The title character of the novel, Don Quixote is a gaunt, middle-aged gentleman who, having gone mad from reading too many books about chivalrous knights, determines to set off on a great adventure to win honor and glory in the name of his invented ladylove, Dulcinea. Don Quixote longs for a sense of purpose and beauty—two things he believes the world lacks—and hopes to bring order to a tumultuous world by reinstating the chivalric code of the knights-errant. Initially, Don Qui-xote’s good intentions do only harm to those he meets, since he is largely unable to see the world as it really is.
As the novel progresses, Don Quixote, with the help of his faithful squire Sancho, slowly distinguishes between reality and the pictures in his head. Nonetheless, until his final sanity-inducing illness, he remains true to his chivalric conception of right and wrong. Even though his vision clears enough to reveal to him that the inns he sees are just inns, not castles as he previously believed, he never gives up on his absolute conviction that Dulcinea can save him from all misfortune. Furthermore, even when Don Quixote must retire from knight-errantry, he does so in the spirit of knight-errantry, holding to his vows and accepting his retirement as part of the terms of his defeat at the hands of the Knight of the White Moon. Despite his delusions, however, Don Quixote is fiercely intelligent and, at times, seemingly sane. He cogently and concisely talks about literature, soldiering, and government, among other topics.
No single analysis of Don Quixote’s character can adequately explain the split between his madness and his sanity. He remains a puzzle throughout the novel, a character with whom we may have difficulty identifying and sympathizing. We may see Don Quixote as coy and think that he really does know what is going on around him and that he merely chooses to ignore the world and the consequences of his disastrous actions. At several times in the novel, Cervantes validates this suspicion that Don Quixote may know more than he admits. Therefore, when Don Quixote suddenly declares himself sane at the end of the novel, we wonder at his ability to shake off his madness so quickly and ask whether he has at least partly feigned this madness. On the other hand, we can read Don Quixote’s character as a warning that even the most intelligent and otherwise practically minded person can fall victim to his own foolishness. Furthermore, we may see Don Quixote’s adventures as a warning that chivalry—or any other outmoded set of values—can both produce positive and negative outcomes. Given the social turmoil of the period in which Cervantes wrote, this latter reading is particularly appealing. Nonetheless, all of these readings of Don Quixote’s character operate in the novel.