Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Pavese’s novels are thematically rich. Writing was a serious enterprise for him. He used fiction to explore the contradictions individuals confront in reconciling their needs with their social relations and responsibilities. Among Women Only scathingly indicts Italy’s upper class. The shallow, futile nature of their lives has made them vulnerable to Fascism. They escaped the wartime devastation by retiring with their servants to mountain villas and seaside resorts, and Clelia joins them as they return to their urban haunts. Their empty lives are the product of a society without healthy core values, one incapable of providing its members with meaningful work or a productive social and political role.

Through Clelia, Pavese examines work and solitude, two of his own obsessions, finding them necessary and fulfilling but not fully adequate for a healthy life. Deprived of productive labor and frightened of solitude, Turin’s fashionable set restlessly searches for diversion to combat boredom and avoid self-knowledge. People who do not work rot away, Pavese wrote in a letter to a friend. Momina and her friends go slumming for entertainment, viewing poor neighborhoods only as stage sets “got up” for their amusement. They regard art and music as important merely for the social occasion they provide. Even Rosetta’s suicide attempt is important mainly because it provides a moment of drama and an endless opportunity for gossip. She arranges her death room like a stage set, a fitting end to a life of role-playing.

Pavese believed that Italy had to overcome its misogynistic traditions in order to achieve progress. He avoided stereotyping his female characters. Pavese did not regard women’s lives as being emptier than those of men. He described class distress rather than a gender problem. If Clelia has not built an authentic, fulfilling life, it is not because she has abandoned the traditional role of wife and mother. Rather, it is because her society provides none of its members, men or women, with a productive role. Momina suggests that only by having children can women really become fully alive. Yet even this role does not provide fulfillment. Clelia’s childhood friend, Gisella, remained in the old neighborhood to fulfill the traditional role of mother; rather than gaining life, however, she seems utterly drained, existing only through her daughters.