The Path to the Nest of Spiders

by Italo Calvino

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Themes and Meanings

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Relationships between people is the central theme of The Path to the Nest of Spiders. How do human beings connect, how can they reach out to one another? These are Pin’s unspoken but deeply rooted questions. Throughout the novel he searches for someone who is worthy of his trust and admiration, someone to whom he can reveal the symbolic secret nest of spiders.

Pin’s puzzlement is exacerbated by his developing sexuality and the chaos and danger of war. Although he can make clever, if crude, jokes about sex, he does not fully understand it. He is aware of its powerful hold over men and women, but he does not yet feel this tug of passion himself, so it both confuses and angers him to see its effects in others.

Pin seems almost antisexual, and his rejection spills over into a profound contempt for all human weakness. He has fantasies of winning the approval and applause of adults, but, significantly, his daydreams generally revolve around acts of violence directed at those same adults. For Pin, violence and sex form a binary combination.

Such a combination is well expressed in the context of war. During war, relationships are severely tested. Will one’s comrade prove to be worthy of trust on the march, in battle, or during interrogation by the enemy? Can one trust another to keep one’s identity secret, or will one be betrayed to the Fascists in the Black Brigade, or their masters in the Nazi Gestapo? Because the wartime situation emphasizes these concerns, it is an apt choice for a novel about relationships between persons.

War is also a telling metaphor for Pin’s internal condition, as he is torn between the world of childhood and the adult world, and fits well into neither of them. Few things make him happy, and his one great pleasure—the nests of spiders—cannot be shared with anyone in the flawed, dirty world around him. Each time Pin reaches out to another, he finds some fault in his would-be companion. His sister is a whore, the men in the tavern are loudmouthed braggarts, Red Wolf is a humorless automaton, the partisans are bumbling malcontents. Only Cousin, who has also rejected sex and women, is worthy of admiration and friendship.

Pin rails and storms against a world that is base and ruled by lust and passion, and seeks out an ally who shares his contempt for all that is weak and defiled. Pin and Cousin deliberately limit themselves to a narrow, circumscribed existence. Together they form a small, dedicated partisan band, determined to resist the unruly world around them.

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