One of the most obvious themes in Don Quixote de la Mancha is that of nostalgia. However, in Don Quixote, what has traditionally been regarded as the central thrust of nostalgia: that it represents a longing for a time which can never again exist or be recaptured, is altered through the use of irony to represent a form of moral idealism. In other words, the particular “flavor” of nostalgia represented by Cervantes is that of a longing for a moral and ethical past which are considered (ironically) not as ideals of an unattainable past, but as a conception of pragmatic moral instruction.
Of note is the personal intimacy with which Cervantes invests his character, Quixote’s, conception of a moral idealism which appears readily available and complete in the annuls of antiquity: “he fell into one of the strangest conceits that ever entered the head of any madman [… ] that he should commence knight-errant, and wander through the world, with his horse and arms” (Cervantes Saavedra 23). The summoning to moral action is based, in actuality, in a sense of personal pride and self-aggrandizement: “that by accomplishing such enterprises he might acquire eternal fame and renown” (Cervantes Saavedra 23).
This latter admission forms the key to the ultimately ironic unfolding of Quixote’s nostalgic sense of morality in that it reveals that he, Quixote, never grasped the essential nature of the chivalric morality he idealizes in that he sought fame and recognition rather than purely service to the chivalric code itself. In this way, Cervantes indicates that nostalgia does exert a prohibitive influence on pragmatic application and behavior, but this is only revealed through the irony of Quixote’s attempts to literalize a moral code which is, in fact, lost in the mists of antiquity.
Further irony emerges from the theme of classicism. This theme may be considered closely aligned with the theme of nostalgia because, given the predilection of Quixote for self-aggrandizement, it is only natural for the alert reader to assume that Quixote’s “madness” is born out of an inferiority complex. This natural assumption will be grounded not only in the picaresque action of the plot, but in the portrayal of the internal moral “compass” of the characters in the story.
A good example of how Quixote’s “madness” functions as a portrayal of classicism is the passage where Quixote fantasizes that a brothel is actually a castle: “he fancied it to be a castle, with four turrets and battlements of refulgent silver, together with its drawbridge, deep moat, and all the appurtenances with which such castles are usually described” (Cervantes Saavedra 28). The madness of Quixote allows ironic inversion of the dominant social order.
Thsi tendency (theme) is carried out throughout Don Quixote as a whole with peasants and working-poor taking on roles traditionally associated with the upper-classes. Closely aligned to the theme of classicism is the the theme of chivalry itself. Given the foregoing descriptions of Cervantes’s ironic use of nostalgia and the inversion of the social order, one would expect, and rightly so, that the most obvious theme of Don Quixote, the theme of chivalry, is also intended to be perceived as ironic.
The full realization that even Quixote’s “mad” idealization of the past refuses to admit legitimate moral perception through into the world, despite, that same vision exposing the hypocrisy and injustice of the “present day” world, is a realization which seems to undermine Quixote’s stature as an ironic hero. However, when Quixote himself renounces chivalry, his heroic stature is fact, increased, and his character given a final seal
Now I perceive the absurdity and delusion of them,” (Cervantes Saavedra 939) Quixote is in fact vocalizing his inner-realization that nostalgia, and chivalry were themselves aspects of the very classicism which, in the beginning, ignited his inner feelings of inferiority. He realizes that chivalry is not a release from the injustices of the present, but merely the past’s method of empowering the same social inequalities and injustices which flourished in chivalry’s historical decline.