The author introduces a rather poor and unglamorous hidalgo, a country gentleman of nearly fifty years whose last name might be Quixada, Quesada, or Quesana. The hidalgo lives with a young niece and a middle-aged housekeeper in some little village in La Mancha, a region in central Spain. He enjoys nothing so much as reading chivalric romances, and takes especial pleasure in their elegant and confusing turns of phrase; he is intimately familiar with the histories of the famous knights of old, like Sir Belianis and Amadis of Gaul. He spends so much time reading these romances that he loses his sanity and comes to believe that everything written in the romances is absolutely true.
In ordinary chivalric romances, and in the great epics that preceded them, the heroes are beautiful, young, and strong. The hero of this story is an older man, a frail, unglamorous man whose real name translates to something like jawbone or cheesecake. Cervantes himself was in his late fifties when he published the first part of the novel, so both Cervantes and Quixote reinvent themselves at an unusually late stage in their lives.
One day, the hidalgo decides to become a knight errant himself; he plans to travel the world searching for adventures and helping people in need. He cleans off an ancient suit of armor and adds a homemade cardboard visor to the helmet. Then he names his old, frail horse ‘Rocinante,’ to honor its new position as the horse of a famous knight errant, and he renames himself Don Quixote de la Mancha. Every knight errant is in love with a beautiful lady, so Don Quixote selects for his beloved a girl named Aldonza Lorenzo – a pretty peasant girl from a nearby village, whom Don Quixote had never met, and who may or may not have existed. He renames her Dulcinea del Toboso.
The hidalgo loses his sanity when he starts to believe that the romances show the world as it really is. But the romances distort the world in many crucial ways. One could say that their failures to represent the world truly, their failures of realism, are the cause and content of the hidalgo’s madness. But his madness, here, is also an act of self-invention: he alters himself by renaming himself. In the guise of Don Quixote, he has entered the chivalric world in his imagination.