Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Trees are archetypal symbols of knowledge and of life, as noted by the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. Climbing the great variety of trees to be found in the vicinity of Ombrosa, trees which stretch, as Biaggio notes, as far as the border of Spain, is a means of perceiving the varied world at a comfortable distance. In other words, Cosimo remains in his world without being of it. Like the boy in Robert Frost’s poem “Birches,” Cosimo is “world-weary” and the trees provide a new perspective on familiar things.

Cosimo rightly senses the intellectual and political ferment of his times, and he realizes the essential stagnation of his family’s way of life. They are anchored to a huge and isolated estate, and pursue, even though with eccentric elan, wealth, titles, and mundane comforts. It is at first Cosimo’s natural rebelliousness, a reflection of the Age of Reason in which he lives, which causes him to vow never to descend from the trees. As he grows older, however, and begins to read avidly the authors of the exciting period in which he lives, especially Voltaire and Denis Diderot, he sees that life in the trees represents a symbolic as well as a literal escape from the everyday concerns which encumber the potentially rich business of simply living. Cosimo makes it a point of honor never to descend to the earth, to become entangled again with the sordid pursuits of those who live there.

Biaggio notes at the beginning of his narrative that he often played in the trees with his brother, though he was never as comfortable there as Cosimo. Biaggio is also aware, in later life, that his existence has never been as rich as that of Cosimo, primarily because he was unable to take the risk of living above the world’s concerns. Though he becomes Baron of Ombrosa because Cosimo resigns claim to the title, Biaggio sees his life as less successful in the truest sense.