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Are you familiar with the classic scene from ‘Don Quixote’ where the main character attacks the windmills, mistaking them as giants? There is more to this novel, of course, and this lesson will explore its plot, characters, themes, and author.

Don Quixote

Written between 1605 and 1615, Don Quixote, also known as The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, is a novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The novel, originally written in Spanish, is about a wannabe knight, Alonso Quixano, who drags a farmer, Sancho Panza, along on a series of adventures to restore the idea of chivalry back to its former glory.Interestingly, in addition to being considered one of the greatest works of fiction, Don Quixote is one of the earliest novels. A novel is defined as a fictitious book-length prose story that focuses on character development and action.

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Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quixote, was a Spanish author who lived during the end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th century.

Don Quixote is his most famous novel.Cervantes did not just write about adventures; he also had many of his own. In addition to writing one of the best-known Spanish novels of all time, he also was a member of the Spanish Navy infantry until he was captured and enslaved. He was only saved when his captors ransomed him and his family paid for his release. After he was reunited with his family, Cervantes worked as a tax collector, a job which eventually resulted in jail time due to accounting errors.

Cervantes’s fortune, however, had changed for the good by the last decade of his life, especially due to his literary success with Don Quixote.

Characters

Although there are a lot of characters included in Don Quixote, there are really only three main characters:

  • Don Quixote, also known as Alonso Quixano, is a retired gentleman who wants to become a knight and goes on quests to prove himself.
  • Sancho Panza is a farmer and Don Quixote’s squire.
  • Dulcinea del Toboso, also known as Aldonza Lorenzo, is a farm girl that Don Quixote fixates on and to whom he remains steadfastly and romantically loyal.

Plot Summary

The book as a whole is broken up into two parts.

In Part One, we meet a retired gentleman, Alonso Quixano, who renames himself Don Quixote. Quixote goes on a lot of adventures throughout the books, accompanied by a farmer named Sancho Panza. His quest is focused on his goal to live the life of a chivalrous knight, influenced partly by the books he read.

In addition to Sancho acting the part of his squire, Don Quixote also casts a local farmer girl, Aldonza Lorenzo, who he refers to as Dulcinea del Toboso, as his love interest; she remains unaware of his fixation.Don Quixote’s adventures mostly consist of him either causing trouble or seeing problems where they do not exist. For example, an innkeeper pretends to be a lord and dubs Don Quixote a knight per his request just to get rid of him and have him stop bothering his other guests.

Don Quixote also tries to instill morals into some of the characters he meets – i.e., a master beating his young male servant – but the characters, like the innkeeper, give Quixote false promises to get rid of him. His adventures almost end when Quixote is beaten horribly.

In an attempt to ward off his nonsensical obsession with chivalry, Don Quixote’s neighbors burn his books and blockade his library.Don Quixote will not be discouraged, however. The moment his health is better, he sneaks out and enlists Sancho Panza as his squire in exchange for an island. Panza agrees, and the two start their adventures in full force the very next day when Don Quixote mistakes a group of windmills for giants and attacks them, arguably the most famous scene from the novel. He also tries to ‘rescue’ a woman from a group of friars, which results in a small clash that ends in a draw when the lady orders the friars to stop fighting Don Quixote before someone gets hurt.A big influence on Don Quixote’s adventures is the group of goatherds he and Sancho meet and stay with for a while.

The goatherds invite Don Quixote to the funeral of one of their own who left to go to school. The goatherd died with his love for Marcela, a shepherdess, unrequited. Marcela makes an impassioned speech defending her right to not be anyone’s love interest.Don Quixote and Sancho follow Marcela into the woods after the funeral. While stopping for some water, Don Quixote’s horse is overly affectionate with a horse belonging to a group of Galicians.

The Galicians take offense and beat Quixote and Sancho.Once again, being beaten doesn’t put a damper on Don Quixote’s adventures. He goes on to free some slaves, before they eventually meet a depressed man named Cardenio. Cardenio is lovesick. He believes that the woman he loved might have been wooed by another man. Don Quixote doesn’t think so; the chivalrous novels he has read have led him to believe in the faithfulness of lovers. He eventually helps reunite Cardenio and his love, along with two other lovers.

After all his adventures, Don Quixote returns home with Sancho.In Part Two, Cervantes does something peculiar. The author pretends as if the events in the first volume were published in Don Quixote’s world. When Don Quixote and Sancho hit the road again, people actually recognize them. But it’s more than that, too. A sequel, non-existent in our world, was published, full of fake exploits of Don Quixote and Sancho. Thus, the characters they meet are often confused about what are Don Quixote’s fake adventures and what he and Sancho really did.

The main driving force in the second part of Don Quixote’s story is a lie that Sancho tells Don Quixote. He says Dulcinea has been transformed into a peasant girl. Don Quixote makes it his mission to track down the evil sorceress who did such a thing and bring her to justice.Along the way, Don Quixote meets a duke and duchess who take advantage of Don Quixote by manipulating his desire to undo the enchantment on Dulcinea, including trying to convince Don Quixote that Sancho has to beat himself to break the spell. Sancho temporarily receives governorship of the island he was promised, although it does not exist, but he abandons the post after he is injured. He wishes to be a happy farmer instead of an unhappy governor.

Throughout all his adventures, Don Quixote remains committed to his love for Dulcinea. Even when one of the duchess’ maids falls for him, he refuses to give in. Before long, Don Quixote meets a match that proves too great.

After he arrives in Barcelona, he gets in a duel with the Knight of the White Moon. Don Quixote is beaten and the victor declares he must go home and stop being a knight for at least a year.Don Quixote returns home, defeated, but not hopeless. He plans to take up shepherding. Before he can do that, he falls ill.

When he recovers, he has seemingly regained his sanity. He renounces the values associated with chivalry and never changes his mind.

Themes

A huge part of Don Quixote is the metafictional elements.

Meta-fiction is fiction that comments on itself. For example, there is the idea that there are ‘fictional’ adventures of Don Quixote within the novel, which is, of course, a fictional text itself. And there is the idea, presented by Cervantes, that he did not actually write the novel himself but that he ‘found’ it, and it was written by a Moor named Cide Hamete Benegeli.Chivalry and the values associated with it are thematically very important in Don Quixote. Quixote’s obsession with chivalry drives him to begin his questing in the first place. Chivalry has its own set of values, especially those associated with honor, but not everyone in the novel shares Don Quixote’s values.

Don Quixote’s belief in a certain set of morals blinds him to the idea that not everyone has his same scruples.Yet another theme of the book is the concept of sanity. In one of the most famous scenes of the book, Don Quixote attacks a set of windmills that he mistakes as giants. He believes inns are castles and farm girls are princesses. After he loses a duel near the end of the second book, Don Quixote is ordered to go home and give up his questing. The idea behind this is to make Don Quixote come to terms with his sanity. Eventually, he does, although Don Quixote dies shortly after declaring that he will give up chivalry.

Romance is yet another theme of the book. Although Don Quixote’s love is unrequited, he passionately believes in old-fashioned, chivalrous romance. Although he is pursued by others, he never wavers in his loyalty to Dulcinea. The novel also comments on the idea that women are not just objects for men to love, but active participants in relationships, through Marcela’s impassioned speech at the funeral.

Lesson Summary

Don Quixote, or The Ingenius Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, written by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, is a novel about a man with questionable sanity who goes on a series of quests to become a knight, accompanied by his ‘squire’, Sancho.

This meta-fictional novel explores the themes of chivalry, romance, and sanity all while following Don Quixote’s exploits. Written in the early 1600s, this two-part book is one of the first novels ever written.

Lesson at a Glance

Written by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote is a novel about a man and his ‘squire’ trying to prove that chivalry is not dead and aspiring to be heroes. There are themes of chivalry, romance, and sanity in this two-part novel.

One of the themes is the concept of sanity, and the main character eventually coming to grips with it.
don quixote

Learning Outcomes

Upon completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Provide a summary of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s book, Don Quixote
  • Define meta-fiction
  • Identify and describe the underlying themes of Don Quixote
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