Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The audience, whether as spectators or participants in Cipolla’s rude jests, are drawn to the magician by an unseemly combination of fascination and curiosity. Some seek to uncover his secrets; others vainly attempt to assert their own strength and endurance against the magician’s powers. There are also those who, while remaining aloof themselves, seem amused at the discomfiture of others. Once they have come, many in the audience feel compelled in spite of themselves to remain and acquiesce to Cipolla’s clever but cruel pranks.

Shortly before the intermission, Cipolla delivers a disquisition on will. He claims to have begun as the audience’s guide, pointing the way for them and correcting their course as he discovered the feats they wished him to perform; now he has become merely a suffering, passive instrument of their common will. To command and to obey are but two complementary principles of a single idea; submission and self-control ultimately are transferred from the people to himself, as their leader. This self-serving justification does point to the audience’s perverse acceptance and growing tolerance of Cipolla’s sway over them. There are subtle but unmistakable political allusions here, notably in some fervid patriotic references to the Italian Fatherland. Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship, which was firmly in power when the story was written, is mentioned once. It is clear that in this instance the masses are led by an ingenious and beguiling, but essentially self-centered performer, whose concerns lie no deeper than the imposition of his authority on others.

In calling this incident to mind, the narrator comments on it as a comedy that became a tragedy; he is troubled by “the peculiar evilness of the situation as a whole.” This work is more than a political allegory or a study in mass psychology; it suggests that personal dignity and freedom may be trampled on only to a point. The deformed charlatan may ridicule and humiliate selected members of the audience, but he cannot intrude on the intimate life of the least of them. It is for this reason that his demands on poor Mario arouse a distinct revulsion—in which the reader’s sympathies are decidedly with the poor lad—and that the violent and unexpected end of the magician is received with relief as well as with shock.