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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 897

Emilio Brentani is a man of thirty-five, a clerk in an insurance office, who lives in a drab apartment with his sister Amalia; he has literary pretensions and has published a novel which has had at least local success. He has fallen in love with a lower-class girl, Angiolina Zarri,...

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Emilio Brentani is a man of thirty-five, a clerk in an insurance office, who lives in a drab apartment with his sister Amalia; he has literary pretensions and has published a novel which has had at least local success. He has fallen in love with a lower-class girl, Angiolina Zarri, who is remarkable for her blonde beauty and vibrant good health; she seems inclined to accept his attentions, though he is frank about his inability, or unwillingness, to marry. He begins to go for walks with her, during which she is affectionate enough, but already there are hints of trouble. From Sorniani, an older man with a bad reputation, Emilio hears that Angiolina was once engaged to a businessman named Merighi; the engagement was broken off, possibly because of Merighi’s business losses, possibly because Angiolina was detected in an intrigue. Emilio’s friend the sculptor Stefano Balli believes that there is danger in the affair.

Emilio visits Angiolina at her home and is well received by her mother, who seems a ruined version of Angiolina. The house is thoroughly shabby, except for Angiolina’s bedroom, which is comfortably furnished but displays some photographs which Emilio recognizes as the portraits of some rather fast men about Trieste. He presses Angiolina for complete possession, and she would be willing if there were a third party on whom any results could be blamed.

Shortly thereafter, Angiolina announces her engagement to a tailor named Volpini, a man neither young nor handsome, though jolly and likable. She met him at the Deluigis’, friends for whom she sometimes works. Though still trying to believe in Angiolina’s respectability, Emilio realizes that he cannot “enjoy without suffering,” cannot use Angiolina as a plaything without becoming emotionally involved. Balli refuses to give him any more advice but proposes that they should dine with him and his mistress, Margherita, a girl by no means as attractive as Angiolina, but meek and submissive. Balli treats both women rather coarsely, with the intention of discrediting Angiolina in Emilio’s eyes, but Angiolina shows no resentment and Emilio is merely irritated with Balli.

Balli is in the habit of calling at the Brentanis’, and this becomes the chief event in Amalia’s gray life; she does not even resent her brother’s affair, since it brings her in touch with romance. Balli has discovered that Margherita is unfaithful and in fact may be prostituting herself to support her family. Meanwhile, Volpini writes that he is unable to marry immediately but that if Angiolina will give him immediate enjoyment he will guarantee his good faith by a contract. Emilio still deludes himself about Angiolina and thinks of reeducating her.

It is now January, the time of the carnival, with all its tawdry gaiety, but also a time of wretched weather. Balli sees Angiolina in the company of a girl named Giulia and an umbrella maker, a man even less prepossessing than Volpini. Emilio confronts Angiolina and goes away, but his chief thought is that he could give her up more easily if he had once possessed her. Meanwhile, all is not well with Amalia, who has been talking in her sleep. Emilio discourages Balli’s visits, saying, falsely, that a relative suspects an engagement. Then, when Amalia seems discouraged, he persuades Balli to return, but his coldness does more harm than good. A visit to the opera merely confirms Amalia’s forlorn state.

Emilio begins a new novel, based on the reality of his affair with Angiolina, but finds it less vivid than the novel he wrote out of his fantasies. He believes that he can safely see her again, and a chance encounter is the beginning of an affair carried on in a sordid house of assignation. The affair is physically satisfying, but there are sour notes; she has given herself to Volpini, and she has taken a new lover whose personality Emilio can partially reconstruct: He is a student, apparently, for along with some indecent songs Angiolina has picked up a smattering of Latin. She maneuvers him into a confrontation with her father which only reveals the father’s madness. Volpini sends a letter breaking off the engagement; Emilio helps Angiolina draft a reply full of injured innocence.

Emilio returns home to find Amalia half naked and delirious. As her state worsens, it becomes obvious that the content of the delirium is erotic and concerns Balli; she even imagines a rival, Vittoria. In the emergency, Emilio gets help from a neighbor, Elena Chierici, who loyally undertakes to nurse Amalia. Balli too is loyal and procures a doctor, who diagnoses inflammation of the lungs but startles Emilio by indicating that Amalia is an alcoholic. In fact, Emilio discovers by chance that she has been taking ether. Though Amalia is obviously dying, he leaves her to break off the relationship with Angiolina. Whatever his intentions, they quarrel for the last time. Emilio, Balli, and Elena are present as Amalia dies. Emilio learns from Elena that the Deluigis are purely imaginary.

Some time later Emilio hears from Sorniani that Angiolina has run off with an embezzler. He calls on Signora Zarri, and Angiolina’s younger sister flirts with him. Years later he looks back on the whole affair as one of the most luminous periods of his life, and in memory the figures of Angiolina and Amalia are somehow blended.

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