Marcello Clerici (mahr-CHEHL-loh klehr-EE-chee), the protagonist, a man dominated by psychological tendencies that are reflected in the title of the novel. Since childhood, Marcello has desired to be recognized as being normal. As a young boy, he had several haunting experiences with guilt (the presumed consequence of social abnormality); these follow him into adulthood. One involved pleasure in killing small animals, then trying to convince himself, through others, that his actions were not abnormal. A second event was his traumatic violent experience with a homosexual stranger. When Marcello receives a special assignment to aid in the assassination of his former professor, a Paris-exiled critic of the Fascist regime, he initially assumes that he can maintain a separation between his “normal” life and the brutal world of Fascist politics. This attempt at psychological compartmentalization fails when Marcello decides to combine his honeymoon with the espionage assignment to Paris. Marcello’s thwarted quest to achieve normalcy carries through after his return to middle-class existence in Italy during the war. Although he seems to have overcome the trauma of Lina’s death, his discovery that Lino did not die from the gun wounds Marcello inflicted on him as a youth rekindles the nightmare of the futility of his actions: He had carried feelings of guilt and suffered psychologically for years for something that did not happen.
Lino (LEEN-oh), a homosexual chauffeur who attempted to lure the young Marcello by promising to give him a real revolver, something Marcello sought as a means toward establishing his credibility among friends and enemies alike. Lino’s treachery leads Marcello to seize the gun and shoot his amorous and confused assailant. Lino’s pitiful state is reflected in his invitation to the youth to kill him if he cannot possess Marcello.
Lina (LEEN-ah), the young and voluptuous French wife of the aging Professor Quadri. Her body is described as strong but lithe, like that of a gymnast or dancer. When the newly wed Clericis arrive unannounced at Quadri’s Paris residence, Lina remains aloof, if not openly hostile. Like her husband, Lina knows that Marcello’s supposedly friendly visit to his former professor is a cover for a Fascist espionage mission. Although the professor appears sincere in his desire to win over Marcello from Fascism, Lina’s interest in their Italian visitors is dominated by a lesbian attraction for Giulia.
Orlando, the least-developed character in the novel. A Fascist secret police agent who has served in many countries, he is assigned with Marcello to carry out the assassination of Professor Quadri. Marcello’s view of Orlando is somewhat condescending: He characterizes Orlando’s face as that of a petty bureaucrat, tenant farmer, or, at most, a small landowner. Orlando’s carnal baseness is demonstrated several times; for example, when Orlando is assured that the “official” contacts and formal instructions for the espionage mission have been taken care of, he indulges his lust immediately with a prostitute.
Professor Quadri (KWAH-dree), a man who is considered to be a traitor because of his abandonment of the Fascist cause. The formerly eccentric and bookish professor is portrayed as having adjusted well to his orderly and visibly comfortable life in exile. Although Quadri is engaged in an international network for anti-Fascist propaganda, his character emerges mainly in personal interaction with his young but sexually imbalanced wife, Lina, and with Marcello, who is the only person with whom he carries on a sustained dialogue. Quadri seems not to condemn Marcello for the political choice he has made. He focuses his efforts on trying to dissuade him from...
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his Fascist beliefs. He apparently does not even suspect that Marcello is torn between his duty to carry out Rome’s assassination orders and the temptation to abandon his mission to pursue what he perceives (erroneously) to be Lina’s amorous attachment to him.
Giulia Clerici (jee-EWL-yah), the twenty-year-old daughter of a deceased government official who is heir to the “twin divinities of respectability and normality.” Although these characteristics are things sought by Marcello, her strong devotion to Catholicism is difficult for him to accept. She is largely unimaginative but possesses a sensual vivacity that clearly attracts masculine attentions. Before meeting Marcello, she suffered the humiliation of having love forced on her by an older married man. Once married to Marcello, and despite the circumstances of their honeymoon, Giulia tries to impress Marcello with the enthusiasm of her love, yet it is her predictable normalcy that attracts him most. When Giulia finds herself to be the object of Lina’s lesbian desires, she becomes very uncomfortable. It is her (normal) unwillingness to respond to Lina’s overtures—despite Marcello’s attempts to use this very situation as a way to get Lina away from the assassination target and, supposedly, into a liaison with him—that makes Lina decide to travel from Paris with Quadri, with whom she meets her senseless death.
The major emphasis of the novel is on Marcello, the man who is so aware of his criminal and violent nature that he wishes to conceal it by conforming totally to his social and political surroundings. His beliefs, his wife, and his style of life are all taken on in order to make him fade into his background. To do so, he rejects his mad father, his eccentric mother, his social class, and his freedom of will. Having, as he believes, already killed a man, he feels no compunction about destroying his former teacher.
The other characters, with the exception of Quadri, represent various sexual tendencies. In the cases of Lino and Lina—whose similar names represent to Marcello the fated nature of his life—these tendencies are perverted. In Giulia’s case, the tendency appears to be natural. Even Giulia, however, has been sexually abused and blackmailed for years by an old family friend, and she has a greedy sexual appetite. Marcello’s parents are the unhappy victims of a terrible mismatch. His father is much older than his mother, and is harsh and joyless. Marcello’s mother pathetically seeks for pleasure and is frustrated at every turn by her husband.
Of all the major characters, Quadri appears to be the only one with any balance—and the only one who resists Fascist tyranny. He, too, is mismatched, with a lesbian wife. The mismatches and sexual dislocation with which the novel is filled seem to be a counterpart to, and partly an explanation for, the politics of Fascism.
Lewis, R.W.B. “Alberto Moravia: Eros and Existence,” in The Picaresque Saint: Representative Figures in Contemporary Fiction, 1959.
Pacifici, Sergio. The Modern Italian Novel: From Pea to Moravia, 1979.
Rebay, Luciano. Alberto Moravia, 1970.
Ross, Joan, and Donald Freed. The Existentialism of Alberto Moravia, 1972.