‘Suicides’ by Cesare Pavese: Short Story Analysis
‘Suicides’ is the story of the narrator, probably the author himself, who, through his careless attitude, caused the death of his lover Carlotta. Cesare Pavese is the Italian author of this short story titled ‘Suicides’. He committed suicide in the year 1950. He was a publisher, an editor, as well as a translator of English and American books. This short story was penned in Italian and has been translated into English by A. F. March. There are many suicides, those committed and not committed, in this short story. However, the one focal suicide that hit the narrator hard was the suicide of his lover Carlotta. We know at the beginning of the story that she is no more. We can easily conclude from the title and tone of the story that she had committed suicide. However, when we read how tactless and unfeeling the narrator had been toward her throughout their short courtship, it makes us cringe.
Pavese was a dreamer and of a contemplative temperament. After the death of Carlotta, he was suffering from a guilt complex. He was feeling seriously responsible for her death just as he felt partly responsible for Jean’s death, a boyhood friend of his. Where Jean was concerned, the narrator and Jean had decided to commit suicide together. Jean managed to do so, whereas the naïve narrator chickened out. The death of this boyhood friend plagued the narrator’s mind right through his adulthood. He always thought about Jean. It is to Carlotta that he confesses the tale of Jean. He has told this integral story of his life to no one else but Carlotta. That in itself shows us how comfortable and close the narrator felt in the presence of this simple woman who loved him unconditionally.
It pains us to see the narrator’s callousness toward the humble and ever ready to please, Carlotta. When he asked her to wear a swimsuit, she would oblige him. When he rebuked or scolded her, she would swallow it without complaint. When he would punish her by not answering her calls, ignored her, and even disgraced her, she still felt that he, Pavese, was worth her love. She was like a dog who had been whipped and did not know the reason why she was being punished. It was beyond her to realize this because she was a person who liked being a whipped dog both for Pavese as well as her estranged husband, who was cheating on her.
Carlotta was as genuine as they come. She was a simple middle-class girl with a schoolgirl like nature, goodnatured, and a gentle spirit. She felt pain but put on a brave front. She wanted to be considered sexy, but she was too naïve and straightforward for that title. She tried very hard to please Pavese but failed miserably. Here are the few pointers which I have observed concerning Carlotta:
- She liked being courted and then allowed Pavese to have sex with her. She loved his courtship and foreplay, and she couldn’t give herself to him without it. There was not an iota of lust in her lovemaking. This irked the narrator, who, toward the end of their relationship, started seeing a prostitute.
- She respected the narrator and, therefore, did not want alimony from her husband. She felt she was the cliched richest woman in the world, so long as the narrator loved her.
- She gave Pavese his space. He had the eccentric habit of taking off by himself every time they finished having sex. He liked being alone after reaching his sexual climax. She obliged him, but he was too preoccupied with his self-gratification to realize how much Carlotta was sacrificing her wants and needs where he was concerned. She loved him like a lover, but he seemed to like to treat her worse than one treats a prostitute.
- Carlotta was a hardworking woman. However, she spent her monthly earnings at one go, which showed she had no sense of shrewdness or thrift. She only drank a glass of milk for lunch and focused on her work in a café at the cash register. It was a job where she had to have a genial personality, which she did. Her co-workers in the café respected and cared for her, but not the narrator. Though the narrator passed by her café every time after work for lunch, he never tried to visit her or drop in to see how she was. This is because he felt embarrassed to be seen with her. He found her to be unworthy of his attention.
- Carlotta knew that she was the narrator’s lover on a rebound. She was aware that he did not love her how he loved the other woman who had ultimately betrayed him. Yet, she tried to satisfy him. She allowed him to talk about himself. She was a ready listener and ignored her needs so that the narrator could have his way.
- Whenever the narrator insulted her, she would not try to give too much credence to it. She would shake her head like a little school girl and say things like ‘poor little me’ and ‘such is life’ to downplay the seriousness and hurt she felt.
This was the Carlotta who committed suicide because the narrator’s rejection of her was too much to bear. She left the gas turned on in her room and killed herself in her sleep. At that time, the narrator was in one of his moods, so he only got to hear about it after a month when he ‘deigned’ to give her a little visit to make her feel happy as if she were a kitten or a puppy in a pet shop. She gave him many chances, but his constant disdain for her killed her ultimately.
Her death hit him hard. He now was just a listless observer of people. It made him a better writer that we can see clearly from his surreal descriptions of human activity when he observed people at the café. This was probably the very same café where Carlotta used to work, but Pavese has not focused on its significance. He would sit there and observe people and how they behaved. He got a kick out of it. In their actions, a few things came to his mind, which is worthy of note:
- That whenever something terrible or unpleasant happens in one’s life, one quickly thinks about the other nasty things that happened in the past, especially where relationships are concerned. One remembers failed, old forgotten lovers from one’s past when one is hit badly by life’s realities.
- He felt people acted or did actions good or bad, and then tried to justify their actions to please their conscience. He thought in a misogynist way that women were better at this than men. This was a hint made at Carlotta.
- That when one was in a relationship, one should be astute with oneself and others. One should realize that one was not the center of the relationship, and one must use all of one’s alertness to understand what feelings were passing through one’s mind and the mind of one’s lover.
- He started hallucinating and getting delusions as he sat at the café and observed people. This was making him feel immensely remorseful and think of suicide himself. Probably he was remembering Jean and Carlotta every single waking moment of his life that was disturbing his sanity to a great extent.
- When he observers a man in a light coat flirting with a young woman at the cash register, he loathes it and, at the same time, feels jealous and remorseful. Again, he is thinking of the missed opportunities he had, which he could have used to make the naïve and simple Carlotta happy.
There are some unsaid peculiar sides to the narrator; for instance, he was probably a pedophile and was in a sexual relationship with a little teenage schoolgirl living in a boarding school. He called this girl his niece, but apparently, she wasn’t his niece. His mother knew about his relationship and disliked it very much. This is a disturbing fact. Any normal woman who would have known this and was in a relationship with the narrator would have dropped him like a hot potato. But not Carlotta. That is because she was blind to his faults. Since he did not treat her the way her husband treated her, she felt that he could do no wrong. The most apparent indicator here is that:
- The husband was a cheater.
- The husband was not gentle with Carlotta, especially concerning sex.
As the narrator was gentle with her, she bore up with him. However, toward the end of their little romance, she realizes the truth of her fragile relationship with the narrator and ends her life. The icing on the cake was the night he did not make love to her because she had a cold. It was then that she knew that this relationship was a joke, and the narrator did not love her; she was only a convenient tool for him to have sex whenever he wanted.
The story is titled ‘Suicides’ because many different suicides are committed directly and indirectly among the few characters in this sad but surreal short story:
- Carlotta committed suicide to her wants and needs in her relationship with the narrator and her husband.
- The narrator committed suicide every time he thought of his earlier love.
- The narrator committed suicide whenever he thought of his boyhood friend, Jean, and wished that he could have died with him back then when they had decided that the two would attempt suicide together.
- Carlotta’s husband committed suicide to his wants by begging Carlotta to take him back because he pitied her state.
- The narrator committed suicide every time he saw Carlotta’s happy face after sex, which used to irk him somehow.
Life is a never-ending round of many suicides, as is portrayed by the author Pavese. However, the weakest ones think of ending their lives, but we are so weak spirited that we are afraid to do it. We then linger on in life, existing and not living it. Carlotta may have been simple, an idiot, and a person who liked to please others, but she was ‘brave’ enough to take her own life. Suicide is called a social issue. However, it’s more philosophical and a part of every person’s life who has killed his desires and wants for the sake of another.
It is the first time I am reading a story by Cesare Pavese. I hope to find more of his works and will review those for you. I know I have some of his novellas stashed away in one of the boxes in my office-cum-writing hut. The moment I get hold of them, I will read and analyze them. Do get your copy of ‘Suicides’; it is a story which is an eclectic work of art.
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