Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3943
Alberto Moravia’s popularity and continuing recognition as a literary artist are based on the universality of his insights into the dilemmas that plague the divided consciousness of modern humanity. These dilemmas are presented and explored through the basic elements of Moravia’s fiction: his use of characterization, style, and form, as...
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- Critical Essays
Alberto Moravia’s popularity and continuing recognition as a literary artist are based on the universality of his insights into the dilemmas that plague the divided consciousness of modern humanity. These dilemmas are presented and explored through the basic elements of Moravia’s fiction: his use of characterization, style, and form, as well as his presentation of themes that express a distinctly modern view of the world.
The treatment of character in Moravia’s fiction has been much discussed by critics. One of the most important aspects of Moravia’s characterization is what might be called “the method of exhaustion.” Sergio Pacifici, one of Moravia’s critics, has effectively described this aspect of his work: “Moravia’s greatest gift consists precisely in his ability to leave his reader with the distinct feeling that he has said all that could possibly be said about his characters.” For Pacifici, this quality of Moravia’s work is clearly an asset, though it has often been criticized by others as belaboring the obvious, usurping the modern reader’s participation in constructing the text. Whatever judgment one may pass on this “method of exhaustion,” it is a quality that Moravia’s work shares with that of other important modern novelists, such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, who raises the technique to the status of a phenomenological analysis of existence.
Another important aspect of Moravia’s characterization is the frequent recurrence of certain character types, an element that again has elicited both negative and positive responses. Those who dislike this element of Moravia’s work point to the sameness of his alienated middle-class maleprotagonists, who go through a predictable pattern of development that is always essentially the same. To these critics, Moravia’s work seems to lack the dynamism that arises from a hero who is capable of growth and change. More sympathetic critics have shown, however, that the dynamism of Moravia’s novels lies not within the protagonists themselves but in the conflict between characters who are capable of making choices and gratifying their desires through physical action and those who are caught up in narcissistic reflection that does not lead to action and therefore cannot change their situation in the world. More important than the description of this pattern of conflict, however, is that Moravia’s characters rarely come to any recognition themselves; the recognition almost always takes place within the reader, who reflects upon the meaning of the characters’ successes and failures in the novel.
Two other aspects of Moravia’s characterization that are frequently commented upon are his portrayals of women and of human sexuality. By unsympathetic critics, he is accused of creating nothing but mindless women whose sole trait seems to be a powerful erotic drive. Sympathetic critics see these flat women as catalytic agents whose function is to expose the hero’s character. The same is true of Moravia’s use of sexuality. To unsympathetic critics, it is simply exploitative titillation or an unwitting reflection of the author’s own prurient or voyeuristic sensibility. To sympathetic critics, such as Donald Heiney, however, sex is an “encounter in which the conflict of human egos is seen more simply,” while for others it assumes the status of a symbol for the alienation of modern humans, a demonstration of the fundamental isolation from others that characterizes the life of individuals in modern industrial societies.
One of the most distinctive elements of Moravia’s fiction is hisnarrative style and form. The unnamed narrators who dominate Moravia’s early work speak in an unadorned, journalistic style that has frequently been compared to Ernest Hemingway’s in its emotional reticence, objective detachment, and avoidance of value-laden diction. The narrative stance in these works often seems to approach the extreme objective detachment of Hemingway’s famous story “The Killers,” which Moravia translated in 1934.
Following World War II, Moravia began to abandon the omniscient perspective in favor of first-person narrators. The Woman of Rome and Conjugal Love are both told from this new perspective, as are all his novels following The Conformist, which uses the omniscient point of view. The reasons for this change in strategy are complex, as are its effects. Beginning with The Woman of Rome, Moravia’s principal subject—the analysis and critique of middle-class life in modern Italy—is rivaled by a growing interest in the lives of the lower class. Moravia himself said this change of interest was stimulated by his experiences with the peasants among whom he and his wife lived during the German Occupation. An equally strong influence, however, was the developing neorealist aesthetic, which encouraged the employment of participating narrators speaking in the informal diction of regional vernaculars as a much-needed relief from the convention-bound lingua pura dialect traditionally employed in literary works.
Another aspect of Moravia’s work that has elicited mixed reaction from his critics is the repetitiveness of subject and theme. Moravia himself acknowledged this aspect, but he saw it as an artistic necessity, not a creative shortcoming: “Good writers are monotonous, like good composers. Their truth is self-repeating. They keeptrying to perfect their expression of the one problem they were born to understand.” The central theme of Moravia’s work is the human relationship to reality, which he sees as “the fundamental problem of our time.” In Moravia’s work, the relationship of people to the world and to others is an amoral one, for clearly defined conceptions of good and evil based on traditional ethics no longer apply to these relationships. In the modern world, humankind, according to Moravia, “is no longer the end but the means,” and in the face of this, it adopts the attitude of indifference, becoming alienated from the external world.
Modern human alienation is expressed in many ways in Moravia’s work. One of the most prominent of these methods is his portrayal of the decadence and irresponsibility of the affluent Italian middle class, whose desire to protect their vested interests in a world of crumbling social, political, and economic values paved the way for the rise of fascism in Italy. Many of Moravia’s protagonists, being intellectuals, come from this class, as did Moravia himself. As Jane Cottrell says, “Painfully aware of the hypocrisy and false values of middle-class society, the Moravian hero rejects his own class and turns to the lower classes, which he sees as more authentic.” This myth of the lower classes is an important theme that recurs throughout the course of Moravia’s career.
Another symptom of modern alienation is expressed in Moravia’s portrayal of the family. Like capitalistic economics and totalitarian politics, the institution of the family, in Moravia’s analysis, robs people of their freedom, making them an end instead of a means. In a 1965 essay, he stated the thoughts that are often voiced less coherently by his alienated protagonists: “The most mistaken teachings are those given by the familyworship of such divinities as Prudence, Self-interest, Ignorance, Hedonism.Any school at all, even the worst, is better than the family.”
Underlying Moravia’s central concerns is his particular philosophical orientation toward the world, which mingles elements of Freudianism, Marxism, existentialism, and phenomenology. In Freudian thought, Moravia found a confirmation of the idea of the primacy of sexual experience in humanity’s relation to the world. Marxism, as Heiney says, “provided Moravia with an explanation of the decadence of his own social class,” helping him to put his analysis of modern human position in the world into a historical framework. In existentialism, he found a philosophical context for his own conception of people’s alienation from the world, which he had formulated—not by systematic reasoning but by the unconscious processes of intuition—years before it was elaborated by Jean-Paul Sartre. In phenomenology, he found confirmation for the idea of the intentionality of consciousness, which is reflected in the method of exhaustion employed in his work. These basic patterns of thought inform Moravia’s fictional world.
The Time of Indifference
Alberto Moravia wrote The Time of Indifference, his first published novel, between October, 1925, and March, 1928. It was Moravia’s third attempt at the genre, according to him, for he had already completed two novels that failed because “they were imitations of this or that author with whom I had become infatuated as I went along.” The Time of Indifference is certainly not open to this charge; it contains many of the distinctive characteristics of Moravia’s subsequent work. Despite its remarkable maturity and originality, the novel was turned down by three reputable publishers before being accepted by Alpes, an obscure publishing house in Milan, which issued the novel at Moravia’s expense in July of 1929. The novel was an immediate popular success and received high praise from many critics. By the following year, Moravia was already being identified as one of the leading innovators of the developing neorealist aesthetic in literature. Though the novel was strongly attacked by the Fascist press for its negative portrayal of the life of comfortable affluence led by the Italian middle class, to other critics this was precisely the value of the novel—its portrayal of the moral corruption and social irresponsibility of the middle class for the first time in an unsentimental and realistic way.
The novel’s protagonist, Michele Ardengo, suffers from that form of modern alienation that Moravia calls “indifference.” Michele observes, from this position of detachment, the struggles of his mother, Mariagrazia, to hold on to her bored lover, Leo Merumeci, and the growing willingness of his sister, Carla, to sacrifice her innocence to Leo in order to ensure the continued affluence of the family in the face of their sagging fortunes. As the narrator’s description of her thoughts reveals, Carla’s own actions arise from this same feeling of indifference: “Why should she refuse Leo? Virtue would merely throw her back into the arms of boredom.” Helpless to escape his detachment from life, Michele is only able to protest feebly the absurdity of his own condition. In this novel, Moravia’s critique of the family as an institution for the perpetuation of decadent social values is prominent.
The Time of Indifference is also an important example of Moravia’s use of novelistic form. Like Mistaken Ambitions, The Fancy Dress Party, Agostino, Disobedience, and The Conformist, this first novel employs the objective detachment of third-person narrative. His later shift to first-person narration marks an important division in his work and arises in part from the radical questioning of the objective nature of reality that is first expressed through the thoughts and actions of Michele Ardengo. In its use of the alienated protagonist-hero, the middle-class Roman background, and the objectification of reality through the omniscient point of view, The Time of Indifference is perhaps the best representative of the work Moravia published before the end of World War II.
The Woman of Rome
The Woman of Rome marks the next, and for many critics the most important, step in Moravia’s development as a literary artist, for this novel was the first work in which he employed the first-person narrative perspective that dominates his later fiction. Moreover, the novel was his first to be written in the Roman vernacular. In this respect, it is related to his Roman tales, in which he brought the use of the lower-class vernacular narrator to stylistic perfection. The Woman of Rome marks the beginning of this phase of Moravia’s work, which concluded with Two Women, the last of his novels written in the vernacular.
The Woman of Rome, which Moravia began writing shortly after his return to Rome in 1944, grew from its original conception as a short story to a massive, five-hundred-page novel comprising the “memoirs” of a Roman prostitute, Adriana. This expansion of scope, and the perspective from which the novel is told, indicated an important change of orientation in Moravia’s aesthetic, which he later expressed in an interview: “The third person is a way of telling a story of a time when people believed in objective reality. Nowadays we believe in subjective reality. Everybody is his own reality and your reality is not mine.”
This novel also marked the beginning of Moravia’s re-creation of the authentic, uncorrupted life of the lower classes. Adriana, the working-class heroine of this novel, is unlike the alienated middle-class heroes of his early work in that she represents “a triumph of the life force,” as Luciano Rebay has put it. To a large degree, the great popular success the novel enjoyed resulted from the vitality of its heroine. Moravia himself later said that “in identifying myself with Adriana I thought for a while that I had found the key to my own rapport with reality, with life.” This myth of the renewing vitality of the life of the lower classes, as well as his interest in the Roman vernacular, was stimulated by his experiences at Fondi during the period he spent in hiding from the Fascist authorities. Here, for the first time, Moravia was removed from the social milieu and material comforts of the affluent middle-class existence he had always known. Though it is certain that, given a choice, Moravia would not have spent this period of nine months living in a peasant’s stable, it is also certain that without this experience, The Woman of Rome, Two Women, and the Roman tales that won him the Strega Prize would never have been written.
Moravia had become accustomed to portraying in his fiction, for almost twenty years, the life of the affluent middle class. Because this social milieu was identical with his own experience, his use of an educated, literate narrator speaking in the third person seemed unobtrusive enough; it created little conflict between the omniscient consciousness and the mentality of the principal characters. The literate style would seem very artificial in presenting the experiences and thoughts of his uneducated, working-class heroine, however, and it is most likely for this reason that Moravia finally decided to cast the novel into the form of a memoir, allowing Adriana to tell her own story in her own speech, employing the vernacular with which he had become familiar during his stay at Fondi.
The abandonment of the omniscient point of view also reflects, in retrospect, a more radical shift in Moravia’s conception of fictional representation, which was retained even in the later novels that return to portraying the alienation of the Italian middle class. In “Notes on the Novel,” an essay later collected in Man as an End, Moravia argued that “the omniscience of the nineteenth-century novelist turned finally into a trick, a lifeless convention. Today we can no longer write ’He thought.’We can only write ’I thought.’” Elaborating on Moravia’s statement, Heiney observes that the omniscient perspective does not correspond to the epistemological need of the modern novel to be realistic, because it does not correspond to the radically subjective way in which modern humanity regards the phenomena of consciousness or the external world. It is above all this particular aesthetic principle that is retained and developed in Moravia’s subsequent fiction.
To many critics, The Conformist is an embarrassing anachronism in Moravia’s oeuvre, because it employs the third-person omniscient narrative perspective he had abandoned four years earlier in The Woman of Rome. Though it is true that Moravia did not return to the objective point of view that he used in The Conformist, the novel is not by any means the miserable failure that many critics, in an effort to mold Moravia’s technical development into a neat but oversimplified pattern, have asserted.
There are, in fact, a number of conditions in this particular case that make the omniscient perspective an effective choice. The first is Moravia’s desire to put the totalitarian era, with which the novel deals, into a historical perspective, so that he can explore and analyze its effects on particular types of individuals. In addition, The Conformist employs irony very differently from the way it is used in most of Moravia’s other work. The novel has as its central character a hero who is exceptional, not representative, whom the reader is expected to dislike and from whom he is expected to distance himself—not one with whom the reader can sympathize and identify. The irony is conveyed by the comments of the omniscient narrator, who condemns and satirizes Marcello’s behavior.
Unlike the heroes and heroines of his other novels, who usually suffer from an excess of self-consciousness, Marcello does not reflect at all but only responds mechanically to external stimuli. In The Conformist, unlike most of Moravia’s other novels, it is the narrator rather than the characters who does most of the thinking. For these reasons, The Conformist is not only Moravia’s most uncharacteristic novel but also the one most suited to the use of third-person narrative. The objectification Moravia achieves through the use of viewpoint is reinforced by the form of the novel, which—as several critics have pointed out—resembles that of a classical tragedy. Cottrell has even attempted to show the similarity of Marcello’s fate to that of Oedipus.
Undeniably, The Conformist has faults. This is so mainly because of the same devices of objectification, which Moravia used effectively to help guide the reader’s response to the material. The hero, Marcello, who becomes a Fascist agent out of a desire to prove himself “normal” through submission and conformity, is, in fact, so “spineless”—as one critic put it—that it is difficult for the reader to care much about his fate. There is an unsettling discontinuity between the various parts of the novel, which cover events ranging from 1920 to 1943, as well as the artificiality of the deus ex machina ending. The events of the prologue, which covers Marcello’s childhood, often remind one of the sensational case histories Freud recounted in formulating his theory of infantile sexuality. The intrusive moralizing of the narrator, while seen by some critics as an artistic defect, seems more a matter of personal taste, because it does serve a useful function in the narrative.
Despite these shortcomings, the novel does effectively present to the reader an analysis of the phenomenon of conformity—the roots from which it arises and the effects it has upon the relation of humans to the world. In this respect, The Conformist is not a failure at all, since it addresses one of the central ethical dilemmas of the modern era.
The Empty Canvas
In The Empty Canvas, Moravia returned to the portrayal of the alienated, middle-class hero, yet in this mature novel, there are two new elements present: the subjective narrative perspective afforded by the use of the first-person point of view and the close relationship of the thoughts of the hero, Dino, to those of the author himself. This latter characteristic led some critics, following Moravia’s own use of the term, to call The Empty Canvas an “essay-novel,” a novel in which the emphasis falls not on the plot but on the ideas of the central character, who attempts to convey a particular view of the world.
The Empty Canvas tells the story of a young painter, Dino, who encounters a creative block. Suddenly becoming disgusted one day with an abstract composition on which he is working, he destroys the painting and replaces it with a new canvas, which will remain “empty” throughout the novel. Having symbolically destroyed the past, he turns in the prologue to an examination of his present life in an attempt to define and understand the feeling of noia, or boredom, which has overwhelmed him.
In the increasing abstractness of his recent paintings, Dino sees a progressive loss of reality, because, as he observes, “I felt that my pictures did not permit me to express myself, in other words, to deceive myself into imagining that I had some contact with external things.” He makes several attempts to describe the boredom that plagues him. He describes it alternately as a feeling of absurdity, insufficiency, or lack of reality—like a sickness of inanimate objects that causes them to wither, or the effect of a too-short blanket upon a sleepy man on a cold winter night, or a sudden and mysterious interruption of the electric current in a house.
In reflecting upon the onset of this feeling, Dino also comes upon the question of his own authenticity as an artist. Because of the affluence of his mother, he gradually comes to feel that he is only “playing” at the role of artist. It is his mother’s wealth, not his own talent, that pays for his studio and provides him with living expenses. Because of his dependence upon a way of life he wishes to reject, he finds himself in a position of inauthenticity, not choosing his own destiny. As many critics have observed, The Empty Canvas presents one of Moravia’s strongest critiques of the alienating effect of wealth upon the individual.
In this novel, the decadence of the affluent Italian middle class comes under attack, particularly in those episodes in which Dino visits his mother, who lives in a villa on the Via Appia. Dino’s mother has been effectively characterized in two details by Jane Cottrell: “Money is her only link with reality.Above her bed is a picture of Danäe reclining nude on a bed, watching with pleasure the rain of golden coins fall into her lap.” Moravia’s ironic presentation of this privileged way of life reaches a climax in a scene describing a cocktail party in which Dino acts out, with his girlfriend, Cecilia, the myth of Danäe and the golden coins.
The irony in this novel arises not from a contrast between the author’s opinions and the actions of his characters, but rather from the contrast between the apparently concrete, “realistic” details of the plot and the abstract ideas of the author to which they refer. The scene in which Dino covers the nude body of Cecilia with his mother’s money on the bed beneath the painting of Danäe, to which his act refers symbolically, is a striking example of the method by which Moravia expresses his own conception of the relationship between money and power in this essay-novel.
The ultimate question for the reader of The Empty Canvas must be, as Heiney observes, whether this portrait of boredom is in itself boring or is an effective method of conveying the author’s particular view of reality. Though Moravia’s view of humankind’s alienated existence in the modern world remained consistent throughout the course of his career, the methods by which he presented this particular experience underwent considerable development. He began by adopting the stance of narrative objectivity, employing the omniscient point of view to distance himself from the materials of his fiction. With the publication of The Woman of Rome, the first novel in which Moravia employed the first-person point of view, a new element of narrative subjectivity entered his work; in Conjugal Love, A Ghost at Noon, and Two Women, the author adopted the perspective of a character inside the work and so disappeared from the text, which became a mere document he presented without judgment to the reader. In The Empty Canvas, Moravia took a new approach, abandoning the authorial effacement of the conventional first-person narrative for the more limited subjectivity of the essay-novel. Using this form, Moravia maintained the psychological realism of the first-person narrative while retaining direct access to the reader through the essayistic portions of the novel. This method was further developed and refined in The Lie, Two, and Time of Desecration.