What are the things people “know” about Don Quixote, even without having read the book? They know the picture by Picasso, they know Sancho Panza and Rocinante, they know about tilting at windmills, and they know the name of the lovely Dulcinea, Don Quixote’s lady. They may not know, however, that the image of the feminine in Don Quixote is complicated, having as much to do with questions of reality and perception as it does with gender roles.
… having given a name to his horse and decided on one for himself, he realized that the only thing left for him to do was to find a lady to love; for the knight errant without a lady-love was a tree without leaves or fruit, a body without a soul…. It is believed that in a nearby village there was a very attractive peasant girl with whom he had once been in love, although she, apparently, never knew or noticed. Her name was Aldonza Lorenzo, and he thought it a good idea to call her the lady of his thoughts… he decided to call her Dulcinea of Toboso, a name, to his mind, that was musical and beautiful and filled with significance, as were all the others he had given to himself and everything pertaining to him. (p. 23)
Notice the layers of reality here. Don Quixote has invented himself, he has invented his horse, and now he is inventing his lady. But does she exist to begin with? “It is believed” that there was a girl in a nearby village. By whom is it believed? During the entire first part of the novel, Dulcinea never appears. No one even claims to see her (except Sancho Panza, who lies to get out of trouble.) And here, her name is full of significance, not on her own account, but because it pertains to Don Quixote.
More on Dulcinea in a moment. But what about the other women in the story? The men in the narrative spend a lot of time spouting platitudes about the weakness of women — how women are incapable of remaining faithful or honorable, for instance, and therefore must be protected from even seeing other men; or how women and clerics cannot be affronted because they cannot return the insult; or how a woman’s most precious possession is her virginity — something that makes her worthless once it is gone. Don Quixote vows himself to their protection: to watching over women, single and married, widowed and with children. And it is true that the women in this novel are particularly vulnerable, and often in distress of one kind or another.
But, as in Shakespeare, this is more complicated than stick figures or misogyny. These women are not what men say they are, or at least not because men say it. We have Marcela, the “savage basilisk of the mountains,” who defends herself and her reputation so rationally, so spiritedly, and so effectually that everyone who hears her must admit her discourse to be true. There is the quick-witted Dorotea, capable of convincing Don Quixote that she is the princess of Micomicón. (Not that he takes much convincing, actually, but she is clever about it, and her dialogue is witty.) Camila, in the story of the Man Who Was Recklessly Curious, is unfaithful, but resourceful and intelligent. And Zoraida, or Maria, as she prefers to be called, manages to rescue an entire crew of Christian hostages from their imprisonment in Algiers.
You could see the entire crew of women (I haven’t named them all) as being represented by the beauteous, and absent, lady Dulcinea of Toboso. She’s given a name and innumerable attributes by the central male character, and at one and the same time we think we know her, and we know we do not know her. All the other women exist behind the same (often literal!) veil of knowing and not-knowing, presence and absence, reality and imagination. If I say this reminds me of nothing so much as Lolita, will it sound bad, or good?
Here’s a related thought: a knight errant is bound to serve God and his lady. What does this say about the presence, or absence, or knowability, of God?