Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Doubt, loss, and missed opportunities haunt all lives, and the storytellers in this collection are no exception. Their crossed fates are doubly underscored, since they use the same cards to tell their tales and the intersecting cards of one are used for the story of another. In addition, they find themselves in an archetypal forest of doubt, but unlike Dante’s forest (in the prologue to Inferno), here there is no hope of a resolution in Paradise. The raconteurs produce their stories with the same desperate necessity as Dante’s sinners but without the same precision of language.

The tarot deck becomes a metaphor for the lives of these individuals, but a metaphor devoid of the literal weakens precision, even as it evokes a response. The cards, therefore, impose a similarity on ostensibly disparate experiences. They emphasize the similarity of all lives, from the most glamorous (the castle guests) to the most humble (the tavern patrons). That the narrator ultimately emerges as the author, who sees himself in the hermetic but sordid business of juggling the fates of others, reassures and at the same time terrifies the reader. Not even the master storyteller has an answer to what T.S. Eliot called “the overwhelming question” of life’s meaning.

Despite the mythic past in which Calvino’s tales are set, his narrators are, then, twentieth century personalities. Unlike Dante’s Pilgrim, they cannot, because of weakness, ignorance, or inability to believe, make the journey which ultimately rectifies the false starts and missteps of earlier adventures.