Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The themes of The Horseman on the Roof come directly out of the situation in which Angelo finds himself, and Giono’s ideas about these themes can be found in his protagonist’s response. Thus the novel is about nobility, courage in the face of natural catastrophe, cheerful willingness to serve others, and more specifically, the willingness to serve through healing even at some risk to oneself.

It is clear that Giono intended the cholera in The Horseman on the Roof to be both symbolic and real. Giono may have been influenced by Herman Melville, whose Moby Dick (1851) he admired greatly. There are suggestions throughout the novel that Giono would have cholera symbolize human pride, or the particular pessimism which lies at the heart of much fiction from early in the twentieth century, or the disaster of World War II. Nevertheless, Giono’s research into the cholera epidemics that swept through Europe during the 1830’s and 1840’s was extensive, and, just as Melville took pains to make the whaling scenes in Moby Dick realistic, Giono took pains to make the cholera seem real to the reader.

This realism makes the symbolic force of the epidemic all the stronger. In the face of its realistic and symbolic force, Angelo’s cheerful self-confidence, his willingness to risk his own life, and his eager but unsuccessful attempts to save victim after victim become even more admirable. Consequently, in Angelo’s last struggle with cholera—his successful attempt to save Pauline’s life when she, too, comes down with the disease—the reader understands that his success represents not a change in his medical technique or in the nature of the world but a just and appropriate reward for his attitude toward life. Thus, at the end of the novel, Angelo’s optimism seems to reflect Giono’s faith in the human ability to come through disaster with the virtues of hard work and fidelity to loved ones intact.