Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619

Virtually all details of plot, characterization, word choice, figurative language, and symbolism in this brief story help convey the theme that life contains a paradoxical blend of innumerable opposites or oppositions: male-female, upper class-lower class, experience-innocence, knowledge-ignorance, age-youth, life-death, daring-shyness, animate-inanimate, public-private, light-dark, bestial-refined, cleanliness-dirtiness, and white-black. The bride, whose inexperience and youth are stressed by the use of the word “young” eleven times, feels a kind of feminine shyness from the intrusion into the privacy of her home by the never-immaculate sweep, who must partially undress in order to do his job. The sweep also feels shy before his employers, however, although he knows more about them than they know about him. Concerned about his privacy, he wishes “to hide himself behind . . . words” and “let the curtain of words fall in the same way that the cuttlefish beclouds the water.” Tommaso Landolfi’s typical concern about whether language clarifies or obscures reality or relationships is suggested here, as well as tension between the social classes. The lower-class sweep is thus protecting himself linguistically from his employers.

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During the sweep’s work, the inanimate chimney comes alive for the bride, who empathizes in pain with its penetration, the “rhythm of a dull scraping which gnawed at the marrow of the house and which she felt echoing in her own entrails” and then with the sweep’s cry sounding “from the stones of the house, from the soul of the kitchen’s pots and pans, from the very breast of the young bride, who was shaken by it through and through.” Paradoxically, what the bride first hears as a “bestial howl of agony” when the sweep finally breaks through to the roof “proves to be a kind of joyous call,” suggesting a complex intertwining of opposites in life, love, and the sexual act. Moreover, the earthy sweep, never completely free from black soot and repeatedly described with animal imagery, gives to the bride the delicate, white edelweiss—a flower whose name means “noble white.”

Death and life are also paradoxically mingled. Although the abundant soot’s appearance and smell remind the bride of death, and the sweep standing on a pile of soot reminds her of a grave digger, the clearing out of the chimney and its penetration give it new life, just as the imminent death of her own sexual innocence will lead to the lives of her children and descendants. Ironically, the sexual act itself, leading to new life, results in a sort of death, in the participants’ peaking and then decline in emotion and in physiology, as suggested by the sweep’s cry of agony and joy in breaking through to the roof, his “black foot . . . of a hanged man” that emerges from the “slit” of opening to the chimney, and his appearance on the soot pile “like a gravedigger on a mound of earth” at his reemergence on finishing the job. The sexually suggestive word “slit” is significantly repeated, implying—as much else in the story does—the influence of Sigmund Freud on Landolfi’s writing. Finally, the activity of chimney cleaning, which represents two kinds of “death” to the bride, and prompts her to place her edelweiss bouquet under the portraits of dead ancestors, represents the continuation of life to the sweep and his descendants, for he reveals immediately before he leaves that he is about to bring his son into his business. A link is also suggested here with the child that the bride will likely bear as a result of her married nights, if not the impending wedding night. Though set in winter—the season of death, echoing “deaths” in the story—the actions of the plot will ultimately contribute to new life.

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