Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Moravia’s depiction of middle-class life as dull, gloomy, and false shocked and stimulated Italian audiences when the novel first appeared. The product of a bourgeois upbringing, Moravia revealed his own boredom with that existence. His critique went beyond a personal aversion to middle-class values: It anticipated the existential view that people have become so self-absorbed that they cannot relate to any world outside themselves. Moravia’s characters are as much strangers as Albert Camus’, and like Jean-Paul Sartre’s, they can find no exit from their self-enclosed worlds.

Moravia’s work thus provided a powerful and early exploration of the modern condition. Equally significant for Italian literature, it did so in the novel form. Italy was known as the land of poets: Dante, Petrarch, Ludovico Ariosto, and Torquato Tasso. In 1929, the Italian novel was barely one hundred years old. Moravia had attempted to write this novel as a tragedy rather than as prose fiction, and many of these dramatic elements remained in the final version. For example, it relied heavily on dialogue and monologue, and it adhered closely to Aristotle’s unities of time and place, with the locale confined to three houses in Rome and the action unfolding over a period of forty-eight hours. By choosing to use the novel rather than a more classical genre, however, Moravia encouraged others to adopt that mode as well and so impelled Italian fiction toward its important place in world literature.