The Cloven Viscount

by Italo Calvino

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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