Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Although Zeno’s attacks on Dr. S. can be seen as defensive, Svevo questions the adequacy of psychoanalysis for dealing effectively with humankind’s more urgent problems. Zeno may indeed have an Oedipus complex, but he refuses to be defined by it. Dr. S. wants to reduce people to stereotypes, but every page of Zeno’s confession shows the complexity of human emotions. Dr. S. proves the point himself in his preface by admitting that he is publishing his patient’s autobiography as revenge for Zeno’s abandoning his treatment. Psychiatry is also seen as incapable of recognizing simple truths when they do appear: Zeno says that Dr. S. “must be the only person in the world who, hearing that I wanted to go to bed with two lovely women, must rack his brain to try and find a reason for it!”

Svevo uses Freudianism and Darwinism to express his doubt that any orthodoxy can explain the complexities of life. It is a joke on Darwinism that Zeno, hardly the fittest of his friends and associates, is the only one to survive. Confessions of Zeno ends with an apocalyptic vision of something resembling nuclear war which results when all human theories have failed. Because no philosophy can come close to explaining all life, Zeno settles for a simpler view: “Life is neither good nor bad; it is original.”