Themes and Meanings
“Consolation” is the English translation of the Italian title, which literally means “comforts.” A key to the meaning of the story is immediately provided in the opening words, which announce the prophecy of the fortuneteller that Arlia will be happy after passing through hardships and troubles. The theme of the story is how this illusory hope permits a poor woman, representative of Milan’s urban poor, to survive and to find partial, temporary consolation amid the suffering.
Father Calogero expresses well the situation facing Arlia and her family and, by extension, all the urban poor: “The world is full of troubles. It’s best to keep away from it.” This formula for surviving in a hostile world seems to work well for Calogero, who has “purposely become a priest so that he wouldn’t have to listen to the troubles of the world.” He has managed “to put a little fat on himself,” as well as having the money to pay for little Angiolino’s funeral and Fortunata’s dowry.
The other characters seem to be facing a life that seems to contain nothing more than hunger, fatigue, illness, and early death. Whatever progress is made is eaten up by the ills of life. The children, before dying, “gobbled up the small profit of the year,” the son-in-law Silvio “ate up his wife’s dowry.” Even Fortunata’s healthy babies eat “like horses,” bringing more trouble to their overworked grandparents.
The answering refrain to Calogero’s formula for survival comes from the fortuneteller: “You will be happy, but first you’ll have troubles,” or, as Arlia interprets it, “We have to leave the door open to luck.” Arlia, until the end, believes and hopes for the best. Her heart, which was “black with bitterness,” becomes “like a burning lamp,” filled with hope. When hope fails, each character finds his own form of consolation: Fortunata (her name, ironically, means “happy”) chooses love; Manica uses drink; Arlia, because she holds more tenaciously to her hopes, tries magic, the Church, gambling, and, finally, drink.
Ultimately, however, there is only death, evoked by the window from which Fortunata thinks of jumping: “See that window, Mamma? . . . See how high it is?” The “terror of that window,” and thus of death, drives the characters to work, to scheme, to hope, but in the end they all must face it: Manica’s nose is “pressed against the clouded window” of his shop; Fortunata confesses to her dishonor “in front of the open window”; and at the end, with only the consolation of brandy, Arlia sits “before the window thinking of nothing, looking out at the wet, dripping roofs.” Her heart, once lit by hope, is warmed only by drink.