Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1018
The Gold-Rimmed Eyeglasses by Giorgio Bassani is set in Ferrara in the late 1930s, as Fascism rises in the years leading up to World War II. The novel explores parallel stories of a middle-aged doctor, Athos Fadigati, who is suspected of being a homosexual, and the unnamed narrator, a young Jewish student.
His courteous, discreet manners were much appreciated, as were his evident disinterestedness and the fair-minded spirit of charity towards his poorer patients. But even more than for these reasons, he was appreciated for what he was: for those gold-rimmed spectacles that gleamed agreeably upon the dark earthen colour of his smooth, hairless cheeks, for the not at all off-putting chubbiness of that corpulent frame which belonged to someone with a congenital heart condition, who had miraculously outlived the crisis of puberty and was always, even in summer, wrapped up in thick English wool. (Chapter 1)
At the outset, Dr. Fadigati is depicted as being accepted within the community primarily for being discreet and polite, as his profession dictates. He is seen as an nonthreatening presence to the traditional way of life, which is exemplified through emphasis on his appearance: his intellectual glasses (which by the end of the novel take on a symbolism of their own, their gold rims setting his views on things apart from others); his closely shaven face, which speaks of his personal hygiene; and his corpulence, which is usually associated with benevolence while also communicating an absence of rougher, more traditionally masculine characteristics. However, the last is seen as acceptable only because the doctor suffers from a bad heart. Once the doctor becomes indiscreet in his relationship with the amoral thug Eraldo Deliliers, however, he is ostracized without pause or mercy.
And Fadigati? It was odd to observe him, and even painful: the more Nino and Deliliers heaped on their incivilities, the more he exerted himself in the vain attempt to be likeable. To win one kind word, a nod of agreement, an amused smile from those two, he would have done practically anything. (Chapter 7)
Though the doctor makes a desperate attempt to be accepted by the students, most of whom used to be his patients as children and who share a ride with him almost every day, it is obvious from this quote that his reputation—even as a discreetly homosexual man—leaves him open and vulnerable to ridicule from everyone, including the very young. The key fact in this quote, which will become one of the leitmotifs of the novel, is that Dr. Fadigati is depicted as almost perversely relishing his subjugation. His need to be accepted and liked—and, in a sense, punished for having this need—is what characterizes him throughout the book. This places the following quote in context as well:
Once more, the dog flattened herself with her belly on the ground a few inches from Fadigati's feet. "Beat me, kill me if you want!" she seemed to be saying. "It's only right, and besides I like it!" (Chapter 15)
The scene with the dog that follows Fadigati is strongly symbolic of his own behavior throughout the novel. He accepts humiliation as his due, and it can be presumed that he subconsciously agrees with the harsh words spoken about him because he struggles to accept who he is. In his case, accepting his nature amounts to accepting as immutable the fate that such a nature has to bring.
In the novel, this is sharply juxtaposed with the unnamed narrator's plight of being a Jewish man in Fascist Italy, and although the two characters are in many ways paralleled, their instinctive reactions...
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to hardships brought about by the pressures of society are quite different—as is shown in their conversation about the love-starved dog.
"Will you look at her!" said Fadigati, pointing. "Perhaps one ought to be like that, able to accept one's own nature. But on the other hand, how does one accomplish that? Isn't the price too high? There's a great deal of the animal in all men, and yet can we give in to it? Admit to being an animal, and only an animal?"
I broke into loud laughter.
"Oh, no," I said. "It would be like asking: can an Italian, an Italian citizen, admit to being a Jew, and only a Jew?" (Chapter 15)
For the narrator, the horror of the approaching laws which will severely limit the rights of Jewish citizens is cause not only for alarm but for an immense rage at the unfairness of it all. He is not prepared to submit to the passivity of his "romantic, patriotic, politically naive and inexperienced" father (chapter 9), or the denial shown by his mother and many other Jews in Ferrara. He disbelieves the promises of Mussolini’s government when he is told,
In these last months, Il Duce had found himself faced with the "un-a-void-ab-le" necessity of making the Western democracies believe that Italy was now joined in two-step with Germany. What topic then would be more persuasive to this effect than a bit of anti-Semitism? We should keep calm. (Chapter 18)
Although only twenty, he senses the falsehood behind such words, just as he painfully learns to see his Gentile friends in another light as times and circumstances change:
And while Nino remained in a most uneasy silence, I felt in me, with inexpressible repugnance, the first inklings of the Jew’s ancient, atavistic hatred for everything that was Christian, Catholic, in a word goyische. Goy, goyim: what a sense of shame, what a humiliation, what a loathsome falling-off: to think in these terms. And yet I had already managed this—I told myself—become exactly like any Jew whatsoever from Eastern Europe who had never lived outside his own ghetto. (Chapter 14)
In this short novel, Bassani manages to capture two individuals who, through very different circumstances, suffer similar indecisions and insecurities. They react to them in crucially different ways, however: Dr. Fadigati with resignation and an ultimate act of surrender, and the unnamed narrator with a burgeoning sense of resilience and the will to fight for himself and his rights as a human being.