Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445

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Call Me By Your Name is a coming-of-age novel, and as such, it shares themes with many others—namely, it is focused on first love and the way in which this acts as a conduit between adolescence and adult understanding. Given the setting, the backgrounds of the major characters, and the fact that both participants in the love story are male, however, there are also additional and more complex themes at work in this novel.

One of these is the theme of otherness. This is expressed twofold: first, both Elio and Oliver are Jewish, but they have obviously experienced their Jewishness in very different ways. Elio is astonished that Oliver wears a star of David openly around his neck. While Elio and his family do not pretend not to be Jewish, they have always been marked out as different because of this trait, and Elio is impressed and intrigued by Oliver's attitude. This approach to Jewishness, however, serves as a contrast to the two young men's attitude toward their own sexualities. While neither is gay—both are bisexual characters—Elio, even as a young man, is quickly comfortable with this in a way Oliver isn't, probably because his father is so accepting. It seems that this is one form of otherness which Elio would have been able to cope with if Oliver had given the relationship a chance. However, for Oliver, this proves an impossibility—his response to their love affair is to go home to the safety of the States and announce his engagement.

This leads us on to another, related theme in the novel—that of experience versus inexperience. Elio's father is a professor, and this holiday with the family is supposed to be a learning experience for Oliver, a formative period. For Elio, it is a summer like any other, until it turns out not to be. Just as Elio's father nurtures and transforms Oliver as an academic, Oliver transforms Elio as a human being, such that the summer (which Elio did not expect to be a significant one) becomes a turning point in his life as much as Elio's.

Language variation and foreignness, and how this can allow us to hide, also serves as a theme in this novel. Elio belongs to many different cultures: we see him speak multiple languages, and to him, being in Italy is being home, in its own way. For Oliver, being in Italy is like being in a fantasy land, where he can do things he would not do at home. Elio comes to realize that it is their cultural differences which make life difficult for them, even while their cultural similarities brought them together.

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