Critical Essays Characterization in Don Quixote


Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

The dynamics of characterization in Don Quixote has been discussed in the previous section. After considering something of the generalized processes of development, it is useful to consider some of the characters themselves.

To characterize Don Quixote, one can call him the idealist, although, as shown in specific discussions, the prosaic nature of Alonso Quixano is often glimpsed under the veneer of the knight's posturings. Don Quixote is a madman, or rather, an "idealist," only in matters of knight-errantry. He discourses practically on matters of literature, as shown when he discusses poetry with Don Diego de Miranda. He is capable of sincere gratitude (standing at the road crossing to recommend the maidens of the New Arcadians), and he is the mirror of courtesy itself. Giving advice to the penurious Basil on how to keep his new wife, counseling Sancho on how to be a good governor, Don Quixote's common sense and ethical standards resemble those of Polonius advising Laertes in the famous scene in Hamlet. He persuades a couple of wily lodgers to pay their innkeeper; he is honest and chaste, and, in general, is loved by the people in his village who know him.

An interesting tension of his personality is between these virtuous sane qualities and those developed through his peculiar madness. Imperious, he is stung quickly to anger when he suspects that the institution of knight-errantry is questioned. His sense of duty results in a sometimes-disastrous meddlesomeness. Poetic and sensitive, according to the ideals of the age of chivalry, Don Quixote sings well, composes verse, and is helpful to the distressed. Beyond that, of course, loom the visions and ideals and the seeking for absolute truth and justice which a quixotic faith entails.

Viewed through his quixotism, however, the world casts images as from a rarified plateau whose very clarity is a distortion of the commonly accepted viewpoint. The knight, for instance, sees the goatherds primarily as fellow human beings. Though he would notice their ignorance and poverty if he were not mad, he addresses them as if they were his equals in refinement and erudition. The goatherds respond to his oration by paying elegant homage to his sincerity and directness: they bring forth, for his entertainment, a shepherd who sings verses and accompanies himself on a rebeck. A more appropriate and tactful response could not have been devised. Another example, one mentioned before, is that of the wily innkeeper who, despite himself, acts the part of a gracious castellan receiving a guest of quality. The duke and duchess, however, cannot reach the heights of nobility and the reader sees them as mere fools compared with the knight's high-minded sobriety. The quixotism he inspires in the followers of the ducal pair in Tosilos, disobeying his lord, in Donna Rodriguez's striving to make her betrayed daughter respectable, as well as in Samson Carrasco's perverted attempt to depose the quixotic madman himself is finally and definitively developed in his closest disciple, Sancho Panza.

Sancho's struggle between his love for his master, upon whom he depends so completely, and his own sense of reality (he constantly recalls the severe blanketing he felt on all his bones and sinews) continues throughout his squire's career. He believes nothing, for the Spanish peasant is skeptical of all but his own experience, yet, by virtue of his unlettered ignorance, is infinitely credulous. It is through this credulity that Sancho follows his master and eventually believes fully in him.

At first, when he tries to imitate Don Quixote by words and trickery, not by emotion and faith, he is unsuccessful and succeeds only in confusing himself. Lying that he has seen visions on Clavileno's back, his attempts to prevent the knight from attacking the fulling-mills, and his invention of Dulcinea's enchantment are examples of this failure. Nevertheless, he shares his master's desire for immortality, for he dreams he will govern an island.

Sancho finally rises to quixotic heights when, at the bedside of the moribund Quixote, he begs the Don to leave off this nonsense of dying when there are so many deeds of valor yet to be done. At the summit of his faith, Sancho implores the now-sane madman to "come to his senses" and take up knight-errantry once again. His confusions at an end, Sancho realizes that the madman he served pointed the way to clearheaded truth.

In his relationship with his master, Sancho Panza represents the practical realist. He is the "corrective lens" for what the world would consider Don Quixote's distorted vision. Their separate reactions to the same episode provide the reader with a sort of stereoscope through which to view the world of Cervantes with two lenses focused to produce a three-dimensional image. Sancho says that flocks of sheep approach; Don Quixote declares it is an army. The truth is somewhere in between because the shepherds give battle. Sancho tells his master how Dorothea demeans herself by kissing Ferdinand; Don Quixote says he lies, for she is a highborn princess. Again, they are both correct. With their constant discourse Sancho says he must burst if he cannot express himself the reader has the impression of a single man who talks to himself, arguing first one way, then the other. Perhaps Sancho Panza is really the eternalized Alonso Quixano who provides for Don Quixote his inner core of tranquility and reasonableness.

The tension of their opposing personalities, however, is resolved on their separate paths to glory. Sancho has his island to dream of, and Don Quixote envisions his valorous deeds. The two are furthermore bound by the same sort of ties that link father to son, teacher to pupil, husband to wife. Cervantes amplifies these dependencies in many ways. A novice in the practice of chivalry, Sancho learns and imitates his master as a student would of his tutor. With their conversations and the I-told-you-so recriminations of Sancho, as well as their division (of tasks) in working together, the squire and knight seem to be married to each other. Sometimes called "my son" by Don Quixote, Sancho actually is the child of quixotism, even maturing within the relationship to revolt against his master. Another need that the relationship satisfies is the need for a leader to have followers, and Don Quixote depends on Sancho for his own self-awareness. Conversely, Sancho demands to follow. After having experienced the responsibility of governing an island, he recognizes that he can only follow a quixotic ideal but not himself initiate the quixotic spirit.

Integral though their relationship is, Sancho and Don Quixote are universal because each is the ultimate in their own character types. The way they develop in their relationship, however, and their thoughtful responses to life's experiences are also universal. They provide a realistic model of how human beings become educated, and this process of learning and reacting to life is part of the psychological maturation of everyone.

Minor Characters

Between the reality-fantasy tension of Sancho's great dilemma and the fixed ideals of Don Quixote's guiding principles, Cervantes focuses all the characters in his novel. More than four hundred characters appear in Don Quixote. Some are sketched in a few words, like the description of Don Antonio Morena: he is "a gentleman of good parts and plentiful fortune loving all those diversions that may innocently be obtained without prejudice to his neighbors, and not of the humor of those who would rather lose their friend than their jest." Some characters, like the duke and duchess, fulfill their characterizations without any description at all.

Most of Don Quixote's characters are developed in their relationship to the protagonist. The curate and barber, for example, try so hard to cure the madman that they themselves seem to become the evil magicians who do him the most harm, especially when they disguise themselves as necromancers in order to deliver the hero home in an oxcart. Samson Carrasco, the sophomoric bachelor from the university, has such a shallow understanding of the knight and of himself that he is at best only a false Quixote. The gentleman in green, Don Diego de Miranda, parallels the prosaic character of Alonso Quixano had the hidalgo not become a madman. Completely conventional, a half-hearted huntsman ("I keep neither falcon nor hounds but only a tame partridge and a bold ferret or two"), Don Diego has a son gifted in poetry with whom he is dissatisfied because the boy should study something more useful. The various goatherds encountered in the novel incline to be kind and generous, for they supply food to the half-insane "knight of the wood," and they treat the knight and squire with courtesy and hospitality. Chrysostom, the broken-hearted lover of Marcella, has pined to death for her favor, whereas Don Quixote, equally unsuccessful in love, sublimates his frustration and is inspired to accomplish immortal deeds. Gines de Passamonte, briefly but unforgettably sketched, is a perfect study of a typical Spanish picaroon. Living by his wits, he has many disguises and practices a variety of deceptions to gain his livelihood.

The majority of women who appear in Don Quixote are shallow. Dorothea, outstanding for her intelligence and wit, has perhaps the most personality of any woman in the novel. Maritornes, the scullery wench, is a vivid exception. Grotesque in appearance, she is so kind that she gives herself freely and generously to all muleteers. She kindly offers Sancho a glass of wine, paid out of her pocket, to comfort him after he is bounced in a blanket. Teresa Panza, perfect helpmate for Sancho, has great integrity as a peasant. But like her husband, she abandons all her reservations as soon as she has proof that he has become a governor. Though unable to become fully quixotized, Teresa does not mock and is ready to believe what she sees. Altisidora, arch, mischievous damsel in the duchess' household, feigns to have a great love for Don Quixote. Still unsuccessful, even after staging her death, Altisidora becomes vengeful like any scorned woman. One suspects that she has eventually come to admire the madman for his constancy to Dulcinea, and in her rage to conquer his will, she would even make love to him in order to lower his nobility to her level.

Dulcinea del Toboso remains merely a symbol, although Don Quixote has created her as a personified ideal more valuable than his own life. She symbolizes his immortality, his notion of perfection, and the source of all inspiration for love, bravery, faith. From a profane longing to marry Aldonza Lorenzo and raise children through her, Don Quixote sublimates his fantasy by accomplishing great deeds in order to deserve serving his Dulcinea and gain immortality through his perfect behavior as a knighterrant in her name.

The category of Cervantean characters furnishes an endless list. Each one, however, juxtaposed against the image of the Knight of the Woeful Figure, expresses a part of the real world where ideas and ideals must make their impressions on the human consciousness.