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Don Quixote

Term Definition
Don Quixote

In Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes tells of the adventures of the title character, who decides to declare himself a knight and live according to this self-image. The disjunction between Quixote's imagination and the real world have produced common English expressions, such as fighting windmills and the adjective quixotic. In general, the first part of the novel has a comic tone, whereas the second part becomes considerably darker and more tragic. 

Brief Summary of Don Quixote

Don Quixote is an adventure novel published in two volumes, circa 1605 and 1615, by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). The story follows the misbegotten crusades and far-flung chivalrous illusions of a self-deluded knight-errant. 

The titular character is the alter ego of Alonso Quixano, a fiftyish gentleman of La Mancha who develops a distorted view of reality after imbibing himself with far too many books of chivalry. Donning sword and armor, he names his aging horse "Rocinante," casts a neighboring peasant girl as his lady love named "Dulcinea del Toboso"—all without her knowledge—and sets off on an unsuccessful adventure. Badly beaten, he regroups with a lackey, Sancho Panza, who buys into some of Quixote's delusions. The two set off on a long series of adventures of varying consequence, with the protagonist ever-convinced that he's defending his "knighthood" and "princess" from a string of "evils." Some of the parties that Quixote and Panza encounter are taken in by the gambit, and even those who aren't still find their lives altered by the shenanigans. By the end of the second book, however, the hero calls it a day, regains his sanity, and renounces chivalrous books before succumbing to illness in familiar surroundings.

Themes and Character Analysis

In a sense, Don Quixote is about the central character's worldview and the ways in which those around him adopt to the spectacle, regardless of whether they see any truth in his fantastical allusions. Some of these people, including the priest and barber, make an effort to pull Quixote back from his knight-errant pursuits, but entertain his fantasies just to get him to communicate. Ironically, these same characters come to see value in Quixote's fantasy world, even if they don't believe in its literal existence. On the other hand, the Duke and Duchess staunchly oppose Quixote's mission, but wind up dealing with circumstances and making choices—such as giving Sancho a governorship—that play right into the knight-errant's fantasy world.

Quixote's sanity has long been a subject of debate among literary scholars. Throughout the early chapters, he appears to be disconnected from the real world as hallucinations grip him at every turn. In later chapters, however, it starts to seem as though Quixote is consciously choosing his fantasies. During the second book, as disillusionment kicks in over his knight-errant ways, he shows an increased ability to perceive and contemplate things in a rational manner. Near the end of his life, he not only reverts back to Alonso Quixano, he forbids his niece from ever marrying a man who reads books of chivalry.

Modern Remakes and Additional Information

Don Quixote exemplifies the picaresque novel popular in its time, where a fringe, heroic character follows his own conscience in a corrupt world. While the story largely operates at a humorous level, its contents have influenced paintings, music compositions, and literary works of varying thematic moods. Two of the more famous examples in this regard are by composer Richard Strauss and painter Pablo Picasso, who both made title-sake works inspired by Cervantes' most enduring character.

Shortly before the author completed the second book of Don Quixote, an unknown writer using the pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda put out an unauthorized sequel titled Second Volume of the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. Cervantes makes this faux installment a topic of ridicule in the second book, which appeared a year before the author's death in Madrid, Spain, at age 68.

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