A middle-aged gentleman, Don Quixote hails from the region of La Mancha in central Spain. He is obsessed with the ideals of chivalry as set out in his favorite books, and he decides that he will take up his lance and sword in defense of the helpless. He is determined to destroy the wicked. His first adventure fails, and he sets off on a second one. He brings along Sancho Panza, a rather foolish laborer. Sancho will be his faithful squire, a companion needed by every knight. Don Quixote says that he will make Sancho wealthy and give him the position of governor of an isle in return for his services. Don Quixote’s horse is an old barn nag called Rocinante. It is on this animal that he rides all over Spain looking for grand adventure and glory. He sacrifices shelter, food, and comfort for the sake of Dulcinea del Toboso, a peasant woman whom he imagines to be a princess.
Don Quixote behaves more like a bandit than a savior on his second expedition. He harms and steals from confused and angry citizens while fighting against what he sees as threats to himself as a knight or the world in general. Don Quixote leaves a boy with a malicious farmer simply on the latter’s word that he won’t harm the child. He takes a barber’s basin that he foolishly imagines to be the helmet of Mambrino, a mythic figure, and he begins to believe that the Balsam of Fierbras, an elixir, has healing powers. It makes him incredibly ill, so much so that later on, when he feels better, he imagines himself to be healed. Sancho continues along with Don Quixote, frequently taking the punishments that occur as a result of the imaginary knight’s behavior.
The stories of people Don Quixote meets on his travels become part of his own. He comes across the funeral of a student who meets his death as a consequence of his adoration for a shepherdess who was once a lady. He allows a wicked and malicious gallery slave called Gines de Pasamonte to go free, and later accidentally brings two bereaved couples back together: Ferdinand and Dorothea, and Cardenio and Lucinda. The four lovers parted ways as result of Ferdinand’s treachery, but they are reunited at the inn where Don Quixote dreams that he is battling a giant.
As Don Quixote and Sancho make their way around the country, the rustic Sancho plays the role of straight man to his cluelessly comic master. Much of this is seen in his attempts to correct Don Quixote in his ridiculous fantasies. The priest and the barber, who are both friends of Don Quixote, come to drag him home. The gentleman believes that he is being affected by magical powers, and he goes along with them. This is what brings his second expedition to an end. It is also the ending of the First Part of the novel.
The Second Part of the book opens with a passionate declaration in objection to a fake sequel of the book that was published between the publication of the two parts of Don Quixote. It seems that Don Quixote’s reputation, based on both the real and false versions of his story, precedes him wherever he goes.
Sancho lies to Don Quixote as they set off on their journey. He tells him that Dulcinea has been transformed into a peasant girl by a malicious enchanter. Don Quixote becomes intent on reversing this enchantment. In fact, this becomes the primary goal in his adventures.
When Don Quixote meets a Duke and Duchess, the couple decides to play tricks on him. They have one of their servants dress up like Merlin, for instance, telling Don Quixote that the enchantment of Dulcinea (which they know to be false) will be undone only when Sancho whips his own backside 3,300 times. Don Quixote and Sancho undertake a number of different adventures under the Duke and Duchess’s watch. They try to depart on a flying wooden horse, in hopes of killing a giant who has transformed a princess and her lover into metal figurines. They also believe it has made beards grow on the faces of the princess’s female servants.
Sancho is appointed as governor of an imaginary isle during his stay with the Duke. After ten days of rule, he is wounded. This happens during an onslaught that has been sponsored by the Duke and Duchess, purely for their own entertainment. Sancho concludes that he’d rather be a content laborer than a besieged governor.
Don Quixote remains constant in his worship of Dulcinea, even when a young maid in the Duke and Duchess’s home falls in love with him. The court is endlessly amused by their never-consummated affair. Don Quixote finally sets off again on his travels. Soon after he gets to Barcelona, an old friend disguised as the Knight of the White Moon vanquishes him.
Cervantes presents his story of Don Quixote as a true history that he translated from a manuscript authored by Cide Hamete Benengeli, a Moor. In having Don Quixote and Sancho change their own histories and made negative comments about the false story that was published, Cervantes takes part in his own fiction.
At the end of the novel, Don Quixote finds himself tired and beaten. He finally gives up on the chivalric ideals he has so cherished, and eventually dies from a fever. Knights-errant become extinct with his death. Benengeli comes back at the end of the story to inform us that its main purpose has been to show the demise of chivalry.