Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel presents a richly detailed account of the political and cultural milieu of eighteenth century Italy and poses several disturbing questions on the nature of society and the danger of reform.

Through Odo’s travels, Wharton portrays with vivid, realistic detail the sight and sense of the great cities of Italy as they might have appeared during the period. Indeed, the panoramic description and exquisite detail are much more convincing and arresting than the rather traditional roles of the principal characters. From such careful, yet not labored, descriptive passages of the cities and societies in which poverty and splendor are interwoven, Wharton is able to set the stage for the political unrest which concludes the novel.

Despite good intentions, Odo is unable either to alleviate the suffering of the peasants or to pacify the revolutionaries. He comes to realize that power and principle united do not necessarily result in beneficial conditions for society or for the individual. He finds himself in the position of forcing on his subjects liberties that they neither understand nor desire. Tradition and superstition have a deep hold on the poor, who “would rather starve under a handsome merry king that has the name of being the best billard-player in Europe than go full under [a] solemn reforming Austrian Archduke.”

The reformers fare little better at Wharton’s hands than the corrupt clergy and nobility. They, too, are...

(The entire section is 428 words.)