The Watcher Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This story focuses on the observations and reflections of a Communist Party worker, Amerigo Ormea, on a day in which he is participating as a “poll-watcher” during the 1953 Italian election. The voting place to which he has been assigned is Turin’s Cottolengo Hospital for Incurables, a shelter for the mentally and physically afflicted. The voters at Cottolengo are its staff and, primarily, its inmates, and Amerigo’s responsibility, especially as a Communist, is to see that the voters are all mentally capable of voting on their own without being guided by nuns and priests of the institution (who would be supporters of the Christian Democrat Party, opposing the Communists in the election). Working with Amerigo are five other volunteers—a chairman, a clerk, and three other watchers.

This is a psychological drama, in which the conflicts and resolutions are intellectual, occurring in the mind of the protagonist; the external action provides the context in which Amerigo faces the political, moral, and religious questions that are central to the story. The complexity of the story exists in Amerigo’s intensely sensitive and ethical mind, which wanders through labyrinthine paths of speculations. The actual events are straightforward.

Amerigo leaves home at five-thirty in the morning and walks in the rain to Cottolengo. Throughout the day, Amerigo vacillates in his feelings about the election—whether, for example, taking the election to an institution for the mentally infirm and disabled helps democracy or harms it. However, he begins positively, with a simple determination. He recognizes what he regards as The moral question: you had to go on doing as much as you could, day by day. In politics, as in every other sphere of life, there are two important principles for a man of sense: don’t cherish too many illusions, and never stop believing that every little bit helps.

At the polls, the task he is assigned is that of checking the voters’ identity papers. One of the watchers, a woman in orange, questions the validity of a voter’s medical certificate that claims that the man is blind. She notices that the voter is able to see that he has accidentally taken two ballots. A priest accompanying the voter defends the medical certificate, and Amerigo enters the argument, stating that the certificate is valid “if it tells the truth.” He suggests that they test the voter’s ability to see. The chairman, the two other watchers, and the priest outnumber Amerigo and the woman in orange, and the priest has his way, accompanying the voter into the voting booth to assist him. Amerigo and the woman record their protest, and Amerigo goes out for a smoke.

Amerigo feels a personal crisis at this point, in which all action seems futile: “[M]orality impels one to act; but what if the action is futile?” Progress, liberty, and justice seem the privilege of the healthy, and not universal, because the afflicted cannot share in them. The only practical attitude for the Cottolengo unfortunate seems to be a religious one, “establishing a relation between one’s own afflictions and a universal harmony and completeness.” Society creates the institution to help the afflicted, but nothing can really be...

(The entire section is 1323 words.)