Gabriele D’Annunzio’s early work was written under the influence of French writers, particularly those associated with the Decadent movement. The Triumph of Death was published after Il piacere (1889; The Child of Pleasure, 1898), which follows and analyzes the troubled inner life of a Roman nobleman in a fashion similar to the examination of Giorgio. The Triumph of Death is a more sophisticated work than its predecessor, offering a psychological analysis of greater depth, but its power comes from its relentless fascination with mortality.
The story told by the novel is essentially a long explanation of Giorgio’s eventual decision to commit suicide and take Ippolita with him. Perhaps it is also a justification of that act, insofar as it might be justified, but D’Annunzio takes care to maintain a distance between himself and his subject. He describes Giorgio’s impressions in minute detail, but he refrains from confirming their validity or condoning their morality. It is worth bearing in mind that D’Annunzio went on to write works of a very different nature, forsaking Decadent pessimism to the extent that he became a passionate advocate of mechanical progress, a war hero, and—eventually—a supporter of Benito Mussolini; it would be a mistake to identify him too closely with his protagonist.
Giorgio’s disaffection has two root causes. One is his exaggerated distaste for what he considers to be the degradation of his fellow human beings. This reaches a climax in the scenes at the shrine, where the maimed, the mad, and the miserable gather in a vast jostling crowd, competing with animalistic fervor for the privilege of begging the Virgin Mary to grant them release from their suffering. The same distaste is given more intimate expression in the savagely scathing judgment that Giorgio delivers upon his greedy and deceitful father. It is worth noting that his judgment of his whining mother, his corpulent aunt, and his enfeebled sister, Cristina, is no more generous. The people he cannot hate he nevertheless contrives to hold in contempt.
Giorgio frequently disguises his vituperations as attacks on vulgar materialism, but such charges ring true only when they are applied to his father and his sponging friend Exili. What really offends him is infirmity and self-delusion in all their guises. An unsympathetic reader might be tempted to draw the conclusion that Giorgio’s greatest fear is...
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