The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Ida Ramundo is a complex and tragic figure. A good and simple woman, Ida carries the burden of a double secret, her epilepsy and her Jewish heritage. Though in other times she might have lived and taught school in relative tranquillity, the war and its devastation touch Ida in both external and internal ways. While her daily life is changed, uprooted, and degraded as a result of the war, her inner life amounts to a crucible in which the most dehumanizing aspects of Nazism are compounded.

Morante gives careful attention to Ida’s background, the lives of her parents and her husband, Alfio. Especially poignant is the story of Ida’s mother, Nora, a story which prefigures Ida’s fate. Nora marries and seeks to hide the fact that she is Jewish but eventually dies of exposure in a deluded nighttime flight from her enemies. Throughout the novel Ida is haunted by the racial laws and their baroque prescriptions, even going so far as to draw charts of her sons’ lineages to determine their legal status (all the more ironic since Useppe is fathered by one of the Aryan conquerors).

As the war progresses and its deprivations increase, Ida’s efforts to forage for her young son are poignant even in their ineptitude. Her own paranoid secretiveness effectually prevents her from making the most ordinary contacts with her fellow refugees that would ensure Useppe’s basic nutrition. Later, his problems with school discipline are all the more perplexing to her because she is herself a schoolteacher. It is finally the hidden genetic link of epilepsy, compounded by malnutrition, that dooms her son to an early death.

If Ida is the novel’s figure of unremitting tragedy, then Useppe is its figure of...

(The entire section is 706 words.)