Characters Discussed

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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 disquieting. Aside from her engagement to Volpini, there is evidence of other affairs, not only during the past but also during her relationship with Emilio. Angiolina usually is adept at covering up, but sometimes the ruse is too transparent. She is perhaps self-deceived as well as deceitful; she gets little in return for her youth and beauty and in the end elopes with an embezzler.

Amalia Brentani

Amalia Brentani (ah-MAHL-ee-ah), Emilio’s sister and housekeeper. Thin and colorless, she seems to Balli to have been born gray. Her attitude toward Emilio seems almost maternal. Her suppressed romantic longings are brought to the surface by Emilio’s tales of Angiolina and by Balli’s visits; when she falls ill and becomes delirious, her love for Balli becomes obvious. When she dies, Emilio learns that she has been taking ether.

Stephano Balli

Stephano Balli, a sculptor, Emilio’s friend and confidant. Though not without talent, he has had more success with women than with sculpture. He accepts Emilio because, like the women, he is easily dominated. He attempts to advise Emilio about Angiolina but ends up falling under her spell. He behaves decently with Amalia, however, and attends her during her last illness.


Margherita, Balli’s mistress. She appears meek and submissive but turns out to have cuckolded Balli; in fact, she supports her family by prostitution.

Elena Chierici

Elena Chierici (kee-ehr-EE-chee), a widow with an unhappy past. She is a neighbor of Emilio and unselfishly volunteers to nurse Amalia in her final illness.


Volpini (vohl-PEE-nee), a middle-aged tailor to whom Angiolina becomes engaged, perhaps to cover a possible pregnancy.


Sorniani (sohr-nee-AH-nee), a shriveled little creature, a ladies’ man and a malicious gossip who gives Emilio information about Angiolina.

The Characters

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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 creditable, and yet the clumsy and deceitful way in which he handles the affair with Balli in the end destroys her. The final irony is that the whole affair is not tragic for Emilio, who lives on with his pleasant, if distorted, memories.

Balli is offered as a foil for Emilio but should not be regarded as a simple opposite. As a sculptor he is not exactly a failure, and he certainly is no fraud, but he has never really been accepted by the official art world and his career is made possible by the capricious benevolence of an ignorant patron. As a lover, he seems a dashing success, at least in comparison with Emilio, but he settles for a mistress who is much less desirable than Angiolina and is himself cuckolded. Though he tries to demonstrate his power over Angiolina in order to disabuse Emilio, he himself falls under her power. He is, however, a devoted friend, and he expiates his careless treatment of Amalia by his vigil at her bedside.

Angiolina is a complex character who remains likable even after the exposure of her numerous deceptions. She is strikingly beautiful and notably healthy, and she manages to dress stylishly. It seems that she prostitutes herself to support her indigent family, but the evidence is inconclusive. From Emilio she gets little beyond sausages and cheese, and it must be assumed that much of her promiscuity arises from a compulsive need for admiration and approval. Her deceptions can be extremely ingenious but are sometimes so transparent that not even Emilio is fooled. Perhaps Emilio is right in regarding her as uncalculating; she might have used her beauty to make a good marriage, but instead she elopes with an embezzler.


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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.




Critical Essays