment, then turns around and lies down. When Quixote orders the keeper to poke at the animal to arouse him, the latter tells the Don that he has demonstrated great courage and that the lion has disgraced himself. The victory goes to Quixote. The knight accepts this outcome but tells the keeper to be sure to describe his heroic stand to Panza and the driver, which he does, telling Sancho the lion quaked with fear when he beheld the fearsome Don. When the keeper also promises to inform the king himself of the encounter, Quixote tells him to say that it was the “Knight of the Lions” that faced down the beast. Quixote then adopts that epithet as one by which he will be known henceforth. 
.......In his next adventures, Quixote resolves a spat between lovers, explores the fabled Cave of Montesinos, attends a show in which puppets enact a battle scene and Quixote attacks the puppets, and falls in with a duke and duchess who play tricks on the Don and his squire. In one of the these tricks, they fulfill Panza’s long-held dream of ruling over his own island. However, it is not an island at all but a landlocked town. Nevertheless, Panza rules wisely and even metes out justice with extraordinary skill. 
.......Alas, all good things must come to an end. Quixote’s end comes when he battles the Knight of the Full Moon, who makes the Don agree to a familiar condition: that he abandon knight-errantry for a year if he loses. As the reader might suspect, the Knight of the Full Moon is really Samson Carrasco, back for another go-round with Quixote. But this time Samson wins the match.
.......The defeated Don then decides to lead the life of a shepherd during the year that he must give up knight-errantry. To work in the open air, to walk through fields of flowers, to sleep under the stars—this is a life that has appeal, he tells Panza. And Panza agrees. Unfortunately, on their first night as shepherds, wild pigs run roughshod over them. Then a company of horsemen capture and return them to the residence of the cruelly mischievous duke and duchess, who play more tricks on them. Eventually Quixote and Panza return home, where the Don tries to persuade others to go with him into the fields to become shepherds. However, Quixote becomes sick and begins edging toward death. Aware that he is not long for the world, the Don declares himself now sound of mind and cured of knight-errantry in spite of Panza’s emotional pleas to return with him once again to the field of adventure. In his will, Quixote forbids his niece to marry a man who reads stories about the knights of old. Then he dies—as Alonso Quijano, an ordinary man of La Mancha.


The action takes place in villages and countrysides in and around La Mancha, a high plateau (about 2,000 feet) in south-central Spain. There, the winters are cold and the summers hot, and there is little rain between spring and fall. Modern La Mancha retains much of the appearance it had in the time of Cervantes. There are even windmills like those Don Quixote mistakes for many-armed giants. Residents of the region began building the windmills in the late 1500's to grind corn. 

Main Characters

Alonso Quijano (Don Quixote de La Mancha): A country gentleman of south-central Spain who becomes demented after spending whole days and nights reading books about the adventures of medieval knights. He decides to become a knight himself, doing battle with ordinary people he imagines as monsters or villainous knights. Although he is insane, his fierce idealism—and his desire to right wrongs—is genuine, contrasting with the insincerity, corruption, and cruelty of many of those he encounters. Consequently, Quixote ironically becomes a kind of hero even though he is presented as an antihero. 
Sancho Panza: A simple farmer who becomes Quixote's squire in hopes of ruling his own domain, as the Don has promised he would one day do. Unlike the idealistic Quixote, Panza is essentially a realist.
Teresa Panza: Wife of Sancho Panza.
Sanchica Panza: Daughter of Sancho Panza.
Village Priest and Barber: Friends of Quixote. They concoct schemes to rescue the Don from his insanity.
Samson Carrasco: Student who participates in the schemes of the priest and barber. He assumes the identity of a knight in order to defeat Quixote in combat and thereby cause him to give up knight-errantry. 
Aldonsa Lorenzo (Dulcinea del Toboso): A simple country girl whom Quixote designates as his lady fair.
Rosinante: Barnyard nag that becomes Quixote's horse.
Dapple: Sancho Panza's donkey.
Antonia: Quixote's niece.
Housekeeper of Quixote
Duke and Duchess: Tricksters who make Quixote the butt of jokes.
Juan Haldudo: Cruel landowner who whips his shepherd boy. Quixote threatens to kill Haldudo for maltreating the boy. 
Andrés: Haldudo's shepherd boy.
Tom Cecial: Neighbor of Panza.
Roque Guinart: Thief who shows Quixote and Panza the way to Barcelona.
Inkeepers, Shepherds, Goatherds, Clergymen, Actors, Businessmen: Persons whom Quixote encounters during his adventures. He often imagines them as personages he has read about in tales about knights and the age of chivalry. Some of these characters regale Quixote with stories of their own. 
Various Other Travelers
Peasant Girls

Type of Work

Don Quixote is a novel of gentle comic satire. Its story centers on a daft country gentleman and his sidekick, a humble farmer, who assume the roles of knight and squire in quest of adventure in an age when chivalry is a rusty relic of a bygone era. The novel was published in two parts, the first in 1605 and the second in 1615. When Cervantes began the novel, his primary purpose was to parody authors and readers of flowery books about knighthood and chivalry. However, when his bumbling main characters—Don Quixote and Sancho Panza—took on endearing qualities while exposing the jaded worldview and corruption of Spanish society, the novel became much more than satire. On the one hand, it extolled idealism at a time when people had lost their idealism; on the other, it took the part of the humble against the proud, the weak against the mighty, the poor against the rich. Moreover, it gave world literature two characters known as much for their humanity as for their bungling knight-errantry. Finally, it also did what Cervantes set out to do—poke fun at those romance novels, which gained widespread popularity in Spain after Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo wrote Amadis of Gaul, published in 1508. One of the characteristics of the romance novel is its episodic plot structure, which Cervantes adopted for Don Quixote.

Publication Background

Part I of Don Quixote was published in Madrid in 1605 by Francisco de Robles on the press of Juan de la Cuesta. In the next six years, it was also published in Lisbon, Valencia, Milan, and Brussels. The first English translation of Part I, produced by Thomas Shelton, appeared in 1612. Part II was published in Madrid in 1615, in Valencia and Brussels in 1616, and Lisbon in 1617. The first English translation of Part II appeared in 1620.

Tone and Point of View

Cervantes tells his story like a jokester who keeps a straight face while playing a trick. In other words, the tone is playfully serious. Great humorists have always recognized this tongue-in-cheek, oxymoronic approach as highly effective. Even the Three Stooges—or Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau—did not crack a smile when executing broad slapstick. Cervantes writes in third-person point of view most of the time, pretending to present a translation of an account of Quixote’s adventures compiled by an Arab historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli. Cervantes says he purchased the account in the form of pamphlets hawked by a boy on the streets of Toledo, then hired a Spanish-speaking Moor to translate the pamphlets from Arabic into Castilian Spanish, paying him 50 pounds of raisins and two bushels of wheat. At times, Cervantes halts the narration of Quixote’s adventures while he discusses Benengeli’s pamphlets; in these instances, he writes in first-person point of view. He also occasionally allows a character to tell a story in first-person point of view as quoted in the translation of the Benengeli account. For example, in quoted dialogue at the beginning of Chapter 23 of Part 2, Quixote narrates his adventure in the cave of Montesinos. His listeners are Sancho Panza and a scholar who had guided him to the mouth of the cave. 

Imagery and Allusions 

.......The narration in Don Quixote is rich in vivid imagery. One of the most appealing descriptive passages in the book (Walter Starkie's translation) occurs near the end of the novel when Quixote, resolving to become a shepherd for a year, tells Panza of the life they will lead:

    We shall wander through the mountains, woods, and meadows, singing here, lamenting there, drinking of the liquid crystals of the spring, or the limpid brooks, or the swelling rivers. The oaks shall give us of their sweetest fruit with bountiful hand; the trunk of the hard cork trees shall offer us seats; the willows, shade; the roses, perfume; the spacious meadows, carpets embellished with a thousand colors; the air, clear and pure, shall supply us breath; the moon and the stars, light, in spite of the darkness of night; song shall give us delight, and tears, gladness; Apollo, verses and love conceits whereby we shall be able to win eternal fame, not only in the present age but also in those to come.
.......To these elegant words, Panza replies with characteristic earthiness: “By God, but that kind of life squares entirely with me, corners and all . . . . 
.......In the indented passage above, Quixote’s reference to Apollo—the Greek god of poetry, music, prophecy, and medicine—is one of hundreds of allusions that Cervantes uses to enhance the imagery and enliven the narration and dialogue. Although many of these allusions are obscure, the reader can usually make sense of the passages in which the allusions appear. For example, when Quixote is about to attack a windmill (which he perceives as a giant with many arms), he shouts the following threat containing an allusion: "Though ye flourish more arms than the giant Briareus, ye have to reckon with me" (Chapter 8, Part 1). In Greek mythology, Briareus was a gigantic monster with 100 arms and 50 heads. Obviously, the reader does not need to know specifically who Briareus was to get the sense of the passage. 

Plot Structure and Satire

.......The the book in general is easy to understand for readers of the original Spanish version as well as readers of good translations, inasmuch as the vocabulary is relatively simple and the plot moves along in an orderly fashion that takes the reader step by step through each chapter. For example, in Chapter 1 of Part 1, Cervantes says the aspiring knight first outfits himself in a suit of armor, then obtains and repairs an old helmet he plans to wear. Next, he designates a less-than-majestic barnyard hack as his trusty horse, taking four days to devise an appropriate name for it, then spends eight more days thinking up a noble name for himself. Finally, Cervantes reviews in sequence Quixote’s preparations while adding one more step the Don will take:

    So then, his armour being furnished, his morion turned into a helmet, his hack christened, and he himself confirmed, he came to the conclusion that nothing more was needed now but to look out for a lady to be in love with.
.......This sequential pattern makes it easy for the reader to tag along at Quixote’s side without losing sight of what he is doing and when he is doing it. Moreover, because each episode in the novel is a small tale complete in itself, the reader can consume the book an adventure at a time—as if he were consuming figs, each one sweet and delectable. When he puts the book down at the end of an episode to resume living in the mundane world, he can do so with the knowledge that he may return to Quixote’s fanciful world at his leisure to take his place alongside the Don when he embarks on a new adventure. 
.......While accompanying Quixote and Panza, the reader will find that the author’s satire of Quixote and Panza strikes with the force of a down pillow. The reason is that while writing the novel Cervantes grew to love these bumblers; they became all the ordinary people of the world struggling to fulfill their dreams. When Cervantes does resort to stinging derision, he aims his barbs at the morally reprehensible upper classes and at the writers of florid romances, whom he sometimes mocks by writing in their ornate idiom.

Pursuing a Dream in the Face of Ridicule

Alonso Quijano dares to pursue his dream as Don Quixote even though others chide and ridicule him for doing so. Yes, he is mad. But doers of great deeds—or what they think are great deeds—all exhibit a modicum of madness. Over the centuries, great philosophers, inventors, scientists, explorers, statesmen have all had a bit of Quixote in them. Socrates walked the streets of Athens barefooted, asking annoying questions, while pursuing knowledge and helping others to discover their intellectual shortcomings. His fellow Athenians ultimately declared him a danger to society and sentenced him to death. Italian scientist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) endured ridicule when he declared that the earth orbited the sun. When American inventor Robert Fulton (1765-1815) developed a submarine in Europe in 1800 and several years later constructed a steamboat, the public greeted these inventions with skepticism. Seneca—the Roman playwright, statesman, and philosopher—wrote, “There is no great genius without some touch of madness.” John Dryden, the English poet, observed, “Great wits are sure to madness near allied.” American poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “Much Madness is divinest sense. . . .” True, Don Quixote is no great wit, no genius, but a bumbling fool—a lunatic, one may say. But in his folly, he demonstrates how to live with gusto and derring-do while exposing many of the sane and rational people he encounters as cruel, fraudulent, or corrupt. In his preposterous adventures, he achieves a kind of greatness because of his relentless, never-say-die pursuit of his dream. 

Upholding Moral Idealism

Don Quixote is an idealist who attempts to enforce a moral code of honor and justice that the world of his day seems to have abandoned. Even though he is mad, he realizes that there are eternal, unchanging values that remain valid in a modern, ever-changing world. This theme begins to emerge early in the novel when Quixote comes to the rescue of a shepherd boy suffering a lashing at the hands of his master. Unfortunately, the cruel master resumes the beating after Quixote—having extracted a promise from the master that he will no longer mistreat the boy—leaves the scene. But Quixote's naive acceptance of the master's promise actually underscores his idealism. He believes that a man who has sworn an oath will live up to that oath. Truth is sacred; an honorable man will not go back on his word. But, of course, the boy's tormentor does not live in the ideal world of Quixote; he lives in the corrupt world of lies and cruelty and injustice. Quixote thus fails in saving the boy, but he succeeds in exposing the crass savagery of a man who passes for a human being.

The Folly of Living in the Past

While rightly upholding moral idealism, Quixote wrongly attempts to perpetuate outmoded customs and traditions and thus becomes a living anachronism. The message of Cervantes is that while one should embrace eternal truths, he should not wear the mantle of yesterday in upholding them. Cervantes adopted this motif as the central theme of his novel when he began writing Don Quixote as a parody and satire poking fun at escapist, unrealistic, romantic novels of the past that still enjoyed a large following in his time. But after Don Quixote and Sancho Panza began to come alive as endearing characters battling a flawed, passionless, and sometimes corrupt society, Cervantes downgraded this theme in favor of promoting the humanity of Quixote and Panza. 

The Equality of All Human Beings

Throughout the novel, Cervantes makes the point that the low and the weak are just as worthy as the high and the mighty. In Chapter 12 of Part 2, he notes that death ultimately renders everyone equal on the balance scales. This observation occurs in a scene when Quixote—who has just encountered traveling actors—comments on how actors are like people who assume regal and imposing roles in their lives only to be reduced to ordinariness when they die. He tells Panza:

    Have you ever seen a play acted in which kings, emperors, pontiffs, knights, ladies, and divers other characters are introduced? One plays the bully, another the rogue; this one the merchant, that one the soldier; one the wise fool, another the foolish lover. When the play is over and they have divested themselves of the dresses they wore in it, the actors are all again on the same level. . . . The same happens in the comedy and life of this world. . . .When life ends, death strips them all of the robes that distinguished one from the other, and all are equal in the grave. 

Each of the scores of adventures of Quixote and Panza has its own climax, often occurring when Quixote fights an imagined enemy. The climax of the novel itself occurs when Quixote fights the Knight of the Full Moon (Samson Carrasco in disguise) and loses. 


Biographies of Cervantes are available at the following web sites:

Books and Writers
Columbia Encyclopedia
Don Quixote Virtual Museum

Study Questions and Essay Topics

1....Write an essay about a modern Don Quixotesomeone you know or a famous person. 
2....Why does Sancho Panzo follow and remain loyal to such a bumbler as Don Quixote?
3....Does Don Quixote need Sancho Panza? 
4....Does the author need Sancho Panza to develop Quixote's character?
5....Is Quixote a tragic figure, a comic figure, or both?
6....Explain the terms chivalry and knight-errantry. (Quixote practiced chivalry as a knight-errant.)
7....Is Don Quixote insane or merely eccentric?
8....Write a short psychological profile of Don Quixote. 
9....Write an essay centering on the satire and parody in Don Quixote.
10..The English word quixotic was coined after the publication of Don Quixote. Was does it mean? 

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