At the age of fifty, a relatively poor landowner named Alonso Quixano goes insane after reading too many books about chivalry. Letting his imagination get the better of him, he decides to put on armor, mount his thin sickly horse Rocinante, and become a knight errant in imitation of the characters from his books. He charges windmills he believes to be giants, thinks every run-down inn he stays at is a grand castle, fights random travelers in the road believing them to be enemy knights, and ends up entering upon many other types of delusional misadventures. He is joined by Sancho Panza, a poor peasant and neighbor, who is tempted by the promise of one day becoming governor of his own island and the many riches he will surely win as Don Quixote’s squire. They get involved with shepherds, dukes, landlords, Moors, soldiers, highwaymen, and other vagabonds who have their fun at the expense of Don Quixote and Sancho. Don Quixote’s friends and family from the village scheme to lure him home and cure him of his madness.
Due to the episodic nature of the narrative, this is the best general summary I could offer, which unfortunately condenses the many specific episodes that make up the bulk of this wonderful novel. Don Quixote has to be one of the funniest books I have ever read. It is always a good sign of a novel’s comical merit when you’re actually laughing out loud while reading it. Besides, being a successful comedy and entertaining read, the novel explores a lot of interesting themes.
Don Quixote is a slave to his illusions and idealism. He is a man that has read one too many books and lost his grip on reality. His imagination often slams against the limitations of reality, which he rationalizes away as enchanters persecuting him with magical spells to delude his senses whenever discrepancies between the two arise. Like many people in the world, he prefers his illusions to reality.
Don Quixote’s problem begins when he takes the bad books meant as mere entertainment too seriously. Cervantes often makes comment about the nature of fiction (even playfully burning his own works in a scene where Don Quixote’s friends break into his library and burn his books in hopes of curing his insanity), in particular his narrative implies there are both good books and bad books. Good books can enlighten us about the world, but bad books can cause real damage when people take such books too seriously. However, another important reason he loses his grip on reality is that he leads a boring and unexceptional life.
The opening chapter tells us about his lifestyle prior to his running off and stylizing himself a knight errant. We get a sense that his everyday life was boring and lacked excitement. Essentially then Alonso Quixano suffers a midlife crisis. He reads books about knights for a little excitement, which leads him to take the next step of actually trying to live the stories in his books.
The novel implies that part of the reason he becomes a knight errant is to increase his own fame and inflate his pride. This is rather ironic given the many speeches he delivers against pride and vanity to others he meets along the way, but he himself is the primary victim of this sin. The narrative implies that his adapting the ways of knight errantry, especially the underlying reasons for it, is antithetical to Christian salvation. At other times in the narrative, he claims his actions are meant to help the poor and innocent, but his primary motives seem to be pride and vanity. He wants people to write books about his exploits as a Knight Errant. He delivers panegyrics on being a good Christian, but up until the end he fails to play the role of the good Christian. At the end of the novel, he repents his life as knight errant. Then again, some of his actions do support the poor and innocent against the rich and immoral.
A major question for critics has been whether Cervantes is criticizing Don Quixote’s idealism or supporting it. Even though, Cervantes shows Don Quixote to be a madman and buffoon at times, and performing his deeds for the wrong reasons (his own pride, vanity, and out of boredom), the narrative suggests that some of the ideals Quixote professes as a knight are not only good, but needed to cure a hypocritical and corrupt Spain. Many of the rich characters Don Quixote meets are abusive, especially to women, the poor, and their servants. There are countless stories of nobility and landowners taking advantage of women, wheedling them into bed with promises of marriage, only to renege on their promises. These are precisely the people that knights and the code of chivalry are supposed to protect. Don Quixote might be a buffoon, his strong emphasis on his own fame and glory might be misguided, but Cervantes hints that there might be in fact a need for knights errant in a corrupt world, that the ideal itself might be good, and his delusions are capable of uncovering the seedy underbelly of a corrupt world.
Idleness is one of the major issues underlying the surface of the story. In the second part of the novel, Don Quixote meets a duke and duchess who endanger their immortal souls by playing pranks and tricks on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. They invite the famous knight errant and his squire to stay with them so they can play tricks on them. The impression the narrative gives is that they do it because they are bored and need something new to entertain them. Later, at the very end of the novel, Don Quixote returns to the Duke’s castle where he gives a long speech to their servant Altisidora about her idleness:
“Your ladyship must learn that all the evil in the maiden arises from idleness, the remedy for which is honest and continuous occupation.”
“Maidens who have work to do spend more thought on finishing their jobs than on thinking of their loves.”
Don Quixote’s comments are yet another example of his advice always containing a touch of irony. It is his own idleness and lack of consistent occupation that makes Alonso turn to his books of chivalry where his delusions begin. Perhaps then Don Quixote’s true madness is his ability to recognize and criticize in others his own worst faults, even providing their solutions, but not being able see these character flaws in himself. The book would then be suggesting that illusions about reality and grandiose dreams about our place in it stem from a lack of self-knowledge and boredom with our lives, but we also need heros like Don Quixote to stand up to those who would take advantage of others in society.