Alonso Quixano, a middle-aged gentleman of La Mancha, lives with a housekeeper and a young niece. He has sacrificed his usual pastime of hunting and caring for his estate for the all-consuming passion of reading books of chivalry. Cervantes shows that the books are so illogically written that it is no wonder a poor gentleman loses his reason when he feeds this faculty with such fabulous tales day and night. To the dismay of his household members, as well as engaging the concern of the Don's friends, the curate and the barber, the respected citizen of La Mancha feels himself inspired to become a knight-errant and systematically collects the effects necessary to his calling. He shines his great-grandfather's armor, devises a visor and cap after working on them more than a week, and renames his skinny stable horse Rosinante, which means that before having a knight-errant for a master, this steed was once an ordinary horse. Now thought Don Quixote, after renaming himself, his horse, his ambitions, he must name the lady of his pure heart, for a knight-errant "without a mistress, was a tree without fruit or leaves, and a body without a soul." He selects a young country lass named Aldonza Lorenza for his own Dulcinea del Toboso although she is all but a complete stranger to him.
The first chapter of any great novel deserves careful perusal, for it introduces the tone of the author, the main characters, and provides quiet hints for the further development of the story.
Cervantes carefully describes his hero, a middle-aged hidalgo, idle and quite poor, who lives with prosaic people, housekeeper, niece, and handy man. Because Don Quixote has literary arguments with the curate and barber about happenings in books of chivalry, the reader gets the first inkling that the hero takes knight-errantry very seriously. A few sentences later, Cervantes shows that his hidalgo is strong-willed enough about this matter to take up this profession himself. By another act of will, his jaded hack becomes a noble steed, and his secret love for a peasant lass becomes his chaste ideal of beauty, for every knight must serve an ideal mistress.
Don Quixote spends much time in thinking and talking rather than quietly accomplishing valorous deeds. One can argue that he approaches knight-errantry not like a madman who believes that he is someone else, but rather like an actor who memorizes and practices a role. This is a reasonable viewpoint and Cervantes provides ample evidence to justify either the madman theory or the actor theory, just as Shakespeare has done for Hamlet. Whichever critical approach is used, it is necessary to consider Cervantes' interest in telling the truth. Whatever exaggeration appears in the novel is the result of Don Quixote's imagination, not that of the author. The madman hero, or actor hero, is always trying to do justice in the world, to find truth, and he therefore follows a knightly code that demands truthful behavior under any circumstances. By describing how the strong-willed Don Quixote makes up his own truths, Cervantes displays a keynote of his humor. For instance, the author depicts the scene when the knight, testing his handiwork after the homemade visor and cap are completed, swings his sword as hard as he can, completely cleaving the pasteboard helmet. Don Quixote again sets to work to remake the article, and when this one is finished, he prudently refrains from testing its strength. To have faith in strength is enough, thinks the hero, for reality is always weaker. Will-power the power to see absolute truths admits no doubt, whereas material truths are never trustworthy.