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Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The two most important characters in Cervantes's novel are Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza. The combination of a hero and a sidekick, or two complementary comic or semi-comic figures, recurs frequently in literature and drama. Laurel and Hardy exemplify a more modern version of this tradition. Yet, Cervantes individualizes his two main characters, making them both immediately recognizable and many-sided. Many scholars consider Don Quixote to be the first in-depth character study typical of the modern novel.

The basic relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is that of master to servant, landowner to peasant. Because of his wealth and education, Don Quixote should play the dominant role in the relationship, but the quick-witted Sancho often demonstrates superior intelligence. Perhaps this explains their stormy relationship. Don Quixote frequently becomes so angry with Sancho that he shouts at him and treats him badly; sometimes Sancho embarrasses his master; and once Don Quixote actually deserts his squire in a dangerous situation. Sancho, for his part, at first accompanies Don Quixote because he expects to make a good deal of money from the venture and because, despite all its hardships, he prefers the life of a wanderer to the monotony of life at home. Before long, he realizes that something must be wrong with Don Quixote's mind, and then he deceives and ridicules him. At times Sancho grows so disillusioned that he almost leaves Don Quixote. In this way, Cervantes shows the variable nature of even the closest human relationships.

At the beginning of the novel, Cervantes depicts Don Quixote as a madman who has brief intervals of lucidity. During those intervals, Don Quixote displays the values typical of an early seventeenth-century Spanish gentleman. But the rest of the time, he fosters ridiculous delusions. For instance, when he comes across a villager wearing a brass basin on his head to protect himself from the rain, Don Quixote declares that the basin is the enchanted helmet of the Moorish King Mambrino captured by Rinaldo in the literary work Orlando Furioso. Sancho, true to his more down-to-earth approach, insists on calling the headgear a barber's basin. Such differences in perception between Sancho and Don Quixote underlie most of the novel's action.

The entire novel builds on the disjunction between what Don Quixote sees and what Sancho Panza sees or, rather, fails to see. Whereas Sancho sees an inn, Don Quixote sees a palace; Sancho sees windmills, but Don Quixote sees giants; while Sancho sees a flock of sheep, Don Quixote sees two warring armies. Don Quixote attempts to restore the order of chivalry to the world by identifying the romantic potential concealed beneath everyday reality and drawing it out for others to see. As a pair, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza symbolize different ways of looking at the world: the idealistic versus the realistic, the foolish versus the down-to-earth, the ascetic versus the worldly.

The irony of Don Quixote's mission becomes clear as he searches for Dulcinea del Toboso, a woman who exists more in his imagination...

(The entire section is 767 words.)