Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Cesare Pavese, like the narrator, Corrado, was born in Piedmont and lived most of his life there, in the hills and in the city of Turin. He was, like Corrado, attracted to the anti-Fascists and exiled himself to a family farm in 1944. Pavese’s love affairs evidently were as unsatisfactory, even dangerous, to him as were Corrado’s. Unlike Corrado, however, who seems almost paralyzed, Pavese was an immensely hard worker who turned out a large volume of excellent work before his carefully planned suicide in 1950.

Pavese did not regard his novels as “entertainments,” entertaining though they were. He used them to explore the central existential concerns of humans in the twentieth century. His narrators, themselves flawed, are often individuals driven, like Pavese, to seek moral and ethical perfection in an imperfect world. In his various works, Pavese examined the meaning of myth, the need for work and solitude, the joy and menace of love, the role and nature of women, and the necessity of overcoming what he believed was traditional Italian misogyny.

In The House on the Hill, Pavese explores the tension between individual needs and social responsibility. Corrado requires solitude to maintain his sanity, even his will to live. He cannot cope with the intrusive bustle of the world around him or the ethical compromises required in everyday life. Corrado intellectually understands the need to assume responsibility that comes with his loving Cate and Dino and with his recognition of political evils in Italy, but he cannot reconcile his inner needs with his larger obligations. He, like Pavese, tortured by existential loneliness, can respond with understanding and compassion but not with action to join others in loving relationships or in resistance to evil. Corrado, and perhaps eventually Pavese, cannot find a path that allows one to maintain personal integrity while assuming social responsibility in a flawed world. He can, he finds, respond only by gaining self-knowledge and by honoring the dead—especially those who died because of commitments they made—with humility and compassion.