Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 598
Clelia Oitana (kleh-lee-ah oh-ih-TAH-nah), the narrator, a successful couturiere, who moves from Rome to Turin, Italy, to open a fashion house. Clelia, who had escaped from the Turin working-class quarter seventeen years before, returns, at the age of thirty-four, as an attractive, experienced woman. She had been driven by ambition to get ahead but is now aware that the life she has created is largely empty. Clelia moves among the elite young people of postwar Turin and finds them to lead frivolous, meaningless lives, escaping from boredom by engaging in slumming expeditions and vicious gossip about one another. Clelia is not very happy with her life, but her work, at least, brings her satisfaction. Fulfilling work is something that her friends do not have.
Rosetta Mola, the twenty-three-year-old daughter of a rich, proper Turin family. Rosetta, a serious, naïve woman, is fed up with the meaningless existence of her social group and yet unable to find an alternative. She attempts suicide the night Clelia returns to Turin. Clelia meets her and realizes that she is in trouble but has no answer to Rosetta’s fundamental question: When life and love teach you who you are, as Clelia has assured her it would, what do you do with what you have learned? The book closes with Rosetta’s death by suicide.
Momina (moh-MIH-nah), a rich, well-educated, former baroness. The fresh-faced and attractive brunette, slightly younger than Clelia, is the center of the group of elite young Turinians, with all activities revolving around her. Momina is cynical, discontented, and disgusted with life and with everyone and everything. Although she can live with the emptiness of her life and dismisses it with a cynical shrug, she feeds the nihilistic void within Rosetta. Momina is dangerous, perhaps deadly, to Rosetta.
Gisella (gee-zehl-lah), the keeper of a small shop and an old friend of Clelia. Gisella is a thin, gray woman with a bony, resentful face, in whom Clelia sees herself if she had not escaped the working-class quarter. Momina’s group offers little to Clelia, but neither does Gisella or others from Clelia’s past.
Morelli, an older friend of Clelia, whom she met in Rome and who provides a means for her to enter the elite circles and salons of Turin. Morelli seems to lead the same unproductive life as the other members of the Turin leisure class, but he possesses more substance. He enjoys life and points out to Clelia that she has turned work into a vice that controls her and into a criterion that she uses to judge the worth of other people. He describes to her the accomplishments of the parents of the young people that Clelia meets in Turin and shares her disgust at the aimless existence of the young, including their inability to enjoy life.
Febo (FAYB-oh), an architect who designs Clelia’s fashion house. An attractive, young man who possesses a talent and who works; he is a frivolous, irrepressible womanizer and playboy. Clelia sleeps with him on one occasion out of boredom and to stop him from pestering her.
Becuccio (beh-KEW-chee-oh), the foreman of the crew reconstructing Clelia’s fashion house. He is a young, competent, muscular, curly-haired man with an attractive smile; he appeals to Clelia. She sleeps with him out of attraction, not boredom, but recognizes, as he does, that their ways of life are too different to allow any more than a passing affair. Becuccio, a Communist and skilled worker, seems to suffer none of the emptiness of his “betters.”
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752
Cesare Pavese’s beautifully depicted characters demonstrate his belief that while people cannot change fundamentally, they can become more knowledgeable about themselves. Clelia Oitana is strong and tough—streetwise and clever enough to escape the streets. She remembers the filth and stench of her neighborhood and the blighted lives of her childhood friends. She quickly corrects Rosetta, who romanticizes the lives of working girls. Clelia prides herself on her self-sufficiency. She remembers the frustration, even hatred, she felt as her father lay dying just before a pre-Lenten carnival season: “I thought that it was probably in that distant evening that I really learned for the first time that if I wanted to do anything, to get something out of life, I should tie myself to no one, depend upon no one, as I had been tied to that tiresome father.” Her mother reinforced the lesson: Believe in nothing and nobody. Clelia broke away from the confining environment of her youth and won success and recognition in Rome. While she did not rise by ruthlessly stepping on others, she consistently shed lovers and friends as she moved onward through life.
Returning to Turin, she examines the meaning of her life and measures the cost of her achievement. Morelli tells her that she has one great vice: She is addicted to work. He asks her: Why not enjoy life along the way; why condemn people for their pleasures; why find people worthy only if they have suffered and struggled up out of a hole? Clelia understands and accepts his indictment. She also believes that Morelli has overlooked her biggest vice, her pleasure in solitude. Solitude and work have not brought her happiness, but they do, usually, bring her peace. In any case, they are an expression of an inner self that she cannot change, though they leave her isolated from other humans.
Momina is the daughter of nobles, well educated, economically and socially secure. Completely free to do what she likes, she is totally bored. Life is meaningless, nothing counts, she says. The world would be a beautiful place if people were not in it; life is zero. Ceaseless movement and an unending need for diversion characterize her life: “Seeing that nothing’s worth anything, you’ve got to have everything.” Unlike most of her frivolous companions, she realizes that something is wrong with their way of life, but she believes that she and others of her class cannot change.
Rosetta desperately seeks some purpose for her life. She considered entering a convent, and she believes that Clelia has found the secret in work, or perhaps the answer is in California, where, she has heard, people never die. Clelia respects Rosetta more than any other member of the Turin establishment. Rosetta is sincere and serious, and Clelia believes that she commits suicide to escape the empty life of her class. Contrasting the evil around her with her own need for order and decency, and unable to find acceptable compromises in the real world, Rosetta is vulnerable to the corrosive nihilism of Momina. In August, 1950, the month that he killed himself, Pavese wrote that when he was younger he had considered suicide but did not act: “Life seemed horrible to me, but I was still interested in myself. Now the opposite is true. I know that life is a tremendous thing, but that I cannot shape it to my own liking.”
Clelia escapes the fates of Rosetta and Momina because she has absorbing work and healing solitude. If she is aware that work and solitude are vices, she also knows that they allow her to live. Nevertheless, she also is in a trap that may close in on her later in life. Her livelihood and success depend on the upper class, which she despises.
There is another way of life, that of Becuccio, the foreman in charge of renovating the Via Po shop. Becuccio is a Communist. If one cannot modify one’s own character and individual destiny, one can find meaning in life by working to restructure the social conditions that will shape the characters and destinies of future generations. Clelia spends a night with Becuccio and experiences a feeling of authenticity and contentment that escapes her when she is with her fashionable friends. Yet she cannot understand his political message, for it would destroy the system within which she has achieved success. Nor can she escape her existential loneliness and submerge herself in a social movement. Becuccio and Clelia pursue their separate paths.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 69
Biasin, Gian-Paolo. The Smile of the Gods: A Thematic Study of Cesare Pavese’s Works, 1968.
Flint, R.W. Introduction to The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese, 1968.
Lajolo, Davide. An Absurd Vice: A Biography of Cesare Pavese, 1983.
Lucente, Gregory L. The Narrative of Realism and Myth, 1979.
Rimanelli, Giose, and K.J. Atchity, eds. Italian Literature: Roots and Branches, 1976.
Thompson, Doug. Cesare Pavese: A Study of the Major Novels and Poems, 1982.
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