Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Moon and the Bonfire was the last work Cesare Pavese wrote before committing suicide in 1950. As such, it is the most interesting of his novels for those readers seeking autobiographical clues to the writer’s state of mind. On a more critical level, however, the book is considered Pavese’s masterpiece because of his successful use of the vernacular style and the integrated use of natural symbols.

Influenced by such American writers as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner—spending much of his career in the 1930’s translating their works, as well as those of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville—Pavese experimented in his own novels with a vernacular style: plain, elliptical, idiomatic, and new to Italian literature. Paesi tuoi (1941; The Harvesters, 1961) was his first attempt with the vernacular form in a novel, but the book was obviously experimental and derivative, the style not yet fully accommodated to the action. In The Moon and the Bonfire, Pavese achieved his most successful fusion of the vernacular style with theme and meaning, creating a work which has influenced a generation of Italian novelists.

The images of moon and bonfire suffuse the novel as natural cultural symbols, commenting on action and deepening meaning without calling attention to themselves. Like the vernacular, these natural images are nonliterary and rhetorically simple, emerging organically from the action rather than being imposed upon it.