Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 676
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.”
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