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Who Was Cervantes?

Updated on June 3, 2013

Who was Cervantes? Many are familiar with Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s literary masterpiece, Don Quixote. But, many do not realize the profound effect of his work on the Spanish language.

Early Life

Cervantes was born on September 29, 1547, most likely in Alcala de Henares, a small town near Madrid, Spain. Little is known of Cervantes’ early life. It is known that his family was quite poor and most likely carried a great deal of debt.

Cervantes studied literature and architecture in Italy as a young man, but returned to Spain in 1570 to enlist in the Spanish Navy Marines. He was stationed in Naples, Italy and sailed aboard the ship, La Marquesa. In 1571, Cervantes fought in the Battle of Lepanto, in which he suffered gunshots wounds which caused the loss of the use of his left hand. He continued his enlistment until 1575 when he was taken captive by pirates. He was held as a slave in Algiers until 1580 when his family was finally able to pay his ransom.

Literary Career

In 1584, Cervantes married Catalina de Palacios and began writing. Although he spent time writing, he earned little money for it, and it was not his primary career. Rather, he worked as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada and as a tax collector, traveling extensively.

In 1585, Cervantes published his first work, a novel, La Galatea. La Galatea was a pastoral novel, and there are no copies of it in existence. Around the same time, Cervantes wrote several plays. He did not enjoy success as a writer until the 1605 publication of the part1 of Don Quixote. While the novel did not make Cervantes wealthy, it did garner him a literary reputation. The second part of Don Quixote was published in 1615.

Don Quixote & Sancho Panza
Don Quixote & Sancho Panza | Source

Don Quixote

Don Quixote is considered by many to be the first modern novel. It recounts the adventures of Don Quixote and his companion Sancho Panza. Quixote is a deluded man who has read many chivalric novels. In his delusion, he sets out to revive chivalry.

The novel is written in episodic format and in the picaresque style that was popular in Spanish writing at the time. Picaresque literature has as its protagonist, the “pícaro” or ne’er do well, who must use his or her wits to survive. The novel is largely farcical, and it has been interpreted in many different ways, as a comic novel, a social commentary, and as a tragedy. The novel has many messages, which allows it to remain one of the greatest works in literature.

Later Years

While Don Quixote was Cervantes’ best known work, he published his Exemplary Novels, a collection of stories in 1613. Like Don Quixote, the stories are written in the picaresque style. While, he spent many years traveling, Cervantes settled in Madrid in 1606. He remained there for the remainder of his life. Cervantes died on April 22, 1616. The location of his burial site remains unknown though it is thought that he was originally buried in a convent run by Trinitarian nuns, but it is speculated that when the nuns moved, the remains of the dead were also moved.


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