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Book Summary: Don Quixote – The Spanish Epic Novel on the Human Condition and Death

Don Quixote (1605) is widely regarded as the first modern novel. Its claim to fame extends beyond historical novelty. For many readers and critics, it remains the greatest novel of its kind. It tells the story of a man who becomes so enchanted by tales of chivalry that he decides to become a knight-errant – a wandering gallant in the style of Lancelot. The self-styled knight who calls himself Don Quixote and his trusty sidekick Sancho Panza get themselves into all kinds of absurd mischief, but their foolish quest ultimately brings them something precious: an immortal friendship.

Introduction: A bite-sized introduction to the epic adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

English has Shakespeare; Italian has Dante; and German has Goethe. In the words of the literary critic Harold Bloom, these writers are the glories of these respective vernaculars.

Spanish literature, meanwhile, has Miguel de Cervantes, the author of a 1,000-page novel as gloriously absurd as it is unforgettable: Don Quixote.

It’s hard to overstate the influence of this book, which has a good claim to being the first recognizable modern novel. Don Quixote, the lanky madcap knight, and the donkey-riding squire at his side, Sancho Panza, have become bywords for types of personality and ways of being in the world. Even if we haven’t (yet) read Cervantes’s tale, we instantly recognize them and what they stand for. No wonder: they’ve escaped their author’s pen and taken on a life of their own in countless movies, paintings, musicals, and even cartoons.

This summary, though, is about going back to the source.

We can’t cover all of this sprawling and wonderful book, of course – to try would be nothing less than quixotic, which is to say, extremely unrealistic. Instead, we’ll look at who Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are, what motivates them, and – most importantly – try to get a sense of the spirit in which they embark upon their world-famous adventures.

Book Summary: Don Quixote - The Spanish Epic Novel on the Human Condition and Death

The making of a knight-errant

Our story takes place in central Spain in the territory called La Mancha – a flat, featureless ocean of stubbly wheat fields and sun-bleached plains under a vast, perpetually blue sky.

In this sea of umber, ochre, and beige, there are islands of dazzling white: the clustered lime-washed houses in which Manchegans live and the windmills in which they grind corn.

In the sixteenth century, a curious man – the hero of our tale – lived in one of these villages full of white houses. He was around 50 years old and called Alonso Quijada or possibly Quijano – the chronicler of our story isn’t sure on this point. He was a hidalgo – a gentleman belonging to the lowest rung of the Spanish nobility. His estate was modest and the modest income it generated was just about large enough to put food on his table, pay an irritable housekeeper, and feed the sorry-looking horse he kept in his stable.

Like all gentlemen, he was a man of leisure, albeit a penniless one. But he didn’t need money to do what he liked doing best, which was reading about the chivalrous knights of old and their many quarrels, battles, love affairs, adventures, and misfortunes. As our chronicler says, these books – of which he devoured countless volumes – were full of “impossible nonsense.” But the more our hidalgo read about this enchanted world, the more he came to believe that such books weren’t fictions but authentic histories of a happier and nobler age.

In short, Alonso Quijada or Quijano, a man generally known for his good sense, filled his head with so much nonsense about wandering knights that he slowly but surely lost his mind. If he’d done so locked away in his library, he wouldn’t have needed a chronicler because there wouldn’t have been much of a story to tell. But this hidalgo dreamt up a strange plan to roam the world on horseback in search of monsters to slay, wrongs to right, and distressed maidens to rescue. He decided, in a word, to become a knight and revive that happier and nobler age.

And so he got to work. He scrubbed and polished a very old and moldy suit of armor which had belonged to one of his ancestors. The rusty helmet he found to go with it didn’t have a visor, so he fashioned one out of cardboard. Testing its durability with a sword, he destroyed what had taken him weeks to make with a single swipe. The second papier-mâché visor he crafted was fitted without further testing: God, our hidalgo trusted, would ensure its battle-worthiness. A leather shield and worm-eaten lance completed the outfit. The next step was to find an appropriate name for himself and his horse. The latter, a skinny and tottering animal, he called Rocinante – a name that, in Spanish, means as much as “noble steed that was formerly a humble horse.” For himself, he chose a name that harked back to the knights of yesteryear who added place names to their titles: Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Having prepared his armor and given himself and his horse fitting names, he decided that he needed a lady to whom he could dedicate his heroic deeds. A knight who isn’t in love, after all, is like a tree without leaves or fruit – all his books said as much. When he defeated some terrible ogre or evil wizard, he’d gallantly spare their lives on one condition: that they present themselves to his beloved, fall on their knees, and meekly recount how they were vanquished by the great and insufficiently praised Don Quixote de la Mancha.

In a nearby village, there was a pretty peasant girl called Aldonza Lorenzo. Our hidalgo had never exchanged a word with her, but he decided to make her the object of his chivalrous affections. First, though, she too needed a name equal to her standing as a princess and lady. And so Aldonza became Dulcinea del Toboso – a musical and original title, he thought, which means Ladylove of Toboso, which was the name of the village in which she lived.

Don Quixote’s first adventure

It was a sweltering day in July when Don Quixote slipped out of his village.

He cut a strange figure on his rickety horse. His armor was bulky, but you could see that the knight underneath was as skinny as a beanpole. His weapons suggested martial vigor, but that effect was undermined by the fragile boniness of the man wielding them – not to mention the advanced age of the face visible behind the papier-mâché visor. Oddest of all, though, was the contrast between his comical appearance and the solemn and dignified way he held himself.

With this picture before your eyes, let’s join Don Quixote on his first adventure.

Before he could battle famous knights, he had to attend to a practical matter: his own knighthood. The laws of chivalry were clear on this point. Unlike common riff-raff, whose heads anyone was free to bash in whenever they liked, only bona fide knights could engage one another in combat. Luckily, Don Quixote soon found a castle to give him this license.

To less enchanted minds, this “castle” was nothing more than a run-down roadside inn – the kind of place that’s frequented by tired mule drivers who stink of onions. Don Quixote, though, neither saw nor smelled muleteers. When the innkeeper came out, he thought he’d found the governor and promptly asked if he might have the honor of being knighted in his castle.

Deducing Don Quixote’s madness, the innkeeper decided to humor him. That evening, the inn’s humble guests watched as the freshly appointed governor of a newly discovered castle performed the necessary rites. Imitating the sounds of a priest sermonizing in Latin, he read aloud from a ledger recording how much barley and straw had been sold to muleteers. Then he touched the kneeling Don Quixote on the shoulder with a sword and declared him a knight.

Don Quixote was in high spirits the next day. What a wonderful ceremony it’d been! After courteously reminding his host that knights-errant don’t pay for their lodgings since they don’t carry money, as everyone ought to know, he let Rocinante pick a direction and started riding. After about two miles, he saw a group of men on horseback followed by a second group riding mules. The chronicler of our tale tells us that these were merchants on their way to the city of Murcia to buy silk followed by their mule boys. Don Quixote, though, saw six knights and their trusty squires.

Sensing an adventure was at hand and imitating what he’d read in his books, he planted himself in the middle of the road, shield and lance at the ready. As the knights approached, he raised his voice and commanded them to stop. No one, he cried out, would pass him before they’d confessed that there was no maiden in the world more beautiful than the peerless Dulcinea del Toboso, Empress of la Mancha!

The merchants, like the innkeeper, decided to play along with this foolishness. Señor knight, one said, we don’t know who this good lady is. Show her to us and if she’s as beautiful as you say, we’ll happily confess her peerless beauty! That won’t do, Don Quixote replied. Dulcinea’s beauty doesn’t need to be seen to be believed – it’s a truth which flies on its own wings to every corner of the earth! Admit it, Don Quixote cried, or prepare to die! The merchant, who was enjoying this exchange, proposed a compromise. Señor knight, he now said, can’t you at least show us a portrait of this lady? Then, even if it shows that she’s blind in one eye and has sulfur oozing from the other, we’ll happily admit that what you say is true.

“Ooze?” Don Quixote thundered, “She doesn’t ooze, you despicable rabble!” And with that, he raised his shield, lowered his lance, dug his spurs into Rocinante, and charged. He would have run his lance right through the startled merchant, too, if fortune hadn’t intervened. Rocinante, who wasn’t used to impromptu battles, stumbled and threw Don Quixote to the ground. He was determined to continue the fight on foot with his sword, but he couldn’t move – his ancient armor had pinned him to the ground. All he could do was curse the blasphemous, conniving, cowardly wretches who’d defamed fair Dulcinea.

Hearing all these insults, one of the mule boys lost his temper. He picked up Don Quixote’s lance and smashed it into pieces. Then he took one of the pieces and gave the fallen knight such a beating that, despite his armor, he was – in the chronicler’s words – “thrashed like milled wheat.” The merchants told him to stop, but the mule boy was so irate that he went back for more pieces of the broken lance to continue the beating. Don Quixote, for his part, continued to rain insults down on the brigands who were abusing his knightly person.

When he grew tired and the party of merchants moved on at last, Don Quixote was left in a heap by the side of the road. Unable to raise himself, he recited romantic sonnets extolling the virtues of the knights of old until he finally passed out from exhaustion. It was in this sorry state that a passing farmer found the hidalgo whom he recognized as Alonso Quijada or Quijano. Taking pity on his poor neighbor, the man strapped the unconscious knight to his donkey and returned him to his village, which is how Don Quixote’s first adventure concluded.

Don Quixote’s famous battle with the windmills

Our bruised knight spent two weeks recovering from the beating he’d received. In that time, he was silent on the topics of gallantry, knights, and fair maidens. His friends, who’d heard all about his absurd antics, breathed a sigh of relief. The madness, it seemed, had passed. Eager to prevent a relapse, they hid the hidalgo’s books and prayed his sanity would hold.

But Don Quixote was readying himself for new adventures. Each day, he slipped out of his house and went into the village to talk to Sancho Panza – a peasant famed for his honesty and dim-wittedness. For two weeks, Don Quixote filled this humble farmer’s head with so much nonsense that he was seriously considering becoming his squire. The scales were finally tipped by Don Quixote’s pledge to make this man the governor of a kingdom he’d soon conquer.

Selling half his possessions and pawning the rest, Don Quixote raised a reasonable sum of money. He gave it to Sancho and told him to buy supplies. Sancho packed these provisions into a saddlebag which he slung over a donkey. The donkey troubled Don Quixote – all the squires in his books had ridden horses. But he put his doubts aside and resolved to give Sancho the horse of the first discourteous knight he defeated in battle.

Properly provisioned with food, balms for treating wounds, and extra cash for lodgings and inns, the two men saddled up and rode out into the world in search of new adventures.

Sancho, whose face was hidden behind a huge bushy beard, was as squat and round as his master was tall and thin. On foot, he looked every bit the Manchegan peasant he was. Seated on his donkey, though, he had a kind of solemn dignity not unlike his master’s. As the chronicler of this tale says, Sancho sat on that donkey “like a patriarch.”

Riding along one day, the pair came upon one of those white islands which punctuate the sun-bleached plains of central Spain. It was a cluster of some 30 or 40 lime-washed windmills. Pointing at the army of 30 to 40 hideous giants lumbering across the fields in the distance, Don Quixote cried out in pleasure. Fortune, he shouted, was guiding their affairs better than he’d dared to hope! It’s a service to God, he shouted to his squire, to rid the world of such wicked creatures. There was sure to be treasure in it, too, since giants always had plenty of gold in their purses. Sancho’s ears pricked up at that last part. It wasn’t that he was greedy, but he hadn’t gone into the business of escorting knights-errant for the fun of it.

The problem was, as hard as Sancho looked, he could only see windmills, and he told his master as much. Don Quixote, though, was already steeling himself for combat. Stay back if you’re frightened, he commanded, and pray for me while I fight this fierce and unequal battle! With that, he spurred his horse, asked his lady Dulcinea to aid him in this moment of danger, lowered his lance, and attacked at Rocinante’s fastest speed – which, truth be told, wasn’t very fast. “Don’t flee, cowards and vile creatures,” he roared, “for it’s just one knight attacking you!”

Sancho watched as his master hurled himself at the first windmill. As his lance pierced the canvas sail, a gust of wind suddenly accelerated its movement. The lance splintered and both Don Quixote and Rocinante were lifted clean off the ground and hurled into the air before crashing back down to earth. God help us! Sancho cried and prodded his steed toward the heap of armor and horse lying next to the windmill. “Didn’t I tell you they were just windmills?” he yelled: “Only a man with windmills in his head could fail to realize it!”

Don Quixote, though bruised, wasn’t flustered. Telling Sancho to calm down, he serenely explained what had happened. Obviously, an evil wizard had transformed these giants into windmills to rob the knight of the glory that was rightfully his for having defeated such hideous creatures. Not being as learned as his master and not knowing the ways of knights-errant and their enemies, there wasn’t much Sancho could say to that. Instead, he helped Don Quixote back onto his horse and asked him if he was badly hurt.

No, said his master, who in truth was more concerned about the loss of his lance than the thrashing he’d just received. But even if he were, he said, the laws of chivalry dictate that knights accept their injuries without complaint, even if their intestines are oozing out. If that’s how it is, said pragmatic Sancho, I have nothing to say. “For my part,” he added, “I can safely say that I’ll complain about the least little pain I have – unless, that is, the business of not complaining also applies to the squires of knights-errant.”

Don Quixote laughed good-naturedly at the honest simplicity of his squire. You, he said to Sancho, may complain as much as you like whenever you like. With that settled, the two men, who were quickly becoming friends, left the enchanted windmills behind them and rode on.

The knight went ahead while Sancho, trotting behind on his donkey, helped himself to the provisions in his saddlebags. The squire’s dinner was a humble one, but he thought it the best in the world. Between mouthfuls of bread, sheep’s cheese, and onion, he raised a wineskin to his lips and drank with such gusto that a lord in possession of the greatest wine cellar in Spain might have envied him. As he ate and drank, Sancho forgot all about the kingdom his master had promised him and began to think that traipsing around in search of adventures wasn’t the chore he’d imagined it to be. Indeed, it was all turning out to be a great deal of fun.

About the author

Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra was born in Spain in 1547 to a family once proud and influential but now fallen on hard times. His father, a poor barber-surgeon, wandered up and down Spain in search of work. Educated as a child by the Jesuits in Seville, the creator of Don Quixote grew up to follow the career of a professional soldier. He was wounded at Lepanto in 1571, captured by the Turks in 1575, imprisoned for five years, and was finally rescued by the Trinitarian friars in 1580. On his return to Spain he found his family more impoverished than ever before. Supporting his mother, two sisters, and an illegitimate daughter, he settled down to a literary career and had hopes of becoming a successful playwright, but just then the youthful Lope de Vega entered triumphantly to transform the Spanish theatre by his genius. Galatea, a pastoral romance, was published in 1585, the year of Cervantes’ marriage to Catalina de Palacios y Salazar Vozmediano. But it did not bring him an escape from poverty, and he was forced to become a roving commissary for the Spanish armada. This venture, which led to bankruptcy and jail, lasted for fifteen years. Although he never knew prosperity, Cervantes did gain a measure of fame during his lifetime, and Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were known all over the world. Part I of Don Quixote was published in 1605; in 1613, his Exemplary Novels appeared, and these picaresque tales of romantic adventure gained immediate popularity. Journey to Parnassas, a satirical review of his fellow Spanish poets, appeared in 1614, and Part II of Don Quixote in 1615 as well as Eight Plays and Eight Interludes. Miguel de Cervantes died on April 23, 1616, the same day as the death of Shakespeare–his English contemporary, his only peer.


History, Philosophy, Society, Culture, Classics, Fiction, Literature, Spanish Literature, Adventure, Historical Fiction, Novels, Spain, Humor, Classic Literature


Nominated as one of America’s best-loved novels by PBS’s The Great American Read

Don Quixote has become so entranced reading tales of chivalry that he decides to turn knight errant himself. In the company of his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, these exploits blossom in all sorts of wonderful ways. While Quixote’s fancy often leads him astray—he tilts at windmills, imagining them to be giants—Sancho acquires cunning and a certain sagacity. Sane madman and wise fool, they roam the world together-and together they have haunted readers’ imaginations for nearly four hundred years.

With its experimental form and literary playfulness, Don Quixote has been generally recognized as the first modern novel. This Penguin Classics edition, with its beautiful new cover design, includes John Rutherford’s masterly translation, which does full justice to the energy and wit of Cervantes’s prose, as well as a brilliant critical introduction by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarriá.

* * * * *

Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, is part of the Barnes & Noble Classics series, which offers quality editions at affordable prices to the student and the general reader, including new scholarship, thoughtful design, and pages of carefully crafted extras. Here are some of the remarkable features of Barnes & Noble Classics:

  • New introductions commissioned from todays top writers and scholars
  • Biographies of the authors
  • Chronologies of contemporary historical, biographical, and cultural events
  • Footnotes and endnotes
  • Selective discussions of imitations, parodies, poems, books, plays, paintings, operas, statuary, and films inspired by the work
  • Comments by other famous authors
  • Study questions to challenge the readers viewpoints and expectations
  • Bibliographies for further reading
  • Indices & Glossaries, when appropriate

All editions are beautifully designed and are printed to superior specifications; some include illustrations of historical interest. Barnes & Noble Classics pulls together a constellation of influences—biographical, historical, and literary—to enrich each readers understanding of these enduring works. Widely acknowledged as the first modern novel, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote features two of the most famous characters ever created: Don Quixote, the tall, bewildered, and half-crazy knight, and Sancho Panza, his rotund and incorrigibly loyal squire. The comic and unforgettable dynamic between these two legendary figures has served as the blueprint for countless novels written since Cervantes’s time. An immediate success when first published in 1604, Don Quixote tells the story of a middle-aged Spanish gentleman who, obsessed with the chivalrous ideals found in romantic books, decides to take up his lance and sword to defend the helpless and destroy the wicked. Seated upon his lean nag of a horse, and accompanied by the pragmatic Sancho Panza, Don Quixote rides the roads of Spain seeking glory and grand adventure. Along the way the duo meet a dazzling assortment of characters whose diverse beliefs and perspectives reveal how reality and imagination are frequently indistinguishable. Profound, powerful, and hilarious, Don Quixote continues to capture the imaginations of audiences all over the world. Features illustrations by Gustave Doré.


“The highest creation of genius has been achieved by Shakespeare and Cervantes, almost alone.” —Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“A more profound and powerful work than this is not to be met with…The final and greatest utterance of the human mind.” —Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“What a monument is this book! How its creative genius, critical, free, and human, soars above its age!” —Thomas Mann

“Don Quixote looms so wonderfully above the skyline of literature, a gaunt giant on a lean nag, that the book lives and will live through his sheer vitality….The parody has become a paragon.” —Vladimir Nabokov

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From Carole Slades Introduction to Don Quixote

In the first few pages of Don Quixote, Cervantes had his contemporaries laughing. King Philip III remarked of a student he spotted from his balcony bursting into fits of laughter while reading a book, “That student has either lost his wits or he is reading Don Quixote.” A courtier who went to investigate found that the young man was indeed reading Don Quixote. Even if apocryphal, the remark conveys the contagious hilarity with which Don Quixote infected seventeenth-century Spanish readers. What did they find so amusing? Understanding the continuing power of Don Quixote to entertain as well as to instruct begins with answering that question.

Cervantess contemporaries would have immediately recognized Don Quixote as a low-level member of the nobility struggling to keep up appearances, always a comical endeavor. His rusty lance and rotted shield, relics of the means by which his grandparents and their forebears had acquired land, wealth, and power, now serve only as ornaments on his walls. Far from living with the ease of a gentleman, the status to which he pretends, he is tightening his belt to the point of constriction. His skimpy diet, which consumes three-quarters of his income, his “skeleton of a horse,” and “starved greyhound” suggest that he lives right on the edge of his financial means. In taking the title of don, which he does not merit because he does not own enough land, he follows a widespread practice of inflating rank with nothing more substantial than assertions. His fragile ego, which he always protects from admission of failure, suggests that he would have needed a way to avoid facing his financial bind and prospective social ruin. Like many Spaniards of his time, he finds an escape in books of chivalry.

To buy his books of chivalry, Don Quixote has raised money in a way that a seventeenth-century audience would have found ludicrous: selling off good, potentially income-producing farmland. Engrossed in reading the books, he has let his house and holdings go to ruin, and he has given up hunting, a perennial pastime of Spanish aristocrats. On these points he is laughably imprudent; but soon it becomes clear that on the subject of chivalry, he has not merely gorged himself on books, but perhaps has lost his sanity. Over the course of the novel, readers slowly begin to reckon with the sobering idea that they could be laughing not at a clown or a fool, but at a lunatic, and whats more, that Don Quixote quite possibly reflects their own image back to them. In choosing not to anchor the novel in a specific time and place, Cervantes signals that his satire will be directed not only at Don Quixote but also at his contemporary Spaniards. Don Quixote is not the only one, Cervantes suggests, who lives in a laughable, and dangerous, fantasy world. Don Quixote was as topical in its time as the most recent broadcast of Saturday Night Live is today, and it has proved as timeless as Shakespeares King Lear and Austens Pride and Prejudice. Seventeenth-century Spaniards are not the only ones who cannot reconcile themselves to change and decline.

In most of part I, especially in the first foray, the humor of Don Quixote remains relatively benign and broad. Consider, for example, Don Quixotes appearance. On the morning he rides out of his village on Rocinante, Don Quixote wears a full suit of rusted armor and a medieval helmet outfitted with a cardboard faceguard. In addition to being more than a century out of date, obviously jerry-rigged, and completely inappropriate for the intense July heat on the high plains of Castile, this outfit confines him to stiff, clumsy gestures reminiscent of the inflexible gait of the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz. Henri Bergson explains in his treatise on comedy, Laughter (1900), that “the artificial mechanization of the human body,” the transformation of a human body into a “thing” by whatever means, costume or gesture, constitutes the stuff of physical comedy.

Like the ungainly movements of the Tin Woodsman, which exhibit his lack of a heart, Don Quixotes armor, particularly his corroded helmet, represents the rigidity of his mind and spirit. He has created a self-image from books of chivalry, the accounts of heroic deeds of medieval knights, and he proceeds to treat the world as if it were the scene of such a romance. Spotting a very ordinary inn just at sunset, Don Quixote conjures up a castle.

As our heros imagination converted whatsoever he saw, heard or considered, into something of which he had read in books of chivalry; he no sooner perceived the inn, than his fancy represented it, as a stately castle with its four towers and pinnacles of shining silver, accommodated with a draw-bridge, deep moat, and all other conveniences, that are described as belonging to buildings of that kind.

He hears the swineherds horn call to round up his pigs as a trumpet salute to his arrival; he greets two women immediately recognizable as “ladies of the game,” or prostitutes, as “high-born damsels”; and he addresses the innkeeper as “Castellano” (governor of the castle).

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