completing their PhD at the Stanford AI Lab,
supported by the Open Philanthropy AI Fellowship
+ the PD Soros Fellowship for New Americans.

On Don Quixote: How men idealize women out of existence

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote, fully titled The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, is, most ostensibly, a novel about the literary and cultural narrative around knighthood. This text is tremendously concerned with knighthood, yet this begs a question, in understanding the text, of precisely what it is that knighthood itself concerns. Thus, when Cervantes’s protagonist asserts of knighthood, “It was for [the maidens’] protection,” a complex dependence between women, protection, knighthood, and society emerges at once, nontrivially complicating the reading of the text (77). It is with these relations in mind that the reading of Don Quixote shifts dramatically, as the text is reconfigured from a critique of romanticizing knighthood, to a study of the unintended consequences of romanticizing female agency. Indeed – Cervantes tracks the path leading from romanticization of female agency to paradoxical upset, in which female agency becomes categorically unachievable.

As Cervantes makes gradually evident, the romantic idealization of female agency creates a false benchmark that reality cannot match – and thus the ideals recursively perpetuate a notion that female agency can exist only in the space of such ideals, and not within the realm of reality. Cervantes examines this notion as his protagonist Don Quixote falls into its trap. In an extended lament to two goatherds, Don Quixote begins with a riff on a time in which “[clever bees] offered to any hand [their] fertile harvest” and “maidens in their modesty wandered wherever they wished, alone and mistresses of themselves” idealizing simultaneously a blatantly fictional past and the female agency which he claims this past once maintained (76-77). Moreover, the idealization of female agency figures again when Don Quixote in fact personifies abstract ideals as female agents – idealization in an even more interesting sense. He speaks of nature as “our first mother”, and of “Justice [standing] on her own ground” (77). In this way, protagonist Don Quixote is set up as a study in what follows: the notion that female agency is fantastic and fantastical becomes an immediately self-fulfilling prophecy. In particular, contrasted to bygone times waxed “golden” by romanticized narratives, the current times are “detestable times”, and Don Quixote is thus forced to conclude that female agency is unrealistic (76-77). That Don Quixote rejects wide-spread respect for female agency as a no-longer-realistic mark of a bygone era, precisely while Quixote, armor-clad, believes he can himself revive the era of the knighthood tales he reads is a comedic but uncomfortable irony, reflecting the state of affairs that Cervantes, in seventeenth-century Spain, has come to see. Society is willing to entertain a host of foolish beliefs, but a belief that females may hold agency is considered too far outside the scope of reason for even those characterized by their willingness to leave reason by the wayside.

The impact of labeling respect for female agency as ‘unrealistic’ is the triggering of a transition from romanticizing female agency to protecting and controlling females, a grim transition that manifests prominently in Cervantes’s text. The transition is made explicit by Don Quixote, who illuminates – or perhaps it is Cervantes who is shedding the light – that knighthood, the cultural valuing and fiat of “defending maidens [and] protecting widows”, is fundamentally rooted in the supposed reality that “no maiden is safe . . . [and] maidens are brought to ruin” (77). Abstracted, this confirms a narrative from idealization of female agency to boxing female agency out of the ‘realistic’, and finally to the initial idealization being recast as a need to protect the “in need” maidens by absolving them of their agency altogether (77). If the equivalence between giving protection and overriding one’s agency is not immediately obvious, Cervantes introduces tangential stories to berate the point. The tale of Marcela, a rich man’s beautiful daughter, exemplifies this conflation of protection and overridden agency – beginning in her childhood, when “her uncle kept her carefully and modestly secluded”, a literal and symbolic manifestation of agency overwrought (84). Moreover, that Marcela’s uncle is labeled a “good and honest Christian” in allowing Marcela to choose the time and husband in her inevitable marriage is a testament to the pervasiveness of protection overriding female agency: Marcela’s greatest choice, which it seems she is granted by the mere coincidence of a kind male figure, is to select the details – the right time and man ¬– of an imminent fate, in which her male care-taker can finally be absolved of dictating her choice, transferring this control to her husband. In short, Marcela’s choice is merely an illusion. She is permitted to choose between men so identical that Cervantes describes them as a singular entity of “the disappointed men who follow her”, and she is expected to be appreciative as she selects between mild variations of a single fate of submission (85). The transition is thus established: from romanticization of female agency comes a society in which respect for female agency is deemed foolish, and protection – or expected forfeiture of female agency – emerges as the cultural norm.

Ultimately, females under the thumb of normalized imposed protection face a twisted Catch-22 which Cervantes struggles to address: if a female willingly accepts protection, she is un-ideal, conquered and devalued; if she attempts to reject protection, she is an obstacle to the conquest of her self, and is abhorred. Marcela is placed in precisely this position, and Cervantes provides her one of the sole extended and serious monologues of the text to address this double bind. In responding to claims that “her affability and beauty attract the hearts of those that try to woo her”, Marcela asks, “Why should a woman loved for being beautiful, lose that virtue [by submitting] in order to satisfy a man[?]” (84, 100). Here, exposed, is the paradox of female submission: the men “cannot resist [her] beauty . . . and [they] claim that [she is] obliged to love [them] in return”, but submission directly lessens that very beauty, by forgoing the idealized image, where beauty, here, seems both a shorthand and a heuristic for value (100). To accept submission, then, is to accept depreciation. To reject submission, however, is to face hatred, and offers no alternative path to agency. Cervantes, speaking through the goatherd Pedro, notes that “beauty attracted the hearts . . [but] reproaches drive them to despair [so they] call her cruel and ungrateful and other names” (84). Indeed, Marcela is many times over rebuked as “cruel”, “murderess”, and “basilisk” (98). For rejecting submission, she receives abhorrence, not agency, and the societal narrative of Marcela comes to reflect this hatred instead of her own virtuousness. Certainly, as protagonist Don Quixote becomes a study of romanticism and disbelief towards female agency, even in the most believing, Marcela becomes a study of the inexorable consequences on the female, even in the most privileged and virtuous case.

It appears, then, that the consequence of this choice between accepting and rejecting protection is limited to either the depreciation of accepting or the hatred triggered by rejecting – but the reality is more restricting still. In fact, the depreciation and hatred that at first seem to be vicious but disjoint outcomes combine into the singular tragic fate which falls upon the female in one fell swoop. Dulcinea del Toboso is Don Quixote’s most personal manifestation of the idealized female, “the Lady of his Thoughts”, and, fittingly, a fictional and romanticized name for peasant-girl Aldonza Lorenzo of Toboso. Dulcinea is the most ostensible manifestation of an idealized female’s doubly-bound fate, as she endures both devaluation and detestation in the wake of Don Quixote’s pledge to knighthood in her name (77). Dulcinea is repeatedly labeled a “cruel beauty” – a phrase that hints at the mutual dependence of its substituent labels (202). Neither Don Quixote nor the reader maintains reason to think of Dulcinea as either “cruel” or unusually beautiful, but, as a woman, romanticization waxes the accepted description of Dulcinea to ‘great beauty’, and immediately triggers her transition to descriptions of “cruel” and “accursed”, fueled by her failure to requite Don Quixote’s love (202). Tucked between descriptions like these, the reader experiences the closest examination of Dulcinea, somewhat ironically, when Don Quixote’s sidekick Pancho presents an arbitrary peasant-girl in Dulcinea’s place as he cannot bother himself to find the real Dulcinea. That this peasant-girl is silently labeled “platter-faced and snub-nosed” while being lauded and later recounted as “queen and princess and duchess of beauty” finally underscores the way in which simultaneous devaluation and detestation of the female is able to occur: the reality of the female and the ideal of the female have been separated (202). It is precisely this separation of real and imagined versions of the female that allow the once disparate depreciation and hatred to now inexorably combine. Thus, just as the idealization of the female is both ballooned and accursed, the reality of the female becomes an irrelevant and, finally, absolutely devalued backdrop, this disjoint from the ideal that has taken center stage.

Finally, the fate of the romanticized female is cemented when idealization rewrites her narrative, while simultaneously disallowing any place for her reality to alter the narrative or any voice with which she could. In “Cervantes and His Women Readers”, author Lisa Vollendorf brings attention to the way in which common romantic idealization of women shapes the female as a creation, thus immediately excluding her from the space of creating her narrative; a representation of ideals, immediately prevented her from representing herself; and an ideal – thus an object – for whom the subjectivity of voice is not granted (317). Yet, Vollendorf asserts that Marcela and Cervantes transcend these pathetic traditions. “Marcela,” Vollendorf believes, “exemplifies women’s ability to occupy a position of agency and independence . . . [to] act as creators and narrators rather than idealized creations of male shepherds and masculinist literary tradition” (318). Unfortunately, it is here where Vollendorf’s analysis sees fault, for while Marcela, does, as Vollendorf notes, “speak on her own behalf and tell a story that deconstructs the men’s”, Marcela’s “upset [of] men’s dominance over language and narrative” is eloquent, but temporary (317). Following Marcela’s speech on the men’s paradoxical expectations, Cervantes narrates the men turning back to the matter of the grave of Gristostomo, whose death they attributed, before Marcela’s speech, to unrequited love by her cruelty. For a brief moment, the question of the impact of Marcela’s speech teeters tentatively; but it is merely a moment, for then the epitaph of Gristostomo is announced, reading, “an icy heart, the pitiless hand of cruel beauty killed him” – thus the impossibility of Marcela shaping the culture or narrative that shrouds her is cemented (101). Moreover, that it is this line which will be immortalized in stone and that it is in this manner that Marcela herself will be immortalized – these intricacies deal the final blow in the fate of the idealized: immortalized, she becomes more concept than human. Thus, a final, clarifying, and deeply grim notion emerges, which concerns the crux of this text: she who is idealized and immortalized in life is made no longer mortal; that is, she is made no longer human. Indeed – the female who is romanticized into an ideal, and an object, is immortalized, is dehumanized, and her agency overridden and overwritten by those who did the idealizing, for they, more than she, control her narrative.

Don Quixote is thus reconfigured from a knighthood critique to an insightful study of the unintended consequences of romanticizing female agency. Idealization of female agency begets the end of female agency, as it is pushed aside by whims to protect and prevent female agency from being unrestrained in the world. The final consequence weighs heavily on the women of Don Quixote and the women of the society that it parodies – as each woman is split in two, a real and an ideal – and, soon after, her reality is overwritten altogether. Indeed, Cervantes’s text serves as a grim and unromanticized exploration of romanticization itself.