Cervantes respectfully dedicates his novel to the Duke of Bejar and asks him to protect the novel from ignorant and unjust criticism.
Cervantes belittles his novel and denies that Don Quixote is an invented character, claiming that he, Cervantes, is merely rewriting history. He reports a likely fictional account of a conversation with a friend who reassures Cervantes that his novel can stand without conventional embellishments, such as sonnets, ballads, references to famous authors, and Latin phrases. He humorously suggests that such adornments can be added to a book after its completion. Cervantes accepts this advice and urges us to enjoy the novel for its simplicity.
Cervantes mentions an eccentric gentleman from an unnamed village in La Mancha. The man has neglected his estate, squandered his fortune, and driven himself mad by reading too many books about chivalry. Now gaunt at fifty, the gentleman decides to become a knight-errant and set off on a great adventure in pursuit of eternal glory. He polishes his old family armor and makes a new pasteboard visor for his helmet. He finds an old nag, which he renames Rocinante, and takes the new name Don Quixote de la Mancha. Deciding he needs a lady in whose name to perform great deeds, he renames a farm girl on whom he once had a crush, Dulcinea del Toboso.
Don Quixote sets off on his first adventure, the details of which Cervantes claims to have discovered in La Mancha’s archives. After a daylong ride, Don Quixote stops at an inn for supper and repose. He mistakes the scheming innkeeper for the keeper of a castle and mistakes two prostitutes he meets outside for princesses. He recites poetry to the two prostitutes, who laugh at him but play along. They remove his armor and feed him dinner. He refuses to remove his helmet, which is stuck on his head, but he enjoys his meal because he believes he is in a great castle where princesses are entertaining him.
In the middle of dinner, Don Quixote realizes that he has not been properly knighted. He begs the innkeeper to do him the honor. The innkeeper notes Don Quixote’s madness but agrees to his request for the sake of sport, addressing him in flowery language. He tries to cheat Don Quixote, but Don Quixote does not have any money. The innkeeper commands him always to carry some in the future.
Trouble arises when guests at the inn try to use the inn’s well, where Don Quixote’s armor now rests, to water their animals. Don Quixote, riled and invoking Dulcinea’s name, knocks one guest unconscious and smashes the skull of another. Alarmed, the innkeeper quickly performs a bizarre knighting ceremony and sends Don Quixote on his way. Don Quixote begs the favor of the two prostitutes, thanks the innkeeper for knighting him, and leaves.
On the way home to fetch money and fresh clothing, Don Quixote hears crying and finds a farmer whipping a young boy. The farmer explains that the boy has been failing in his duties; the boy complains that his master has not been paying him. Don Quixote, calling the farmer a knight, tells him to pay the boy. The boy tells Don Quixote that the farmer is not a knight, but Don Quixote ignores him. The farmer swears by his knighthood that he will pay the boy. As Don Quixote rides away, satisfied, the farmer flogs the boy even more severely.
Don Quixote then meets a group of merchants and orders them to proclaim the beauty of Dulcinea. The merchants inadvertently insult her, and Don Quixote attacks them. But Rocinante stumbles in mid-charge, and Don Quixote falls pitifully to the ground. One of the merchants’ mule-drivers beats Don Quixote and breaks his lance. The group departs, leaving Don Quixote face down near the road.
Cervantes’s declaration that Don Quixote is not his own invention layers the novel with self-deception. Claiming to be recounting a history he has uncovered, Cervantes himself becomes a character in the tale. He is a kind of scholar, leading us through the story and occasionally interrupting to clarify points. But Cervantes’s claim to be historically accurate does not always ring true—he does not, for example, name Don Quixote’s town. Instead, he draws attention to his decision not to name the town by saying he does “not wish to name” this “certain village” where Don Quixote lives. In this manner, Cervantes undermines his assertion that Don Quixote is historical. Ironically, every time he interrupts the novel’s story to remind us that it is historical fact rather than fiction, he is reminding us that the story is indeed fiction. We thus become skeptical about Cervantes’s claims and begin to read his interruptions as tongue-in-cheek. In this way, the content of the novel mirrors its form: both Don Quixote and Cervantes deceive themselves.
On its surface, Don Quixote is a parody of chivalric tales. Cervantes mocks his hero constantly: Don Quixote’s first adventure brings failure, not the rewards of a successful and heroic quest, such as treasure, glory, or a beautiful woman. But to Don Quixote, the adventure is not a complete disaster—the prostitutes receive honors, and he becomes a knight. His unwavering belief in his quest fills the tale with a romantic sense of adventure akin to that in other tales of chivalry. Thus, as much as Cervantes scorns the genre of romantic literature, he embraces it to some degree. Furthermore, though he claims in the prologue not to need sonnets, ballads, great authors, or Latin, he peppers the text with all of these conventions. In this way, the novel both parodies and emulates tales of chivalry.
Other characters’ reactions to Don Quixote highlight his tragic role. Unlike us, these characters do not see that Don Quixote is motivated by good intentions, and to them he appears bizarre and dangerous. The innkeeper, who throws Don Quixote out after he attacks the other guests, typifies many characters’ fears. But some characters are genuinely charmed by Don Quixote’s yearnings for the simplicity of a bygone era. The two prostitutes do not understand Don Quixote’s poetry, but he wins them over with his adamant belief in their royal status. On the one hand, his attempts at chivalry open others’ eyes to a world for which they inwardly pine. On the other hand, his clumsiness makes his entire project seem utterly foolish. From our perspective, he is not just absurd but tragic. Though he wishes for the best, he often brings about the worst, as in the case of the young boy whom he inadvertently harms because he cannot see that the boy’s master is lying. In this way, Don Quixote’s complex character at once endears him to us and repulses us, since we see that his fantasies and good intentions sometimes bring pain to others.