Characters Discussed

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Anna

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Anna, a plump, pale girl of fourteen, the younger girl in her family. On the day her father dies, she meets Giuma, the boy across the street. Although she ostensibly prefers playing with her girlfriends, she is drawn to this social superior and begins to play with him, or rather becomes the object of his imaginative play, every day. He talks to her, tells her endless fascinating stories, and even ties her to a tree. In later years, she enjoys hearing him recite poems by Eugenio Montale and eating ice cream with him at the Paris café. They imagine themselves part of the revolution, shooting and escaping over rooftops. At the age of sixteen, Anna finds herself pregnant, but Giuma refuses to marry her because of her youth and the war. Instead, he gives her one thousand lire, which he has saved to buy a boat, for an abortion. Frightened, she tells her plight to Cenzo Rena, an old family friend, who offers to keep her secret and marry her. Anna thus becomes the wife of the savior of the southern village of Borgo San Costanzo, where she gives birth to a daughter and gradually becomes sympathetic to the hard life of the peasants. She supports her husband’s revolutionary activities and nurses him through a life-threatening illness. After he finally gives his life for the peasants, she, like her friends and family members, faces the future at the end of the war with courage and hope.

Cenzo Rena

Cenzo Rena (CHIHN-zoh RAY-nah), a country gentleman, world traveler, and friend of Anna’s father. A tall, big man with a hairy face and graying mustache, he is almost forty-eight at the time he marries Anna. A practical and generous man, he lives in an old family home high on a hill above a peasant village in southern Italy. The peasant men seek his company and advice as a revered friend and protector. He works for the improvement of their living conditions and teaches them that in a war there are no real winners. After a fugitive hiding in his cellar shoots a German, he gives himself to the Nazis and Fascists to obtain the release of ten hostages. He is shot in the village square, but he leaves to the villagers a legacy of fervor for political equality and the desire to end their cycle of poverty and misery.

Giuma

Giuma (jee-EW-mah), Anna’s childhood friend and the father of her child, a boy with wolflike teeth who is spoiled and rich. After having gone to school in Switzerland, he returns to Italy at the beginning of the war, a handsome and healthy seventeen-year-old. Although he despises Fascism, he will risk going to war. To everyone’s surprise and his own disgrace, he fails his high school examinations and returns to school a gloomy and silent young man who reads the works of Søren Kierkegaard rather than those of Montale. Later, in Turin, he studies commercial sciences and pursues philosophy on his own. He contemplates suicide but miraculously escapes death during an air raid shortly after having apologized to Anna for making her suffer. After the war, he overcomes his guilt through psychoanalysis and marries an American physician whom he meets in Switzerland. Together, they propose to bring about socialist reforms at the soap factory he has inherited from his father.

Ippolito

Ippolito (ihp-POHL-ih-toh), Anna’s brother and the loyal son of a revolutionary theorist who dies of lung cancer before the war begins. As an adolescent, he keeps a flea-ridden dog at the family’s summer home and roams the countryside carrying a gun. He has a dry, smooth, thin, white face and a look of world-weariness. He does not like girls or the ordinary pleasures of youth. During his father’s illness, he serves him as a slave, taking dictation, typing memoirs, readingFaust to him, and caring for his physical needs in the face of verbal abuse. After his father’s death, he develops a close friendship with his neighbor Emanuele, the elder son of a soap manufacturer. They become pedantic provincial intellectuals who secretly read subversive works and talk about revolution. Expecting a police raid one evening, they furtively burn a bundle of newspapers but never hear from the authorities concerning their vague ideology. When Italy enters the war on Germany’s side after the fall of France, Ippolito, sitting in the public gardens, commits suicide with his father’s revolver.

Giustino

Giustino (jih-ews-TEE-noh), Anna’s younger brother, who ultimately fights with the partisans in Russia.

Concettina

Concettina (kon-cheh-TEE-nah), Anna’s older sister, who has many suitors but marries a Fascist and flees Italy to protect her baby during the war.

The Characters

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This is a choral novel in which the collective experience of families and social groups is more important than that of separate individuals. One can clearly distinguish the individual voices, but all are linked to the thematic and historical chorus. Consequently, no one character stands out as the focus of the book. By the end of Part 1, however, it is clear that the remainder of the action will revolve around Anna and her middle-aged husband, Cenzo Rena. Anna emerges only gradually from the shadows. As a schoolgirl, she thinks of herself as unattractive and not very intelligent and is ashamed to have to wear dresses made out of curtains. She accepts the courtship of Giuma out of gratitude that someone is paying attention to her and in the full knowledge that he does not love her. Anna is completely passive in the acceptance of her pregnancy, Giuma’s indifference, and her marriage. The reader must see this as a consequence of being born female in a patriarchal society and remember that Anna is still a child. In the circumstances, she is fortunate to find in Rena a protector who is wise and generous in spirit.

Natalia Ginzburg’s characterization of Cenzo Rena is remarkable. Rena marries Anna out of loyalty and love for her father. He breaks in on the family’s torpor at the most unexpected moments and attempts to breathe some vitality into their ennui and passivity. In sweeping Anna off to the South, he offers her a protection which reflects his social commitment to all the inhabitants of San Costanzo. He is sincerely committed to the future of his adopted daughter, to that of the villagers, and indeed to the whole of southern Italy. Cenzo Rena has plans for his village beyond the end of the war and the inevitable collapse of Fascism. He has even marked out a new mayor, the peasant Giovanni, whose function will be to put into practice all Rena can teach him about social welfare. Ultimately, Rena is a tragic figure obliged to offer his life to save others. The village, the South, and his young wife and child lose a man of action and moral energy.

The book’s remaining characters are drawn with bold brush strokes, fully rounded in speech and gesture. The old governess, Signora Maria, is initially the glue that keeps the family together, with her punctilious observance of social convention. Concettina is busy with her boyfriends. Her vision grows even narrower after her marriage. Ippolito is silent; his mysterious smile cannot hide a growing, ungovernable despair. The generous Emanuele eventually learns the courage to break away from his family, and Anna’s younger brother, Giustino, grows to political maturity through the war. Giuma, the spoiled boy, reverts to middle-class conformity at the end. Finally, there is the refugee Franz, who is numb with fear when he turns up at San Costanzo, carrying his tennis rackets to a mountain village in the midst of war.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 66

Bergin, T.G. Review in The Saturday Review. XL (January 5, 1957), p. 4.

Clementelli, Elena. Invito alla lettura di Natalia Ginzburg, 1972.

Piclardi, Rosetta D. “Forms and Figures in the Novels of Natalia Ginzburg,” in World Literature Today. LIII (1979), pp. 585-589.

Quigley, Isabel. Review in The Spectator. August 24, 1956, p. 269.

Slonim, Marc. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXII (January 5, 1957), p. 5.

The Times Literary Supplement. Review. September 14, 1956, p. 537.

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