Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Ginzburg is the novel’s author and protagonist, and her recollections cover both intimate details of her family life and broader social developments in her native Italy during the years prior to, during, and immediately after World War II. Ginzburg appears unwilling to allow herself to become a central character and is even a little self-deprecating at times. Nonetheless, she charts her development, aided in no small part by the emotional support of her mother, from a weak young girl to an independent young woman motivated by genuine political and social conscience.
Ginzburg’s father is a domestic tyrant whose mood swings are the terror of his wife and children. He is very much set in his ways and tolerates nobody who seeks to confront him on any point. He worries about his children, but in terms of career he expects little of his daughters due to their gender. Capable of kindness toward the vulnerable in his family and society, he has a strong social conscience that leads him to speak out against the injustices of fascism in Italy. He is forced to flee Italy due to his implication in his son Mario’s possession of anti-fascist literature and because of his Jewish faith. Though he subsequently returns, he is forced to hide until the liberation of Italy by the Allies.
The principal storyteller in the work, Lydia is emotionally stable where her husband is chaotic. From her lips come most of the sayings by which the author recalls her childhood. While she has many artistic pursuits, which her husband condemns as frivolous, she has a scientific curiosity that leads her to study medicine prior to the war. While her husband’s anger does make her life difficult, she has a certain steely resolve which enables her to coexist with him and preserve a family environment which is nurturing, if at times uneasy. Prior to the war, Lidia knew many people across Europe, and this made the world feel manageable and relatable to her. But during the war, with many of her friends killed or disconnected from her during the conflict, she ceases to feel that the world can be brought within her compass.
Originally from Russia, Leone is a Jewish man who, like Ginzburg’s father, is active in his opposition to the fascist regime. After his initial exile, he returns to Rome, where his activities as a journalist lead to his incarceration and eventual death at age thirty-four. Ginzburg clearly feels deep affection for him and does not seem comfortable in her recollections of a partner from whom she was so prematurely separated.
Alone among the author’s family, Ginzburg’s brother-in-law speaks with something of her mother’s eloquence and poetic flare. While a very rich young man, he is opposed to the fascist regime and risks his life in assisting a prominent Italian socialist to escape prosecution by Mussolini.
Sister to the author and wife to Adriano, this young socialite ultimately divorces her husband after the war.
Mario has to escape Italy to France due to his possession of literature considered subversive by the fascist regime. Alone among the siblings, he does not return to Italy, as he establishes a family in France.
Imprisoned for his anti-fascist activities, Alberto ultimately achieves success as a doctor in postwar Italy, thus taking after his mother, who had entertained medical interests of her own prior to marriage.