Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (Part 1: 1605; Part II, 1615) is arguably the most prominent cultural landmark of the Spanish-speaking world. It is celebrated as the preeminent work of Spanish literature and widely considered the first modern novel in any language.
The title character is a fifty-year-old man from the region of La Mancha in central Spain. Influenced by books about chivalry, he announces one day to his bemused family that he has changed his name to Don Quixote and that he is going out into the world on his noble steed–really his skin-and-bones barn horse, Rocinante–to do great deeds and right all wrongs. He enlists a “squire,” an illiterate peasant named Sancho Panza, who thinks Don Quixote is crazy but plays along, half-believing his new master’s promise that he will give Sancho an island to govern.
The pair sets off on a long string of misadventures. Don Quixote continaully misinterprets the world around him, mistaking innkeepers for knights, prostitutes for maidens, monks for enchanters, and windmills for giants. Often, his exploits harm their intended beneficiaries more than they help. He dedicates all his deeds to a “princess,” Lady Dulcinea del Toboso–really a peasant girl who is completely indifferent to the actions being performed in her name.
Don Quixote both parodies and pay homage to the chivalric romance–a genre that was a staple of secular literature during the Middle Ages. These epic poems told loosely connected tales of heroic knights, typically featuring themes of courtly love. Some were based on true events, but others were purely legend. In Don Quixote, Cervantes tackled the same subject matter, but with a more cohesive narrative, unprecedented psychological depth, and ironic self-awareness. He also added surprisingly postmodern twists: After another writer published a fake sequel to the first part of Don Quixote in 1614, Cervantes decided to write the fake sequel into the real second part of the novel. He makes Don Quixote and Sancho aware of this fake account, enabling them to comment on it with derision.
Though we take such characteristics for granted in today’s literature–and indeed take the novel form itself for granted–they were enormous innovations at the time. The character of Don Quixote himself is a great achievement, a figure whom different eras and groups have variously interpreted as a buffoon, a tragic hero, and a courageous figure refusing to conform. His embodiment of so many qualities is precisely what has made Cervantes’ protagonist one of the most timeless characters in fiction.
Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale