Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Human solidarity—friendship as the last refuge in a world where the family has disintegrated—is a central theme in The City and the House. Unsatisfactory family relationships—fathers and sons who barely communicate, mothers and daughters who cannot keep from inflicting pain, husbands and wives whose infidelity is endemic—create a dismal world in which the bonds of friendship become more enduring than family ties.

The narrative is divided among three locales—Rome, the Italian countryside near Perugia, and Princeton. As the title indicates, each of these three locations, or “cities” in a general sense, presents a particular house whose story intermingles with that of its inhabitants. The changing interpersonal relationships of the characters lead to changes in household arrangements. Giuseppe’s house in Rome remains a recurring point of reference in the novel, as do the other two houses: Piero and Lucrezia’s country house, Le Margherite, and Ferruccio’s house in Princeton.

When Alberico expresses his intention to buy Giuseppe’s house in Rome, the reader begins to expect a happy resolution to the novel. Giuseppe’s homecoming seems to be a likely possibility. This happy ending is not to be, however, and the house passes into someone else’s hands. In similar fashion, Le Margherite is sold when Piero and Lucrezia are divorced. This important dwelling, the scene of much happiness and frequent group celebrations, is transformed into a hotel and becomes unrecognizable after its renovation. Finally, Giuseppe’s brother’s house in Princeton provides a fitting setting for the novel’s conclusion: Giuseppe has lost his brother, his wife, and his son and now finds himself alone in a house in which he has never felt comfortable. Ginzburg’s three households represent the widespread failure of the family as a social institution. Suffering from the effects of this social crisis, the individual remains isolated in a hostile environment.