(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...

(The entire section is 488 words.)


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Medardo, the young Viscount of Terralba, goes off to fight the Turks, and in his first battle is blown apart by a cannon shot. The right-hand side of his body is saved by doctors, and Medardo returns home, half a man. Soon it is evident that Medardo’s bad nature controls his maimed body. He tears apart one of his aged father’s pet birds, and the old viscount soon dies. He tries to poison his nephew with deadly mushrooms. Medardo roams through the countryside, destroying things by halves: Pears are lopped in two as they hang on the trees; frogs are slashed in two as they sit by ponds.

The narrator and Dr. Trelawney, a shipwrecked English doctor, watch the Viscount as his actions grow more depraved. Medardo burns part of his own castle, and when Sebastiana, his old nursemaid, is scarred from the flames, he uses this as an excuse to exile her to Pratofungo, the seaside village of lepers. There seem to be no depths to which Medardo’s evil half will not sink.

During one of his destructive rides through the countryside, the Viscount sees the young and beautiful Pamela tending her goats and ducks, and he falls in love with her. Yet even this passion is distorted in him. His messages to her to arrange meetings are such grisly mementos as halved bats and split jellyfish.

The other portion of the cloven viscount now returns to Terralba. This half is all good and soon embarks on a round of virtuous deeds: saving the narrator from the bite of a deadly spider, mending the sparrows maimed by the Medardo, and generally amazing people with his acts of goodness. Inevitably, he meets and falls in love with Pamela.

“The Good ’Un” and “The Bad ’Un,” as the two halves of the Viscount are known to the people of Terralba, have a series of clashes which culminate at the marriage ceremony of Pamela and the better half of Medardo. A duel is arranged and the Viscount battles himself to a bloody draw. Dr. Trelawney quickly binds the two parts together, and Viscount Medardo is once again a single man, a normal mixture of good and bad.