(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 888 words.)