Instinct Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In Lavorare stanca, “Instinct” is the third-from-last poem in the collection, in a section entitled “Paternity.” The poems that precede it and follow it begin with these words: L’uomo solo, Uomo solo, and L’uomo solo (the man alone, a man alone, and the man alone). Although Instinct begins differently, with L’uomo vecchio (the old man), the result is the same. This poem and the collection as a whole ends with a man alone, cut off from the natural world and, by extension, the world of sexual intimacy. If this poem fits into a section of the book called “Paternity,” it is only ironically. This old man is as removed as possible from the world of paternity, of sexual coupling. His teeth are removed from his gums, his memories are removed from the present reality of his solitude, and so he is, as the poem announces in the first line, “disappointed in everything.”

One could offer perhaps a more optimistic reading of the poem’s meaning by suggesting that no one can take away the man’s memories, or that time’s power to decimate is counteracted by the power of human memory to re-create scenes from the past. Yet this reading takes away from the poem’s overwhelming sense of loss and displacement. The old man is no longer a participant in life’s feast; he is now relegated to the status of voyeur, and what he sees is an instinctual world that he has lost completely. Even his life as a voyeur is interrupted by the stone-throwing boy who cannot tolerate the scary, foreboding world of instinct and sexuality.

Pavese wrote this poem in Italy during the Fascist reign of Benito Mussolini, when citizens were encouraged to raise their voices in praise of the accomplishments of their leaders or their “race.” Pavese chose another route; rather than blinding himself to the realities of his world, he chose to speak honestly in a plain voice about the suffering and “disappointments” of himself and his people through direct, unembellished, realistic poems.