Friday, June 17, 2005

I love Dorothea

[cross-posted from 400 Windmills]

Don Quixote continues to be a revelation but this most recent discovery is one of my favorites so far: Dorothea. Why have we not been talking about her all these years? When people make lists of favorite heroines in fiction, why is she not high among them? She is fantastic.

We come upon her, dressed as a page, bathing in the wilds where both Don Quixote and Cardenio have chosen to do their penance in the name of love. (And that idea, in itself, of a wild place just teaming with nobles in shepherd garb flagellating themselves and mourning broken hearts is hilarious: I can see it, Monty Python-style, now…) Her beauty is peerless. She unpins her hair and it is long, blonde, and flowing. She washes her foot and it is whiter than marble. So far so good, but a little dull.

Then she tells her tragic story: she has been seduced and abandoned by the very man who was to wed Luscinda. I’m trying to keep this straight myself, so I’ll go slowly. Cardenio is in this desolate place because his girlfriend, Luscinda, was married off to another. That other man is a reckless seducer. Dorothea is a trusting girl whom he has seduced. Ruined and ashamed, she flees to the wilds. Merrily, tragically, the men all see that they can set this all right: Luscinda’s wedding never did take place and Cardenio is free to return to his beloved (looking a little foolish and untrusting but assured of a virtuous virgin bride nonetheless) and, hoorah! now Dorothea can marry the man who raped her. No one within the story seems to see the ickiness of this. And that might be the end of the story: again, sorry, dated, conventional, and predictable.

But then, Dorothea emerges to play a starring role in the “main” plot (it does not feel very central at this point), convincing Don Quixote to put his clothes back on and return to civilization. Pretending to be the Princess Micomicon (and, hilariously, forgetting her own fake name and turning to her companions for a prompt), she gets him to promise to slay a dragon (a sea monster?) on her behalf as a ruse to get him back home. That’s good and full of the dramatic spirit and sense of adventure that allowed her to run away in disguise in the first place. But then, returning to the infamous inn, the center of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’s humiliations, she listens to the innkeeper’s defense of romance novels. He turns out to be nearly as credulous as Don Quixote and it is Dorothea who turns to Cardenio and says that, should we want another knight errant, we wouldn’t need to look far: the innkeeper is just as cracked.

It might seem small, giving Dorothea that line, but, combined with all her other qualities—her nobility, her tragic situation, her beauty, her intelligence, her resourcefulness, her willingness to play along with a practical joke, her acting ability—her sense of humor, her ability to see irony, elevate her above dozens of other, more celebrated fictional heroines. Why, I’m falling in love with her myself. What a great woman! Let’s talk about her more…

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