Themes and Meanings

The novel is a complex mixture of many themes: social, philosophical, and political. Alberto Moravia was a sworn opponent of Fascism, and yet he was fascinated by a political movement which could attract so many people and extract from them so much devotion. This devotion led to many of the horrors of the twentieth century: political assassinations, oppression, militarism, and a hatred of minorities that could lead to such monstrosities as the Nazi concentration camps.

In portraying Marcello, Moravia attempted to analyze the genesis of a particular mindset. Marcello was a neglected child, and his fantasy world was one of violence and revenge. When coupled with a servile deference to authority and convention, this violence develops into a political attitude. Marcello becomes a natural convert to Fascism. In volunteering to betray his former mentor, Professor Quadri, he reenacts Judas’ betrayal of Christ. Even after recognizing the analogy, he goes through with the betrayal.

In addition to being an examination of the development of a Fascist type, the novel is also a portrayal of a figure familiar in European postwar fiction: the man without identity, a tool of his emotions and of the forces of society. Moreover, the novel delineates a man whose every important act seems fated to be mistaken or ineffectual. The novel is an examination of existential nihilism, and is chilling in its revelation of philosophical bankruptcy. Marcello lives a life without authenticity and without value.