From the beginning of the novel, the narrative's accuracy is called into question. In terms of authorship, Cervantes tells us that he has found this story and translated it from the work of a Moor named Cid Hamet Ben Engeli. Cervantes continually tells us that Ben Engeli cannot be trusted because he is a Moor. In an exterior frame, the narrative is immediately destabilized.
Within the novel, Don Quixote, the priest, the innkeeper (#2), the canon and numerous others weigh in on various chivalric tales and other literary works. The priest's aesthetics suggest that the style of narration determines the "reliability" of a narrativenot the accuracy of the details. If the "facts" are properly arranged, the most improbable story can seem true.
Indeed, Cervantes' comic novel attests to this fact. Don Quixote is hailed as the first modern novel and praised for its realism. Realism applies more to the style in which the details are relayed than the actual narrative content. It seems highly unlikely that a man like Don Quixote might actually exist. In Chapters 33-35, "The Novel of the Curious Impertinent" figures in the exact same way. The priest says that he favors "the manner" in which the story was written though he sees Anselmo as an implausibly, unrealistically naïve and idiotic character. The story is realistic, but the character is unrealistic: How can this be so?
Part of what buttresses these reliable narratives (or perhaps, "reliably unreliable narratives") is their fetish for textual, historical, and or literary documentation. Cervantes' novel incorporates ballads, poems, oral narratives, editorial annotation and aesthetic commentary. Don Quixote incorporates diverse forms from disparate sources: unless they are all lying, the story is sound. "Curious Impertinent" is just as wily: the narrator reproduces the entire and unedited text of Camilla's love letters, while Lothario recites whole stanzas of lyric poetry without skipping a beat. These inner texts anchor the whole work. These inner texts become "evidence" and these details are credited as accurate.
Edmundo Delgado is a literary critic who looks at how the word historía signifies both 'story' and 'history' depending upon the context. Quixote is candid about his desire for fame and he continually discusses the history-historía of knight-errantry. The other characters largely read chivalry as story-historía. Still, Quixote's focus on his personal history, combines with the historiography of Cid Hamet Ben Engeli: when arguments about how the details should be told become arguments about how the details actually occurred, story-historía subtly transforms into history.
Book II complicates these issues in one major way. Avellaneda's "imposter sequel" (1614) complicates Book II (1615) in a way that was not possible for Book I (1605). Book II has to prove itself as the true sequelbut when Avellaneda published his work, Cervantes was already writing Chapter LIX (there are only seventy-four chapters in Book II). In "narratological" terms, these final chapters get far more complicated than what preceded.
Delusion, Enchantment, and Imagination
The books of chivalry have left Don Quixote incapable of seeing "reality." When Don Quixote believes that the inn is a "castle" or a "windmill" is a "giant," he is not merely deluding himself. He has subverted his physical senses. While there are repetitions (inn = castle), not every "enchantment" is predictable. Quixote sees festooned pagan warriors on horseback battling in a field where there are only two herds of sheep.
To this day, the word "quixotic" is used to describe a person who is "foolishly impractical, especially in the pursuit of ideals." Chivalry is a social order that was disappearing. Quixote's delusions are not without philosophical underpinnings: he is deluded but also utopian; imaginative and idealistic. Quixote is not just living out any delusion; he is living out his fantasy. "Mad I am and mad I must be" is what Quixote tells Sancho. Delusion imprisons Quixote but the knight's imagination secures him freedom. Caged and ox-carted, there is no Utopia for Quixote, but his ideals are intact. "Mad I am," the knight exclaims, having fit himself into a role that has already been written in the chivalric literature. The delusion is strict and Quixote practices knight-errantry with orthodoxy. His imagination is expansive, however; every scene awards Quixote to see the enchantments as he chooses. He must battle giants, but they need not have been the windmills. He must search for Mambrino's helmet, but it need not have been a barber's basin. Quixote reserves the right to locate the enchantment right before his eyes.
Deception, Manipulation, and Strategy
This theme is treated differently in Book II, where the Duke and Duchess deceive and abuse Quixote. In Book I, Quixote is deceived by the priest, the barber, his housekeeper, his niece, Cardenio and Dorotea, among others. Even Sancho lies to Quixote, claiming to deliver the letter to Dulcinea. In the early chapters, the characters conspire to destroy Quixote's library and when the knight-errant prepares for his second sally, there is an effort to prevent him from leaving. In the second half of Book I, the priest and the barber enjoy numerous distractions but their primary concern is getting Don Quixote home safely. Their strategy is to use Quixote's delusions as a means of tricking him. Quixote believes that a cage is an enchantment to carry him to his next adventure. Meanwhile, the barber disguises himself and pretends to be a prophet, foretelling Quixote's triumphal return home. When Quixote speaks to the Princess Micomicona he does no think to ask 'Where is Dorotea?' because he does not Dorotea. But when the barber disappears in and out of costume, Quixote remains deceived. Indeed, the characters do not even bother wearing their disguises at one point because Quixote is so deep within his fantasy that there is no risk of him perceiving reality.
Don Quixote Book I Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Don Quixote Book I is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.