Analysis of Luigi Pirandello’s Stories

Luigi Pirandello’s (28 June 1867 – 10 December 1936) earliest short stories are tales of the insular environment of his native Sicily. Originally written in Sicilian dialect and later translated into Italian, they deal in naturalistic style with the traditions and customs of the peasant peoples. He admired the writings of the Italian Verists (realists) but moved beyond them in his view that reality is individual and psychologically determined. External realism was for Pirandello insufficient for the expression of internal states. He strove to transform naturalistic determinism into a broad philosophical commentary on the inner meaning of the human person, proclaiming that a single reality does not exist. All is illusion, experience is ambiguous, and each person lives behind a selfconstructed mask, concealing one’s essential nature and adapting to the environment for the protection of the fragile ego within. As his world experience grew, his stories, too, grew to be blends of philosophy and human emotion, brave attempts to express the inexpressible dilemma of humankind’s inability to communicate honestly in a world of false appearances and deceitful words.

Pirandello’s characters are victims of insecurity and self-doubt, combined with a great capacity for love. They live their lives as in a mirror, reaching always from behind a mask of reality for elusive and illusionary happiness. His characters move out from a core of circumstantial suffering, attempting to discover meaning and truth in the very suffering itself and discovering instead the perverse comedy of deception upon deception—of mask upon mask. Only through ironic laughter could humankind endure such contradiction. Humor, for Pirandello, is an amalgam of laughter and tears, a coming together of the power to mock with the power to sympathize. He treats his characters with pity rather than derision for their follies and with compassion for their inescapable miseries.

Pirandello’s stories appeal to the intellect searching for answers to the puzzling contradictions of life. They contain frequent asides, some long disquisitions, and occasional intellectual debates with the self. Characters seem at times to be delivering speeches for the author rather than revealing themselves through action. The narrative line seems fragmented and convoluted, with the reader’s interest not drawn steadily along with the unfolding plot but instead concentrated on particular discrete moments of paradox and inversion of fortune.

All of this comes to the non-Italian reader in translations that may seem tedious because of the double problem of language and cultural differences. Since he was chiefly known as a dramatist, Pirandello’s stories have been overlooked, many never translated, and often even these few translations are questionable renderings of his thought rather than of his rhetoric. Nevertheless, those few tales that are available will give the thoughtful reader a sampling of the philosophy and view of life of a writer whose works provide a bridge from nineteenth century Romanticism, on through realism, to twentieth century relativism.

Sunlight and Shadow

Among Pirandello’s earliest short stories is “Sole e ombra” (“Sunlight and Shadow”), a tale of the suicide of an elderly gentleman, Ciunna, who has stolen money from the company for which he works in order to help his povertystricken son and his young family. On the day after the theft, Ciunna plans to journey to the nearby coastal town where he will throw himself into the sea, thereby escaping judgment and guaranteeing that his son may keep the stolen money.

Here, Pirandello uses the unusual technique of extended “dialogue soliloquies.” Ciunna walks about the street of his village on the night of the theft, carrying on vocalized conversations with the inspector who will discover his crime the following day. He speaks also with his son, telling of his great happiness in being able to sacrifice his life for the boy. He chats also with the chemist from whom he has received a few crystals of arsenic in preparation for his suicide.

For two weeks, Ciunna has been going about the streets muttering to himself as he formed his plan, but no one has bothered to ask what is disturbing him. He feels himself an outsider among his friends, a man alienated from others and even from himself. This sense of total alienation from life is a repeated theme in Pirandello’s stories and plays, and the response of suicide—or at least the contemplation of it as a possibility for escaping life’s harsh realities—is the basis of some two dozen of his betterknown tales.

On the morning after the theft, Ciunna sets out by horse and carriage on his journey to the sea. As he goes through the countryside, he continues his “dialogue,” greeting in a whisper the peasants he sees laboring long hours for a few coins, inviting them to join him on his journey.He calls out within himself “Let’s be merry! Let’s all go and throw ourselves into the sea! . . . Life’s a beautiful thing and we shouldn’t trouble it with the sight of us.” The motif of life as a ridiculous journey of futility lived among strangers with whom one cannot communicate is a further common element of Pirandellian stories.

Ciunna’s plan for death in the sea is foiled when he meets a young friend at the coast who spends the whole day with him. That evening, as he is returning to his village in the same carriage, he swallows the arsenic crystals and dies, alone and in agony, unnoticed even by the driver who is singing overhead.

Adrianna Takes a Trip

A suicide tale of a different sort is “La viaggio” (“Adrianna Takes a Trip”). Adrianna, a widow of thirteen years, lives simply with her two teenage sons in the home of her brother-in-law Cesare. It is the custom in this Sicilian mountain village that mourning for a husband is perpetual, that all widows live in seclusion and in submisiveness to some male of her own or her deceased husband’s family. It was Adrianna’s accepted role to live this life of repression, this pinched and narrow existence in a barren, parched land, and it was a role that she carried well.

Adrianna’s marriage to her husband had been an arranged, loveless affair. He had married her to spite his older brother, who truly loved her as she had come to love him in return through the years of her widowhood. Though neither, by custom, could express their true feelings in any way, each came to understand and accommodate the masks imposed upon them by circumstances and by village expectations.

In time, Adrianna begins to experience some pain in her shoulder and chest. Local doctors advise Cesare to take her to Palermo for diagnosis. She resists the idea of such a journey, fearful of venturing beyond the village after thirty-five years of confinement there. The trip is arranged, however, and she must go despite her terror both at the newness of the experience and at the prospect of being alone with Cesare beyond the village for the first time.

After the diagnosis of a fatal tumor and the procurement of a potentially lethal medicine for her pain, Cesare prevails on Adrianna to continue their trip to the mainland for a short holiday, as is his annual custom. They journey on to Naples, Rome, and finally Venice, each city another revelation to her of the fullness of life, which can never be hers. In the course of their journey, they are at last able to express and consummate their deep love for each other. Adrianna knows, however, that they can never return to Sicily as man and wife—an action considered sacrilegious there. After a day of surrender to perfect joy together in Venice, she sends Cesare on an errand and drinks the whole of her medicine in one draft, choosing an immediate death of the body over a return to Sicily and a lingering death of the heart.

This tale shows clearly Pirandello’s insight concerning women such as Adrianna, the falseness of the life that they were forced to lead, the masks that they were required to wear to hide their true selves, the masks that in turn they forced upon those around them. Adrianna and Cesare were victims of what Pirandello frequently referred to as the “reciprocity of illusion,” the mutual life-lie that each human being must assume in order to survive within the black comedy of a world filled with deception and false expectations.

Signora Frola and Her Son-in-Law, Signor Ponza

Adrianna’s refusal to continue the mutual deception required by her life circumstances stands in sharp contrast to the positions of the protagonists of “La signora Frola e il signor Ponza, suo genero” (“Signora Frola and Her Son-in-Law, Signor Ponza”). One of Pirandello’s most popular and typical tales, it is a highly compressed comic presentation of multiple planes of illusion and reality, a trenchant satire on pious busybodies and their rationalization of gross curiosity. More than that, however, it is his clearest statement of the ironic comedy of humankind’s search for the one truth among the many truths that make up the reality of interrelationships and of the compassionate necessity of supporting one another’s mutual deceits.

The plot is both simple and complex: A husband, wife, and mother-in-law have come to a small town where their background is unknown. Local gossips are eager to solve the mystery of their past and to discover why the two women are maintained in separate households by the husband, Signor Ponza, and why he visits his motherin- law daily but apparently does not allow her to visit with her daughter except through shouted conversations from courtyard to a third-floor window and through occasional letters. First the husband and then the mother-in-law explain their unusual arrangement, each stating that the other is mad and under a delusion concerning the true identity of the wife: Signor Ponza declares her to be his second wife, taken after the death of Signora Frola’s daughter, who had been his first wife, a death that her mother has never accepted and has convinced herself never happened; Signora Frola maintains that the woman is her own daughter and Ponza’s only wife, though married to him in a second ceremony after a serious illness of a year’s duration during which time he convinced himself that she was dead.

Strangely, each of these two is aware of the other’s version of the truth, and not only aware of it but also at pains to help maintain the other’s belief in order to preserve their carefully constructed arrangement for living with their mutual tragedy. To believe either of the stories would provide an adequate explanation of the mysterious relationship among the three. To have two apparently “real” explanations, however, is not acceptable to the townspeople, who are bent on discovering “the truth”—even though both the husband and the mother-in-law beseech them to drop their investigation, as further probing can only cause deeper suffering for the little family.

Here, Pirandello illustrates the immutable failure of the desire for truth in a world where individuals know so little of themselves that they can never hope to know the full reality of others. He would have his reader accept the construziones, the masks that members of the family have created as a protection from the encroachment of a third reality too terrible to realize. This tale is a Pirandellian conundrum in which nothing is as it seems. Perceptions are not reality; apparent reality may be no more than perceptions. Here, as in all of his works, Pirandello holds that life itself strives to give the perfect illusion of reality. People are all make-believe. Their pretense is their reality, and that is the horror. Through such depiction of ordinary characters enmeshed in the chance circumstances of life and sharing compassionate, redeeming love, Pirandello accomplishes in his short fiction universal statements of lasting human value.

Major Works
Plays: La morsa, pb. 1898 (as L’epilogo, pr. 1910; The Vise, 1928); Scamandro, pb. 1909, pr. 1928; Lumìe di Sicilia, pr. 1910, pb. 1911 (Sicilian Limes, 1921); Il dovere del medico, pb. 1912, pr. 1913 (The Doctor’s Duty, 1928); Se non così . . ., pr. 1915, pb. 1916; All’uscita, pr. 1916, pb. 1922 (At the Gate, 1928); Liolà, pr. 1916, pb. 1917 (English translation, 1952); Pensaci, Giacomino!, pr. 1916, pb. 1917; Così è (se vi pare), pr. 1917, pb. 1918 (Right You Are [If You Think So], 1922); Il berretto a sonagli, pr. 1917, pb. 1920 (Cap and Bells, 1957); Il piacere dell’onestà, pr. 1917, pb. 1918 (The Pleasure of Honesty, 1923); La giara, pr. 1917, pb. 1925 (The Jar, 1928); Il giuoco delle parti, pr. 1918, pb. 1919 (The Rules of the Game, 1959); La patente, pb. 1918, pr. 1919 (The License, 1964); Ma non è una cosa seria, pr. 1918, pb. 1919; L’innesto, pr. 1919, pb. 1921; L’uomo, la bestia, e la virtùgrave;, pr., pb. 1919 (Man, Beast, and Virtue, 1989); Come prima, meglio di prima, pr. 1920, pb. 1921; La Signora Morli, una e due, pr. 1920, pb. 1922; Tutto per bene, pr., pb. 1920 (All for the Best, 1960); Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore, pr., pb. 1921 (Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1922); Enrico IV, pr., pb. 1922 (Henry IV, 1923); L’imbecille, pr. 1922, pb. 1926 (The Imbecile, 1928); Vestire gli ignudi, pr. 1922, pb. 1923 (Naked, 1924); L’altro figlio, pr. 1923, pb. 1925 (The House with the Column, 1928); L’uomo dal fiore in bocca, pr. 1923, pb. 1926 (The Man with the Flower in His Mouth, 1928); La vita che ti diedi, pr. 1923, pb. 1924 (The Life I Gave You, 1959); Ciascuno a suo modo, pr., pb. 1924 (Each in His Own Way, 1923); Sagra del Signore della nave, pb. 1924, pr. 1925 (Our Lord of the Ship, 1928); Diana e la Tuda, pr. 1926 (in Switzerland), pr., pb. 1927 (Diana and Tudo, 1950); Bellavita, pr. 1927, pb. 1928 (English translation, 1964); L’amica della mogli, pr., pb. 1927 (The Wives’ Friend, 1949); La nuova colonia, pr., pb. 1928 (The New Colony, 1958); The One-Act Plays of Luigi Pirandello, pb. 1928; Lazzaro, pr., pb. 1929 (Lazarus, 1952); O di uno o di nessuno, pr., pb. 1929; Sogno (ma forse no), pb. 1929, pr. 1936 (I’m Dreaming, but Am I?, 1964); Come tu mi vuoi, pr., pb. 1930 (As You Desire Me, 1931); Questa sera si recita a soggetto, pr., pb. 1930 (Tonight We Improvise, 1932); I giganti della montagna, act 1 pb. 1931, act 2 pb. 1934, act 3 pr. 1937 (The Mountain Giants, 1958); Trovarsi, pr., pb. 1932 (To Find Oneself, 1943); Quando si è qualcuno, pr. 1933 (When Someone Is Somebody, 1958); La favola del figlio cambiato, pr., pb. 1934; Non si sa come, pr. 1934, pb. 1935 (No One Knows How, 1960); Naked Masks: Five Plays, pb. 1952.
Novels: L’esclusa, 1901 (The Outcast, 1925); Il turno, 1902 (The Merry-Go-Round of Love, 1964); Il fu Mattia Pascal, 1904 (The Late Mattia Pascal, 1923); Suo marito, 1911, revised 1941 (Her Husband, 2000); I vecchi e i giovani, 1913 (The Old and the Young, 1928); Si gira . . ., 1916 (Shoot! The Notebooks of Serafino Gubbio, Cinematograph Operator, 1926); Uno, nessuno, centomila, 1925 (One, None and a Hundred Thousand, 1933); Tutti i romanzi, 1941 (collected novels).
Miscellaneous: Opere, 1966.
Nonfiction: Arte e scienze, 1908; L’umorismo, 1908, revised 1920 (partial translation On Humour, 1966; complete translation, 1974); Saggi, 1939.
Poetry: Mal giocondo, 1889; Pasqua di Gea, 1891; Pier Gudrò, 1894; Elegie renane, 1895; Elegie romane, 1896 (translation of Johann von Goethe’s Römische Elegien); Scamandro, 1909 (dramatic poem); Fuori de chiave, 1912; Saggi, 1939.

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