Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Despite the use of the charterhouse of Parma as the novel’s title, this institution—a monastery—figures primarily only at the end, as the protagonist Fabrizio retires there to live a contemplative life. This constitutes a marked change from the way he had previously lived, an existence filled with adventure, intrigue, and drama. The dominant theme of the individual’s journey to find his place in society is well developed through all of Fabrizio’s varied exploits in love as well as war. Within this overarching theme, the need of the young to rebel against the old as well as social convention and the way these generational conflicts play out within families are related, secondary themes.
While much of the novel takes place in Fabrizio’s native Italy, including the city of Parma, a substantial portion is set in Napoleonic France, and the young man’s decision to reject his family’s values and join up with Napoleon’s forces is the first significant break by which he asserts his autonomy. Although the horrors of war are presented effectively, the focus on Fabrizio’s ingenuous perspective effectively dampens the author’s implied criticism of militarism in general and Napoleon in particular. Through a series of misadventures, as his aunt and other, diverse characters help Fabrizio out of numerous bad spots, themes of human interdependence and the limits of individual ambition also emerge.
Although Fabrizio becomes a priest after his military service and imprisonment, he retains a secular worldview when it comes to matters of the heart. This personal foible, through his attraction to the actress Marietta, first lands him back in prison but leads to further romance, and then related political intrigues as he aims to secure his freedom. Once released, ultimately unsatisfied with his ascent through the Church’s ranks, Fabrizio remains a romantic who becomes a devoted lover to Clelia and father to their child. It is after their deaths that he finally changes his ways and makes the charterhouse his home.