Repression or Reflection: On Finding Happiness Amongst Unhappiness

In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani, the narrator is a young Jewish man living in Fascist Italy prior to World War II. As more racial laws become implemented in Italy, he develops a deeper relationship with the Finzi-Continis, an aristocratic Jewish family. He is especially enamoured with Micol, though his feelings are unrequited, and he eventually moves past his obsession of her. Bassani shows that people, through the motifs of closed environments, ought not to isolate themselves from the present nor others, and instead, as shown through the motif of light, should focus on the present in order to deal with oppression, leading readers to wonder if the narrator was truthful or disillusioned in the account of his youth.The motif of the carriage, a closed environment, shows how when the narrator, not wishing to deal with present conflicts, isolates himself from others and ends up only feeling more insecure. The first time he encounters the Finzi-Continis’ carriage, he describes it as “never moving, not even to seek shade” (21) and how his “[nose] pressed against the crystal” (21). He is drawn to this carriage because of its firm crystal-like nature; he appreciates the unchanging, unmoving quality of the carriage that allows it to stay perfect. His looking at the carriage from the outside makes him want to enter the equipage even more, and he wants to be a part of this closed environment, symbolizing his desire to join the closed, exclusive group of the Finzi-Continis. A few years later, the narrator finally gets to sit inside the carriage, although it is no longer used. As he sits down, the carriage door shuts and “the pelting of the rain on the coach house roof had ceased to be audible” (77). The rain is a metaphor for the troubles the narrator face, as they “pelt” onto him, such as the racial laws that have increasingly become more prominent in Italy. As the narrator sits in the carriage, he is able to not hear the rain, or in other words, have to deal with these conflicts. The carriage represents the perfection of his childhood, a symbol for the unchanging, unconflicted past. However, Micol explains to the narrator how occasionally the servant Perotti will wash the carriage, which is why it is “best seen in the half-light [and] still manages to fool people fairly well” (78). The beauty of the carriage does not last in the light, suggesting that its qualities are transitory. The fool in this case is the narrator who marvels at the illusion, referring to how the past has already passed and cannot be revived even if one tried. Despite trying to shut out his worries by shutting himself inside the carriage, the narrator describes how he feels that it is “a stifling little room” (77). The suffocating environment where it is hard to breathe in suggests that this elevator does not promote life; one cannot continue to live in the past. The narrator’s isolationist viewpoint as seen through the carriage incident also extends to his interactions with Perotti in the elevator, revealing how idealizing the past is futile. When the narrator decides to go visit Micol in her room, Perotti suggests he rides the elevator instead of taking the stairs.To Perotti who controls the elevator, it bring him satisfaction to “[release] his torn love for the family he had served since a boy, his angry fidelity, like an old domestic animal’s” (141). Perotti is described as an angry domestic animal, as if serving the Finzi-Continis has devalued his human existence. He is torn because on one hand, he has served them since he was a boy, and feels obligation– even love– towards the family, but on the other hand, does not want to keep feeling inferior. His ambivalence towards how to feel towards his masters is reflected through his controlling of the elevator. He might not be able to control the future, but here in the elevator he is able to release his anger and passion. Although the future is unpredictable, at least Perotti finds certainty and control in the enclosed, secretive elevator. However, this satisfaction is merely temporary, as the elevator “stopped abruptly, forced him to break off almost at once, with evident displeasure” (141). The narrator is able to notice how Perotti shifts between anger, brief satisfaction while controlling, and then the dissatisfaction after the doing. Once Perotti steps out of the elevator, he must face reality again. Just like how time passes, an elevator ride cannot last forever; things in life quickly become the past. In many ways, the narrator describes the elevator similarly to the carriage, with “glistening crystal panels” (140) and a “stifling odor, of mold” (140). These descriptions reinforce the elevator as a cold, isolated environment, as well as a figure for the past, as it is so old that it begins to smell of mold. He finds the past stifling, revealing the irony that as he tries to escape oppression of present racial laws, he is now oppressed by the past. The narrator had also previously described the carriage as being stifling, showing the repetition of his suffering through trying to revive the past. This becomes a vicious cycle, as the more he tries to escape from present troubles, the more he feels stifled by his past.Instead of dwelling in the past, people should focus on the present in order to gain freedom from oppression, as shown through the motif of light. When the narrator goes to visit Micol’s room, she turns on the light in her room, muttering “there was no excuse for her to keep [the narrator] in such gloom” (142). This action of turning on the light represents the turning on of reality, enlightening the narrator’s view literally. His perspective of his world is so focused on the past that Micol must turn on a light, metaphorically shifting his view to the present, for him to see how naive he has been. This parallels the previous construction of the carriage only being beautiful when it’s in the half-light, and how when it is displayed in full light all of its defects appear. During another one of their conversations, Micol describes to the narrator how the “rain would end… pierced by dim shafts of sunlight [and] would be transformed into something precious, delicately opalescent, with glints, in their shifting hues” (84). Here Micol shows how rain and sunlight are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as they transform into something precious. The narrator had previously tried avoiding the rain and conflict by reflecting back upon his better moments, not realizing positive and negative aspects of life could co-exist. Yes, racial laws still would exist, but the solution did not solely lie in running away, or shutting oneself into isolation. Life, in its shifting hues– and positivity that could be found despite of the conflicts– would still go on. Bassani also uses light to highlight the intimacy of community. When the narrator visits the Italian synagogue as a child, he and others “found themselves bathed in a kind of golden mist” (22). This warm, golden light contrasts with the stifling, glassy feel of the carriage and the elevator before. The warmth of the sun hitting upon the synagogue gives a sense of shared community among the Jewish population. The word “bathed” is also significant, as if this sunlight washes over a person similar to a baptism or rebirth. This signifies a new freedom gained from oppression, a way to cope with the racial laws. The Jewish community may be constricted in activity by the racial laws, but their ability to band together fortifies a certain type of resistance against the government.The narrator’s struggle in trying to reproduce the better moments of his memories while ignoring many conflicts of the present reveals the difficulty he faced, stifled while immersing himself in the past yet was afraid of an unknown future. This clash becomes apparent in the narrator’s story of his youth as he retells others’ viewpoints the way he saw or thought it, which oftentimes might have been more pessimistic than the actual occurrence. The narrator is so divided at the end of the novel, for instance, wondering if Micol and Giampi were lovers, or if it were all an illusion. Through his uncertainty, however, comes one truth– as if foreshadowing the Holocaust in the prologue, the narrator thinks how eternity is “no longer an illusion” (6) to those who have perished, perhaps providing some consolation for the ever-changing, capricious life we live.

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