Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1904
First published: Il fu Mattia Pascal, 1904 (English translation, 1923)
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Psychological realism
Time of work: Early twentieth century
Mattia Pascal, a young Italian
Roberto Pascal, his brother
Romilda Pescatore, Mattia’s wife
Malagna, the manager of the Pascal estates
Adriana, a young girl in love with Mattia
As boys, Mattia Pascal and his brother Roberto lived an easy life with their wealthy widowed mother. While the boys were growing up, however, the fortune their merchant father had left them was gradually acquired by a dishonest man named Malagna, to whom the mother confided all of her business affairs. One by one the farms and city property belonging to the Pascals were mortgaged and then sold. Everyone except the widow Pascal realized how dishonest Malagna was. Her confidence in her agent enabled him to rob her of everything over a period of many years.
When he was in his teens, Mattia Pascal fell in love with a beautiful young girl, Romilda Pescatore. Unfortunately for the affair, Malagna, whose two wives had failed to give him any children, had his eye on Romilda for himself. A bad situation developed when Romilda became pregnant; her mother, a termagant who seized any opportunity to improve her position, saw a chance to capitalize on the evil. She advised Romilda to take Malagna as her lover and let him think the child was his. The mother thought that he would be so happy to have his impotence seemingly disproved that he would at least make Romilda, her mother, and the child very comfortable.
Although Romilda told Malagna the truth, the two kept the whole affair a secret. Through Mattia Pascal, Malagna’s wife discovered what had happened. In revenge on her husband, whom she had suspected of infidelity, she in turn became pregnant by Mattia. The husband, realizing what had happened as soon as his wife told him of her pregnancy, was furious. In his anger he refused to help Romilda, saying it was bad enough that he should be compelled to support one of Mattia Pascal’s bastards. In a way the prospect pleased him, for the Pascal fortune he had stolen would now go eventually to Mattia’s child by Malagna’s wife.
Mattia and Romilda were married, but their marriage was an unhappy one. Because Malagna had foreclosed on the last bit of property owned by the Pascals, the newlyweds and Mattia’s mother were forced to move into the hovel owned by Romilda’s mother. Mattia’s aunt finally took pity on his mother and took her away, but Mattia, who was unable to find a job, and his wife continued to live with his shrewish mother-in-law. Their situation was relieved somewhat by Mattia’s success in getting a political appointment as the caretaker of a municipal library in the town. The post was a sinecure; Mattia spent most of his time reading and catching rats that infested the place.
Mattia’s mother and his child both died suddenly and within a day of each other. A few days after his mother’s burial, Mattia received several hundred lire from his brother, who had married into a rich family. The funeral expenses were already paid for, and Mattia put the money away. One day he suddenly decided to travel. He took the money his brother had sent and went to Monte Carlo. There he won a fortune. Although he lost most of it again, he stopped playing after seeing the corpse of a destitute young gambler who had shot himself.
On his way home with the eighty-two thousand lire he had won, Mattia read in a newspaper an account of his death and burial. The people in his village, it appeared, had discovered a body some days after his secret departure, and his relatives had identified it as his. When the shock of the story wore off, Mattia realized how lucky he was: he had been released suddenly from an unhappy marriage and a mountain of debts; in addition, he had enough money in his pockets to live comfortably for many years.
Instead of going back to his native village, Mattia went to Rome and assumed a new identity. He shaved off his beard, had his hair cut shorter, and called himself Adriano Meis. The only part of his appearance he could not change was a crossed eye; to disguise that identifying characteristic, he began wearing dark glasses.
As Adriano Meis, Mattia rented a room in a private home and spent his days walking and reading. Gradually, he discovered that his lack of a past was bothersome; he hated to live a literal lie. He also discovered that without an official record, any proof of identity, he was limited in his activities. He could not even buy a dog, lest he get into trouble in buying a license for it. At the same time he could not afford to have his real identity become known, because he would be sent to prison for deserting his wife and evading his debts. Most discouraging of all, he fell in love with the daughter of his landlord, a girl named Adriana. He could not marry her, however, for he could not prove his own existence. His life was that of a shadow in the world of men.
The circumstance which finally convinced him that he could not go on masquerading as Adriano Meis was the theft of twelve thousand lire by his landlord’s son-in-law. Everyone knew that the man had taken the money, but the victim was unable to go to the police, for fear they would investigate him and ask embarrassing questions. When he did not go to the police, everyone became suspicious, even the girl who loved him. Mattia took his money one evening and wandered about town while he tried to decide what to do with himself. He realized that his position was untenable; he could not go on living as he had.
As he was about to leap into the river and commit suicide, Mattia had a brilliant idea. Deciding to die as Adriano Meis and return to his identity as Mattia Pascal, he left his hat and other evidence to make it seem as if Adriano Meis had jumped into the river. Within several days, the newspapers carried accounts of the suicide of Adriano Meis. Quite happy to regain his original identity, Mattia went to visit his brother Roberto. At his brother’s home, Mattia learned that Romilda had married a childhood sweetheart and had borne a child. Mattia was even more disconcerted to learn that he would have to take his wife and her mother back again. According to the law, his return from the dead voided the second marriage.
Disturbed by that news, Mattia returned to his native village. There he found his wife and her new husband quite happy and his grateful mother-in-law alive. In spite of the law they all decided that it was best for the current arrangements to continue, and Mattia relinquished unofficially his marital rights and responsibilities. He found himself some rooms in the village and lived there quietly, spending his days reading and preparing an account of his strange adventures, a story which was to be published after what he termed his third and final death.
Outside of Italy, Luigi Pirandello has been much better known for his dramas than for his novels, although his fiction has always been highly regarded in his native land. In this particular case, part of the plot of the novel was also used in a play, as the first part of the novel formed the basis for Pirandello’s Sicilian comedy, LIOLA (1917). When the novel appeared, some critics objected to it, saying that the action was impossible in terms of real life. In 1921, Pirandello wrote a preface to the book in which he pointed out that a similar happening had actually occurred in Buffalo, New York, in that same year. He went on to state that in his opinion this type of criticism should not be used in evaluating a work of the creative imagination; he said that the novel, like any other medium of art, dealt not with individuals but with mankind and all the incidents and individuals which make up the total composite of man. He felt that the illusion of the present might very possibly be the reality of the future.
Themes and images present in other works by Pirandello are fully integrated in this tale of Mattia Pascal who attempts to become someone else by creating his own life, only to be confronted with the realization that the form one’s life takes is created for one by time, circumstance, and chance. A related theme in this novel depicts the dilemma of contemporary man and is presented through two images: the “hole in the sky” and the “lantern.”
Anselmo, a character Mattia meets in his “new life” as Adriano Meis, tells Mattia of a puppet show depicting the tragedy of Orestes. Anselmo muses on the possibility that during the performance, at the moment when Orestes is to kill his mother, he would suddenly look up at the paper sky and see a hole in it. At that moment, according to Anselmo, Orestes would become Hamlet. Orestes lived in an age of certainty; existence was accepted as finite and knowable. Hamlet, as well as contemporary man, lived in an age in which the only certainty is that nothing is certain. Both the seventeenth and twentieth centuries are ages in which everything has become problematic. A hole has appeared in the sky causing one to question everything while seeking certainty and yearning for meaning in life.
Pirandello presents another aspect of the contemporary dilemma through the image of the “lantern.” Anselmo tells Mattia (Adriano) that each person carries a lantern that projects a limited amount of light. This lantern is equated with the individual form in which one lives, a form imposed by internal as well as external necessities. In addition, people are subject to the social lantern, by such constructs of a particular society as virtue and truth, that imposes limitations upon the freedom of life. These lanterns cause people to believe that everything outside the limited vision of their projection is darkness. Were we to extinguish the lanterns, we would see that there is no darkness, only light (or life) that we had not seen because we were confined within our narrow constructs.
Mattia Pascal attempts to escape these narrow constructs by clinging to his old form but soon realizes the situation he desires is impossible. In order to exist he finds that he must take on some form. While he attempts to create a new existence for himself (that of Adriano Meis), this new existence gradually assumes the shape of his former existence. In desperation, Adriano is “killed” to enable Mattia to live once more.
On his return to his hometown, however, Mattia is confronted with a new situation, the marriage of his former wife and a friend. Whereas Mattia (as Adriano) had attempted to remove himself from life, time, and change, the characters of his former existence had continued to live in time and thus had changed. He finds that he cannot return as Mattia Pascal but must accommodate himself to the new situation by becoming “the late Mattia Pascal.”