Images and Shadows Critical Essays

Iris Origo


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The first part of the title of this book alludes to Plato’s allegory of the cave. The epigraph to this book consists of excerpts from Benjamin Jowett’s translation of book 7 of Politeia (388-368 b.c.e.; The Republic) which capture the essence of the allegory. “The truth,” to the people in the cave watching shadows on the wall, “would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.” In Plato’s scheme, when a person emerges into the upper world, he first sees shadows, followed in turn by reflections, the things themselves, the light of the moon and stars, and finally the sun. This sequence becomes a paradigm for Origo as she interprets her progressive awareness and understanding of people and events in her own life. In her epilogue, she asserts that her record of events “has only been a means” through which she has come “to perceive, however imperfectly, some faint ‘intimations of immortality,’ a foretaste, perhaps, granted to the short-sighted of another, transcendental love.” The subtitle of her book, which initially seems to imply that this autobiography covers only a particular phase or aspect of her life, is, instead, a commentary: No person’s life can be fully recorded through the medium of words, and Origo admits at the onset that she “will not try to be complete.” Nevertheless, the book does cover the scope of her life up to the age of sixty-eight, at the time when she began writing this book.

The division of this work according to these major stages, ancestry, childhood, and maturity, functions as more than an outline for the account of her family history and personal life. Each of these stages coincidentally parallels what she calls “the three totally distinct periods of civilisation” through which she has lived: the period prior to World War I, the period between the two wars, and the period of World War II and after. The account of her life, then, is consciously set within the context of these different eras. As such, part 1 is designed to convey some of the atmosphere of Edwardian England and turn-of-the-century America; part 2 portrays the aristocracy abroad in prewar Italy; part 3 chronicles the shifting conditions of life for the inhabitants of the northern Italian countryside during and after World War II.

The structure of her threefold division of the book...

(The entire section is 973 words.)