Although primarily a historical novel, THE OLD AND THE YOUNG also presents Luigi Pirandello’s philosophical dialectic of life versus form in its various aspects: self versus mask, what one desires to be versus what one becomes, nature versus society, past ideals versus present realities, and feelings versus reason. For, according to Pirandello, life is flux, flow, becoming, but in order for life to exist—to “be”—it must enter some form. Form, however, stifles life. Thus, the Pirandello paradox: Life in order to “exist” must become form; once it becomes form, it ceases to be life.
There are various ways of escaping this dilemma. One way to escape the imprisonment of form is death, for death causes one to return to the eternal flow of life. In this novel, many individuals seek death through suicide to overcome the tragic realization that comes with the awareness of the dilemma of “life in form.” This dilemma is presented historically and socially as the disappointment that occurred after the heroic ideals of the Risorgimento had become formalized and corrupted by the necessities of political form and expediency.
Another method of escape is abstracting oneself from life. This type of escape into pure form or pure abstraction necessitates the character’s separation from any involvement in life and feeling. This is the choice of Don Cosmo who lives a life of pure reason in philosophy.
His brother, Don Ippolito, escapes the dilemma of life by retreating into conscious illusion; he lives in the past, in his archeological studies of the site upon which his palace rests. He converts his estate into a replica of the Bourbon past and lives a life of conscious madness. Other characters in the novel (Dianella and Mortara) escape the dilemma of life through unconscious madness.
The novel not only presents the dualism of life and form thematically, but structurally as well. Book 1 deals with the past, with Sicily, with the hopes of the Risorgimento, with life as possibility. Book 2 presents Rome, the corruption of the heroes following the formalization of their heroic ideals, and the subsequent destruction of all hope, the escape from reality.
Thus the setting of the novel, the depiction of a historical moment in Italian history, is interwoven with the basic Pirandellian theme of the conflict of life and form and the multiple ways in which individuals cope with the awareness of this conflict.