Themes and Meanings
Although several critics have noted the importance of this grotesque Tyrolean tale, “An Alpine Idyll” contains more than the mordant humor of the folk story. The central theme, which is introduced in the opening paragraphs, is the need to return to an active life after a period of rest and pleasure. Nick and John have already stayed too long in the mountains and are regretting that they did not leave earlier: It is not good to extend pleasure beyond a certain point. This theme is reinforced by the references to descending from the mountain into the valley, where the May sunshine seems more natural. The accumulated letters that the two young men read while drinking beer also recall the outside world awaiting them. It is a world of obligations and responsibilities.
Little attempt has been made to understand the macabre story-within-the-story as in any way integrated with such larger themes. However, there are many connections. The first and most obvious is to see the folktale also reflecting the theme of something overstayed or prolonged beyond what is natural. The peasant, like the young men, had to remain too long in the mountains with his dead wife before he could descend into the valley to discharge his duty and bury her, thereby putting a closure to her death. With the funeral completed, he is free to get on with life’s obligations.
“An Alpine Idyll” was first published in book form in the collection Men Without Women (1927), and the peasant’s story may also suggest the grotesqueness of men living without women, providing a clue to some of the unmentioned obligations to which Nick must return—namely, those of wife and family. The “unnaturalness” of the spring skiing also makes a connection here with the unnaturalness of the peasant’s behavior in using his wife’s dead body as a lantern stand. In both cases, the light of the past experience illuminates something strange in the mountains, a something put into perspective in the cleansing light of the valley below.