I did it! It took three weeks and a couple twelve-hour stretches in a rented car, but I finished Don Quixote. I don't mean to make it sound like a slog; I probably would have finished it much more quickly if I hadn't been passing through some beautiful Montana scenery, because there's nothing really difficult or thorny about Don Quixote. It's one of the most fun and readable "classics" I've ever read--though I'm sure part of that is Edith Grossman's recent translations, which really captures the spirit of Cervantes' up-to-date (for the time) Spanish.
Don Quixote, briefly, is a Spanish hidalgo, or nobleman, named Alonso Quijano who becomes obsessed with books of chivalry and knight errantry. He reinvents himself as Don Quixote, the Knight of the Sorrowful Face (a name he takes on after he gets the crap beaten out of him), defender of the weak, champion of justice, devoted to the beautiful and peerless Dulcinea of Toboso--a fictional version of a peasant girl who lives in a nearby town. Even if you're not familiar with Don Quixote, you probably know the famous image of him "tilting at windmills," that is, attacking a windmill imagining it to be a giant. All 900 pages of the book are pretty much like that: Don Quixote imagines a commonplace person or thing is a giant or a witch or an enchantment, and tries to fight it, and ends up getting his ass kicked despite the protests of his loyal squire, Sancho Panza. Don Quixote's "madness" is a positive feedback loop, in which he dismisses any proof to the contrary as the work of enchanters:
"Well, Sancho, by the same oath you swore before, I swear to you," said Don Quixote, "that you have the dimmest wits that any squire in the world has or ever had. Is it possible that in all the time you have traveled with me you have not yet noticed that all things having to do with knights errant appear to be chimerical, foolish, senseless, and turned inside out? And not because they really are, but because hordes of enchanters always walk among us and alter and change everything and turn things into whatever they please, according to whether they wish to favor us or destroy us; and so, what seems to you to be a barber's basin seems to me the helmet of Mambrino, and will seem another thing to someone else."
Don Quixote is often praised not only as the first novel, but as anticipating most of the textual tools and tricks of modernist literature: First, Cervantes presents it as a translation of a Moorish author, Cide Hemete Benengeli. Then, in the second part, published a decade or so after the first, Cervantes places Don Quixote and Sancho in a world where the first part of their adventures has become famous; the heroes, then, have to grapple with their own textuality.
To be sure, these aspects do a lot to make Don Quixote into a rich, fascinating text. But Cervantes approaches the metafictional stuff with a very light touch; and in my opinion, it's not the most rewarding facet of the novel. Don Quixote is really, great, I think, for two reason: First, the pervasive suggestion that Don Quixote is the one who is sane and everyone else who is insane. I don't mean that Don Quixote is right that the windmills are giants or that the inn is a castle, of course, but rather that Cervantes is constantly forcing us to evaluate Don Quixote's philosophy against the attitudes of those around him. He's frequently the butt of practical jokes invented by those who know about his "madness," from the priest and the barber of the first part to the duke and the duchess of the second; some are harmless, but many involve actual physical harm to Don Quixote. Such cruelty and play-acting contrast sharply with Don Quixote's moral compulsion to protect those who need it. Even when destroying a puppet show, Don Quixote seems to be the only one in the novel with a moral code:
"I shall not consent, in my lifetime and in my presence, to any such offense against an enamored knight so famous and bold as Don Gaiferos. Halt, you lowborn rabble; do not follow and do not pursue him unless you wish to do battle with me!"
And speaking and taking action, he unsheathed his sword, leaped next to the stage, and with swift and never before seen fury began to rain down blows on the crowd of Moorish puppets, knocking down some, beheading others, ruining this one, destroying that one, and among many other blows, he delivered so power a downstroke that if Master Pedro had not stopped, crouched down, and hunched over, he would have cut off his head more easily than if it had been so much marzipan.
The second great thing about Don Quixote is the relationship between Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza. Sancho sometimes sees through his master's madness and sometimes does not; sometimes Don Quixote praises Sancho for his loyalty and sometimes he upbraids him for his cowardice and weakness, but ultimately Sancho's devotion to Don Quixote is one of the most convincing literary portraits of friendship I know of.
Don Quixote ends (spoiler?) with the Knight of the Sorrowful Face tricked into returning to his home and giving up knight errantry; once again becoming Alonso Quijano and promptly dying. His friends and neighbors treat this as a great success, but there's an awful sadness to it. Only the most cynical realist could think that the world is better off without Don Quixotes in it.