Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 350
Italian novelist and short story writer Italo Calvino's "The Argentine Ant" (originally written 1953) was published as part of a collection, Adam, One Afternoon and Other Stories , in 1957. The story follows a man who moves with his family to an unspecified locale on the coast of Italy. The...
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Italian novelist and short story writer Italo Calvino's "The Argentine Ant" (originally written 1953) was published as part of a collection, Adam, One Afternoon and Other Stories, in 1957. The story follows a man who moves with his family to an unspecified locale on the coast of Italy. The novel's primary themes include the power of nature and marriage.
The power of nature is shown primarily through the ant problem from which the man and his family—and the entire town—suffers. The ants have become the subject of elaborate poisons and entrapment mechanisms (such as those of the Reginaudos and Captain Brauni, respectively). The only respite from this naturally occurring problem (as, according to the narrator, the ants are native to South America) that the couple can find is when they take to the sea. Here they walk arm-in-arm with their appeased baby. The story suggests that a certain respect is owed to nature, and, furthermore, that the only antidote to nature is nature itself.
The narrator's wife is not named throughout the story. He clearly knows his wife very well, to the extent that he knows when she is being disingenuously pleasant (as with their neighbor, Signor Reginaudo). He is used to hearing her complain and describes her as a perpetual malcontent. The wife is portrayed entirely through the narrator's point of view (through first-person narration), and so his opinion is self-validated. According to the narrator, his wife accepts things "with submissive rancor." Nevertheless, his wife is enraged when their infant son is harmed by an ant owing to the oversight by the village "ant man." She leads a procession of women to avenge the infraction and begins to choke the man until her husband (the narrator) intervenes.
The circumstances of marriage are also portrayed through their neighbors, the Reginaudos. The narrator describes them as an "easygoing couple" and "very friendly." This joint behavior suggests that couples, to an extent, have a tendency to mirror one another's behavior. This theme is reinforced by the descriptions of Captain Brauni and his wife, both of whom are very thin and relatively stoical.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467
Writing about “The Argentine Ant,” American author Gore Vidal said that the story “gives us the human condition today. Or the dilemma of modern man. Or the disrupted environment. Or nature’s revenge. Or an allegory of grace. Whatever.” A great part of the strength and appeal of Italo Calvino’s story is that it can plausibly support each of these interpretations, as well as others. At the same time, the details of setting, characters, and action are so realistically rendered that the story is securely anchored in reality; the reader has the visceral understanding that these events actually happened, or could have happened, in just the way Calvino recounts them, whatever elusive meaning they may possess.
Although the story can be interpreted on several levels, it is clear that it is an allegory of the difficulty for human beings to achieve freedom and choice. As Vidal implies, the world may be defined through a number of approaches: theological, philosophical, artistic, social, economic, or political. For each approach human beings are inherently limited. The Argentine ants can be seen as symbols of those limitations.
For example, some critics have seen the story as a political parable, with the ants representative of the modern conformist trend, a trend that reached its nadir during Calvino’s younger years with the triumph of the Fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany. Their mindless obedience can easily be traced in the relentless, thoughtless, and unstoppable onslaught of the ants. Calvino fought with the Italian Resistance during World War II against the Fascists and their Nazi allies, and later joined the Italian Communist Party, only to leave it in protest of the brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He was familiar with the evils of totalitarianism, and the ants in his story may be seen as a symbolic expression of such a political system.
However, like the insects that are so important to the story, “The Argentine Ant” refuses to be pinned down. The story could also be interpreted as a satire on modern faith in technology, with the Reginaudos and Captain Brauni compulsively chained to their unworkable powders and sprays and intricate traps, which have no real impact on the problem. On the other hand, “The Argentine Ant” could be about the existential role an individual must play in the contemporary world, with the unnamed narrator caught between an indifferent nature (the ants) and an inauthentic society (his neighbors). There are numerous other interpretations, more or less plausible.
The essential theme of this ambiguous yet realistic story is ambiguity itself. Just as art can have many meanings, Calvino implies, so can life, and vice versa. As Vidal would annotate, “Whatever.” The ultimate meaning of “The Argentine Ant” is that “The Argentine Ant” has many different meanings, all plausible, all important.