Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554

Zeno Cosini

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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 himself likes to analyze life in terms of health and disease, especially Basedow’s disease. The name Zeno recalls two Greek philosophers, one a paradoxical skeptic and the other a stoic.

Giovanni Malfenti

Giovanni Malfenti (jee-oh-VAHN-nee mahl-FEHN-tee), a successful businessman with four daughters. Zeno takes him as a role model and resolves to marry one of his daughters, whom he has never seen.

Guido Speier

Guido Speier (GWEE-doh speh-EE-ehr), a young man set up in business by his father in Trieste. Initially, he makes a good impression, especially in contrast with Zeno; he is handsome and plausible and plays the violin very well, whereas Zeno plays it very badly. He wins Ada where Zeno failed. It is after they go into business together that he reveals his depth of incompetence in undertakings far beyond any Zeno would consider; it is Zeno who tries to protect Guido’s father’s interests and who manages to save some of Guido’s estate for Ada. It is Guido’s final folly to feign suicide twice to get money from Ada; the second time, he miscalculates and kills himself.

Ada Malfenti Speier

Ada Malfenti Speier, the eldest and most beautiful daughter, who wisely rejects Zeno and unwisely accepts Guido Speier. She loses her beauty through Basedow’s (Graves’) disease, a form of goiter. After Guido’s death, she goes to live with his relatives in Argentina.

Augusta Malfenti Cosini

Augusta Malfenti Cosini, Zeno’s wife. Although not beautiful, she is patient and understanding.

Alberta Malfenti

Alberta Malfenti, an intellectual whom Zeno courts briefly.

Anna Malfenti

Anna Malfenti, the youngest sister, who believes Zeno is completely mad.


Olivi (oh-LEE-vee), the manager who conducts the Cosini business with the prudence and industry that Zeno lacks but without Zeno’s “inspirations.”


Carla, a music student. Zeno is first her patron and somewhat incompetent adviser, then later her lover. Carla deserts him to marry her teacher.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411

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...

(The entire section contains 1031 words.)

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