Study Guide

Don Quixote Analysis

  • Tone

    Ironic

    From the beginning, it is clear that Miguel de Cervantes thinks that Don Quixote's efforts to be a knight are foolish. He tells us early on, in fact, that his title character "unluckily stumbled upon the oddest fancy that ever entered into a madman's brain," which is to become a wandering knight (1.1.1.8). But later on, Cervantes says things like: "[I]t seemed no less impossible than unjust, that so valiant a knight should have been destitute of some learned person to record his incomparable exploits" (1.2.1.1). In other words, Cervantes has adopted the language of Don Quixote himself, referring to the character as a "valiant knight" instead of a crazy person.

    It's clear that this is mostly tongue-in-cheek on Cervantes's part, since the whole point of his book is to make fun of knight adventure stories in the most ironic and sarcastic of ways. But one of the coolest things about Cervantes is the way he never shows his whole hand. Even when he's making fun of something, he's rarely making fun of it completely. Cervantes wants us to laugh, but he's not here to just give us mindless laughs. There's a lot going on between the lines here.

  • Genre

    Quest/Satire

    The genre of Don Quixote is one of the most interesting things about it, since Miguel de Cervantes wrote the novel as a satire of another, pre-existing literary genre. This is why we call this book a "satirical quest." Don Quixote's story has all of the journeys, romances, and battles of a traditional quest tale, but while a quest story would treat these things seriously, Cervantes uses Don Quixote's madness to show the ridiculousness of the quest genre—not to mention the foolishness of those who love to read it... and love it a little too much.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    It's fitting that the title of this book isn't a real name, but rather the fake name that Alonso Quixano takes on when he decides to become a wandering knight. Over the centuries since its publication, the title Don Quixote has become a huge symbol in Western culture for any type of person who lets their imagination run away with them (ever heard the adjective quixotic?). Like Don Quixote, many of us like to think that there's a strong, admirable person inside us. But unlike the Don, most of us are able to keep our fantasies grounded in a stable sense of reality. Hopefully.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    "As for me, I must esteem myself happy, to have been the first that rendered those fabulous nonsensical stories of knight-errantry, the object of the public aversion. They are already going down, and I do not doubt but they will drop and fall all together in good earnest, never to rise again. Adieu." (2.1.74.20)

    Cervantes ends the tale of Don Quixote by returning one last time to his beef with the dude who wrote a knock-off sequel to Don Quixote, Part 1. At the end of this book, Cervantes makes it very clear that he has killed off Don Quixote and that the guy will never, ever return. In other words, he's telling any would-be fan fic enthusiasts to buzz off. He also tries to make it clear that he is the first and only author who ever wrote a legitimate story about Don Quixote.

    No doubt about it, Cervantes is very possessive when it comes to his famous character, and he wants to make sure that no one ever writes a word about this dude again. It's fun to speculate on how he would have ended the book if he didn't have so much spite for the author who knocked him off. Then again, maybe there wouldn't be a Part 2 at all without that poor guy.

  • Setting

    16th-17th Century Spain (Inns and Countryside)

    For the most part, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza spend all of the novel in one of two places, an inn or the Spanish countryside. When it comes to describing the Spanish countryside, it's Cervantes's narrator who supplies us with some of the most poetic lines in the entire book, as you can see in this description of a sunset: "Scarce had the fair Aurora given place to the refulgent ruler of the day, and allowed him time, with the heat of his prevailing rays, to dry the liquid pearls on his golden locks" (2.1.20.1).

    This line is so dense with allusion that it'll take a few more lines just to unpack it. Aurora is the goddess of dawn in Roman mythology, and the "ruler of the day" in this line is Phoebus Apollo, god of the sun. The "liquid pearls on his golden locks" probably refers to the beads of morning dew that are still clinging to the strands of wheat and grass that surround Don Quixote and Sancho. Without doubt, nature always seems to inspire the most extravagant language from our narrator.

    When it comes to inns that Don Quixote and Sancho stay in, the narrator lets Don Quixote himself describe the setting. It's important to realize that in this book, the setting always exists half in reality and half in Don Quixote's imagination. Whenever he sees a normal inn, for example, we hear that he "no sooner saw the inn, but he fancied it to be a castle fenced with four towers and lofty pinnacles, glittering with silver, together with a deep moat" (1.1.2.3).

    Don Quixote's imagination is constantly transforming his surroundings into a setting that's way more spectacular than the bland, everyday reality he's living in. But that's kind of the point of this novel. Adventure books, says Cervantes, can mess up our minds so much that we lose track of what's real and not real about our surroundings.

    ... And then there's the double irony that even without adventure books, the line between real and not-real is hard to determine.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (7) Snow Line

    The language is dated, and you might have a hard time paying attention to Don Quixote's long, long speeches about knighthood. But if you sit down and give this book your full attention, you should definitely be able to get the gist of what's happening. The chapters even give us handy titles that summarize what happens in them. Apart from that, the greatest challenge of this book is its LENGTH. Don Quixote is long, plain and simple. But if you concentrate and stay committed, you'll become a member of the wonderful club of people who have actually read the whole thing.

    There's a reason that people always refer to Don Quixote's fights with windmills when they talk about this book. It's because this fight happens only one tenth of the way into the story, and few people have the stamina to read beyond it. But you do, dear Shmooper. We just know it.

  • Writing Style

    Humorously Grandiose

    So what do we mean by something as fancy-sounding as "humorously grandiose"? Well, we basically mean that Cervantes makes his writing really fancy in order to make fun of the most popular literary genre of his time, which was the chivalry book. For example, Cervantes will start a chapter with the line, "Most fortunate and happy was the age, that ushered into the world that most daring knight, Don Quixote de la Mancha!" (1.4.1.1.).

    But of course, this writing is every bit as sarcastic as the voice of Sansón Carrasco, who ironically falls on his knees in front of Don Quixote and cries, "O flower of chivalry […] refulgent glory of arms, living honour, and mirror of our Spanish nation" (2.1.7.3). In both cases, you're dealing with Cervantes's humorous brand of totally overblown language.

  • The False Sequel

    In the "Author's Preface" to Part 2 of Don Quixote, we learn that Miguel de Cervantes has a major beef to settle. It turns out that some jerk went out and published a sequel to Part 1 of Don Quixote before Cervantes had a chance to write his own.

    Cervantes more or less tells us that this knock-off Don Quixote is the reason he chose to kill off the title character at the end of his own version. He writes that in his version, "you have the Knight once more fitted out, and at last brought to his death, and fairly laid in his grave; that nobody may presume to raise any more stories of him" (2.1.AP.8). He repeats this same point at the close of the novel, pleading with people to leave his character alone by writing, "[L]et the wearied, mouldering bones of Don Quixote rest quiet in the earth that covers them" (2.1.74.20).

    What is even more amazing, though, is that Cervantes actually writes the false sequel into the world of his own sequel, having Sancho and the Don come across this horrible book during one of their adventures. Don Quixote wants to go the Spanish city of Zaragoza, but after finding out that this is what happens in the knock-off version of his adventures, he vows: "For that reason […] I will not set a foot in Zaragoza, and so the world will see what a notorious lie this new historian is guilty of" (2.1.59.9).

    In other words, the fictional character of Don Quixote vows never to go to the city of Zaragoza in order to spite a real-world author. Now that's what they call some serious metafiction. It's also a cool variation on one of the novel's main themes: the way fiction influences real life. Here we've got fiction (Don Quixote's books) influencing real life (Don Quixote's quest) influencing fiction in the real world (the knock-off sequel) influencing a real author (Cervantes) and fictional characters (Don Quixote) and much of the course of a fictional novel (Part II of Don Quixote).

    Just try to picture that all at once. We dare you.

  • Money

    In the world of Don Quixote, money is something that certain characters can take for granted and other characters can't.

    More specifically, rich characters tend to not care about money, while working-class characters do care about it. Don Quixote, for example, is an aging man who has so much money that he gets bored with all the free time this allows him. This is why he turns to chivalry books in the first place: "You must know then, that when our gentleman had nothing to do (which was almost all the year round), he passed his time in reading books of knight-errantry" (1.1.1.2).

    Don Quixote becomes so obsessed with his books that he's willing to take big financial hits to keep buying and reading them: "[H]e grew so strangely besotted with those amusements, that he sold many acres of arable land to purchase books of that kind" (1.1.1.2). Having that much money allows Don Quixote to indulge all of his whims. Yeah, it turns out that a lot of people get a kick out of the Don's antics, but these antics also cause a lot of trouble to people who can't really afford the trouble.

    Now, Don Quixote's lax attitude toward money is the exact opposite of Sancho Panza's. Sancho spends nearly all of his time thinking about how to get three things out of life: sleep, food, and money. When he finds a young man's wallet in the mountains, for example, Sancho is more than willing to lie to keep the money for himself, because "the gold he had found, which was above a hundred ducats, had but whetted his greedy appetite, and made him wild for more" (1.3.9.8).

    Sancho goes on to spend all of this money. Further, many of Sancho's conversations with Don Quixote in Part 2 of the book center on the question of how much money the Don should pay Sancho for being his squire. No doubt about it, Sancho is obsessed with money because he doesn't have very much, and Don Quixote is careless with money because he can afford to be.

    Money causes all kind of problems for other characters in the novel, too. Doña Rodriguez is a noblewoman forced into servitude, for example, and the captain is afraid to return to his family without any money. In this world, money more or less equals status, though it's still better to be a poor nobleman than poor peasant. Have things changed?

  • Helmets

    If you see a helmet in this novel, chances are good it's a symbol for the triumph of the imagination over reality.

    Just as a helmet gives you tunnel vision, so does Don Quixote's obsession with knight-errantry make him unable to see or acknowledge anything that doesn't fit into his narrow worldview. When he first sets out on his adventures, the Don realizes that he needs a proper helmet, but the book tells us that "instead of a complete helmet, there was only a single head-piece: however, his industry supplied that defect; for, with some pasteboard, he made a kind of half-beaver, or vizor" (1.1.1.9). Don Quixote doesn't detect the silliness in making part of his helmet out of cardboard, because his crazy imagination only allows him to see what he wants to.

    Don Quixote's diseased imagination makes him mistake another household object—a barber's basin—for a helmet. As the book tells us, Don Quixote sees a barber riding toward him and "[takes] the barber for a knight, and his brass basin for a golden helmet" (1.3.7.2). Sancho tries to tell him over and over that the object is actually a basin, but Don Quixote has already made up his mind. The object is a helmet because, according to Don Quixote's imagination, it has to be.

    In nearly every instance when the question of helmets comes up, Don Quixote's imagination always trumps good sense. And this just goes to show you how skilled the mind is at throwing away unwanted information and only accepting the things it wants to.

    A final question to ponder, though: do Don Quixote's silly helmets actually work? Do they protect him? If so, does it matter what they look like if they do the job?

  • Penance

    When it comes time to profess his love for Dulcinea del Toboso, Don Quixote decides that he must go out into a desert and torture himself. Sancho doesn't really understand why Don Quixote has to do what he does, saying, "I dare say the knights who did these penances had some reason to be mad; but what need have you to be mad too?" (1.3.11.5).

    The answer, of course, is that that's what Quixote's chivalry books have told him to do. When a dude can't be with the woman he loves, he goes out into nature and suffers terrible pain. It's a good thing we modern folks have learned to just sit in a dark basement and listen to break-up songs while eating a bag of Cheddar Jalapeño Cheetos…

    Sancho thinks all of this penance stuff is pretty silly, but he's quickly shushed by the Don, who tells him, "I assure thee, that all these seeming extravagancies that I must run through, are no jests: far from it, they must all be performed seriously and solemnly" (1.3.11.8). When Sancho tries to show respect, he agrees that the Don is living in a kind of love Purgatory.

    But even this doesn't satisfy Don Quixote, who argues, "Dost thou only call it Purgatory, Sancho! […] call it Hell rather, or something worse" (1.3.11.9). This is a ridiculous thing to say, since Hell—by definition—is supposed to be the worst place imaginable, a place where even penance isn't possible, since there's no hope for any improvement. But hey, you can't argue with a madman.

  • Chivalry

    Don Quixote loves himself a good ripping take about knights, giants, dragons, and princesses. But being too obsessed with fantasy fiction comes with a price: the narrator of the story tells us that "by sleeping little and reading much, the moisture of his brain was exhausted to that degree, that at last he lost the use of his reason" (1.1.1.5).

    Now whether or not you agree that a brain needs to be moist to be healthy, you have to admit that Don Quixote has a less-than-healthy relationship to the books he reads. In fact, Cervantes seems to use the entire text of Don Quixote as a cautionary tale for lovers of adventure fiction, which was by far the most popular kind of book when Cervantes was writing Don Quixote.

    Don Quixote, for his part, refuses to be convinced that the adventure stories he reads are not historically accurate. He argues at one point, "[I]t were as easy to persuade the world that the sun does not enlighten, the frost cool, and the earth bear us, as that there never was an Amadis, or any of the other adventurous knights'" (1.4.22.3).

    In other words, you'd have an easier time convincing Don Quixote that water isn't wet than you would have convincing him that the stories in his chivalry books aren't real. This just goes to show how dangerous fiction can be when it's put into the hands of obsessive fans. After all, just look at people who love—wait, we mean LOVE—Star Wars. We just hope none of them mistake our house for the Death Star the way Don Quixote mistakes windmills for giants.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Omniscient)

    Throughout this book, Cervantes uses multiple layers of narrators. For starters, there's Cervantes himself, who speaks to us in his Author's Prefaces that begin Parts 1 and 2 of the book. Further, Cervantes also takes on the role of narrator for Book 1 of Part 1. At the end of this Book, he passes the role of narrator on to "the second undertaker of this work" (1.1.8.6). From that point onward, the telling of the story is given to a Moorish (African) historian named Cid Hamet Benengeli.

    Playing on the racist stereotypes of his time, Cervantes chooses an African historian as his new narrator in order to inject suspense and doubt into everything that happens in his book, claiming that "I must only acquaint the reader, that if any objection is to be made as to the veracity of this, it is only that the author is an Arabian, and those of that country are not a little addicted to lying" (1.2.1.2).

    But for all of his changes in narrator, Cervantes's story always remains Third Person Omniscient. It is not Third Person Participant because neither Cervantes nor his fictional historian ever show up in the actual story of Don Quixote's adventures. It's not Third Person Limited, either, because we have access to the thoughts of all characters, not just Don Quixote, as you can see with a line about a secondary character like the Duchess that tells us: "The Duchess was ready to die with laughter at Sancho, whom she thought a more pleasant fool, and a greater madman than his master" (2.1.32.4).

    Here, we get to see directly what the Duchess is thinking; we wouldn't be able to see that if the narrator were Third Person Limited, giving us access only to Don Quixote's thoughts.

    The use of Third Person Omniscient is suitable for this book: there are so many characters who try to manipulate Don Quixote and Sancho, and it would be tough to follow their plans if we could only see what was happening from Don Quixote's perspective.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      The Call

      Of course Cervantes would write Don Quixote as a quest story: Don Quixote himself tries to base his life on all the knights' quests he has read about over the years. He first hears the "call of knight-errantry" when he's sitting in his library and reading book after book about medieval knights and their fabulous adventures. Eventually, the Don decides that he wants to get in on the action, so he digs out an old suit of armor and starts riding around the countryside. By doing so, he hopes to prove his manliness to his beloved Dulcinea del Toboso, a woman he has never actually seen or met.

      The Journey

      When Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho set out into the world of adventure, they encounter all kinds of dangers and temptations… at least in Don Quixote's imagination. For starters, Don Quixote's overactive imagination gets them into all kinds of physical altercations, most of which leave the Don and his sidekick nearly clobbered to death. On top of that, Don Quixote thinks that the women around him are constantly trying tempt him sexually. Nevertheless, the Don remains committed to his beloved Dulcinea and never gives in. In addition, he benefits from the "hospitality" of a Duke and Duchess who find his madness very amusing. Of course, Don Quixote doesn't realize that these people are making fun of him the whole time.

      Arrival and Frustration

      In Part 2 of the novel, Don Quixote is brutally disappointed when he meets the young woman whom Sancho has told him is Dulcinea del Toboso. The woman is nothing more than a burly country girl. But Sancho's explanation is that Dulcinea has been enchanted by an evil wizard, and Don Quixote must find a way to break the curse. The Don eventually discovers that the only way to break the curse (according to the fibbing Duke and Duchess) is for Sancho to take 3,300 lashes on the bum. Sancho refuses to undergo this punishment, however, and Don Quixote despairs of ever seeing Dulcinea in her beautiful, non-cursed form.

      The Final Ordeals

      On a trip to Barcelona, Don Quixote is challenged to a duel by the Knight of the White Moon, who is actually the university graduate Sansón Carrasco in disguise. Don Quixote loses the duel and gives up his life of knight-errantry as punishment. In this sense, his mock quest comes to an end, and it is a failed quest in the sense that he loses the final ordeal. But it's a success in the sense that it eventually leads Don Quixote to recover his sanity.

      The Goal

      At this point in a knight's quest, the knight is supposed to make a thrilling escape from death. But Cervantes's book gives us a failed version of the quest. Why? Because Cervantes is trying to be real. He's trying to show people how stupid these quest stories are to begin with. So instead of escaping death, Don Quixote falls sick and quietly dies. For good measure, Cervantes has it so that Don Quixote uses his final words to give a speech about how dumb quest stories are.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition (Initial Situation)

      Setting Out

      When we first meet Don Quixote, he's a fairly wealthy older gentleman with a little too much time on his hands. His favorite thing to do with his free time is read adventure books that he takes to be historically accurate. One day, his mind snaps. He decides that he wants to be a knight from one of his books, so he saddles up his horse and goes out in quest of adventure.

      His first foray into the world of knighthood goes badly. It's not long before he's totally laid up with injuries and carried back home. Soon after he recovers, though, he gets himself a sidekick named Sancho Panza and sets out again for adventure.

      Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

      Steady Diet of Wackiness

      The action in this book isn't so much "rising action" as it is a constant barrage of weird antics and crazy violence. But then again, you can't expect a constant build-up of tension from a book that's around a thousand pages in most editions. Don Quixote and Sancho get themselves into all kinds of trouble, but the overall feeling is more like watching episodes of a long-running TV series than watching a single two-hour movie.

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

      The Bachelor's Revenge

      After his first failed attempt to defeat Don Quixote in a duel, the university grad Sansón Carrasco gets himself a new alias (The Knight of the White Moon) and comes back looking for more. He meets Don Quixote on a beach one day and challenges him to a duel, saying that the loser will have to do whatever the winner says. When Sansón finally beats Don Quixote, he forces him to give up being a knight for a whole year. This effectively ends Don Quixote's career as a knight, and the Don is inconsolable afterward.

      Falling Action

      The Voyage Home

      On his way home, Don Quixote runs into a few new adventures, like getting pulled back into the castle of a sadistic Duke and Duchess. But at this point, all of this stuff just seems like filler on the author's part. We all know Don Quixote's career as a knight is over, and that he now dreams of becoming a musical shepherd in his free time. Yeah, you read that right. Musical shepherd.

      Resolution (Denouement)

      I Got a Fever

      Don Quixote isn't home for long before he falls deathly ill with a fever. And no, the only prescription is not more cowbell. It turns out that the only prescription is death, which Don Quixote faces with a ton of class. He regains his sanity and renounces his love for knight adventure books, claiming that his fantastic journeys have all been a colossal waste of time.

      In the book's final lines, Cervantes makes sure to tell us that Don Quixote is dead and buried and that there won't be a sequel. Just in case we were wondering.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      We meet a wealthy older man named Alonso Quixano, who is really obsessed with adventure fiction. He's so into it, in fact, that he dresses up as a knight one day and rides off into the countryside fixing to pick fights with giants and monsters. He also gets himself a sidekick named Sancho Panza, and the two of them ride around looking for—and often finding—dangerous situations. For the most part, they both get creamed on a regular basis. It's only when the curate and the barber from Don Quixote's village trick Don Quixote that he returns home for some much-needed bed rest.

      Act II

      When Part 2 of the book opens, a university grad by the name of Sansón Carrasco decides that he wants to have a little bit of fun with Don Quixote. So he visits the guy and suggests that he go to the city of Zaragoza to enter a fighting tournament. Don Quixote accepts the challenge and saddles up to go back out into the world in search of adventure. This time around, though, he has to deal with the fact that some books about him have been published and are circulating around Spain. That means that people know about his crazy antics and are eager to mess with him. Because, you know, people are bored.

      Act II proceeds in a way similar to Act I, except the ante gets upped when a Duke and Duchess pour all of their power and wealth into creating elaborate fantasies around Don Quixote's adventures. They even make Sancho Panza into the temporary governor of a Spanish town. Act II only draws to a close when the bachelor Sansón Carrasco defeats Don Quixote in a duel and makes him promise to give up being a knight for at least a year. Don Quixote has no choice but to fulfill his promise and heads home.

      Act III

      In Act III, Don Quixote and Sancho come across a few final adventures during their voyage home, which include witnessing the fake resurrection of a young girl and getting stampeded by a herd of pigs. When they finally arrive home, Don Quixote falls ill with a fever and never recovers. In his final moments, he regains his sanity and renounces all knight adventure books. He also feels sorry for all of the trouble he has caused during his wacky adventures. He makes it all good, though, by writing his will and ensuring that the people he loves are taken care of when he's gone.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo. "Amadis de Gaul" (1.1.1.4)
      • Miguel de Cervantes, "The Galatea" (1.1.6.7)
      • Bernardo de la Vega, "The Shepherd of Iberia" (1.1.6.7)
      • Joannot Martorell, "Tirante el Blanco" (1.1.6.7)
      • Jorge de Montemayor, ""The Seven Books of the Diana" (1.1.6.7)
      • Francisco Vasquez de Ciudad Rodrigo, "The Palmerin Romances" (1.1.6.7)

      Historical References

      • Expulsion of the Moors from Spain (2.1.54.3)