Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The central theme of The Cloven Viscount is the dichotomy between the real and the ideal, and Calvino explores and presents this topic through a variety of means.

The two sides of Medardo are known as “The Good ’Un” and “The Bad ’Un” by the people of Terralba, and both halves are unsatisfactory. “The Bad ’Un” is obviously a menace, hacking and burning his way through the countryside, but “The Good ’Un” is equally, if more subtly, inhuman. His meeting with the Huguenots at Col Gerbido, for example, is conducted with decorum and excessive goodwill on both sides, but there is no real contact between them, and the final effect is, in the narrator’s words, “a bit chilling on the whole.” It is “The Good ’Un” who visits Pratofungo, the city of the lepers, and argues them out of their carefree, if somewhat loose, lives. Deprived of that solace, they must face their disease and shattered bodies.

To those persons forced to endure it, unreal good is as dismal as unreal evil. “Thus the days went by at Terralba, and our sensibilities became numbed, since we felt ourselves lost between an evil and a virtue equally inhuman.”

The theme of unreality versus reality is further compounded in a corollary topic, life as a series of symbols. Throughout the book, the central characters refuse to face experience directly, but mediate it through signs and symbols. The evil Medardo, for example, leaves a trail...

(The entire section is 465 words.)