Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

The Cloven Viscount is a fantasy-style novel by Italian author Italo Calvino. The first major theme of the novel and which provides the setting of the narrative is the Ottoman Wars, particularly the Christian European battles against the Turkish forces during the seventeenth century. The titular character is an inexperienced...

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The Cloven Viscount is a fantasy-style novel by Italian author Italo Calvino. The first major theme of the novel and which provides the setting of the narrative is the Ottoman Wars, particularly the Christian European battles against the Turkish forces during the seventeenth century. The titular character is an inexperienced soldier but shows bravery, and because of this he is severely injured during the battle. The warfare theme is integral to Calvino's metaphor of being violently torn into parts psychologically. The Viscount would have died in reality, as he was split into two by a cannonball that directly hit his torso. However, instead, the Viscount becomes two people in Calvino's fantasy novel.

The second major theme of the novel is duality, specifically the duality of good and evil. In war and in life in general, the duality of good and evil is a natural dynamic. However, the fact that the Viscount was split into two during warfare illustrates that primal violence can cause a person to display their good side and bad side more distinctively. Calvino examines the philosophical and psychological nature of an individual's personality; how human beings can possess both good and dark traits, and that a "complete" or whole human being can only be composed of the good and bad side. In essence, Calvino believes that even the evil or dark side of a person is necessary to make one whole.

The other prominent theme in the novel is the consequences of a person's deeds, whether those deeds are good or bad. The bad side of the Viscount, Gramo, creates a dictatorial state when he returns to the kingdom and terrorizes the population. The good side of the Viscount, Buono, is benevolent and altruistic, but causes uneasiness towards the citizens of his kingdom. In the end, the villagers dislike both Gramo and Buono.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

The central theme of The Cloven Viscount is the dichotomy between the real and the ideal, and Calvino explores and presents this topic through a variety of means.

The two sides of Medardo are known as “The Good ’Un” and “The Bad ’Un” by the people of Terralba, and both halves are unsatisfactory. “The Bad ’Un” is obviously a menace, hacking and burning his way through the countryside, but “The Good ’Un” is equally, if more subtly, inhuman. His meeting with the Huguenots at Col Gerbido, for example, is conducted with decorum and excessive goodwill on both sides, but there is no real contact between them, and the final effect is, in the narrator’s words, “a bit chilling on the whole.” It is “The Good ’Un” who visits Pratofungo, the city of the lepers, and argues them out of their carefree, if somewhat loose, lives. Deprived of that solace, they must face their disease and shattered bodies.

To those persons forced to endure it, unreal good is as dismal as unreal evil. “Thus the days went by at Terralba, and our sensibilities became numbed, since we felt ourselves lost between an evil and a virtue equally inhuman.”

The theme of unreality versus reality is further compounded in a corollary topic, life as a series of symbols. Throughout the book, the central characters refuse to face experience directly, but mediate it through signs and symbols. The evil Medardo, for example, leaves a trail of bizarre messages for Pamela: parsnips cut in two, daisies half stripped from their stalks, and chopped bits of bats, birds, and jellyfish.

In a similar fashion, the good Medardo leaves iconic messages for Dr. Trelawney, alerting him to the ills of Terralba’s residents. He ties feeding chickens to a terrace railing, their droppings indicating a case of diarrhea inside the house; at another place, a row of snails diagnoses heart disease within, and instructs the doctor to enter quietly. Life becomes a series of mystical symbols to be read and deciphered, rather than events to be experienced.

Much the same is true of Dr. Trelawney, whose interests early in the novel are abstract and purely scientific. The narrator remarks on Trelawney’s unconcern with the patients who might need his services. The doctor’s growing involvement with sick persons and their cure is an echo of the integration of Medardo through the fusing of his good and bad halves, and it is revealing that Dr. Trelawney is the one who binds the two halves of the Viscount together. Calvino seems to tell the reader that a truly human being cannot be purely good or purely evil, as with the Viscount, or purely intellectual, as with Dr. Trelawney. Paradoxically, for humans to be whole is to be something less than perfect.

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