Don Quixote novel, theme, short summary, analysis and sparknotes. Information about the Don Quixote background and sources.
Don Quixote; a novel by the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, published in two parts in 1605 and 1615. The full title is El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha). It is one of the world’s greatest and best-loved books and has been reprinted, in Spanish and in translation, more often than any other novel in history. A social satire, philosophic tale, adventure story, comedy, and portrait of an eccentric, idealistic, and delightful man, Don Quixote is appealing on various levels, to adults and to children. With his compassionate, humorous, and warmly human portrayal of Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza, Cervantes not only penetrated the reality of Spanish life in his time but created two supremely real characters, who live out the universal problems of human experience.
The first part, published in Madrid in January 1605, was an immediate success. During Cervantes’ lifetime, 16 editions were published, including translations into English (1612) and French (1614). The publication of a spurious continuation in 1614, by a certain Avellaneda, spurred Cervantes to finish the second part of the work, which was published at the end of 1615.
Background and Sources: In many ways, Cervantes’ life would be deemed a failure if judged by worldly standards. For much of his life he held a variety of ill-paid administrative posts and was continually plagued with financial reversals, some of which resulted in imprisonment. Although he had earlier written poetry and moderately successful plays, Cervantes did not start on his masterpiece until he was well into middle age. Disillusioned, worldly-wise, but unembit-tered, he probably began to compose Don Quixote while in prison in 1597.
Cervantes’ original intent was most likely to parody the novels of chivalry that had achieved great popularity in the 16th century. The prologue to Part 1 of the work announces that it is “an invective against books of chivalry,” and Cervantes’ indebtedness to chivalric romances, including Montalvo’s Amadis of Caul and Francisco de Moraes’ Palmerin of England, is obvious in the work. Several 19th century critics suggested that the Don may have been modeled after a real person. Critics in the 20th century have adduced literary antecedents for the Don. Ramón Menéndez Pidal traced the source of the novel’s main character to the anonymous short play Entremés de los romances, in which the protagonist, Bartolo, becomes mad as a result of reading Spanish ballads.
Plot: Don Quixote, a 50-year-old gentleman of modest means and an avid reader of romances, fancies himself a knight errant and decides to right injustice in the world. Swearing allegiance to his lady, whom he calls Dulcinea del Toboso though she actually is a local farm girl named Aldonza Lorenzo, he sets out mounted on Rocinante, an old horse. During his first adventure, he stops at an inn believing it to be a castle, is beaten by a servant there, and is finally taken home by a farmer from his own town. Undaunted, he sets out again, this time with the peasant Sancho Panza, who thereafter serves as his squire.
Don Quixote distorts reality in order to have all episodes conform to a chivalric mold. He mistakes windmills for giants and is beaten when he attacks them. He sees two flocks of sheep as two contending armies and enters the fray. The outraged shepherds shower him with stones and knock him oft his horse. When he liberates a chain of galley slaves, who he thinks are unjustly condemned, they insult Dulcinea and stone him to the ground. At the end of Part 1, Don Quixote, imprisoned in a wooden cage, is taken back home.
Following the literary conventions of his time, Cervantes inserted several extraneous narrative episodes into Part 1. These include the pastoral story of Marcela and Crisóstomo and the exemplary tale about foolish curiosity. In response to readers’ criticism, Cervantes decided to omit digressive tales in the second part.
In Part 2, Sampson Carrasco, a neighbor, in order to cure Don Quixote of his madness, urges him to undertake a third sally. He plans to conquer die Don in knightly combat and thus require him to return home. This time he meets a real lion, but the lion fails to attack and will not cooperate with Quixote in his effort to display his valor. Master Peter’s puppet show seems so real that the Don’s knightly zeal impels him to attack those puppets that he believes to be heathen Moors. Several practical jokes are played on Don Quixote and Sancho in the palace of the Duke and Duchess, who permit the squire to govern the imaginary Island of Barataría, actually a village under their rule. Meanwhile, the well-intentioned Carrasco, disguising himself as the Knight of the Mirrors, confronts the Don but is defeated. Inspired now more by a desire for revenge than by charity, Carrasco, toward the end of the novel, disguises himself as the Knight of the White Moon, again encounters the Don, and defeats him. Carrasco then imposes upon him the condition that he renounce his adventures for a year. After arriving home in the midst of sad thoughts, Don Quixote becomes ill. To the sorrow and dismay of Sancho, he confesses the folly of his past adventures just before he dies.
Characterization and Style: The 20th century critic Angel del Rio, in commenting on the duality that exists in Don Quixote, pointed out the tension and equilibrium in such dichotomies as being-seeming, madness-sanity, drama-comedy, and reality-fantasy. The quintessence of the antithetical duality that informs the novel is found in the relationship between the Don and Sancho. Don Quixote is the noble and selfless reformer completely devoted to the ideals of knight errantry. Materialism, on the other hand, motivates Sancho’s actions during most of the novel. However, he also exhibits sterling moral qualities in his loyalty to his master, in his concern for his family’s welfare, and in his sincerity and generosity. The two characters affect and complement each other, and viewed together they are a composite of every human being, since all men possess “quixotic” and materialistic elements in varying degrees. At the novel’s end the two men reverse their roles, as the master renounces his life of chivalry and Sancho, now thoroughly imbued with quixotic ideals, pleads with the Don to resume his knightly career.
The minor characters, drawn from all levels of Spanish society, are also superbly realized. While most of the novel is written in a simple, realistic, and stately style, Cervantes at times affects the archaic style of the romances of chivalry.
Critical Interpretation and Influence: English literary critics of the 18th century admired Don Quixote, and the influence of Cervantes’ satire is discernible in the novels of Fielding and Smollett. German romanticists, such as the Schlegel brothers, considered Don Quixote the supreme example of the romantic man in this world. In the 19th century, the influence of Cervantes can be detected in the novels of many authors, including Dickens, Balzac, Flaubert, Galdós, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy. The Spanish writers of the “Generation of 1898” accorded a racial symbolism to the figure of Don Quixote. For Ortega y Gasset, the noted 20th century Spanish philosopher, the Don embodied the problem of Spanish destiny. In the 20th century, rigorous scholarship has shed new light on the genesis, structure, and style of Don Quixote. Notable 20th century critics of the work have included Manuel Durán, Mark Van Doren, Leo Spitzer, Richard L. Predmore, and Aubrey F. G. Bell.
Don Quixote in the Arts: Among the artists who have depicted scenes from the novel are Daumier, Goya, Doré, and Picasso. Noteworthy musical compositions include Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Quixote, Massenet’s opera Don Quichotte, and Manuel de Falla’s opera Retablo de maese Pedro. There have been outstanding cinematic productions of Don Quixote in Spain (1947) and Russia (1957). A notable American representation of Cervantes’ immortal work was Dale Wasserman’s musical play, Man of La Mancha (1965), a highly successful interpretation of the novel in which the identities of Cervantes and Don Quixote are interwoven and merged. In the same year the choreographer George Balanchine masterfully performed the title role in the ballet Don Quixote, his full-length version of the shorter Petipa-Minkus work (1869).