In “The Last Cigarette,” the first of the six major sections of Confessions of Zeno, Zeno Cosini chronicles his efforts to quit smoking and the amusement of others at his increasing indulgence in the habit. This account of his intended abstinence helps to establish his larger attempt to make some sense of his life: “[D]id I really love cigarettes so much because I was able to throw all the responsibility for my own incompetence on them?” Zeno goes on to outline the numerous defects in his character, including hypochondria and the desire to possess most of the women he meets.
Confessions of Zeno is presented as the protagonist’s autobiography, written to further the work he is doing with his psychoanalyst, Dr. S. If the first section offers fairly superficial information for Dr. S., the second, “The Death of My Father,” is more substantial. Zeno considers his father’s death the most important event in his life because, with it, he lost faith in his own possibilities. He is bitter at his father for dying before he has had a chance to prove himself. The dying man is angry for reasons Zeno cannot fathom and strikes his son at the very moment that he dies. Zeno decides that the violence cannot have been intentional, but his father strikes an even greater blow after his death by leaving his business to Olivi, an employee, rather than to the ineffectual son whom he clearly does not trust.
In “The Story of My Marriage,” the most comic chapter, Zeno makes Giovanni Malfenti his business mentor and father-substitute. He decides, even before meeting them, that he will marry one of Malfenti’s four daughters. He chooses Ada, the most beautiful one, and pursues her like a clumsy schoolboy. His courtship of Ada is so awkward that she thinks he is interested in Augusta, her plain sister. After being refused by both Ada and Alberta, their pretty younger sister, he gives in and proposes to Augusta—all on the same day. Although he tells Augusta that he loves Ada, she marries him.
“Wife and Mistress” describes Zeno’s marriage and his surprise at finding that he loves Augusta: “I discovered that far from being a blind beast driven by another’s will, I was a very clever man.” His affection for his wife, however, does not prevent him from taking the first opportunity to acquire a mistress. Zeno convinces himself that he needs and deserves Carla, an aspiring singer. He rationalizes his adultery with the argument that it strengthens his marriage by making him feel even more tender and passionate toward Augusta. He soon decides, however, that he despises Carla and wants to be rid of her. When she falls in love with the singing master he has hired for her, Zeno’s ego forces him to try to keep her.
The section “A Business Partnership” focuses on Zeno’s relationship with Guido Speier, who has married Ada. Perversely, Zeno would rather try to teach business practices to the impulsive Guido than learn them from Olivi at his own office. He sees his devotion to the irritating Guido as “either a real manifestation of disease or of great benevolence, both of which qualities are closely related to each other.” Zeno indulges Guido despite his friend’s unwise investments and an affair with Carmen, who works in their office, because he admires recklessness. Hoping to make Ada regard him more highly, Zeno promises to supply the money to save Guido’s failing business. Ada has lost her beauty through ill health, and Zeno feels both desire and disgust for her. She refuses to allow him...
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to bail out her spoiled husband. In an attempt to make Ada give him the money herself, Guido takes a poison he knows will not kill him if he receives prompt medical attention. Through a series of mishaps, a competent physician arrives too late to save Guido’s life. Ironically, Zeno recovers most of the business losses on the day of Guido’s funeral. Ada, however, continues to blame him for the tragedy.
In the final section, “Psycho-Analysis,” Zeno attacks Dr. S.’s treatment for having made him “more unbalanced and in worse health than ever.” He considers it ridiculous that the psychoanalyst has reduced all of his miseries to an Oedipus complex. Zeno determines that he no longer needs Dr. S. and within a year reports that he has cured himself through exercise, a renewed interest in business, and “self-persuasion.”