The Cloven Viscount

by Italo Calvino
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 356

The protagonist of Italo Calvino’s novel is, as the title indicates, one person who becomes two people. He begins as the Viscount Medardo of Terralba but, through a battlefield injury, is divided into good and evil selves. The first “half” who returns to his Italian home is the evil persona. The other half is rescued from the battlefield but remains there, a positive presence in everyone’s life. The “Bad ‘Un” in Terralba commits numerous sadistic acts; he especially enjoys bifurcating other things, includes plants and animals. His tactics while amorously pursuing Pamela, a lovely peasant girl, confirm his sadism. The Good ‘Un, having been healed by hermits, dedicates himself to the healing vocation. Inevitably he returns to confront his other, evil half, but his excessive virtue rubs some people the wrong way. The reunion of the opposing selves brings the story’s resolution.

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The narrator, a boy about eight years old, is Medardo’s nephew. His astute observations help the reader make sense of the confusing events. Allowed free rein through Terralba’s territory, he fills the role of witness more than active participant.

Trelawney is an English physician who had been shipwrecked on Terralba’s coast. The elderly doctor boasts of his earlier sailing on memorable voyages, such as that of Captain Cook. He retains older English styles, clothes, and accessories, and the accompanying manners. With his profession of physician eclipsed by his heavy drinking, he conducts dubious scientific research.

Ezekiel is the leader of community of Huguenots on Terralba’s outskirts. Along with their exile goes deprivation and poverty, echoed in his pessimistic views.

Esau is Ezekiel’s son. Decidedly impious, he counts among his vices smoking, drinking, and cheating at cards.

Galateo is one of many lepers in a nearby community; they who try to live to the fullest through constant partying.

Pamela is the object of Medardo’s affection. An innocent, lovely peasant girl, who enjoys caring for animals, her simple demeanor covers a perceptive nature. Hiding in a cave to escape the predatory Bad ‘Un, her meeting with the Good Un sets things in motion for their eventual reunification.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 626

Viscount Medardo of Terralba

Viscount Medardo of Terralba, a young Italian nobleman from a small principality on the coast of Italy. Fighting against the Turks, he is split in two by a cannonball; one surviving half is saved by doctors, and he returns home. Once there, he displays a perverted and evil nature, shown especially in his penchant for splitting things—such as fruits, frogs, and mushrooms—into two parts. His courtship of the peasant girl Pamela further reveals his sadistic inclinations. The other part of Medardo, which also survived and was healed by hermits, returns to Terralba; this portion of the viscount is all virtue and makes his presence known by a series of good deeds, many of which inevitably require redressing the harm done by his evil half. The people of Terralba are oppressed and terrified by the bad portion of the viscount and soon find themselves harassed and limited by the good portion. These opposing parts become known to the people of Terralba as “The Bad ’Un” and “The Good ’Un.” Inevitably, the two sides come into a conflict that can be resolved only by their reunion.

The narrator

The narrator, Medardo’s nephew, seven or eight years old. A shrewd and observant child with much common sense, he serves as a generally accurate and unbiased witness of events. Left mostly to himself by his family, he is free to roam the hills and coasts of Terralba and so follow the other characters throughout the novel.

Dr. Trelawney

Dr. Trelawney, a shipwrecked English physician living in Terralba. In his sixties, Dr. Trelawney is a short man with a face lined like an old chestnut and long, thin legs. He wears an old coat with fading trimmings, a tricorn hat, and a wig. He has traveled the world, including voyages with the famous Captain Cook, but knows nothing of the globe because he remained in his cabin playing cards the whole time. He is immensely fond of cancarone, the harsh and heavy local wine, and he practices very little medicine, seeming to be afraid of the body and disease. There is some doubt as to whether he is actually a medical doctor. Instead of healing, he conducts implausible scientific research, such as his attempts to capture will-o’-the-wisps and preserve their essence in bottles.


Ezekiel, a large, bearded, dour man, leader of the exiled Huguenots who live on a hilltop in Terralba. Although banished because of their religion, the Huguenots have lost all outward traces of its form or content and live a bleak existence best expressed in Ezekiel’s frequent oath: “Famine and plague.”


Esau, the youngest son of Ezekiel. He smokes, drinks, steals, and cheats at dice and cards. He is ignorant of religion and indifferent to the threats of his father.


Galateo, one of the lepers who lives in the village of Pratofungo on the coast of Terralba. Exiled because of their physical condition, the lepers have given themselves up to a life of revelry, merriment, and debauchery, hiding their deformities under garlands of flowers.


Pamela, a young peasant girl, plump and barefoot. She tends goats and ducks and lives in a small cottage with her animals and family. Although naïve and unschooled, she is clever enough to recognize the dangers in the courtship of “The Bad ’Un” and hides in a cave in the mountains until discovered by “The Good Un.” Sensibly, she refrains from marriage to either half of the viscount, instinctively preferring a complete husband.


Sebastiana, the old nurse of the Medardo family. She has seen generations of them come and go, and perhaps because of this knowledge she is exiled by “The Bad ’Un” to live with the lepers in Pratofungo.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

The characters in The Cloven Viscount seem, at times, to be strictly stock figures: the good and the bad Medardo, symbolizing man’s divided nature; the artless but beautiful goat girl, Pamela; the naive young narrator, painfully discovering maturity; and the shrewd old nursemaid, unlettered but wise in the ways of the world.

In part, Italo Calvino is deliberately playing with these figures, arranging them in their expected postures to play their required roles. This is not un-usual in a novel largely concerned with symbols and their use. On one level,then, the characters are themselves symbols, not realistic individuals.

This is true most obviously of Viscount Medardo, who spends most of the novel split into two parts, one of them thoroughly evil, the other unbearably good. Neither half of the cloven viscount would actually be able to exist in real life. This unreality allows Calvino to impress upon the reader that neither unadulterated evil nor good is possible in human lives. While this might seem a truism hardly worth mention, let alone elaboration, history might argue otherwise.

Calvino underscores this point further by the description of two communities which exist on the fringe of Terralban life: the Huguenots who live on the heights of Col Gerbido, and the lepers who inhabit Pratofungo. Each of these societies is flawed. The Huguenots have been separated from the rest of the world and their comrades for so long that they have forgotten all the essentials of their religion and no longer mention their faith at all, for fear of heresy. They have reduced their lives to an endless round of cheerless work rather than risk even inadvertent sin. The lepers, on the other hand, do nothing but make music and love throughout the day and night, forgetting their condition through constant revelry. Just as Medardo is split in two, so these communities divide the human condition in an arbitrary and untenable fashion.

Apart from the Viscount, most of the characters in the novel retain their stereotypical nature. The two exceptions are the narrator and Dr. Trelawney. The narrator, Medardo’s nephew, grows in maturity and understanding throughout the work. By the end of the novel, the narrator has become more whole and unified, a development which parallels that of his uncle. The difference is that the young boy’s metamorphosis is both more gradual and more realistic. This is fitting, because the young observer-narrator provides a factual, even unromantic, viewpoint on the fantastic events of The Cloven Viscount.

Dr. Trelawney also changes during the novel. At first he is detached, indifferent to the people around him, interested only in his abstract and impractical experiments. Significantly, his chief concern during much of the book is capturing will-o’-the-wisps from graves. As events unfold, however, Dr. Trelawney gradually returns to practicing medicine and involving himself with the human condition. He, like all the other characters in the work, moves from a fragmented, isolated existence to a more unified, coherent life.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 49

Andrews, Richard. “Italo Calvino,” in Writers and Society in Contemporary Italy: A Collection of Essays, 1984. Edited by Michael Caesar and Peter Hainsworth.

Calvino, Italo. The Uses of Literature, 1986.

Carter, Albert Howard. Italo Calvino: Metamorphoses of Fantasy, 1987.

Olken, I.T. With Pleated Eye and Garnet Wing: Symmetries of Italo Calvino, 1984.

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Critical Essays