A Ghost at Noon Summary
A Ghost at Noon is a subtle book about the death of a marriage. Molteni, the narrator, an intellectual who wishes to write for the theater, is married to Emilia, the beautiful daughter of an old Roman family which has become poverty-stricken. She is not highly educated and has devoted herself to caring for her husband and the one furnished room in which they live. They were blissfully happy for two years. Then, Molteni claims, his wife changed, judged him, ceased to love him. The book is both the reconstruction of this decline and an attempt to make sense of it.
Ironically, the first step in the deterioration of the marriage seems to be the result of the narrator’s effort to provide a better home for his wife.After buying the lease of an apartment he cannot afford, he perceives himself as “a poor devil,” isolated in financial anxiety from a domestically inclined, working-class woman who cannot understand his unhappiness. He has incurred debts on her behalf, he believes; to pay them he must prostitute his talent and become a scriptwriter.
The reader wonders if it is, in fact, Emilia who first becomes judgmental. Why do Molteni’s debts involve payments on a car as well as on the apartment? Purchasing a car was not a sacrifice made for Emilia. The reader can see throughout the book Molteni’s confused pattern of behavior. He ignores the indications Emilia gives of her feelings; he constructs what he believes that she feels, acts accordingly, and then blames her for the result.
The struggling author obtains work from Battista, whose company, Triumph Films, occupies an ancient palace: Pictures of film stars are pinned on walls where great, mythological paintings once hung. Emilia detests and distrusts Battista from the time when the three first dine together. On this occasion, in spite of her objections, Molteni lets Battista drive Emilia home while he follows in a taxi. He sees the producer every day. Emilia is always included in their social activities; although she is unwilling, her husband pressures her into joining them.
Yet when Emilia moves into a separate bedroom Molteni is hurt and angry. She becomes unresponsive and uncommunicative, and he desperately tries to discover why her feelings have altered. Her attempts to create physical and emotional space between them drive him to frenzy and ultimately to violence. She wishes to leave but has nowhere to go.
Without her love, Molteni detests scriptwriting even more. He hates its collaborative and anonymous nature, and he hates working for mediocrities such as the director Pasetti, who has, nevertheless, a doting wife and a happy home.
The couple have reached an impasse when Battista proposes to make a film of Homer’s Odyssey. Molteni will write the script; Rheingold, a German who looks like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, will direct it.
Against Emilia’s wishes, the four travel to Battista’s villa on Capri. As before, the men determine that Emilia will travel with Battista. She goes unwillingly, making the same objections about his fast driving and her wish to stay with her husband. After narrowly missing an oxcart, Rheingold and Molteni are surprised to catch up with Battista and Emilia at a beach near Naples. Molteni notices Battista’s exaggerated assurance and Emilia’s bewilderment and disgust. He is angry without recognizing why.
At the villa the situation worsens. Molteni sees Battista kiss Emilia and becomes increasingly desperate about his marriage, increasingly disgusted with his scriptwriting, and less and less able to work with Rheingold.
The German director’s version of the Odyssey begins with a question: Why should a shrewd and civilized man such as Ulysses come home and commit such a barbarous act as killing all of Penelope’s suitors? Rheingold’s answer is a reconstruction: Penelope is a simple, traditional woman. When a man who desired her was accepted by her husband as a guest, she considered her honor impugned and her house polluted. Her contempt for Ulysses made the marriage so unhappy that he was glad to leave for Troy. His wanderings in the Odyssey resulted from his unwillingness to return to an unhappy home.
While refusing to accept this modern travesty of Homer, Molteni sees its application to his own marriage. Like Penelope, Emilia is a traditional woman. Does she despise him because she believes he wished her to encourage Battista?
In what is perhaps the central scene of the novel, Molteni asks his wife to decide if he should break his contract. To him his work is a test of his love, not of his professional integrity. As always, he is seeking not an answer but reassurance, “corroboration of her feeling for me.” When Emilia says, “There are things that one can’t allow other people to decide,” he merely becomes more insistent. When she admits to despising him because he does not “behave like a man,” he thinks of Penelope and Ulysses and Battista. When she spells it out, “It is not manly to make all your life decisions to please someone else and blame someone else when they are wrong,” he still misses the point.
Yet he loves her. Finding her sunbathing on the beach, he sleeps beside her and dreams of a kiss which reunites them. He confronts Rheingold and resigns. The German claims that Battista and Molteni are on the same side: “To you Art does not matter; all you want is to be paid.” Unimpressed, Emilia says that she will go back to Rome with Battista and try to become independent. Even when Molteni states that he will no longer work for a man who wishes to seduce his wife, Emilia is unmoved. Finally, he realizes that her contempt is not produced by his actions but by his character.
Seeking distraction after his wife and Battista leave, Molteni goes to the beach to hire a boat. When he reaches the boat, Emilia is sitting in the stern. All misunderstandings are resolved, and Molteni rows to a grotto where they can make love, but when he turns to help her from the boat it is empty. The happy ending was a hallucination: “Noon is the hour for ghosts.”
Molteni is informed that Emilia is seriously hurt and on his way home is met by news of his wife’s death. Driving at his usual speed, Battista had braked suddenly to avoid an oxcart, and Emilia, asleep at the time, had her neck broken.
The obvious assumption—that the dead Emilia appeared to her husband and sought a reconciliation—is rejected. She was probably alive at the time of the apparition, says the narrator. Unless he can find her again, he fears that he will be forever exiled from “the world in which people loved without misunderstandings and were loved in return and lived peaceful lives.” He returns to Capri seeking to contact her and realizes that, like Penelope and Ulysses, she is now fixed in “the great spaces of the sea,” changelessly what she was in life. Having seen his wife only in relation to himself, only as his feelings created her, he must now discover her reality. This narrative is his attempt to reach Emilia.