Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411

1934 opens with the question, “Is it possible to live in despair and not wish for death?” Moravia probes possible answers through the actions of the various characters. For the Germans, the answer is clearly no. Sonia remains physically alive but tells Lucio, “I am a dead woman.” Lucio hopes to arrive at a different answer through his writing, but Shapiro refers him to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s character Werther, a young man who kills himself because of unrequited love. Shapiro adds that Lucio may be able to stabilize his own despair because he is not living deeply: “If you were really in despair, you wouldn’t come here to tell me so.”

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Is Lucio playing a role? Is he as much an actor as Paula or Beate/Trude, differing from them only in that he deceives himself rather than others, or does he respond to despair as a life-loving Italian, whereas Werther, like the Germans in 1934 and like Kleist, is a typical Nordic romantic? Such questions of interpreting reality dominate the novel. In the opening scene, Lucio reads in Beate’s eyes and shaking head the negative answer to his riddle about despair and life. Yet he must confess that her sad look could be the effect of nearsightedness, and she might be shaking her head to discourage his flirtatious stares. Or she might be sad because he has taken so long to notice her, and shaking her head might be a silent reprimand to his inattentiveness.

Later, as Lucio rides to Anacapri, he reflects on the landscape. The ocean appears calm and soothing, while the mountains seem menacing. Yet he realizes that the hills will not harm him, whereas he could easily drown in the sea. He believes that Beate/Trude is two women and is completely taken in by her masquerade. He is convinced that Beate will come to his room for sex and suicide. He never suspects that Beate/Trude deeply loves her husband; in fact, he believes that she loathes him. Similarly, he cannot gauge the strength of Paula’s affection for her companion.

Moravia’s is a confused and confusing world. As the character Michele observes in Moravia’s first novel, Gli indifferenti (1929; The Time of Indifference, 1953), “Now one’s head was in a bag, one was in the dark, one was blind. And yet one still had to go somewhere.” Moravia ponders the question of whether one can pierce through the shadows into reality.

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