Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Elsa Morante’s theme in History is brutally straightforward and concerns the suffering of the innocent at the hands of larger historical forces. The novel begins with an epigraph taken from the words of a survivor of Hiroshima: “There is no word in the human language capable of consoling the guinea pigs who do not know the reason for their death.” Morante herself was a survivor, having taken refuge from Rome with her husband, Alberto Moravia, in the mountains during the war years to escape deportation. In History, she reconstructed the experience of those who remained in Rome for the duration. The book’s clear evil is Nazi domination, but even that is only a part of the geopolitical power structure her work indicts. She writes with the crystalline style of someone whose vision has been burned pure by anger.

The suffering and deprivation of Rome’s population is portrayed through a scrupulous attention to a small group of characters. The central moment of the book is undoubtedly when Ida Ramundo, herself a Jew, witnesses the spectacle of the train cars filled with human beings at Tiburtina station. She hears their cries, she retrieves a scribbled message dropped from a slot in a car, she attempts in her confused and dazed way to decipher that message and deliver it to its addressee. Morante, too, bears witness through her writing, attempting to communicate this central fact of twentieth century history.

Though the book is dominated by the Holocaust and its destruction of human lives, Morante’s strategy is to follow the fate of two characters who do not perish in the Nazi death camps but rather suffer through an internalization of the threat those camps represent. Ida’s fear of someone discovering her Jewishness and denouncing her to the authorities drives her into a state of paranoia and quiet despair. Her fear in turn prevents her from making the human contacts necessary to maintain Useppe’s health. Useppe suffers from the two deadly secrets he inherits from his mother, the Jewish background he never knows and the epilepsy which ultimately kills him. For Morante, the writing of history can be nothing less than bearing witness to this ultimate tragedy.