DON QUIXOTE -- the world's first novel and by far the best-known book in Spanish literature -- was originally intended by Cervantes as a skit on traditional popular ballads, yet he also parodied the romance of chivalry.
By happy coincidence he produced one of the most entertaining adventure stories of all time and, in Don Quixote and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, two of the greatest characters in fiction.
The first part of DON QUIXOTE was published in 1604 and brought Cervantes immediate popularity. It wasn't until 1614 that the tale was completed. By 1615, when he died, "old, a soldier, a gentleman and poor," his book was already famous in both French and English. Time has only enhanced his and the book's reputation.
Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) was a Spanish novelist, playwright, and poet, best known as the creator of Don Quixote, the most famous figure in Spanish literature.
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The Life of Cervantes
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was at once the glory and reproach of Spain; for, if his admirable genius and heroic spirit conduced to the honour of his country, the distress and obscurity which attended his old age, as effectually redounded to her disgrace. Had he lived amidst Gothic darkness and barbarity, where no records were used, and letters altogether unknown, we might have expected to derive from tradition, a number of particulars relating to the family and fortune of a man so remarkably admired even in his own time. But, one would imagine pains had been taken to throw a veil of oblivion over the personal concerns of this excellent author. No inquiry hath, as yet, been able to ascertain the place of his nativity;1 and, although in his works he has declared himself a gentleman by birth, no house has hitherto laid claim to such an illustrious descendant.
One author* says he was born at Esquivias; but, offers no argument in support of his assertion: and probably the conjecture was founded upon the encomiums which Cervantes himself bestows on that place, to which he gives the epithet of Renowned, in his preface to Persiles and Sigismunda.2 Others affirm he first drew breath in Lucena, grounding their opinion upon a vague tradition which there prevails: and a third* set take it for granted that he was a native of Seville, because there are families in that city known by the names of Cervantes and Saavedra; and our author mentions his having, in his early youth, seen plays acted by Lope Rueda, who was a Sevilian. These, indeed, are presumptions that deserve some regard, tho', far from implying certain information, they scarce even amount to probableconjecture: nay, these very circumstances seem to disprove the supposition; for, had he been actually descended from those families, they would, in all likelihood, have preserved some memorials of his birth, which Don Nicholas Antonio would have recorded, in speaking of his fellow-citizen. All these pretensions are now generally set aside in favour of Madrid, which claims the honour of having produced Cervantes, and builds her title on an expression? in his Voyage to Parnassus, which, in my opinion, is altogether equivocal and inconclusive.
In the midst of such undecided contention, if I may be allowed to hazard a conjecture, I would suppose that there was something mysterious in his extraction, which he had no inclination to explain, and that his family had domestic reasons for maintaining the like reserve. Without admitting some such motive, we can hardly account for his silence on a subject that would have afforded him an opportunity to indulge that self-respect which he so honestly displays in the course of his writings. Unless we conclude that he was instigated to renounce all connexion with his kindred and allies, by some contempt'ous flight, mortifying repulse, or real injury he had sustained; a supposition which, I own, is not at all improbable, considering the jealous sensibility of the Spaniards in general, and the warmth of resentment peculiar to our author, which glows through his productions, unrestrained by all the fears of poverty, and all the maxims of old age and experience.
"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
What a unique monument is this book!... How its creative genius, critical, free, and human, soars above its age!
Don Quixote is the first modern novel, perhaps the most eternal novel ever written and certainly the fountainhead of European and American fiction: here we have Gogol and Dostoevsky, Dickens and Nabokov, Borges and Bellow, Sterne and Diderot in their genetic nakedness, once more taking to the road with the gentleman and the squire, believing the world is what we read and discovering that the world reads us.
The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world of a question. (Milan Kundera
"Don Quixote is practically unthinkable as a living being," said novelist Milan Kundera. "And yet, in our memory, what character is more alive?"
Widely regarded as the world's first modern novel, Don Quixote chronicles the famous picaresque adventures of the noble knight-errant Don Quixote de La Mancha and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, as they travel through sixteenth-century Spain. This Modern Library edition presents the acclaimed Samuel Putnam translation of the epic tale, complete with notes, variant readings, and an Introduction by the translator.
The debt owed to Cervantes by literature is immense. From Milan Kundera: "Cervantes is the founder of the Modern Era. . . . The novelist need answer to no one but Cervantes." Lionel Trilling observed: "It can be said that all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote." Vladmir Nabokov wrote: "Don Quixote is greater today than he was in Cervantes's womb. [He] 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. . . . He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant. The parody has become a paragon." And V. S. Pritchett observed: "Don Quixote begins as a province, turns into Spain, and ends as a universe. . . . The true spell of Cervantes is that he is a natural magician in pure story-telling."
1. Don Quixote is often called the first modern novel. Do you agree? Why or why not?
2. Many critics have interpreted Don Quixote as a sustained exploration of madness. How is madness represented in the novel?
3. Italian literary critic Giovanni Papini famously argued in the early 1920s that "by virtue of [the power of Cervantes's genius] the shade of Don Quixote has succeeded in deceiving us. We have been led to think that his life was full of deception in the sense that he was himself deceived by carnivorous men, decadent times, and impossible books. His life was indeed full of deception, but he was himself the deceiver, and we of the succeeding generations have been the ones deceived." Papini suggests that generations of critics have idolized Quixote, held him up as a "martyr of pure, militant, and derided Christianity," when in fact the character is vain and proud, thinks only of earthly glory, and aspires to material conquests. He was not, Papini claims, mad at all, but merely pretended to be. What is your opinion of this argument?
4. Critics have debated the question of whether Cervantes's intention in Don Quixote was to ridicule the chivalric romances-which typically featured knights accomplishing the most impossible things-that were so popular in the Middle Ages. Northrop Frye, for instance, writes that "with every beating he gets, [Don Quixote's] dignity grows on us, and we realize how genuinely faithful he is to the code of chivalry. He is courteous, gentle, chaste, generous (except that he has no money), intelligent and cultured within the limits of his obsession, and, of course, courageous. Not only was the code of chivalry areal code that helped to hold a real civilization together, but these are real virtues, and would be if chivalry had never existed." Do you think the book repudiates chivalry?
5. In his 1935 book Don Quixote: An Introduction to Psychology, leading Spanish literary expert Salvador de Madariaga refers to what he calls the "sanchification" of Don Quixote and the "quixotification" of Sancho. How does each character affect the other?
6. Lionel Trilling once claimed that "All prose fiction is a variation of the theme of Don Quixote: . . . the problem of appearance and reality." Discuss.
7. The names of the main characters in the novel are not stable: for example, Don Quixote is variously called Quixada, Quesana, Quixana, Quixote, Jigote, Knight of the Mournful Countenance, and Knight of the Lions; Sancho's wife is known as Juana Guti?rrez, Mari Guti?rrez, Teresa Cascajo, Teresa Panza or Teresa Sancho, Teresaina, and Teresona. What is the significance of the change of name and why are the characters so concerned with coming up with etymologies (most of which are wrong) for explaining how another character has come to have a particular name?
8. Many readers have been disturbed by the fact that Don Quixote recovers his sanity before dying, instead of venturing forth again, as Sancho would have him do. How do you feel about his regaining his sanity? What do you think is the significance of it?
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