Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 391
Lucio (lew-CHEE-oh), the narrator, a young intellectual and writer. Lucio is in the middle of an existential crisis, and he is considering whether “it is possible to live in desperation without wishing to die.” Lucio is anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi but does not allow his political ideas to threaten his life; it is his very aloofness, however, that makes his life not worth living. In the end, he realizes that “one must live his desperation, not die from it.”
Beate/Trude Müller (BAY-tay/TREW-day MIL-luhr), a young, blonde, married actress. As Beate, she appears to be romantic to the point of suicide, wishing for a lover willing to consecrate their love and their desperation with a final tragic action. As Trude (supposedly Beate’s twin sister), she loves life as much as Beate hates it and makes every effort possible to teach Lucio how to do so as well.
Alois Müller (AH-loh-ees), her middle-aged husband. Beate/Trude loves her husband, though Lucio never suspects the depth of her feelings; indeed, Lucio thinks that her feelings for Alois are those of hatred rather than love. It is Beate/Trude and Alois’ idea to play a trick on Lucio to teach him a lesson about vanity. Alois is killed by the Nazis; his death precipitates the double suicide of Beate/Trude and Paula.
Paula, an actress who is Beate/Trude’s lover. Paula cares so much for Beate/Trude that she willingly joins in suicide with her when Beate/Trude decides that death is preferable to life without Alois. Paula’s role is to pretend that she is Beate/Trude’s mother when actually she is her lover, thereby implying an incestuous homosexual relationship symbolic of the ambiguous historical period and the confusion and instability of the men living during that time.
Shapiro, an English art collector. Shapiro no longer sees the beauty in what he collects; his goal is to make money through art, not to find spiritual comfort in it.
Sonia, a Russian émigré and Shapiro’s assistant. Sonia is disillusioned by politics, love, and life in general. Realizing that she has been betrayed by both her ideology and her lover, Sonia also realizes that there is nothing left for her emotionally; she is dead even though physically alive.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529
In 1934, the twenty-seven-year-old Alberto Moravia was living on Capri with his wife, Elsa Morante, who was also a writer. Like Lucio, he abhorred the Fascist regimes in Italy and Germany and faced an uncertain future. While the first-person narrator derives in part from Moravia’s autobiography, he also resembles the many effete middle-class intellectuals who appear in Moravia’s fiction. Lucio is working on a translation and a novel, but he finishes neither. He wants to make love to Beate and then to Trude, but neither relationship is consummated. He contemplates sex with Sonia, who would willingly go to bed with him; again, nothing comes of his desire. Lucio remains aloof, and the reader last sees him hiding at his parents’ home in the Italian countryside.
Lucio is a spectator rather than a participant in life. This attitude is most clearly revealed when he rows out to an island and the Mullers follow. While Lucio watches from behind a rock, Alois takes nude photographs of Beate. Since Lucio’s boat is plainly visible, the Mullers know that he is nearby, and at length Alois invites him to photograph the two of them. Throughout the scene, Lucio merely observes from behind a screen, whether that screen is a boulder or a camera lens. His aloofness may save his life, but without passion is he truly alive?
Sonia suggests that the answer is no. In a lengthy interpolated story, she tells Lucio about her life in Russia before the Revolution. A member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, she fell in love with Evno Azev, ostensibly a fellow revolutionary but in fact an agent provocateur. When the central committee discovered Azev’s identity, it ordered Sonia to kill him, thereby eliminating a traitor and demonstrating her own loyalty to the cause. She refused to obey. Instead, she fled Russia by herself, disgusted by the behavior of her party and Azev. Though she survived, she tells Lucio that when she left her homeland at the age of twenty-seven, which is, significantly, Lucio’s age, she died spiritually, because she had lost everything she had believed in and loved.
Her employer, Shapiro, is also spiritually dead. Modeled on Bernard Berenson, he looks at and purchases pictures, but he does not create art. Whatever passion he once had for beauty seems to have evaporated. When Lucio asks Shapiro for advice, the best he can offer echoes William Shakespeare’s arch-villain Iago’s statement, “Put money in thy purse.” Shapiro is more concise: “Get rich.” For companionship, he recommends Sonia to Lucio, even though he knows that she is incapable of a serious relationship.
In contrast to this detachment from life exhibited by Lucio, Sonia, and Shapiro, is the German hypersensitivity of Beate/Trude and Paula. Both are actresses who stage an elaborate charade to teach Lucio a lesson about vanity. They are also deeply in love. Beate/Trude kills herself because she does not want to exist without her husband, and Paula joins in the suicide because she cannot live without Beate/Trude. Whereas Sonia chose separation in life, the two Germans prefer union in death. Neither alternative is happy, but Moravia offers no other.
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