The Path to the Nest of Spiders

by Italo Calvino

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Characters Discussed

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Pin

Pin, a teenage boy. Living alone with an older sister, he is streetwise, rebellious, and apparently self-assured. The thin and fragile appearance of his body are in sharp contrast with his deep, gravelly voice, with which he delights in hurling insults to everyone. Both his appearance and his attitude embody the image of the street urchin. Beneath his independent façade, however, he is a child very much in need of guidance and affection. All of his actions in the novel are prompted by his self-acknowledged desire not to be ignored any longer by the adult world he so longs to be a part of and to understand. His daring theft of a German soldier’s gun, an escape from prison, and his adventures with a group of partisan rebels are the escapades in which Pin involves himself, in what is his search for friendship and acceptance. Only with a true friend will he share his greatest secret, the place where spiders make their nests.

Cousin

Cousin, a partisan. Disenchanted and hardened by the war, he speaks with indifference about killing the enemy: For him, it has become almost routine, a duty that he must carry out. Patriotic fervor and enthusiasm seem, in this man, to have been replaced by weariness and disillusionment. His true enemies, however, are women, toward whom he feels bitter and antagonistic. Not only does he blame them for his own unhappiness, he also accuses them of being the cause of all evil, including war. It is in Pin that he finds a trusting and eager companion, and he is in turn able to offer the boy friendship and affection.

Red Wolf

Red Wolf, a boy a few years older than Pin who is a member of a partisan group and has already made himself known for his political activity. Putting his cause above all else, he is unsympathetic and zealous to the point of violence. His thirst for action exceeds his devotion to political ideology. He is immediately perceived by Pin as one who has been initiated successfully into the adult world and knows its secrets.

Rina

Rina, called The Dark Girl of Long Alley, a prostitute. She is Pin’s sister and guardian, but she shows little responsiveness to his needs and demands. She seems oblivious to his comings and goings. Completely unconcerned with political issues, she makes the best of wartime conditions by seeking out soldiers stationed in the area: Germans, Italians, Fascists, and anti-Fascists.

Kim

Kim, the commissar of a partisan brigade. In peacetime, he is a medical student who plans to specialize in psychiatry. He constantly searches for logic and clarity in people, in actions, and in ideology. He is not well liked by the other members of the group because of his probing, questioning personality, which makes them uncomfortable.

Dritto

Dritto, the leader of the partisan brigade detachment. Brave and able in commanding, he has difficulty following orders himself. In his eagerness to take matters into his own hands, he does not always carry out his duties efficiently. He loses the respect of his companions when, infatuated with the cook’s wife, he becomes distracted and causes a serious fire in the encampment.

The Characters

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The central character of The Path to the Nest of Spiders is Pin. All the other characters and events of the novel are filtered through his perceptions. These perceptions are skewed, however, because of Pin’s situation and personality. Living without a father or mother, and with a sister whose morals are distinctly casual, has hardened and coarsened Pin. Beyond this, Pin seems to be suffering from...

(This entire section contains 596 words.)

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severe anxieties relating to sexuality; partly, no doubt, these stem from his own developing sexual nature, but the severity and depth of his condition often seem much more than can be attributed to adolescent uncertainty.

Pin is well acquainted with the mechanical aspects of human sexuality; during the escape with Red Wolf he irks the young Communist by drawing obscene pictures on the side of a wall, instead of the proletarian propaganda Red Wolf expects. Elsewhere in the novel, Pin is able to score cruel and ac-curate hits on others with his jokes and songs aimed at their sexual foibles or frailties. He clearly has a thorough, if gutter-level, education in the topic of sex.

Yet the relationships between men and women baffle him. He cannot understand why the two desire each other, and this ignorance leads to fear and a vibrant hatred of females. The main appeal of the young partisan known as Cousin is that he, too, scorns women. Cousin wastes no occasion to disparage women, and at one point concisely states his philosophy to Pin: “Of course, behind all the stories with a bad ending there’s always a woman, make no mistake about that. You’re young, just listen to what I tell you. War’s all due to women....” It is little wonder, then, that Pin is drawn to Cousin, the only person to whom he can show the nests of spiders. Still, Cousin is flawed, just as Pin is, and the novel leaves unresolved their future development.

Within the world of Italo Calvino’s novel, all characters are flawed. There are obvious moral failings, such as those of Pin’s sister, Rina, and there are other, more ambiguous faults, which are somehow darkly connected with sex. Dritto, the commander of the inept partisan unit, seems an excellent leader in his potential but continually wastes opportunities in combat and destroys his reputation with the higher command. During the climactic battle toward the end of the book, Dritto renounces his command to Cousin and remains behind to make love with the young wife of the unit’s cook. Pin, who has stayed behind to spy on the couple, receives fresh confirmation that the sexual bond between man and women is a base and destroying union, rather than a loving and creative one.

Other motives fare no better in the bleak view of the boy. Red Wolf, who entered Pin’s life as a shining hero, proves to be a humorless, doctrinaire Communist, who finds all of his answers in the Party line. At one point he dismisses another character as a “Trotskyist,” explaining the word to Pin by quoting the title of a work by Vladimir Ilich Lenin: “Left-wing Communism, an infantile disorder.”

The boozy drinkers in the town bar, the misfits of the partisan band, the brutal but inefficient members of the Fascist guards, all of these are flawed and lacking. Some of this is a result of the novel’s setting in wartime Italy, where human nature is degraded by circumstance and condition. More of it, however, comes from the view of the world as seen by Pin, a deeply troubled young boy.

Bibliography

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Andrews, Richard. “Italo Calvino,” in Writers and Society in Contemporary Italy: A Collection of Essays, 1984. Edited by Michael Caesar and Peter Hainsworth.

Calvino, Italo. The Uses of Literature, 1986.

Carter, Albert Howard. Italo Calvino: Metamorphoses of Fantasy, 1987.

Olken, I.T. With Pleated Eye and Garnet Wing: Symmetries of Italo Calvino, 1984.

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