In Part I, a country gentleman of 50 goes mad because he has read too many tales of knights and damsels: he imagines he is Don Quixote and sets out across the plains of La Mancha to right wrongs etc. His paramour is the scruffy peasant whom he renames Dulcinea and he is accompanied by the querulous, common-sensical Sancho Panza.
Quixote's adventures are virtuoso variations on a theme: our hero/fool translates the actual world into literary fantasy. Sheep, windmills, monks become armies, monsters etc. Panza attempts to reconcile Quixote's crazily egotistic distortions with reality. The pair are whipped, stoned or ridiculed for their efforts but, like pneumatic cartoons, they bounce back for their next sally.
Part II produces more of the same, with more self-consciousness. All Spain has read Part I and Quixote is now notorious: he meets people who have read his earlier exploits. Cervantes's book feeds off itself and metafiction is born. Bizarrely, the author has his creations quarrel with the authenticity of Alonso Avallanade's pseudo-Quixote which was published in 1614, to cash in on the market. Eventually, Quixote is hoiked back home, recovers his sanity, curses his stupidity and dies.
Theme: Accidentally, Cervantes latches onto the central theme of the Western novel: the need for illusion. Quixote seeks to transform the world to his will and the world exacts a punitive retribution.
Chief strengths: Cervantes uses a comprehensive array of comic tricks, from oblique irony to coarse burlesque, which are harmoniously brought together.
Chief weaknesses: Literary sophisticates may feel the relentless slapstick rather enervating.
What they thought of it then: First prized as a masterpiece in France and England, rather than Spain. The 18th century thought the book was a hoot, but in the 19th, German Romantics believed madness was a form of vision and reconstructed Quixote as a sorrowful Idealist in doomed pursuit of Love. The mythic barnacles have spread ever since.
What we think of it now: The ludic stuff with books is very popular Abroad. After all, Cervantes outflanks Borges with effortless naivety.
Responsible for: All those self-deluded egotists from Emma Bovary to Captain Ahab.