Review: Don Quixote (Volume I), Miguel de Cervantes

By Erica Eller



If you've never read Don Quixote (The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra), you're probably at least familiar with its most famous scene. A mad knight-errant charges at windmills, thinking they’re giants, while his squire looks on, perplexed by his master’s strange behavior. The protagonist’s blend of idealism and impracticality has been distilled into a mere adjective, "quixotic". Meanwhile, the novel has inspired many well-known authors including Melville, Flaubert, Kafka, Nabokov, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Jorge Luis Borges and others. It's a shame that more contemporary readers don't read it. This may be because of its size or a fear that it will be dense or archaic. While reading it, these concerns melted away for me because its humor still rings with a perfect pitch. You'll forget about the page numbers and be drawn in (thanks in part to modern translation).

What we now consider one novel, the first modern novel, was originally published as two books. The first volume was published in 1605 and it became widely popular. Its "sequel" (in contemporary terms) was published in 1615. Cervantes apparently had to hurry to finish the second volume because another author, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, had already produced an apocryphal second volume, which Cervantes pokes fun at in his own text. This review focuses solely on the first volume, with its many minor characters whose stories are framed by Don Quixote’s misadventures. Many of these secondary plots involve characterizations that capture a broad cross section of society in Early Modern Spain.

Cultural Intolerance in Early Modern Spain

Don Quixote sheds light on a moment in Spain's history that can inspire us in our own period, which is witnessing a rise of xenophobia and political intolerance. Cervantes' Spanish Empire was struggling to guard its religious and cultural authority from within, while waging wars in its colonies and its maritime battle zones. However, in order to achieve this control from within, Spain had developed an arm of “thought police” known as the Inquisition (Echevarria, “Love and the Law,” 25). After 1492, when the Catholic Kings began the unification of Spain, the Inquisition forced Jews and Muslims who once lived alongside Christians, especially in the south of Spain, to convert or be expelled. Obviously, many conversions went only skin deep. Then in 1568, a major revolt ensued until 1571 over the newly introduced laws banning the clothing and customs of the moriscos (converted Moors). Finally, in 1609, four years after the publication of the Don Quixote, an official Edict of the Expulsion of the Moriscos forced hundreds of thousands of converted Muslims to leave their historic homeland in Spain. The pressure of the Inquisition along with the high taxes fueling Spain’s wars made Spain a considerably oppressed region at that time.

Spanish Inquisition: Spanish Jews pleading before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, while grand inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada argues for their expulsion from Spain, in a painting by Solomon A. Hart (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Spanish Inquisition: Spanish Jews pleading before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, while grand inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada argues for their expulsion from Spain, in a painting by Solomon A. Hart (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Cervantes's inclusion of many contrasting character identities reveals an implicit refusal to depict Spain as a homogeneous cultural space. He includes its patchwork of converts, Arabs, Catholics, and even seemingly secular figures like Don Quixote himself. For instance, Cervantes creates a cliffhanger in which a scene of a fight between Don Quixote and a Basque who attacks and insults the protagonist is broken off at a pivotal moment with the start of chapter nine. After that,  Cervantes (as a character)  manages to obtain the remainder of the novel, written by the (fictional) Arabic author Cide Hamete Benengeli in Toledo, and asks a morisco translator to furnish him with the Spanish text. Opening the book, he laughs as he reads something scribbled in the margin. He explains: “They say that Dulcinea del Toboso, so often mentioned in this history, was the best hand at salting pork of any woman in all La Mancha.” He is referring to Quixote's platonic love interest, Dulcinea, the inspiration for his adventures. E.C. Graf’s memorable analysis of this brief aside stayed with me because it demystifies the many layers of cultural reference that are at work throughout the entirety of Don Quixote. He writes: “[The laughter of the Moor] is mocking the Castilian Christian's ethnic anxiety, his need to prove, by eating pork, that neither he nor his love object are Jewish or Islamic. The Morisco translator’s laughter discloses the knowledge he shares with Arabic readers and glossers who recognize that Don Quixote's lady is also from ‘La Mancha,’ and therefore quite likely Semitic despite her reputation for salting pork. In short, after nearly 900 years of convivencia, this pathetic Castilian attempt at a clear ethnic or cultural distinction strikes the Morisco as absurd” (78). This aside adds to the comedic instability of the text, playing upon the myth of cultural purity or authenticity in Spain. Moreover, by “decentering” the locus of authorship to an Arabic pen, Cervantes plays with the idea that the entire text is a “converted artifact,” hidden in the plain sight of Spanish cultural purists. In light of the Inquisition's book burning of Arabic religious texts and its suppression of the Arabic language in Andalucia, this fold within text becomes more provocative. 

Quixote's own culturally distinct behavior, which the other characters refer to as his "madness," plays upon a larger theme of social intolerance that is present throughout Don Quixote. Don Quixote's niece, fearing the maddening influence of Don Quixote's library, which is full of fantastical tales, burns his books to rid him of his false beliefs (59-60). His library includes chivalric romances and picaresque novels, which were the 'pulp fiction' genres of his time that portray an older era for Cervantes’ contemporaries, the Middle Ages.   The intolerance/paranoia of his niece in the scene, which fears the influence of books, is also reminiscent of the Inquisition's book burning. Yet, in a comedic twist, Quixote's loss of his library only emboldens him to perform the very narratives he has gleaned from those books in real life.

The Captive’s Tale vis-à-vis Cervantes’s Tale

A vivid depiction of the Muslim world from Cervantes's perspective is also included in one of the many narratives contained in Don Quixote. The “Captive's Tale,” which spreads across three chapters towards the end of the first book, tells how a Spanish captain entered and escaped captivity in the Ottoman Empire, returning safely to Spain with honor, thanks to the help of a wealthy Moorish woman who intends to convert to Christianity in Spain. Cervantes frames this narrative within the ideals of Christian virtue and honor, which gives it a more serious tone that upholds a sense of Spanish pride in contrast to the episodes involving Don Quixote. In the beginning of the narrative, dynamic descriptions of captivity offer historical insights into the system of war at that time.

Juan Perez de Viedma, the son of a poor man, and his two brothers are advised to pursue one of three paths in life: to become a man of letters, a man of commerce, or a man of war. Piedma chooses the path of war, for the opportunity to return honorably to Spain after adventures as a soldier: “I concluded by saying that I’d do as he wished, and that my choice would be the profession of arms, and serve God and my king in that way” (361). After fighting in a series of battles and becoming a captain, Viedma joins Don John of Austria, who also was ordered by King Philip II to pacify the Moriscos in Granada, to fight in the Battle of Lepanto. He is captured by Ali Alouk, the King of Algiers, on the same day that fifteen thousand Christians rowing in the galleys of the Turkish fleet have gained their freedom. He briefly accompanies Ali Alouk to Constantinople where the “Grand Turk Selim” promotes Alouk to the position of admiral. Viedma rows in the galley of Ali Alouk's ship, hearing about battles fought with the Christians in Tunis from captivity.  

A fresco of the Battle of Lepanto in the Vatican

A fresco of the Battle of Lepanto in the Vatican

After the Ottomans take Goletta in Tunis, the fleet returns to Constantinople where Ali Alouk dies and his captive slaves are transferred to new owners. The captive attempts to escape several times before being taken to Algiers with his new master, Hassan Aga. The narrative digresses somewhat to depict the various classifications of slaves held captive by the Ottomans, including commonly held and individually held slaves, each with varying degrees of opportunity for gaining freedom. He notes that he was classed as a “ransomable captive,” due to his status as a captain, and he is held with other important captives in a form of prison known as a “bagnio,” to wait for his ransom money to arrive. He witnesses the cruelty of Hassan Aga, who hangs or impales Christians for no cause, due to his nature as a “mass murderer.” Yet, the captive notes that just one captive, “called something Saavedra,” was never beaten for his exploits (370).

By mentioning “Saavedra,” Cervantes cites his own full name, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Indeed, this first portion of the Captive's tale reads much like a historical chronicle because it contains elements drawn from Cervantes's lived experience. Like his character, Captain Viedma, Cervantes himself fought in the Battle of Lepanto. Known as the İnebahtı War in Turkey, this battle was fought between the Holy League and the Ottoman Empire in 1571. It was one of the few times that the Ottomans were defeated by European powers at sea and it resulted in a disastrous death toll of 30,000. While the event has been sensationalized as a turning point for Europe, it didn't hinder the Ottomans greatly (Kalin). As described in the Captive's Tale, they soon overtook the last Spanish outpost in North Africa in the Conquest of Tunis. But due to the mounting expense of warfare at sea for both sides, the Spanish and Ottomans signed a peace agreement in 1580, which left some 25,000 captives in limbo, waiting for their ransoms to be paid (Sawhney, 231). 

Cervantes apparently rose from his sickbed to fight in the Battle of Lepanto and lost use of his left hand as a result. While it must have prevented him from joining more battles, he took it as a sign to continue writing. After the battle, he was captured by pirates and taken to Algiers where he was held captive as a slave for five years. During this time, he made four attempts to escape, but was treated conspicuously well by Hasan Pasha, as suggested in Don Quixote (McGaha, 440). Some speculation that Cervantes may have stepped foot in Istanbul has risen in recent years, due to the apparent finding of Cervantes' name by Rasih Nuri İleri among records of slaves who worked on the Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque in Tophane from 1578 to 1580. This news spread throughout the Turkish media, but it has not been verified and many academics doubt this possibility (Diego, Belge).  

Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque, Tophane, Istanbul

Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque, Tophane, Istanbul

The account that Cervantes provides in the “Captive’s Tale” offers insights not only into slave ownership and ransom opportunities, but also into the system of using letters of recommendation on behavior to support a prisoner’s case to be ransomed (Hershenzon, 76-86). This is because for Spaniards, the Trinitarian fathers usually paid the ransom of captives only after confirming their commitment to the Catholic faith. They did so by judging them based on letters of recommendation. Cervantes held many letters of recommendation from important figures when he was taken captive, which may have given the Ottomans a reason to hold him longer in captivity. They could charge a higher ransom fee for his release. His ransom was eventually paid by the Trinitarian fathers enabling him to return to Spain (García Valdés, 212). 

Anyone who returned from captivity in the Ottoman Empire was held with suspicion by the Inquisition, which screened captives carefully upon their return. Moreover, Spain's highly developed bureaucratic legal code entangled Cervantes, as he was jailed in Spain for not paying his high taxes several times. These taxes were collected to afford Spain's expensive war campaigns. Therefore, Cervantes experienced different forms of captivity both from within and outside his homeland. Unlike the Spanish Monarchs, the Ottomans did not enforce cultural codes upon the populations in their territories, though they had exploited and oppressed native Algerians in other ways. As McGaha notes in his corrective review about some of the analysis in María Antonia Garcés’s Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive’s Tale, “Algiers in Cervantes’ day was one of the largest, wealthiest, and most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Especially in comparison with Cervantes’ native Spain, Algiers was home to an amazingly free and tolerant society.” Seeing Algiers, a city filled with Jews, Christians, and Arabs freely practicing their own cultural traditions may have given Cervantes the necessary critical distance from Spain's contrasting intolerance to inspire the many different perspectives contained in his narrative (439). 

Map of the Ottoman Empire and the Domain of Philip II (King of Spain) in 1580

Map of the Ottoman Empire and the Domain of Philip II (King of Spain) in 1580

Leo Spitzer’s Theory of Linguistic Perspectivism

One of the most well known literary critics who worked on the Don Quixote was Leo Spitzer. He considered its dominant feature the simultaneously varied linguistic perspectives Cervantes inscribes. He analyzes the irony drawn from multiple perspectives at the level of individual names. For instance, the surname “Quixote” which Don Quixote chose for himself both contains derogatory suffix (-ote) for most Spanish speakers, yet for Quixote it has a similar sound to the Chivalric romance hero, “Lanzarote,” the Spanish translation of Sir Lancelot’s surname. There are also different perspectives attached to objects such as the windmills, and revealed within scenes such as that of the Moorish translator. In his conclusion, Spitzer states: “This means that, in our novel, [meaning the Quixote] things are represented not for what they are in themselves, but only as things spoken about or thought about; and this involves breaking the narrative presentation into two points of view. There can be no certainty about the ‘unbroken’ reality of events; the only unquestionable truth on which the reader may depend is the will of the artist who chose to break up a multivalent reality into different perspectives.” This suggests that Cervantes as an author, provides the only unifying frame for this broken assemblage of incompatible perspectives resulting in vivid irony.

This is most apparent in the contrasting personas of Don Quixote, the idealistic humanist, and Sancho Panza, the "natural" Catholic. While on one hand, the illiterate Sancho Panza does not speak properly, and uses incorrect words in his sentences, his intended meaning is often easy to interpret. Don Quixote, on the other hand, speaks in an elaborate, anachronistic style with an advanced, literary vocabulary, but he confuses many of his listeners to the point that they can't interpret his meaning at all. Their different worldviews, class differences and associated diction provide endless ironies that are left unsettled, for the reader to decide on his or her own preference. The contrasting perspectives throughout the novel are further complicated by each character’s relationship to Spain's mechanisms of control, as they range from “natural” characters such as Sancho Panza, whose ideals correspond to those of Catholic Spain, to "unnatural" or characters who appear to perform or create their stations in society, like Don Quixote.

Don Quixote (and Sancho Panza) by Pablo Picasso, 1955 

Don Quixote (and Sancho Panza) by Pablo Picasso, 1955 

By comparing the idealized vision of battle in the Captive's Tale and the more absurd version in Don Quixote's adventures, differing perspectives of warfare arise. A similar zeal for battle is shared by the Captive and Don Quixote, because the promise of adventure is what attracts them in the first place. The captive pursues a "natural" motivation to serve as a soldier derived from his father's will and his quest to improve his social status. He endures the hardship of captivity abroad and returns home with honor. Don Quixote's motivation, however, is not to fight for Spain, but to fight giants, ghosts, and other enchanted villains, based on his literary madness. He believes himself to be a knight like Amadís of Gaul or Sir Rowland, whose narratives he has memorized. Don Quixote’s enemies are brought about by his imagination, though onlookers are mostly immune to his fantastical visions. The Captive's Turkish enemy, on the other hand, had been aggrandized in the European imagination as an invincible force until the Battle of Lepanto. Yet, after fighting in battle, the Captive finds the meaning of his sworn enemy reduced to a system of commerce and ownership. The treacherous and invincible Turkish enemy dissolves into a vision of mundane bureaucracy. Thus, while Viedma’s purpose is inherited, Quixote’s conviction is learned, deriving from a process of acculturation.

Finally, like the captive, Don Quixote experiences some time in captivity, too. However, Don Quixote's captivity is used to force him to return home from his inspiring life of battle, rather than as a means to prevent him from returning home as in the Captive’s case. Therefore, the character's inverse perspectives of captivity provide opposite perspectives of homesickness, on the one hand, and the lust for adventure, on the other. In his captivity scene, Don Quixote is placed in a cage, arrested for freeing a group of galley prisoners. His priest and barber manage to rationalize his right to freedom due to his madness, but they keep him in a cage until they reach his hometown of La Mancha. Imprisonment awaits both at home and abroad in this topsy-turvy world, depending on the perspective of the character.

In light of these differing perspectives, it becomes clear that Cervantes has fore-grounded the virtuous battles of the Spanish Empire with the varied perspectives contained in Don Quixote. We receive both a vision of battle as a form of propriety that upholds the Catholic values of the Spanish Empire in the Captive’s Tale. Meanwhile, we observe the warfare as a form of madness deriving from romantic ideals that have little grounding in reality. And just as Don Quixote's self-deception leads him to pursue a series of vainglorious battles, it is as if Cervantes wanted to subtly expose how, from a certain perspective, Spain also suffered from a "quixotic" form of madness in its own campaigns of war.  

Zoraida’s Paradox

One of the most problematic figures in terms of perspectivist representation is Zoraida, the Captive's emancipator. She is the daughter of a wealthy Moorish deputy to the Ottomans who claims that her true beliefs belong to Christianity, as she was passed down the teachings of Christianity from her nanny, a Christian slave. She aids Captain Viedma's escape from captivity and in return requests to be married upon their return to Spain, but first she must be baptized and officially converted to Christianity. By the end of the Captive's narrative, he has still not married Zoraida, leaving her fate as a Moor in Spain an unresolved loose thread within the narrative. I consider her problematic as a character because her perspective, unlike the perspectives of other characters, is not fully developed.   

She is typically portrayed as a Christian ideal of feminine beauty, chastity, and humility throughout the text, but when Zoraida fights her father and escapes from his household, she betrays him and steals from him. For Leo Spitzer, she embodies a moral paradox:  a promise to convert to Christianity as a virtue, and the moral corruption of betraying her father that this entails. Spitzer writes, "There can be no doubt that what Cervantes is dealing with here is the tortuous and Jesuitic divinity that he was able to see in his time—whose decisions he accepts, while bringing out all the complications involved" (191). In essence, she is caught in a moral catch-22. For Spitzer, this scene portrays linguistic perspectivism in a way that is subservient to the divine framework of the Christian God, by revealing how moral judgment can transcend beyond differences of language.  

Zoraida falls in the Captains arms, engraving by Gustavo Doré, 1888

Zoraida falls in the Captains arms, engraving by Gustavo Doré, 1888

Yet, she asserts her will to leave her father with such force that her later devout characterization seems a mere gloss to hide some underlying motivation. After all, it doesn't seem likely that a wealthy princess living among speakers of her own language would choose to leave her home, lose her status, and enter a society where she is voiceless (Vollendorf, 321). The only available explanation in the text is that she will be able to live freely in Spain. This is perhaps because her father, though working as an Ottoman deputy, fears her abduction by the Ottomans, so he keeps her locked up in her palace. Therefore, in a sense, the text raises the question of another framework of intolerance: Zoraida appears to lack freedom and a definitive perspective, precisely because she is a Moorish woman in the text. This contrasts with the other Spanish women Cervantes portrays such as Marcela and Dorotea who narrate and defend their own perspectives in the text.  

Upon Zoraida's arrival to Spain, she is given a new Catholic name, Maria, and she then must perform the role of the natural Christian, whose conversion will only confirm her “natural” religious purity. With this new name, her identity shifts to assume a valid meaning within the context of Catholic Spain, yet it also serves to erase her former identity. The exaggerated descriptions of Zoraida/Maria's purity remind us of the threat of intolerance she faces from the Catholic authorities. While she ostensibly seeks freedom, she enters into a new form of captivity, which is hemmed in by the authority of the Spanish Inquisition and her limited social standing. She must now subdue any strength or courage she previously showed in order to convincingly perform her Christian humility. Therefore, while for Spitzer, she appears to represent a Christian ideal of how God's salvation transcends race or language, she also lacks a definitive perspective in the text apart from the roles placed upon her by social norms. 

Concluding Thoughts

Thus, the characters in Don Quixote, whether they are portrayed as ideal or comedic figures, signal the distorting influence of Spain's Inquisition, as the characters are generally either upholding or performing Catholicism through their differing perspectives. As such, the contrasting perspectives in the novel range from “natural” characters, who by default adhere to the cultural norms, to “unnatural” or characters, who appear to artificially perform these cultural norms. Don Quixote's performance is most comedic among all of the characters because his original performance does not adhere to any proper authority. Instead of Catholic texts, his self-selected authority is a body of popular literature, which he studies as if they were holy books. This “heresy” attracts the attention of the authorities, not in a religious sense, but in a legal sense, as his performed ideals contrast sharply with the status quo. Likewise, those around him constantly try to censor his madness. Much of the humor of Don Quixote's role derives from the fact that he is an outsider inside his own country, similar to the converted Muslims and Jews. His own predominantly secular belief system adheres to Christian norms just enough to avoid real accusations of heresy. Therefore, the way Cervantes depicts other characters´ reactions to Don Quixote’s madness reveals the logic of the Spanish system of cultural control, while still maintaining a safe distance from the religious dogma of the time.

One of my lingering impressions of the Don Quixote is that it contains a subdued longing for pluralism. Michael McGaha considers this undertone inherently linked to the “Captive’s Tale” and Cervantes’ own experience in Algiers: “The five years Cervantes spent in Algiers provided an abundant source of material that his Spanish readers were sure to find fascinating. His long exposure to a society so different from the Spain he knew—but at the same time reminiscent of the tolerant, pluralistic Spain of the Middle Ages—certainly broadened his horizons.” (441) This interpretation helps to underscore the depth of the anachronism inherent to Don Quixote’s comedic literary madness, which is marked by an obsession for books set in the Middle Ages. Don Quixote is not arbitrarily “outdated” in his language and perspective, but perhaps reflective of Cervantes’ own nostalgia for a more pluralistic time in Spain’s history.

I highly recommend this course for further reading. 

I highly recommend this course for further reading. 

Sources and Further Reading:

Belge, Murat. “Cami Inşaatında bir Espanyol.” T24, 19 August 2008.,2832

Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha. Translated by John Rutherford. Penguin Books, 2000.

Close, Anthony. “The Liberation of the Galley Slaves and
the Ethos of Don Quijote Part I.” Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America, 27.1 (Spring 2007 [2008]). pp. 7-30.

Diego, Hector Vielva. “Was Cervantes ever in Istanbul?” We Love Istanbul, 10 July 2017.

Echevarría, Roberto González. Love and the Law in Cervantes. Yale University Press, 2005.

Ibid. Transcript. “Don Quixote Lecture 10 - Don Quixote Part I: Chapters XXXVI-LII.” Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Open Yale Course, Fall 2009.

Ibid. Transcript. “Don Quixote Lecture 12 - Introduction to Part II.” Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Open Yale Course, Fall 2009.

Garcés, María Antonia. Introduction. An Early Modern Dialogue with Islam: Anthony de Sosa's Topography of Algiers (1612). Translated by Diane de Armas Wilson. U of Notre Dame Press, 2011, pp. 1-24.

García Valdés, Celsa Carmen. “Life and Literature: Tolerance in Cervantes' Work.” Cervantes and Don Quixote: Proceedings of the Delhi Conference on Miguel de Cervantes. Edited by Vibha Maurya and Ignacio Arellano. EMESCO Books, 2008, pp. 211-229.

Graf, E.C. "When an Arab Laughs in Toledo: Cervantes's Interpellation of Early Modern Spanish Orientalism." Diacritics, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Summer, 1999), pp. 68-85.

Hershenzon, Daniel Bernardo. Early Modern Spain and the Creation of the Mediterranean:
Captivity, Commerce, and Knowledge
. Dissertation, University of Michigan, 2011.

Kalin, Ibrahim. “The Battle of Lepanto and the 2 Stories of Captivity and Homecoming.” Daily Sabah, March 18, 2016.

McGaha, Michael. Review of Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive’s Tale by María Antonia Garcés. Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America, 23.2 (2003), pp. 437-442.

Sawhney, Minni. “Wars and Soldiers in Cervantes.” Cervantes and Don Quixote: Proceedings of the Delhi Seminar on Miguel de Cervantes. Edited by Vibha Maurya and Ignacio Arellano. EMESCO Books, 2008, pp. 230-240.

Sieber, Diane E. “Mapping Identity in the Captive's Tale: Cervantes and Ethnographic Narrative.” Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America, 18.1 (1998), pp. 115-33.

Spitzer, Leo. “Lingusitic Perspectivism in the Don Quijote.” Cervantes' Don Quixote : A Casebook. Edited by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria. Oxford University
Press, 2005, pp. 163-216.

Stavans, Ilan. “Don Quixote: Sloppy, Inconsistent, Baffling, Perfect.” LitHub, October 7, 2015.

Stone, Robert. “Unsettling Details: the Canonized Mooress in the Quixote.” Dissidences, Vol. 1: Iss. 2, Article 3 (2006).

Vollendorf, Lisa. “Cervantes and his Women Readers.” Romance Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Fall 2005), pp. 312-327.




Erica Eller is a writer and editor from the United States, living in Istanbul. She's lived in Istanbul so long that she now fuels her writing with çay instead of coffee.