Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, the events in Ferrara are symbolic of the madness spreading all over Europe during the years leading up to World War II. As Jews begin losing their rights, the aloof Finzi-Continis invite some of their coreligionists to share the family’s rather paradisiacal existence in the garden of the novel’s title. Yet even that little corner of the world is, at best, only a momentary stay against the hatred and envy of the outside world.

Prejudice, its practices and effects, is the main theme of the novel. The theme is all the more effective because the tone is devoid of rancor and sometimes even a bit amused. Furthermore, Bassani shows that prejudice exists on many levels, not the least of which is within the Jewish community itself. The narrator’s father, a landowner, objects to the Finzi-Continis’ vast holdings and complains that the family is entirely too ostentatious in its religious practices. At least part of Micol’s rejection of the narrator is a result of their common Jewish heritage.

The central irony lies in the fact that the super-rich Finzi-Continis, who can, as late as 1942, corner the market in oxygen cylinders to help the dying Alberto breathe, cannot, in the end, help their fellow Jews, or even themselves, to escape Adolf Hitler’s war machine.