Alberto Moravia, Gli indifferenti (1929)


Alberto Moravia wrote Gli indifferenti during his stay at Bressanone in 1925 to recover from tubercolosis. In Gli indifferenti, young debutant Moravia marked the start of this realist-documentarist era, for he succeeded in capturing the shift frommodernist self-reflectivity to the needs of narrating historical symbols of a generation andof its national consciousness on the verge of self-destruction; furthermore, he sustained his narrative efforts through an innovative technique, which anchored its subject matter on the bedrock of the real. Moravia's novel was publishedin Milan by Alpes, an imprint owned by Arnaldo, one of Mussolini's first brothers. It tells the story of an upper-middle class family, the Ardengo, in their struggle to survive and find a suitable way forward in life over the course of three days.

Main Principles

  1. The ‘arte di Stato’: Modernity and Modernization

  2. The Boundaries of Realism: Constructing Collective Subjectivities


In one of the most incisive and lucid assessments of the novel, Roberto Esposito has clearly stated the relationship between Gli indifferenti's form, logical and historical, with the social context and relationships of the time. If the modernist use of multiple and highly subjective narrators attempted to transcribe the stream of consciousness, the non-linear representation of time, and the self-consciousness about the form of the novel, then in the 1930s, a general constructive will, the use of dialogue, a move toward the object, and a sharp social critique defined the turn toward documenting the real. The 'inner evidence' of psychology could function as a space for enabling realist perspectivism, seen as a prism through which to look at both the outer and inner realities and whose pre-existence modernism had been obliged to forget, by the logic of the novel as subjectivity. Michele and Carla Ardengo, the young siblings at the heart of Gli indifferenti not only exemplify the moral decadence of a generation, or even a crisis beyond repair, but also an attempt at experimenting with perspectivism, especially in dialogic form and with an expressionistic use of punctuation, which reaffirmed realism as a process weaving the individual into the collective via a set of conflicting, paralyzing, and affective responses. The reality of the two young protagonists in particular exists only in their dream-like fantasies, which do not materialize in actions and largely remain at the level of projections — both Michele's attempt at killing Leo and Carla's illusions about a more dignified existence do remain almost hallucinatory states throughout. Yet, despite its quite obvious thematic repertoire, Gli indifferenti is crucially neither a purely existentialist nor a straightforward realist novel, as is often claimed. It is, instead, a fine and complex example of the intricacies between the much theorized and discussed act of documenting the real and affect as a driver for individual and collective self-narration and identification. The real in the novel is present through the lenses of the protagonists, perspectivism, (all of them except Leo), thereby multiplying, in a very recognizable setting, their significations. The new life the characters hope for, the realization of the 'vero' (in Michele's formulation for during his ruminations about his putative trial for having killed Leo) are not to be achieved or to be granted to any of the protagonists. Over the three days in the Ardengo's upper-class house in Rome, as this final quote suggests, the reader witnesses the failure of all characters, but especially of Carla and Michele, to become a new man/woman, too embedded as they are in the old bourgeois neurosis of self-indulgence; or unable, once more, to come into contact with the reality of their own selves, or indeed of their own collectivity, either through rational choice and engagement or affective responses. Gli indifferenti is, at a political level, both a key example of decadent fascist society and of its inability to change and be submerged by the very same indifference that enabled Michele to change his mind, attitudes and thoughts according to the situation and to his convenience. That being said, the profound impasse of the protagonists of Gli indifferenti is encapsulated not only in their own psychological dramas, but more precisely in the new logic of realism, via modernism, which fuses subjectivity into objectivity without finding a totalizing synthesis. Every character (apart from the true fascist Leo and perhaps the street-wise Lisa, or the prostitute Michele briefly encounters) lacks a trajectory towards a new idea of reality, a new conceptualization of existence for a new man, which requires action. In its tragedy-like setting and unity of time, space and action, the protagonists of Gli indifferenti document the 'real' in its self-indulgent subjectivity and labyrinthine autonomy, unable to transgress any border and to follow any telos of historical change.


Billiani, Francesca. 2016. 'Documenting the Real across Modernity in the 1930s: Political and Aesthetic Debates Around and About the Novel in Fascist Italy.' Italian Studies 71 (4): 477-495.

Esposito, Roberto. 1978. Il sistema dell'indifferenza. Moravia e il fascismo. Bari: Dedalo.

Schettino, Franca Rita. 1974. 'Oggettività e presenza del narratore ne Gli indifferenti di Moravia.' Revue des Etudes Italiennes 20: 300-24.

Voza, Pasquale. 1997. Moravia. Palermo: Palumbo.