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DON QUIXOTE (key-HOE-tay or key-HOE-tee)
During the course of the story, the main character is transformed several times. First of all, he is Alonso Quixano, a middle-aged gentleman who is foolish but basically kind-hearted. Although you meet Alonso Quixano only briefly, he is very vividly portrayed.
When Alonso Quixano goes crazy, he is deluded into thinking that he is really Don Quixote de La Mancha, a brave and noble knight errant who will set right all the wrongs of the world. Thus, the character of Don Quixote is really just a figment of Alonso Quixano's imagination. At times the characteristics of the real Alonso shine through his alter ego, as when the Don's conscience is stricken by the realization of the trouble he has caused. For the most part, however, the Don Quixote of Part I is a ridiculous character, constantly mistaking windmills for giants and blundering into fights that leave him bruised and battered, but no wiser.
The Don's character in Part I may be summed up by the nickname Sancho Panza gives him: The Knight of the Sad Countenance. (Some translations say the Knight of the Rueful Figure or the Knight of the Woeful Countenance.) However it is translated, this name tends to sound more serious in English than it does in Spanish. The name "Sir Sad Sack" might give you a better mental picture of the Don's character at this stage of the story. Like the Little Tramp character of Charles Chaplin, Don Quixote has some qualities that inspire pathos, but his actions are basically funny.
The comic adventures of Part I spring mostly from Don Quixote's own delusions. In Part II of the story, other characters, for reasons of their own, play tricks on Don Quixote that blur the distinctions between illusion and reality. The change in Don Quixote at this point is summed up by his new nickname, The Knight of the Lions. The nickname comes from the scene where the Don meets a lion, which is being brought as a gift to the King, and decides to fight it. This time the Don is not having another delusion. The lion is real, but it refuses to fight. Don Quixote still comes out of the episode looking ridiculous, but the source of his humiliation is not his own confusion. He is the victim of fickle reality.
Some readers feel that Sancho Panza is an even more complex and interesting figure than Don Quixote. In the beginning of the story, Sancho is the typical country bumpkin. He has some good qualities. For example, he loves animals, especially his dear jackass, Dapple. But Sancho's humor is crude and he seems hopelessly stupid. Sancho consents to become Don Quixote's squire out of greed. He believes the Don's promises that he will be richly rewarded and will even receive an island of his own to rule over. Perhaps no other character in literature gives you a better example of the triumph of greediness over common sense. You may know people who have let wishful thinking lead them into wild escapades in the hope of getting something for nothing. This is Sancho Panza in a nutshell.
Sancho pays dearly for his foolishness. He is frequently beaten up for things Don Quixote has led him into doing. But even as he catches on to the fact of his master's madness, Sancho becomes truly fond of the Don. (One critic has commented that the bickering between Quixote and Sancho reminded him of the quarrels between a husband and wife.)
During the course of Part II, Sancho Panza even takes on Don Quixote's mad quest as his own. He becomes quixotized. You will have to decide for yourself how seriously you take the change in Sancho's character. Some readers take it quite seriously, indeed. They point out that Sancho's troubles in this section of the story may remind you of the struggle that a non-believer goes through in the course of a search for faith.
The "real" Dulcinea is Aldonza Lorenzo, a big strapping peasant girl who does not even know that Don Quixote exists. The Dulcinea of the Don's imagination bears no resemblance at all to her real-life model. In the Don's mind, Dulcinea is a princess, a paragon of beauty and virtue.
In Part II, Sancho Panza points out another peasant girl and tries to convince Don Quixote that this is his Dulcinea, changed into a farm girl by an evil wizard's magic spell. Of course, this "enchanted Dulcinea" is very much like the girl who inspired the Don's fantasy in the first place.
Perhaps you know some people who, like Don Quixote, have fallen in love with an imaginary ideal. No real boyfriend or girlfriend could possibly live up to their expectations. We find it easy to recognize this fault in others. We find it harder to see, in our own minds, the dividing line between having high standards and pursuing our own imaginary "Dulcineas."
It is interesting to compare Dulcinea with Altisidora, the fourteen-year-old girl at the Duke's court who develops a crush on Don Quixote. We are told that Altisidora is "not misshapen." However, she is said to have teeth like topazes a backhanded compliment since topazes are usually yellow. When Don Quixote rejects Altisidora's advances, she becomes mean and spiteful. Later, she says she is not the kind of girl to sacrifice so much as the "dirt under one fingernail" for love. Considering what Altisidora is really like, Don Quixote is probably better off remaining true to his nonexistent Dulcinea.