Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 585

In the protagonist’s contemplations, many issues are raised: the nature of democracy, progress in history, blessedness (that is, the sensation of universal harmony in which one takes part) versus personal dissatisfaction (which can be a stimulus to action and creativity), religion as the acceptance of human smallness, humanity’s triumph over adversity, and the importance of personal experience over abstraction. The number and variety of these issues demonstrate the fecund restlessness of Amerigo’s mind, and resulting as they do from Amerigo’s observations during his day as poll-watcher, they dramatize the insistence in Italian neorealism of looking at events in the context of the environment.

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These issues, however, are not so much thematic in the story as illustrative of how Amerigo’s mind works. It is a characteristic of his mind that he can always perceive the antithesis of an idea and is challenged by the consequent conflict. Contemplating his reasons for going to Cottolengo, Amerigo observes how “his thoughts raced in such an agile objectivity that he could see with the adversary’s own eyes the very things he had felt contempt for a moment earlier.” This process itself—conceiving an idea, constructing its opposite, or opposition, and working toward a resolution—is a parody of Communist dialectic, with its thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.

The central theme of the story arises out of Amerigo’s struggle with the ironies and paradoxes of a voting day in Cottolengo. He begins the day feeling self-confident, within his limits, and fairly positive about democracy, despite his “slightly pessimistic” outlook on politics. Watching the setting up of the polling place and reflecting on the tendency of institutions to forget the inspirations that created them and settle into meaningless bureaucracy, he senses an absurdity. The prospect becomes even bleaker when he observes the mental deficiency of most of the Cottolengo inmates and imagines history as decline, a sort of reverse march of progress, by which brilliant generations are replaced by increasingly dull ones. Finally comes a feeling of the futility of action, for as a watcher, there is nothing Amerigo can do to “stop the avalanche” of abuse as one inept voter follows another. Even the blessedness of the nuns is depressing, inasmuch as it seems to remove them from the real world of action: “Amerigo would have liked to go on clashing with things, fighting, and yet achieve at the same time . . . a calm above it all.” This ideal, however, is still inaccessible to him. Moreover, his enthusiasm for Marx’s early writings, in which he seeks something positive to “channel and accompany his reflections,” turns sour; Amerigo reflects that Marx’s notion of human universality is pointless unless it can promise legs to the lame and eyesight to the blind.

The turning point occurs when, in spite of his frustration with trying to communicate with Lia, Amerigo begins to admire her courage in facing the possibility of her pregnancy. His overwhelming impulse then is to express his feeling of tenderness toward her. It is from this experience that Amerigo slowly climbs out of his depression. He becomes more active in enforcing the law in the election, and finally, through his observation of the peasant father visiting his son, and the Cottolengo man, he arrives at his vision of homo faber and his city. The story thus dramatizes the view that humanity can arrive at a positive vision through direct, personal experience, which includes both an intellectual interaction with events as well as empathy and love.

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