Luigi Pirandello’s earliest short stories are tales of the insular environment of his native Sicily. Originally written in Sicilian dialect and later translated into Italian, they deal in naturalistic style with the traditions and customs of the peasant peoples. He admired the writings of the Italian Verists (realists) but moved beyond them in his view that reality is individual and psychologically determined. External realism was for Pirandello insufficient for the expression of internal states. He strove to transform naturalistic determinism into a broad philosophical commentary on the inner meaning of the human person, proclaiming that a single reality does not exist. All is illusion, experience is ambiguous, and each person lives behind a self-constructed mask, concealing one’s essential nature and adapting to the environment for the protection of the fragile ego within. As his world experience grew, his stories, too, grew to be blends of philosophy and human emotion, brave attempts to express the inexpressible dilemma of humankind’s inability to communicate honestly in a world of false appearances and deceitful words.
Pirandello’s characters are victims of insecurity and self-doubt, combined with a great capacity for love. They live their lives as in a mirror, reaching always from behind a mask of reality for elusive and illusionary happiness. His characters move out from a core of circumstantial suffering, attempting to discover meaning and truth in the very suffering itself and discovering instead the perverse comedy of deception upon deception—of mask upon mask. Only through ironic laughter could humankind endure such contradiction. Humor, for Pirandello, is an amalgam of laughter and tears, a coming together of the power to mock with the power to sympathize. He treats his characters with pity rather than derision for their follies and with compassion for their inescapable miseries.
Pirandello’s stories appeal to the intellect searching for answers to the puzzling contradictions of life. They contain frequent asides, some long disquisitions, and occasional intellectual debates with the self. Characters seem at times to be delivering speeches for the author rather than revealing themselves through action. The narrative line seems fragmented and convoluted, with the reader’s interest not drawn steadily along with the unfolding plot but instead concentrated on particular discrete moments of paradox and inversion of fortune.
All of this comes to the non-Italian reader in translations that may seem tedious because of the double problem of language and cultural differences. Since he was chiefly known as a dramatist, Pirandello’s stories have been overlooked, many never translated, and often even these few translations are questionable renderings of his thought rather than of his rhetoric. Nevertheless, those few tales that are available will give the thoughtful reader a sampling of the philosophy and view of life of a writer whose works provide a bridge from nineteenth century Romanticism, on through realism, to twentieth century relativism.
“Sunlight and Shadow”
Among Pirandello’s earliest short stories is “Sole e ombra” (“Sunlight and Shadow”), a tale of the suicide of an elderly gentleman, Ciunna, who has stolen money from the company for which he works in order to help his poverty-stricken son and his young family. On the day after the theft, Ciunna plans to journey to the nearby coastal town where he will throw himself into the sea, thereby escaping judgment and guaranteeing that his son may keep the stolen money.
Here, Pirandello uses the unusual technique of extended “dialogue soliloquies.” Ciunna walks about the street of his village on the night of the theft, carrying on vocalized conversations with the inspector who will discover his crime the following day. He speaks also with his son, telling of his great happiness in being able to sacrifice his life for the boy. He chats also with the chemist from whom he has received a few crystals of arsenic in preparation for his suicide.
For two weeks, Ciunna has been going about the streets muttering to himself as he formed his plan, but no one has bothered to ask what is disturbing him. He feels himself an outsider among his friends, a man alienated from others and even from himself. This sense of total alienation from life is a repeated theme in Pirandello’s stories and plays, and the response of suicide—or at least the contemplation of it as a possibility for escaping life’s harsh realities—is the basis of some two dozen of his better known tales.
On the morning after the theft, Ciunna sets out by horse and carriage on his journey to the sea. As he goes through the countryside, he continues his “dialogue,” greeting in a whisper the peasants he sees laboring...
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