Type of Work:
Symbolic Spanish Novel
Spain; Seventeenth Century
Alonso Quejana was an ordinary Spanish country gentleman, except in one particular: he was addicted to books of chivalry. He spent every moment engrossed in thick, meandering tomes filled with tales of knights and squires, magicians and giants, and beautiful ladies.
At last, he began to sell parts of his estate in order to buy even more books. Devotin whole days to reading them, Quejana allowed the estate to fall into neglect. Still he paid no notice, and continued to immerse himself in his romantic stories “until, finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”
And so, the poor man who had read so much about great knights of the past now came upon the idea of becoming a knight himself. He poked around his house and found a moldering suit of armor left by his great-grandfather, polished it up, and put it on. Other odd knickknacks, including a helmet visor hastily made of cardboard, added just the “right” touches to his armor; and though his attire looked ridiculous, Quejana imaged it to be the finest in the world.
Since every good knight needed a horse, Quejana went to his stables, where he found only his dilapidated old nag, its hide blemished and its hooves full of cracks. But fancying it a healthy, noble steed, he renamed it “Rocinante,” for “superlative Nag.”
A knight, as well as his mount, ought to have a dignified, sonorous name. And so’ Alonso Quejana determined henceforth to be known as Don Quixote de la Mancha, after his native village.
Finally, before roaming the world to right wrongs, Don Quixote chose his lady-love – a buxom country girl, Aldonza Lorenzo, famous for her skill at salting pork; and upon her he bestowed the title of Dulcinea del Toboso.
Decked out in his clattering armor and dreaming of fame, the Don wasted no time in mounting Rocinante and setting out in search of adventure. Early in his travels he happened upon an inn, which he imagined to be an enchanted castle. During his stay there, he persuaded the bewildered innkeeper to officially dub him a knight.
Meanwhile, back at Quixote’s home, two of the townsmen had learned of their friend’s strange departure. Blaming his foolishness on the books of chivalry, they conducted a rollicking inquisition, ordering dozens of the books to be burned. Then these men decided that they would pursue Quejana, bring him back to the village, and cure him of his madness.
Quixote, by this time, had already run into his first adventure: freeing a young boy from a flogging by his master.
Later, he challenged a party of puzzled travelers, engaging them in battle; but Rocinante tripped, sending Don Quixote to the ground. The travelers seized him and promptly beat him senseless. Quixote then returned home long enough to cajole a rotund, peasant farmer, Sancho Panza, into accompanying him as his squire.
With Sancho in tow on Dapple, a small ass, the duo fell into outrageous undertakings, usually springing from Don Quixote’s hallucinations. On the plains of La Mancha the pair spotted a cluster of huge windmills. Quixote instantly declared them to be giants, and, despite Sancho’s protests, charged on them with lowered lance. The great arms of a windmill caught the knight and his steed and sent them both rolling. Quixote blamed the disaster on the work of a magician, who must have changed the giants into windmills “in order to deprive me of the glory of overcoming them.”
Occasionally, though, the deluded Quixote came off the victor, as when he heroically broke up a band of innocent Biscayan travelers. He continually mistook the most common sights for exotic vistas. Once he insisted that a far-off herd of sheep was, in reality, an evil army, and launched an attack on the poor animals. This noble intervention only brought a volley of rocks from the angry shepherds whose sheep had been scattered.
The knight also charged a funeral procession (claiming that the pallbearers were devils carrying away a princess), forced himself to undergo a solitary penance in the mountains, and mistook a common barber’s basin for the magical Helmet of Mambrino. Knight and squire crossed paths with a variety of rural characters – goatherds, galley slaves, innkeepers, and others – all of whom had rambling stories to tell. Meeting such people, Don Quixote inevitably embarked on long-winded, fantastic dissertations, which his listeners found either hilarious or annoying. Amid these blunders and misadventures, poor Sancho tried in vain to deal out a little common sense to his headstrong master.
But alas, Quixote’s valiant exploits were soon to end. His two friends had located him and had enlisted the services of a young girl to pose as a damsel in distress to lure Don Quixote into their hands. The old knight, hungry and cold, was easily deceived; he was captured, placed in a cage, and hauled towards his village home. Along the way, his captors coaxed him to give up his preoccupation with chivalry, spelling out to him that the stories of knights were nothing but fanciful and vain fiction. “Do you mean to tell me they are but lies?” Quixote stormed in disbelief.
Arriving home, though welcomed by the villagers, Quejana could not be cured of his fantasies. He was, in fact, Don Quixote the knight. He remained tied up in bed most of the time, scheming his escape to resume his wanderings.
Sancho, for his part, found himself assailed by his enraged wife. How could he have spent so much time away and then come home not a penny richer than before? Following Don Quixote’s example, Sancho calmed her by insisting that he would one day, as a reward for his brave exploits, be made governor of an island and become immensely rich.
Don Quixote and Sancho one day learned from a student that a best-selling book had already been written about their deeds. Thus encouraged, the knight and his squire set out again, and encountered scores of new adventures as violent and as absurd as the first. Among the puppet-masters, apes, and other masquerading knights, they met a certain duke and duchess, who received the pair into their castle.
Amused by this buffoon, they pretended to believe Quixote was a real knight, while at the same time eagerly dispatching the credulous knight on a series of wild escapades.
With Don Quixote away on one such errand, the duke and duchess fulfilled Sancho’s dream of becoming a governor by granting him jurisdiction over a whole town. His governorship served the royalty with a good number of comic scenes.
Meanwhile, Don Quixote had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a knight who had been so bold as to state that Dulcinea del Toboso was not the most beautiful of women. In consequence, the Don was forced to renounce his knighthood.
When he and faithful Sancho turned homeward a second time, the townspeople once more greeted them as returning heroes. But Don Quixote soon fell ill, and a physician’s visit revealed that he was dying.
Neighbors waited at his death-bed as Don Quixote slept for long stretches of time. When he finally awoke, however, all were surprised to find that his mind had somehow cleared; his insanity had vanished. In stirring language, Don Quixote renounced his books of chivalry, confessing “how foolish I was and the danger I courted in reading them; but I am in my right sense now and I abominate them.” Then, in a pathetic moment, he begged forgiveness of Sancho for the delusions he had inspired. Sancho beseeched his master not to die and encouraged him by reminding him of Dulcinea. But Don Quixote no longer believed in the fantasy, and insisted, “I was mad and now I am sane; I was Don Quixote de la Manclia, and now I am, as I have said, Alonso Quejana the Good.” After dictating a will, he died.
The novel’s closing lines sadly denounce the dreams of Don Quixote: “… Those false and nonsensical stories … are already tottering and without a doubt are doomed to fall.”
It is surprising that Don Quixote should have come to be regarded as one of the greatest novels of all time, since Cervantes originally intended it to be little more than a hasty parody of the sort of popular romantic book of chivalry of his time – and a quick money-maker. The book did make money, too: it became a best-seller throughout Europe.
Over the years, the general interpretation of the novel has almost reversed. It is now regarded, not as crude, slapstick humor, but rather, as a warm, human tale, depicting the conflict between noble idealism and brute, unfeeling practicality. The foolish knight, once seen as the butt of all the other characters’ jokes, is now perceived as a symbol of noble though impractical idealism, and has given the adjective”quixotic” to the English language.
In any case, it is hard not to sympathize with Don Quixote, despite his misconceptions. His devotion to high ideals in a world filled with scheming and base men is admirable. In fact, Quixote sometimes seems to be the only sane man in an insane society. Certainly lie wins the reader over with his sincerity.
Sancho, too, despite his coarseness, is endearingly innocent. Bit by bit he becomes more and more like his master, until, by the end of the novel, he has become almost an heir to Don Quixote’s purity and idealism.
The book is so full of events, meanderings, digressions, legends, conversations, and adventures, that a patient reader will never find his interest exhausted.