Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

1934 opens with the question, “Is it possible to live in despair and not wish for death?” Moravia probes possible answers through the actions of the various characters. For the Germans, the answer is clearly no. Sonia remains physically alive but tells Lucio, “I am a dead woman.” Lucio hopes to arrive at a different answer through his writing, but Shapiro refers him to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s character Werther, a young man who kills himself because of unrequited love. Shapiro adds that Lucio may be able to stabilize his own despair because he is not living deeply: “If you were really in despair, you wouldn’t come here to tell me so.”

Is Lucio playing a role? Is he as much an actor as Paula or Beate/Trude, differing from them only in that he deceives himself rather than others, or does he respond to despair as a life-loving Italian, whereas Werther, like the Germans in 1934 and like Kleist, is a typical Nordic romantic? Such questions of interpreting reality dominate the novel. In the opening scene, Lucio reads in Beate’s eyes and shaking head the negative answer to his riddle about despair and life. Yet he must confess that her sad look could be the effect of nearsightedness, and she might be shaking her head to discourage his flirtatious stares. Or she might be sad because he has taken so long to notice her, and shaking her head might be a silent reprimand to his inattentiveness.

Later, as Lucio rides...

(The entire section is 411 words.)