Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1323
This story focuses on the observations and reflections of a Communist Party worker, Amerigo Ormea, on a day in which he is participating as a “poll-watcher” during the 1953 Italian election. The voting place to which he has been assigned is Turin’s Cottolengo Hospital for Incurables, a shelter for the...
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This story focuses on the observations and reflections of a Communist Party worker, Amerigo Ormea, on a day in which he is participating as a “poll-watcher” during the 1953 Italian election. The voting place to which he has been assigned is Turin’s Cottolengo Hospital for Incurables, a shelter for the mentally and physically afflicted. The voters at Cottolengo are its staff and, primarily, its inmates, and Amerigo’s responsibility, especially as a Communist, is to see that the voters are all mentally capable of voting on their own without being guided by nuns and priests of the institution (who would be supporters of the Christian Democrat Party, opposing the Communists in the election). Working with Amerigo are five other volunteers—a chairman, a clerk, and three other watchers.
This is a psychological drama, in which the conflicts and resolutions are intellectual, occurring in the mind of the protagonist; the external action provides the context in which Amerigo faces the political, moral, and religious questions that are central to the story. The complexity of the story exists in Amerigo’s intensely sensitive and ethical mind, which wanders through labyrinthine paths of speculations. The actual events are straightforward.
Amerigo leaves home at five-thirty in the morning and walks in the rain to Cottolengo. Throughout the day, Amerigo vacillates in his feelings about the election—whether, for example, taking the election to an institution for the mentally infirm and disabled helps democracy or harms it. However, he begins positively, with a simple determination. He recognizes what he regards as The moral question: you had to go on doing as much as you could, day by day. In politics, as in every other sphere of life, there are two important principles for a man of sense: don’t cherish too many illusions, and never stop believing that every little bit helps.
At the polls, the task he is assigned is that of checking the voters’ identity papers. One of the watchers, a woman in orange, questions the validity of a voter’s medical certificate that claims that the man is blind. She notices that the voter is able to see that he has accidentally taken two ballots. A priest accompanying the voter defends the medical certificate, and Amerigo enters the argument, stating that the certificate is valid “if it tells the truth.” He suggests that they test the voter’s ability to see. The chairman, the two other watchers, and the priest outnumber Amerigo and the woman in orange, and the priest has his way, accompanying the voter into the voting booth to assist him. Amerigo and the woman record their protest, and Amerigo goes out for a smoke.
Amerigo feels a personal crisis at this point, in which all action seems futile: “[M]orality impels one to act; but what if the action is futile?” Progress, liberty, and justice seem the privilege of the healthy, and not universal, because the afflicted cannot share in them. The only practical attitude for the Cottolengo unfortunate seems to be a religious one, “establishing a relation between one’s own afflictions and a universal harmony and completeness.” Society creates the institution to help the afflicted, but nothing can really be done, so that “Cottolengo was, at once, the proof and the denial of the futility of action.” Amerigo finally returns to his work as poll-watcher, believing that the only right action is to behave well in history, “even if the world is Cottolengo.” Pessimistically, however, Amerigo muses that being right is not enough.
Amerigo returns to his home during his lunch break and begins reading a passage from the early writings of Karl Marx, on the relationship between humans and nature. Lia, Amerigo’s mistress, telephones him, interrupting his reading. They have a pointless argument about her belief in horoscopes, which Amerigo regards as irrational. They hang up, and Amerigo calls her back to tell her that she is “prelogical,” but Lia will not let him speak, asking him instead to listen to a recording that she is playing. Amerigo, frustrated at not being able to speak, argues again with her and they hang up again. Lia calls back and informs Amerigo that she thinks she is pregnant. Amerigo reacts in horror and suggests abortion, which angers Lia, and she hangs up again. Amerigo makes a last call, to soothe her, and again is not able to speak because Lia wants him to listen to another recording. He feels fatalistic about their differences, illustrated for him by this interchange.
While Amerigo anguishes over their future, Lia is passive. Amerigo thinks, “[F]or her it’s nothing, for her it’s nature, for her the logic of the mind doesn’t count, only the logic of physiology.” However, Amerigo feels reassurance in Lia’s consistency: She is always irrational, always unpredictable. During this episode, Amerigo feels largely disappointed in himself for not living up to his model of behavior, which is to maintain a calm, lucid mastery of situations. Depressed about Lia’s pregnancy and how lightly she seems to take it, he thinks of Cottolengo, “all that India of people born to unhappiness, that silent question, an accusation of all those who procreate.”
Returning to Cottolengo, Amerigo joins the other voting officials in visiting a ward of inmates who cannot leave their beds. Amerigo objects to allowing the vote of a paralytic man who cannot express himself. After arguing with the mother superior and a priest, Amerigo prevails, and his objection is subsequently applied by the priest in charge to the remaining bedridden inmates in the ward. Amerigo has taken action that has made a difference.
Observing a peasant farmer who is visiting his paralytic and apparently noncommunicative son, Amerigo considers the quality of love. Unlike the mother superior, who attends the afflicted for no recognition other than “the good she derived from them,” the father “stared into his son’s eyes to be recognized, to keep from losing him.” Amerigo thinks, “Those two . . . are necessary to each other. . . . Humanity reaches as far as love reaches; it has no frontiers except those we give it.” This reflection leads Amerigo to acknowledge his love for Lia, and in a moment of revelation he hurries to call her. Her line is busy, and when he finally does reach her they end up arguing over her busy line and a trip she is planning, apparently in response to something Amerigo had carelessly said the day before. Amerigo is both furious at his inability to control his interactions with Lia and relieved that Lia never changes. He feels an impulse to hang up and at the same time a fatalistic sense that he is caught.
At the end of the day, Amerigo makes his last significant observation in Cottolengo, when he meets a fifty-year-old man who grew up in the hospital and has lived his whole life there. The man is without hands but manages to overcome his handicap with skillful manipulation of his arms. Amerigo’s final response is a positive one: “Man triumphs even over malign biological mutation.” He sees in the Cottolengo man a fitting symbol of the human as homo faber (“man the maker”); in Cottolengo itself, which the Cottolengo man describes as being like a small city, Amerigo sees a symbol of all cities, which are to be respected for the human will and ingenuity that creates them. Thus, at the end of the story Amerigo feels a response to a question that opened the story: “[A]re institutions, which grow old, of no matter; is what matters only the human will, the human needs . . . restoring verity to the instruments they use?” His feeling now is thatHomo faber’s city . . . always runs the risk of mistaking its institutions for the secret fire without which cities are not founded and machinery’s wheels aren’t set in motion; and in defending institutions, unawares, you can let the fire die out.