Book I: Preface-Chapter 6 Summaries
Don Quixote begins with a preface by Cervantes. The author claims to be the "stepfather of Don Quixote" (as opposed to the father) because he is sharing an old story that was told to him long ago. At first, Cervantes decided that his book would have few allusions to classical or medieval storiesas was the custom of the day. In the end, however, his friend convinced him that these allusions will make the book larger and will convince the readers that Cervantes is a well-educated man.
There is an older gentleman (named Quixana or perhaps Quesada) and he lives in a Spanish village called La Mancha. As the story begins, this man has lost his wits. "His imagination was full of all that he read in his books"stories of medieval knights, chivalry, and bloody battles. As a result, he changes his name to Don Quixote and decides to become a knight-errant. Neither his niece nor his housekeeper can persuade him from dressing his old horse and setting off to battle giants.
On the road, Don Quixote stumbles upon a very ordinary peasant woman. Quixote sees her as a beautiful noble lady and so he calls her Dulcinea and vows to fight for her honor and glory.
Upon reaching an inn, Quixote envisions that the inn is a castle, that two lingering prostitutes are beautiful damsels, and that a dwarf opens the drawbridge to the castle. Quixote is crudely dressed as a warrior (with a helmet made of pasteboard). The innkeeper and guests are frightened by Quixote, but they soon become amused. The innkeeper plays along with Quixote's imaginations and agrees to knight Don Quixote in the morning. But when Quixote violently attacks one of the guests, the innkeeper hurriedly knights Don Quixote and sends him off.
The innkeeper advises Don Quixote that knights must travel with a few sets of clothing as well as a good amount of money.
Don Quixote returns to La Mancha to get the necessary supplies, and on the way, he hears crying sounds from a bush. Don Quixote discovers a young laborer (Andres) being ruthlessly whipped by his master, John Haldudo the Rich. The boy claims that the master owes him unpaid wages, but the master claims that the boy is dishonest. Quixote sides with the boy against his master, but then believes the master when he assures Quixote that the boy will be promptly recompensed. Don Quixote perceives that justice has been done, and so he continues on his path. Once Don Quixote is safely gone, the master continues to whip his servant.
Don Quixote also suffers a beating soon after, when he forces an altercation with a group of thirteen men. His body is bruised though his life is not endangered. A peasant from La Mancha discovers Don Quixote and leads the gentleman back to his home, where his anxious niece and housekeeper are waiting.
While Don Quixote sleeps, the niece and housekeeper conspire with two of Don Quixote's friends (the priest and the barber). In the end, they decide to burn almost all of the gentleman's sin-provoking booksthose books that aren't burned in the hellish fire are removed from the house altogether.
Authorship is one of the central themes of this novel. In the Preface, Cervantes claims that the story was originally recorded by a Moor. As "author," Cervantes has merely translated and embellished the work. Of course, this is not true. Ironically, authorship does become a major issue in terms of the publication of the sequel to Book I. Cervantes intended to publish a sequel to Book I; it arrived on the scene ten years later, in 1615. In the intervening decade, an "imposter" published a sequel to Book I. The book was denounced as a fraud, disclaimed by Cervantes, but nonetheless read and enjoyed by a very large audience.
In Book II, Cervantes responds to the "imposter sequel" and he noticeably takes authorship more seriously. These details certainly make Cervantes' Preface rather ironic, even if in retrospect. At any rate, the reader should not take the Preface seriouslyespecially Cervantes' claim that he is publishing Don Quixote in order to "destroy the authority and acceptance" enjoyed by "books of chivalry." Within the larger story of Book I, a number of smaller stories will be toldand questions of authorship will become one of Cervantes' favorite games.
As heroes go, Don Quixote gets off to a rather inauspicious start. In his attempts to become a knight-errant, Don Quixote is really a parody: His suit of armor is composed of rubbish and trash. His horse, Rocinante, is an old steed. Hardly a figure of renown, Don Quixote remains so undistinguished that even those familiar with him are not sure exactly what is name is (perhaps Quixana, Quesada or Quixana). Don Quixote's ambitions are as great and numerous as his inabilities and he spends a lot of time thinking about how the story of his "famous exploits" will be recorded.
Delusion is another major thematic concern of the novel. The books of chivalry have left Don Quixote incapable of seeing "reality." Many of Quixote's deluded interpretations are rather ironic. Perhaps Quixote is merely innocent and naïve when he mistakes the two prostitutes for damsels. Later in Book I, Quixote will argue that the idealization of a person makes this person ideal. True to the chivalric standard, Quixote idealizes women with little justification or provocation. When Don Quixote believes that the inn is a "castle" and the swineherd is a "dwarf," he is not merely idealizing. These delusions are self-serving; the castle and the dwarf fit into the story that Don Quixote wishes were true. To this day, the word "quixotic" is used to describe a person who is "foolishly impractical, especially in the pursuit of ideals." Certainly, this is true of Quixote when he explains that he did not bring any money or changes of clothes with him because he had "never read in the histories of knights-errant, that they carried any."
Don Quixote is definitely "in the pursuit of ideals," old chivalric ideals that were no longer the mode in his society. At the same time, the characterization of Quixote is rather complex. For an innocent, Quixote certainly causes a good amount of damageif Quixote is a hero, he is not an ordinary hero. Andres suffers far more than he would have, had Don Quixote never 'come to the rescue.' Throughout Book I, Don Quixote reveals himself to be both impatient and violent.
When Quixote causes a row at the inn, the innkeeper warns the other guests about accosting the knight: "The host cried out to them to let him [Don Quixote] alone, for he had already told them he [Don Quixote] was mad, and that he would be acquitted as a madman though he should kill them all." If nothing else, this passage gives us social context. This is the age of the Inquisition with its Index of forbidden books; these are years of law and order. As foreshadowed here, it will not be long before Quixote seriously trespasses the law. Quixote commits crimes because he pursues his ideals without giving any thought to the law; he does not take aim at the law.
In Don Quixote, deception functions as a parallel to delusion. Don Quixote suffers delusions of being a knight-errant. His family, friends, and acquaintances consistently deceive Quixote throughout Book I. Sometimesas we will see laterthese deceptions are intended to mock and ridicule Quixote. In these early chapters, Quixote's niece, and Quixote's two friendsthe priest and the barberseek to protect the would-be knight-errant from the books that have ravaged his sensibilities. Quixote's sane compatriots will frequently deceive him in order to protect him.
Finally, the reader should also be aware of Cervantes' self-reference in Chapter 6. Cervantes' work, Galatea, (published in 1585) isat least temporarilyamong the books that the priest and barber spare from the fire. The priest argues that the book cannot be adequately judged until "the second part" is published and critiqued. Only then, can Cervantes "obtain that entire pardon which is now denied him." This is quite the parallel to Michelangelo's self-depiction in the Sistine Chapel: a hollowed-out skin, dangling in the awkward space between heaven and hell. Today, literary critics generally look at Don Quixote as the formative step, the germ of the modern novel. Cervantes may not have used this language, but he knew that he was writing a different type of work. And so, we might expect this exorcism of The Author's nagging fearsthe demons of self-doubt and censorship; and we might have expected it to come early on in the story.
This is, however, only the beginning of a very long discourse on literature in general, focusing largely on aesthetics, poetics and criticism. Don Quixote is very much a book about reading and its consequences. But Don Quixote is also a book about the experiences of authors and storytellers.