Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 639
Landolfi’s word choices and sentence structures differ from some of his other short fiction in being simple in this story, helping to impart to it a fablelike quality. While some of Landolfi’s other fiction uses more polysyllabic and abstract words, almost all of his work has the same kind of vivid symbolism as this story. In this tale, for example, almost all the details of the sweep’s clothing are evocative, from the earthiness suggested by the brown of his corduroy suit’s hue of “linseed oil” and his brown shirt, to his “two huge mountain boots.” The weight of his boots also suggests the earthbound, though they also hold him “erect,” counteracting his stoop, and point, contradictorily, to both aspiration and rising sexuality. The name of the material in his suit evokes aristocracy, as “corduroy” was originally thought to mean “cloth of the king”—a sharp contrast with the sweep’s social class. In its liquid stickiness linseed oil suggests the by-products of lovemaking; in its hardening property, which is used for protective coating in paint and varnish, it suggests the coating of the chimney and the bride’s ignorance, to be assailed by sweep and groom, respectively.
The coating that the sweep dons—ironically, in order to uncoat the chimney—is a black “gag” resembling a mask that covers his nose and mouth; it suggests the opposition between articulate and inarticulate, plus sweep and groom as masculine rapacious, intrusive robbers of a sort. The sweep’s revelation that he violated prohibitions against picking edelweiss is an analogue of the groom’s imminent violation of a much different sort of flower. Moreover, the bride’s difficulty in summoning the courage to speak to the sweep and her difficulty in understanding his words on the two occasions that he speaks to her suggest the problems of language and communication, including their involvement in the relationship between the sexes. To maintain his own privacy, the sweep speaks opaquely obscuring sentences that resemble the cuttlefish’s ink and recall his black gag.
After the bride retreats outside the kitchen the third time, the fact that she seats herself on a millstone suggests a rural setting, in which people grind their own wheat and corn; it also suggests her imminent induction into domestic life, after the wedding night. Also implied is the bride’s being ground down by what lies ahead. The tool that the sweep uses to scrape out the chimney (apart from its vague phallic overtones) resembles the implement used to scrape kneading troughs. These, like the millstone, may be associated with bread—the staff of life and the focus of daily activities of family life.
In the bride’s metaphoric conception, from the first moment that she meets the sweep, of his “caterpillar nature” is implied his humility, or shyness, in the presence of the affluent; his ability to crawl up chimney walls; and new life and transformation after the chrysalis stage. The bride’s conception, in simile, of the sweep resembling a crab louse, suggests not only his dark environment but also sexuality, echoing the caterpillar imagery. Ironically, although this caterpillar-natured person begins the destruction of the bride’s insulation from the social and sexual worlds, he also gives her a flower bouquet, the beautiful edelweiss. Growing only in mountainous wildernesses, edelweiss is collected only with difficulty analogous to the difficulties of the sweep and bride. Its plucking, as the sweep admits, has been outlawed, analogous, the story implies, to the forbidden aura of the chimney sweep’s and the groom’s activities. Finally, the flower’s structure contains a protective covering of woolly bracts; this covering is implicitly related to the story’s focus on penetrating the surfaces of things. This last concern is metaphysical, transcendent, and perhaps the crux of all Landolfi’s fiction.
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