Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Emilio Brentani

Emilio Brentani (eh-MIHL-ih-oh brehn-TAH-nee), a clerk in an insurance office. The Italian title Senilità (senility) must refer to him but cannot be taken literally, for he is only thirty-five years old; metaphorically, it seems not inappropriate, because his lack of energy and enterprise suits a much older man. He is content to live in a shabby apartment with his pale sister and “to go cautiously through life, avoiding all its perils, but also renouncing all its pleasures.” He neither pursues a literary career (he has published one novel) nor translates his liberal political opinions into action. He might seem to be pursuing life’s pleasures in his affair with Angiolina Zarri, but his irresolution and capacity for self-deception bring defeat in the end. Although he is unwilling to marry, he expects fidelity from Angiolina and blinds himself to evidence of her promiscuity. After she deserts him and his sister Amalia dies, he yields to senility, looking back with “enchanted wonder” to the period of his affair and blending Angiolina and Amalia into one splendid symbol.

Angiolina Zarri

Angiolina Zarri (ahn-gee-oh-LEE-nah ZAH-ree), a lower-class girl of striking beauty and vibrant health. She treats Emilio with warmth and affection, but from the first her conduct is...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The key to Emilio is his senilita, his inertia. Like Hamlet, he combines a fundamental inertia with spurts of misdirected energy. It is significant that he has made no effort to pursue his promising literary career, or to better his financial situation, which prevents him from ever marrying without abandoning Amalia. Another area of his inertia is politics. He is a Socialist and freethinker, and he dreams that under socialism he and Angiolina would have a better life; the only practical effect of his liberal ideas is that by banishing religion from his home he has deprived Amalia of its consolations.

The key to Emilio’s affair with Angiolina is his inability to “possess without suffering”—to treat her as a plaything without being troubled by jealousy. He cannot or will not marry her, and yet he expects her to be faithful, even after he in effect cuckolds Volpini. Aside from the moral ambiguity of the affair, the notable element is Emilio’s infinite capacity for self-deception with reference to Angiolina, or Ange (angel), as he calls her. The overwhelming evidence for Angiolina’s real character—the gossip, the suspicions of Balli, the photographs in her bedroom, the mysterious visits to the imaginary Deluigis—is brushed aside until the crucial episode of the umbrella maker. Even after that, Emilio still believes that he can associate easily with Angiolina while knowing about her promiscuity.

Emilio’s devotion to Amalia is...

(The entire section is 528 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Furbank, P.N. Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer, 1966.

Joyce, Stanislaus. Introduction to As a Man Grows Older, 1932.

Lebowitz, Naomi. Italo Svevo, 1978.

Staley, Thomas F., ed. Essays on Italo Svevo, 1969.