Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 467 words.)