"Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember"
This line, arguably the most famous in the history of Spanish literature, is the opening of The Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, the first modern novel.
Published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, this is the story of Alonso Quijano, a 16th-century Spanish hidalgo, a noble, who is so passionate about reading that he leaves home in search of his own chivalrous adventures. He becomes a knight-errant himself: Don Quixote de la Mancha. By imitating his admired literary heroes, he finds new meaning in his life: aiding damsels in distress, battling giants and righting wrongs mostly in his own head.
But Don Quixote is much more. It is a book about books, reading, writing, idealism vs. materialism, life and death. Don Quixote is mad. His brains dried up due to his reading, and he is unable to separate reality from fiction, a trait that was appreciated at the time as funny. However, Cervantes was also using Don Quixotes insanity to probe the eternal debate between free will and fate. The misguided hero is actually a man fighting against his own limitations to become who he dreams to be.
Open-minded, well-travelled, and very well-educated, Cervantes was, like Don Quixote himself, an avid reader. He also served the Spanish crown in adventures that he would later include in the novel. After defeating the Ottoman Empire in the battle of Lepanto (and losing the use of his left hand, becoming the one-handed of Lepanto), Cervantes was captured and held for ransom in Algiers.
This autobiographical episode and his escape attempts are depicted in The Captives Tale (in Don Quixote Part I), where the character recalls a Spanish soldier named something de Saavedra, referring to Cervantess second last name. Years later, back in Spain, he completed Don Quixote in prison, due to irregularities in his accounts while he worked for the government.
The plot revolves around the adventures of a noble (hidalgo) from La Mancha named Alonso Quixano, who reads so many chivalric romances that he loses his mind and decides to become a knight-errant (caballero andante) to revive chivalry and serve his nation, under the name Don Quixote de la Mancha. He recruits a simple farmer, Sancho Panza, as his squire, who often employs a unique, earthy wit in dealing with Don Quixote's rhetorical monologues on knighthood, already considered old-fashioned at the time. Don Quixote, in the first part of the book, does not see the world for what it is and prefers to imagine that he is living out a knightly story.
The book had a major influence on the literary community, as evidenced by direct references in Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers (1844), Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), as well as the word quixotic and the epithet Lothario; the latter refers to a character in "El curioso impertinente" ("The Impertinently Curious Man"), an intercalated story that appears in Part One, chapters 3335. The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer cited Don Quixote as one of the four greatest novels ever written, along with Tristram Shandy, La Nouvelle Hlose, and Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.
When first published, Don Quixote was usually interpreted as a comic novel. After the French Revolution, it was better known for its central ethic that individuals can be right while society is quite wrong and seen as disenchanting. In the 19th century, it was seen as a social commentary, but no one could easily tell "whose side Cervantes was on". Many critics came to view the work as a tragedy in which Don Quixote's idealism and nobility are viewed by the post-chivalric world as insane, and are defeated and rendered useless by common reality. By the 20th century, the novel had come to occupy a canonical space as one of the foundations of modern literature.