Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Zeno Cosini

Zeno Cosini (ZEH-noh koh-SEE-nee), an Italian businessman in Trieste (then part of Austria). The book is supposed to be a narrative that Zeno prepared for Dr. S., his psychoanalyst. Zeno first discusses his attempts to stop smoking, in which he displays his usual pattern of taking a “health-giving bath of good resolutions” that are never carried out. The same irresolution appears in the two most important aspects of Zeno’s life: sex and business. He wins his plain but affectionate wife after proposing in vain to two of her sisters (a third has pronounced him quite mad). Although he comes to love his wife, all of his baths of good intentions cannot keep him from taking a mistress, Carla, a music student. He is generally content to leave his family business in the hands of the manager, Olivi. Even when he joins his brother-in-law, Guido Speier, in a separate venture, he mostly watches passively, until Guido dies, leaving his affairs in a disastrous state; then Zeno steps in and by some lucky speculations recovers part of the losses. When war between Italy and Austria separates him from his family and Olivi, he again asserts himself and proves adept at profiting from wartime shortages. The references to psychoanalysis in the novel invite a Freudian interpretation of Zeno, which is supported by Zeno’s extreme hypochondria and his troubled memories of his father. Zeno...

(The entire section is 554 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Italo Svevo succeeds in making the reader sympathetic to his characters by exposing their humanity and weaknesses. Despite his neuroses and lies, Zeno triumphs through his sense of humor and irony. He is a hypochondriac because he needs a disease to impose some order on his rather pointless life: He is in ecstasy when he thinks that he has diabetes. His imaginary illnesses are, in an ironic sense, more serious than the real diseases that plague his father and Ada. His sickness has no cure—regardless of his self-delusion at the end of the narrative. He also thinks that business is a source of form and discipline and resents Olivi for doing the work he could do himself, yet he finds little of the same order at Guido’s office. His quick settling of Guido’s affairs shows that he could force himself to be a good businessman. He is simply too self-indulgent.

Zeno’s motivations are complex and contradictory. He is at first devoted to Guido as a public display of his indifference to losing Ada, but a true affection eventually develops, making Ada’s harsh judgment of him after her husband’s death more painful. While vacationing in Lucinico during the war, Zeno tells a peasant that the fighting will not spread to his village. He does not want the man to worry, but he is also being irresponsible. He has tricked himself into thinking that all of his lies are equally harmless.

Humor and irony come into play most strongly when he tries to...

(The entire section is 411 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Biasin, Gian-Paolo. “Zeno’s Last Bomb,” in Literary Diseases: Theme and Metaphor in the Italian Novel, 1975.

Furbank, P.N. Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer, 1966.

Lebowitz, Naomi. Italo Svevo, 1978.

Lucente, Gregory L. “The Genre of Literary Confession and the Mode of Psychological Realism: The Self-consciousness of Zeno,” in Beautiful Fables: Self-consciousness in Italian Narrative from Manzoni to Calvino, 1986.

Moloney, Brian. Italo Svevo: A Critical Introduction, 1974.