Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Italian title Senilita, senility, cannot be meant literally, for Emilio is comparatively young; he is the age that Italo Svevo was when he married and embarked on a successful business career. The English title, which was approved by Svevo’s friend James Joyce, suggests that the theme is not age but aging. It is possible to think of Emilio as one who is having a final fling before submitting to the aging process: At the end of the novel he is already living in his memories. Perhaps, however, senility in the novel is a spiritual state rather than a time of life, a state of inertia which would be excusable in a man actually old but which is inappropriate to a man in the prime of life.

Emilio’s character belongs to the type of the antihero, which was popular at the end of the nineteenth century. There are Austrian examples in the works of Robert Musil and Arthur Schnitzler, and in English one thinks of characters in the works of Henry James and Joyce, of Leopold Bloom in particular. Emilio in a petty way does resemble the real tragic hero, for catastrophe does result from a mistaken action on his part, and Amalia could be compared to William Shakespeare’s Ophelia or Cordelia.

The novel has been taken as an illustration of the ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer, in whom Svevo was interested, but it makes perfectly good sense without reference to any scheme of abstract philosophy. It has also been taken as a treatment of the theme of Jewishness, with Balli as Gentile contrasted to Brentani as Jew, but there are no references to Jewish beliefs or institutions, nor indeed any indication that Emilio is Jewish.