The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino

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Summary

Italo Calvino explores deep-seated dichotomies of good and evil, self and other, and mind and body—among others. The author addresses the question of alienation in modern society through as a story set centuries earlier. He presents a character who cannot fit back into his former life because he has literally been split in two. By making this incident battle-related, Calvino also points to some of war’s many negative effects. Encouraging the reader to consider where one’s true identity lies, he offers a man whose evil half seems certain to eradicate the good half, yet is thwarted by other positive forces including hope and kindness. Calvino reminds the reader that the good viscount cannot be saved at the expense of the other: doing so would mean destroying the entire person.

As the narrator explains, his uncle the Viscount Medardo of Terralba had gone off to fight valiantly in war against the Ottomans. He is severely wounded by sustaining a direct hit from a cannonball: once it cuts him in half, he finds himself existing as two separate people. As first the evil half and then the good one return to “their” home, the Bad ‘Un, Gramo, becomes a power monger obsessed not just with controlling but also destroying others. He enjoys inflicting a similarly divided state on them. This behavior terrifies and then kills his father. The narrator and an English expatriate physician describe his rampages, during which he falls in love with a rustic lass, Pamela.

In contrast, Medardo’s virtuous self, the Good ‘Un, becomes obsessed with healing and piety. While he exerts himself to mend the maimed creatures, some fail to appreciate his virtue and find his behavior unappealingly self-righteous. This virtuous Medardo likes falls in love with Pamela, and wins her. Enraged that they are married, Bad ‘Un insists on fighting his better self. While it seems he has killed the “other man” and thus himself, the British doctor manages to make him whole again.

Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Cloven Viscount was rereleased in 1960 as part of the trilogy I nostri antenati (1960; Our Ancestors, 1980). Although the three novellas have no specifics in common, they are nonetheless connected by their similar exploration of concepts illuminating contemporary cultural crises. The Cloven Viscount probes ethics by interpreting literally the division of human good and evil; The Baron in the Trees explores the isolation and egocentricity of individuals; and The Non-Existent Knight examines the clash between the ideal and the real, between image and actuality.

The Cloven Viscount is deceptively simple. Participating in his first battle, Medardo is cloven in two by a cannonball. Patched by doctors, the recovered half returns to Terralba, immediately causes his father’s death, and terrorizes the countryside; it is Medardo’s evil self. Soon his good side returns. Inevitably, the two sides meet, duel, and, because of their wounds, are finally fused into “a whole man again, neither good nor bad, but a mixture of goodness and badness.”

Clearly a parable on human nature, Medardo’s division alludes to the archetypal struggle between good and evil. Yet Calvino offers alternate interpretations of this central dichotomy. In this story and its seventeenth century setting, Medardo’s division refers to philosophical dualism—the human being perceived as mind and body, subject and object—a view formulated around 1640 by French philosopher René Descartes. Moreover, with the motifs of science and technology, Calvino further alludes to a twentieth century variation: human being and machine. Technology, like its creator, is both gift and curse; like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it possesses a formidable, ambiguous power.

To explore divisiveness and the ambiguities of duality, many other characters also contain contradictions: Pamela is chaste but earthy; Pietrochiodo is a destructive creator; Medardo’s nephew, the narrator, is a high-born bastard. These variations and juxtapositions direct...

(The entire section is 1,187 words.)