In Part II, Chapter X, Don Quixote encounters a peasant girl and mistakes her for Dulcinea. What is the significance of this brief scene? How does it illuminate the novel’s major themes?
With the interaction between Don Quixote and the peasant girl, Cervantes calls our attention to the limits of human perspective. The peasant girl is clearly not Dulcinea, but Quixote insists on misreading her actions and statements to suit his own needs. Elsewhere in the novel, Cervantes reinforces his interest in skewed points of view by reminding that he is not relating Quixote’s tale firsthand: he is only relating the imperfect interpretation of events made by another writer—the fictional Moor Benengeli. Frequently, Cervantes reminds us that a storyteller’s vision of the world may be clouded by his own prejudices, shortcomings, and assumptions. The scene between Don Quixote and the peasant girl thus emphasizes Cervantes’s idea that humans often fall short of a complete understanding of the objective truth.
The appearance of the peasant girl in Chapter X emphasizes the potential for disconnect between perceivers and the world they are perceiving. Sancho needs to find a Dulcinea for his master, so he decides to pass off one of “three peasant lasses” as a beautiful maiden. Disturbed by the reality of the three farm girls, Quixote allows himself to believe that an evil force has taken hold of his eyesight and is preventing him from apprehending Dulcinea’s obvious beauty. Ignoring the peasant girl’s plainly stated protestations, Quixote persists in thinking her a lady in disguise and dismisses her words as coy nonsense. Earlier in the chapter, Sancho notes that Quixote’s particular brand of “madness” involves continual misinterpretations, a madness “that mostly takes one thing for another,” confusing “white for black, and black for white,” mistaking wind-mills for giants, and seeing “armies of enemies” in “flocks of sheep.”
Cervantes expands upon this theme of misinterpretation by using a narrator-within-a-narrator framework. Cervantes not only relates the story of Don Quixote to us, the readers; he also comments upon the original author’s version of events, calling attention to the limits of Benengeli’s own point of view and suggesting that stories are never wholly true but merely fractured interpretations of the truth. When the three peasant girls appear on the scene, Cervantes interrupts Benengeli’s narrative to point out that Benengeli “is not specific” on whether the girls’ animals are “ass-colts or fillies.” When Sancho makes many wise remarks to Teresa, Cervantes speculates that Benengeli may once again be altering or misremembering reality. Cervantes also points out that “the history is silent” on Sancho’s knowledge of astrology. Like Quixote before his poor maiden, Benengeli picks and chooses the details he focuses on, omitting any facts that do not suit his storytelling interests.
Panning outward, Cervantes emphasizes how frequently his characters omit or misunderstand portions of the truth. An aspiring poet wishes to write an acrostic ode to “Dulcinea,” but he must mangle her name to fit it into his desired number of stanzas. Quixote longs for a historian to report on the events of his life, but he demands a half-inaccurate account that omits all details that would detract from his heroic stature. Cervantes devotes paragraphs of Book II to the logical errors that recur throughout Book I, forcing us to recall that even an account of “real” events can never be a perfect reflection of reality, since the perceiver inevitably has shortcomings, prejudices, and ideological blind spots that color his interpretation of events.
By devoting Chapter X to Quixote’s farcical conversation with the peasant girl, Cervantes reinforces his idea that a person’s point of view limits his ability to understand the plain realities of the world around him. Quixote laughably treats the peasant girl as Dulcinea not because she resembles a fair maiden, but because Quixote finds it convenient to believe that she does. Likewise, Benengeli leaves out and misreports aspects of Quixote’s story to suit his own interests. Misinterpretation and misrepresentation runs rampant through Don Quixote. The spirit of the peasant girl haunts the novel, calling people’s narratives into question, reminding us that one viewer’s image is far from the whole truth.