The Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 706

Ida Ramundo is a complex and tragic figure. A good and simple woman, Ida carries the burden of a double secret, her epilepsy and her Jewish heritage. Though in other times she might have lived and taught school in relative tranquillity, the war and its devastation touch Ida in both...

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Ida Ramundo is a complex and tragic figure. A good and simple woman, Ida carries the burden of a double secret, her epilepsy and her Jewish heritage. Though in other times she might have lived and taught school in relative tranquillity, the war and its devastation touch Ida in both external and internal ways. While her daily life is changed, uprooted, and degraded as a result of the war, her inner life amounts to a crucible in which the most dehumanizing aspects of Nazism are compounded.

Morante gives careful attention to Ida’s background, the lives of her parents and her husband, Alfio. Especially poignant is the story of Ida’s mother, Nora, a story which prefigures Ida’s fate. Nora marries and seeks to hide the fact that she is Jewish but eventually dies of exposure in a deluded nighttime flight from her enemies. Throughout the novel Ida is haunted by the racial laws and their baroque prescriptions, even going so far as to draw charts of her sons’ lineages to determine their legal status (all the more ironic since Useppe is fathered by one of the Aryan conquerors).

As the war progresses and its deprivations increase, Ida’s efforts to forage for her young son are poignant even in their ineptitude. Her own paranoid secretiveness effectually prevents her from making the most ordinary contacts with her fellow refugees that would ensure Useppe’s basic nutrition. Later, his problems with school discipline are all the more perplexing to her because she is herself a schoolteacher. It is finally the hidden genetic link of epilepsy, compounded by malnutrition, that dooms her son to an early death.

If Ida is the novel’s figure of unremitting tragedy, then Useppe is its figure of innocent joy and childish delight. In a story dominated by the fate of Rome’s Jews and Ida’s fears about her Jewish background, Useppe is a clear Christ symbol, from his not-so-immaculate conception to the Pieta typology of his death in his mother’s arms. Morante does not insist on the religious aspect of this symbolism as much as its universal aspect. Useppe has the same joy and openness to life and nature that all children have, the same chance to start anew, but he is predestined to suffer the fate of a collective societal destiny. As Ida’s character recedes into the externally imposed depths of guilt, Useppe’s adventures with life begin to assume major importance in the work.

Useppe is small at birth and undernourished throughout his short life. Yet his ground’s-eye view gives him a special appreciation for life’s small joys. His brother Nino is his greatest joy but is only erratically present. During Nino’s lengthening absences, Useppe’s substitute friends are his dogs, Blitz and Bella, and the birds. Useppe is a natural poet, uttering verses about the birds and nature around him. This aspect of his personality draws him into an affinity with Davide, who is another kindred soul. Useppe’s fate, like Ida’s, is to be struck down by forces beyond his knowledge or control. Malnourished and subjected to virtual refugee status, he develops acute epilepsy of which he is incompletely aware. He is one of the simple and one of the doomed.

Nino seems to be one of the lucky and charmed. With a glib savvy and insouciance he moves easily from the black shirt of the Fascists to army gray, and from the partisan’s irregular uniform to the sudden prosperity of the postwar black market. His erratic behavior, including sudden appearances and disappearances, causes anguish to his mother and a mixture of profound joy and disappointment to his little brother. Always an easy friend to his comrades and an instant success with women, he lives intensely until he is cut down by a violent death.

Violence is the sign of Davide Segre as well. He first appears as a troubled escapee from the death cells and then becomes vengeful as a particularly ruthless partisan. Through letters and flashbacks the reader learns of his Jewish middle-class background and his politically motivated rebellion against that. Davide ends his life as a haunted drug addict whose only friend is the precocious Useppe.

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