Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 888
The Conformist is an attempt to trace the origins of the impulse toward Fascism in an individual mind. The novel portrays the life of Marcello Clerici from his childhood in the home of wealthy bourgeois Romans to his death in a random air raid at the end of World War II.
Marcello’s father, an ex-military man, ignores his son, and his mother alternately spoils and neglects him. He gets off to a bad start by deriving most of his childhood pleasures from destroying plant and animal life in the overgrown garden of his parents’ villa. Because of his feminine appearance, he is abused and bullied by his schoolmates. He becomes obsessed with the idea of obtaining a revolver so that he can demonstrate his power to his tormentors. One day he is picked up by Lino, a chauffeur and an ex-priest. With the promise of providing Marcello with a revolver, Lino lures him to the home of his employer, who is out of the country. There Lino attempts to seduce the boy. Marcello fights him off and picks up the revolver. The guilt-stricken Lino implores the boy to shoot him. Hardly realizing what he is doing, Marcello pulls the trigger and escapes from the house through the bedroom window. Later he reads that the chauffeur has died in the hospital, believed to be a suicide.
The next section of the novel takes up Marcello’s career as a minor Fascist bureaucrat with the secret police. He proposes to his superiors in the ministry a plan to entrap and destroy Professor Quadri, who had been his supervisor at the university, and who has fled Rome to fight against Fascism from a base in Paris. By this scheme, Marcello hopes to demonstrate his loyalty to the state and his reliability as a ruthless Fascist. When asked how he can find an excuse to call on the professor, Marcello suggests that he visit Paris on his upcoming honeymoon.
Before the wedding, Marcello goes with his mother, now a pathetic, drug-dependent, and slovenly woman, to see his father, a megalomaniac confined to an insane asylum. Marcello has completely rejected his parents in order to marry into a conventional middle-class family and is seeking to conform to their sentimental style of life and behavior. He can feel no love for Giulia, his fiancee, only the low-keyed affection one might have for a household pet.
Shortly before the wedding, at the urging of Giulia, the agnostic Marcello visits a church to make his confession—the first in thirty years. Marcello has not told Giulia of the killing, but he confesses his crime to the priest. The priest absolves him, but this does little to diminish Marcello’s continual and vague sense of guilt and fear. The honeymooning couple travels to Paris, and on the journey Marcello does what he can to assuage the sexual desires of his passionate bride.
In Paris, he seeks out Professor Quadri and takes Giulia to meet him. In the professor’s apartment the couple also meets Lina, his young wife. For the first time, Marcello feels real sexual desire for a woman, and he takes the first opportunity to try to seduce her. Lina appears to respond, but she is really attracted to Giulia and only feigns interest in Marcello to get at his wife. Giulia, however, is indifferent to Lina’s advances.
Quadri tells Marcello that he is planning to leave Paris the next day to travel to Savoy and asks Marcello and his wife to come with him. Marcello refuses. He later tells his henchman Orlando of Quadri’s planned route so that his victim can be intercepted and killed. The two couples go out to dinner. This occasion has been planned in advance so that Marcello can point out Quadri to his assassin. Quadri tries to persuade Marcello to join the anti-Fascist movement, without success. The four go on to a lesbian night club, a favorite haunt of Lina. There Marcello tries to persuade Lina into an affair, and Lina tries to seduce Giulia, both without success. The frustrated Lina decides to leave with her husband to travel to Savoy for the summer instead of staying on in Paris as she had planned. Both are killed by the Fascist assassin.
After his return to Rome, Marcello is informed by Orlando that the order for the assassination had been countermanded so that relations between Italy and France would not be upset. The order had come too late to save Quadriand Lina. Marcello’s treacherous act had been both unnecessary and counter-productive.
The last section of the novel takes place at the time of Italy’s defeat at the hands of the Allies. Like other Fascist officials, Marcello is facing the loss of his job and his home, but he and Giulia go out in the streets to observe the celebrations. In the Borghese Gardens, Marcello encounters Lino, who did not die in the hospital as had been reported. Marcello discovers that the slaying that changed his life and caused him so much fear and guilt had never taken place at all.
The next morning Marcello and Giulia, accompanied by their little girl, leave Rome for the refuge of a country town. On the way, their car is machine-gunned by a plane. The whole family is killed.