Having read countless novels of chivalry, a middle-aged man with a propensity for extravagant fantasy renames himself Don Quixote and decides to become a knight-errant. He then provides himself with the necessities for that profession: horse, armor, and new name, though all are comically inadequate. Since all knights have an object of adoration in the form of a lady, Don Quixote next tends to that item on his list. Vaguely remembering a girl from the village of El Toboso named Aldonza Lorenzo with whom he once had been in love (unknown to her), Don Quixote reconfigures the woman in his mind, names her Dulcinea del Toboso, and proceeds to evoke her in adulation before every new adventure. On several occasions, at the risk of his life, he demands recklessly that she be declared the most beautiful and virtuous of all women. On at least three occasions he comes close to glimpsing a figure whom he takes to be Dulcinea, though in each case the sighting is compromised by delusion or uncertainty.
Cervantes's construction of Dulcinea as a woman invented by the imagination of a man, with only the most remote connection to real life, raises issues about the nature of objectification and the relationship between desire and fantasy. As a fantasy, Dulcinea propels Don Quixote forward and commands many of his moods and acts throughout the novel. His ideas on love and loyalty center on Dulcinea, and he speaks at length about his devotion to her.
Dulcinea can represent a number of phenomena, depending on the reader: A psychoanalytic reading might stress Don Quixote's misguided attribution of power to a fantasy; a feminist reading would consider a male's objectification of a female as a way to gain control over his erotic drive as well as the object of that desire; other approaches would point to the critique of chivalry inherent in Quixote's hilarious projection or Dulcinea's role as a foil to the real female characters in the novel. The rich tradition of Don Quixote criticism does not allow a single interpretation.
Regardless of one's critical perspective, Dulcinea's impact on the representation of sexual desirability cannot be underestimated. The influence of Don Quixote on modern literature has been immense, and Dulcinea has played a significant role in the interpretation of almost all the major themes explored by subsequent novelists, such as the relationship between reality and appearance, control and loss, and desire and inhibition. Her portrayal also raises questions about the nature of the ideal woman as conceived by a male mentality driven by fantasy and projection and her role in simultaneously stabilizing and threatening a man's drives. Dulcinea is one of the most compelling and rich portrayals of male fantasy in literature.
Mancing, Howard. 2005. "Dulcinea del Toboso: On the Occasion of Her Four-Hundredth Birthday." Hispania 88(1): 53-63.
Redondo, Agustín. 1983. "Del personaje de Aldonza Lorenzo al de Dulcinea del Toboso: Algunos aspectos de la invención cervantina." Anales Cervantinos 21: 9-22.