Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 847

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Some travelers from Rome are obliged to spend most of the night aboard a second-class railway carriage, parked at the station in Fabriano, waiting for the departure of the local train that will take them the remainder of their trip to the small village of Sulmona. At dawn, they are joined by two additional passengers: a large woman, “almost like a shapeless bundle,” and her tiny, thin husband. The woman is in deep mourning and is so distressed and maladroit that she has to be helped into the carriage by the other passengers.

Her husband, following her, thanks the people for their assistance and then tries to look after his wife’s comfort, but she responds to his ministrations by pulling up the collar of her coat to her eyes, hiding her face. The husband manages a sad smile and comments that it is a nasty world. He explains this remark by saying that his wife is to be pitied because the war has separated her from their twenty-year-old son, “a boy of twenty to whom both had devoted their entire life.” The son, he says, is due to go to the front. The man remarks that this imminent departure has come as a shock because, when they gave permission for their son’s enlistment, they were assured that he would not go for six months. However, they have just been informed that he will depart in three days.

The man’s story does not prompt too much sympathy from the others because the war has similarly touched their lives. One of them tells the man that he and his wife should be grateful that their son is leaving only now. He says that his own son “was sent there the first day of the war. He has already come back twice wounded and been sent back again to the front.” Someone else, joining the conversation, adds that he has two sons and three nephews already at the front. The thin husband retorts that his child is an only son, meaning that, should he die at the front, a father’s grief would be all the more profound. The other man refuses to see that this makes any difference. “You may spoil your son with excessive attentions, but you cannot love him more than you would all your other children if you had any.” Therefore, this one insists that he would really suffer twice what a father with one son would suffer.

The man with the two sons at the front continues by saying that a father gives all of his love to each of his children “without discrimination,” and, even if one son is killed and the other remains, this is a son left “for whom he must survive, while in the case of the father of an only son if the son dies the father can die too and put an end to his distress.” Thus, the situation of a man with two sons would still be worse than that of a man with one son.

Another man interjects that this argument is nonsense because, although parents belong to their sons, the sons never belong to their parents. Boys at twenty, “decent” boys, consider the love of their country greater than the love of their parents; when they go away to fight, they do not want to see any tears “because if they die, they die inflamed and happy.” One should therefore rejoice that they have thus been spared the ugly side of life, its boredom and pettiness and its bitterness and disillusion. He says that everyone should therefore laugh as he does, “because my son, before dying, sent a message saying that he was dying satisfied at having ended his life in the best way he could have wished.”

The woman whose son is being sent to the front to “a probable danger of death” is stunned by the stranger’s words. She suddenly realizes that her deep sorrow lies in her inability to rise to the height of all those fathers and mothers who have the ability to resign themselves to the departure and even the death of their sons. She listens with close attention to the man’s account of how his son has fallen as a hero, and she believes that she has suddenly stumbled into a world “she never dreamt of, a world so far unknown to her.” Moreover, she is greatly pleased when it appears that everyone else seems to feel the same and congratulate the “brave father who could so stoically speak of his child’s death.” However, reacting as if she had just heard nothing, she asks the man, “Then . . . is your son really dead?” Everyone stares at her, including the old man who has lost his son.

He tries to answer but cannot speak. The silly, incongruous question makes him realize, at last, that his son is, in fact, really dead and gone forever. His face begins to contort, and, reaching for a handkerchief, he, to everyone’s amazement, breaks down “into harrowing, heart-rendering, uncontrollable sobs.”

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