Through the large window that opened onto the house’s little hanging garden, the pure, fresh morning air made the pretty little room cheerful. An almond branch, which seemed to be all a-blossom with butterflies, projected toward the window; and, mingled with the hoarse, muffled gurgle of the small basin in the center of the garden, was heard the festive, peal of faraway church-bells and the chirping of the swallows intoxicated with the air and the sun-shine.
As she stepped away from the window, sighing, Anna noticed that her husband that morning had forgotten to rumple his bed as he used to do each time, so that the servants couldn’t tell that he hadn’t slept in his room. She rested her elbows on the untouched bed, then stretched out on it with her whole torso. bending her pretty blonde head over the pillows and half-closing her eyes, as if to savor, in the freshness of the linens, the slumbers he was accustomed to enjoy there. A flock of swallows flashed headlong past the window shrieking.
“You would have done better to sleep here….,” she murmured languidly after a moment, and got up wearily. Her husband was to set out that very evening, and Anna had come into his room to prepare for him the things he needed for the trip.
As she opened the wardrobe, she heard what seemed to be a squeak in the inner drawer and quickly, drew back, startled. From a corner of the room she picked up a walking stick with a curved handle and, holding her dress tight against her legs, took the stick by the tip and, standing that way at a distance, tried to open the drawer with it. But as she pulled, instead of the drawer coming out, an insidious gleaming blade emerged smoothly from inside the stick. Anna, who hadn’t expected this, felt an extreme repulsion and let the scabbard of the sword stick drop from her hand. At that moment, a second squeak made her turn abruptly toward the window, uncertain whether the first one as well had come from some rapidly passing swallow.
With one foot she pushed aside the unsheathed weapon and pulled out, between the two open doors of the wardrobe, the drawer full of her husband’s old suits that he no longer wore. Out of sudden curiosity she began to rummage around in it and, as she was putting back a worn-out, faded jacket, she happened to feel, in the hem
under the lining, a sort of small paper, which had slipped down there through the torn bottom of the breast pocket; she wanted to see what that paper was which had gone astray and been forgotten there who knows how many years ago; and so by accident Anna discovered the portrait of her husband’s first wife.
At first she had a start and turned pale; she quickly ran her hand, which was shaken by a shudder, through her hair, and, with her vision blurred and her heart stopped, she ran to the window, where she remained in astonishment, gazing at the unfamiliar image almost with a feeling of panic.
The bulky hair style and the old-fashioned dress kept her from noticing at first the beauty of that face; but as soon as she was able to concentrate on the features, separating them from the attire, which now, after so many years, looked ludicrous, and to pay special attention to the eyes, she felt wounded by them and, together with her blood a flush of hatred leaped from her heart to her brain; a hatred as if caused by posthumous jealousy; that hatred mingled with contempt which she had felt for that other woman when she fell in love with Vittore Brivio, eleven years after the marital tragedy that had at one blow destroyed his first household.
Anna had hated that woman, unable to comprehend how she had been capable of betraying the man whom she now worshiped, and in the second place, because her family had objected to her marriage with Brivio, as if he had been responsible for the disgrace and violent death of his unfaithful wife. – It was she, yes, it was she beyond a doubt! Vittore’s first wife: the one who had killed herself!
She found the proof in the dedication written on the back of the portrait: “‘To my Vittore, his Almira – November 11, 1873.” Anna had very vague information about the dead woman: she knew only that Vittore, when the betrayal was discovered, had, with the impassivity of a judge, ordered her to take her own life.
Now with satisfaction she recalled that terrible sentence issued by her husband, and was irritated by that “my” and “his” of the dedication, as if the other woman had wished to flaunt the closeness of the mutual ties that had bound her and Vittore, solely to spite her.
That first flare-up of hatred, ignited, like a will-o’-the-wisp by a rivalry which by now existed only for her, was succeeded in Anna’s mind by feminine curiosity: she desired to examine the features of that face, although she was partially restrained by the odd sorrow one feels at the sight of an object that belonged to a person who died tragically – a sorrow that was sharper now, but not unfamiliar to her, because it permeated her love for her husband, who had formerly belonged to that other woman.
Examining her face, Anna immediately noticed how entirely dissimilar it was to hers, and at the same time there arose in her heart the question of how the husband who had loved that woman, that girl, whom he must have found beautiful, could ever have later fallen in love with her, who was so different.
It seemed beautiful; even to her it seemed much more beautiful than hers – that face which from the portrait looked swarthy. There ! – those lips had joined in a kiss with his lips; but now that sorrowful crease at the corners of the mouth? And why was the gaze in those intense eyes so sad? The entire face spoke of deep suffering; and Anna was moved and almost vexed by the humble and genuine kindness expressed by those features, and after that she felt a twinge of repulsion and disgust, when all at once she believed she had observed in the gaze of those eyes the same expression her own eyes had, whenever, thinking of her husband, she looked at herself in the mirror, in the mornings, after arranging her hair.
She had barely enough time to thrust the portrait into her pocket: her husband appeared, fuming, on the threshold to the room. “What have you been doing? The usual thing? Every time you come into this room to straighten up, you rearrange everything. . . ”
Then, seeing the unsheathed sword stick on the floor: “Have you been fencing with the suits in the wardrobe?”
And he laughed that laugh of his which came only from the throat, as if someone had tickled him there; and, laughing in that fashion, he looked at his wife, as if asking her why he himself was laughing. As he looked, his eyelids constantly blinked with extreme rapidity against his sharp, black, restless little eyes.
Vittore Brivio treated his wife like a child capable of nothing but that ingenuous, exclusive and almost childish love with which he felt himself surrounded, frequently to his annoyance, and to which he had determined to pay attention only on due occasion, and even at those times displaying an indulgence partially mixed with light irony, as if he meant to say: “All right, have it your way! For a while I too will become a child along with you: this, too, must be done, but let’s not waste too much time!”
Anna had let the old jacket in which she had found the portrait drop to her feet. He picked it up, piercing it with the point of the sword stick; then, through the garden window he called the young servant who also doubled as a coachman and was at that moment harnessing the horse to the cabriolet. As soon as the boy showed up, in his shirt sleeves, in the garden in font of the window, Brivio rudely threw the dangling jacket in his face, accompanying the handout with a: “Take it, it’s yours.”
“This way, you’ll have less to brush,” he added, turning toward his wife, “and to straighten up, I hope!” And again, blinking, he uttered that stentorian laugh of his.
On other occasions her husband had traveled out of the city, and not merely for a few days, also leaving at night like this time; but Anna, still extremely shaken by the discovery of the portrait on that very day, felt a strange fear of being left alone and wept when she said goodbye to him.
“What! Why? Come on now, come on now, that’s so childish!” And he left in hot haste, without even saying goodbye.
Anna jumped at the sound of the door that he closed behind him with force; she remained in the little room with the lamp in her hand and felt her tears growing cold in her eyes. Then she roused herself and hurriedly withdrew to her room, intending to go to bed at once.
In the room, which was already prepared, the little night light was burning. “Go to bed,” Anna said to the maid who was waiting for her. “I’ll take care of things myself. Good night.” She extinguished the lamp, but instead of putting it on the shelf, as she usually did, she put it on the night table, with the feeling – actually against her will – that she might need it later. She started to undress hastily, gazing fixedly at the floor in front of her. When her dress fell around her feet, it occurred to her that the portrait was there, and with acute vexation she felt herself being looked at and pitied by those sorrowful eyes, which had made such an impression on her. With determination she stooped down to pick up the dress from the carpet and, without folding it, she placed it on the armchair at the foot of the bed, as if the pocket that hid the portrait and the tangle of the fabric should and could prevent her from reconstructing the image of that dead woman.
As soon as she lay down, she closed her eyes and forced herself to follow her husband mentally along the road leading to the railroad station. She forced this upon herself as a spiteful rebellion against the feeling that had kept her alert all day long, observing and studying her husband. She knew where that feeling had come from and she wanted to get rid of it.
In this effort of her will, which caused her an acute nervous agitation, she pictured to herself with an extraordinary second sight the long road, deserted at night, illuminated by the street lamps projecting their wavering light onto the pavement, which seemed to palpitate because of it; at the foot of every lamp, a circle of shadow; the shops, all closed; and there was the carriage in which Vittore was riding: as if she had been lying in wait for it, she started following it all the way to the station: she saw the gloomy train beneath the glass shed; a great many people milling about in that vast, smoky, poorly lit, mournfully echoing interior: now the train was pulling out; and, as if she were really watching it move away and disappear into the darkness, she suddenly came back to herself, opened her eyes in the silent room and felt an anguished feeling of emptiness, as if something were missing inside her. She then felt confusedly, in a flash, becoming bewildered, that for three years perhaps, from the moment in which she had left her parents’ home, she had been in that void of which she was only now becoming conscious. She had been unaware of it before, because she had filled that void with herself alone, with her love; she was becoming aware of it now, because all day long she had, as it were, suspended her love in order to look and to observe.
“He didn’t even say goodbye to me,” she thought; and she started to cry again, as if that thought were the definite reason for her tears.
She sat up in bed: but she suddenly held back the hand she had stretched out, while sitting up, to get her handkerchief from her dress. No, it was no longer any use to forbid herself to take another look at that portrait, to reexamine it! She took it. She put the light back on.
How differently she had pictured that woman Now, contemplating her real likeness, she felt remorse for the feelings that the imaginary woman had aroused in her. She had pictured a woman rather fat and ruddy, with flashing, smiling eyes, always ready to laugh, enjoying common amusements . . . And instead, now, there she was: a young woman whose clean-cut features expressed a profound, sorrowful soul; whose eyes expressed a sort of all-absorbing silence; yes, different from herself, but not in that earlier vulgar sense: just the opposite; no, that mouth looked as if it had never smiled, whereas her own had laughed so often and so gaily; and surely, if that face was swarthy (as it seemed to be from the portrait), it had a less smiling air than her own blonde and rosy face. Why, why so sad?
A hateful thought flashed across her mind, and all at once with violent repulsion she tore her eyes away from that woman’s picture, suddenly discovering in it a snare threatening not only to her peace of mind, to her love, which, as it was, had received more than one wound that day, but also to her proud dignity as an honest woman who had never allowed herself even the remotest thought hostile to her husband.
That woman had had a lover And perhaps it was because of him she was so sad, because of that adulterous love, and not because of her husband!
She tossed the portrait onto the bedside table and put out the light again, hoping to fall asleep this time without thinking any more about that woman, with whom she could have nothing in common. But, closing her eyes, she suddenly saw, in spite of herself, the dead woman’s eyes, and sought in vain to dispel that sight. “Not because of him, not because of him!” she then murmured with frenzied persistence, as if by insulting her she hoped to be rid of her.
And she made an effort to recall everything she knew about that other man, the lover, as if compelling the gaze and the sadness of those eyes to look no longer at her but at the former lover, whom she knew only by name: Arturo Valli. She knew that he had married a few years later as if to prove his innocence of the blame that Vittore wanted to ascribe to him, that he had vigorously declined Vittore’s challenge to a duel, protesting that he would never fight with a mad killer. After this refusal, Vittore had threatened to kill him wherever he came across him, even in church; and then he had left the town with his wife, returning later as soon as Vittore, remarried, had departed.
But from the sadness of those events which she now brought back to mind, from Valli’s cowardice and, after so many years, from the way the first wife had been completely consigned to oblivion by her husband, who had been able to resume his life and remarry as if nothing had happened, from the joy that she herself had felt upon becoming Vittore’s wife, from those three years she had spent together with him with never a thought about that other woman, unexpectedly a cause of pity for her spontaneously forced itself upon Anna; she saw her image again vividly and it seemed to her that with those eyes, intense from so much suffering, that woman was saying to her:
“But I’m the only one that died as a result! All of you are still living!”
She saw, she felt, that she was alone in the house: she got frightened. Yes, she was living; but for three years, since her wedding day, she hadn’t seen her parents or sister, not even once. She who adored them, a dutiful daughter, a trusting sister, had had the courage to oppose their wishes out of love for her husband; for his sake, when he was rejected by his own family, she had fallen seriously ill, and would no doubt have died if the doctors hadn’t induced her father to accede to her desire. And her father had yielded, but without giving his consent; in fact, he swore that after that wedding she would no longer exist for him or for that household. Besides the difference in age, the husband being eighteen years older than the wife, a more serious obstacle for the father had been Brivio’s financial position, which was subject to rapid ups and downs because of the risky undertakings on which this most enterprising and extraordinarily active man was accustomed to embark with foolhardy confidence in himself and his luck.
In three years of marriage Anna, surrounded by comforts, had been able to consider as unjust, or dictated by hostile prejudice, her father’s prudent misgivings as to the financial means of her husband, in whom, moreover, in her ignorance, she placed as much confidence as he had in himself; then, as for the difference in their ages, up to then there had been no manifest cause of disappointment for her or surprise for others, because Brivio’s advanced years produced in him not the slightest impairment to his small, highly animated and robust body and even less to his mind, which was endowed with tireless energy and restless eagerness.
It was something totally different that Anna, now for the first time, looking into her life (without even realizing it) with the eyes of that dead woman depicted there in the portrait on the bedside table, found to complain of in her husband. Yes, it was true: she had felt hurt at other times by his almost disdainful indifference; but never so much as on that day; and now for the first time she felt so frighteningly alone, separated from her family, who at that moment seemed to her to have abandoned her there, as if, upon marrying Brivio, she already had something in common with that dead woman and was no longer worthy of anyone else’s company. And her husband, who ought to have consoled her, it seemed that even her husband was unwilling to give her any credit for the sacrifice of her daughterly and sisterly love that she had offered him, just as if it had cost her nothing, as if he had had a right to that sacrifice and therefore had no obligation to make it up to her. Yes, he had a right, but it was because she had fallen so totally in love with him at that time; therefore he now had an obligation to repay her. And instead . . .
“It’s always been like that!” Anna thought she heard the sorrowful lips of the dead woman sigh to her. She lit the lamp again and once more, contemplating the picture, she was struck by the expression of those eyes. So then, it was true, she too had suffered on his account? She too, realizing she wasn’t loved, had felt that frightening emptiness?
“Yes? Yes?” Anna, choking with tears, asked the picture. And it then seemed to her that those kindly eyes, intense with passion and heartbreak, were pitying her in their turn, were condoling with her over that abandonment, that unrequited sacrifice, that love which remained locked up in her breast like a treasure in a casket to which he had the keys but would never use them, like a miser.
Translation Stanley Applebaum
Quiroga proceeds to develop a gothic tale, reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe, in which a blood-sucking insect becomes the means and symbol whereby the life and life-blood of the young woman is gradually and fatally drained away. The young woman never realises the cause of her debilitating disease. Quiroga leads his readers to the inevitable conclusion that it is the marriage itself which is the life-destroying ‘insect.’ We are allowed into the secret from which the protagonists are excluded, but he does not permit us access to their inner awareness – or rather the absence of such an awareness.
Pirandello is much more nuanced and more subtle. From the very outset we are privy to Anna’s thoughts, and to the process of the rapidly growing realisation of her predicament. Pirandello delves into, and allows us to eavesdrop so that we hear, the actual unfolding of Anna’s internal conversation and her insights and feelings, rather than make us rely on a plot-driven narrative, as does Quiroga.
By a mere accident, Anna finds a photograph of her husband Vittore’s first wife, and literally overnight, she becomes chillingly conscious of her situation and indeed her fate. She has spent the entire three years of her marriage placidly drifting downstream, never looking below the surface of the water, content that her little boat afforded her a reasonable view of the embankments, and perhaps an occasional glimpse of the sky. She has passed through the pools of light and shadow, trailing her hand in the water, never noticing its murkiness or wondering about what lay, or lurked, beneath the surface.
It is reasonable to suppose that Anna married Vittore for love and security, and in this she resembles most of the women of her era. Most had reason to believe that their marriages stood on a firm and enduring foundation. These marriages were meant to last a lifetime, which is why Vittore compelled his first wife to end her life as a means of ending his marriage to her. So what can we suppose will unfold in Anna’s future?
The little jolt of Vittore’s abrupt departure on a business trip becomes a persistent tremour when it is compounded by the accidental discovery of the photograph, with the result that a dangerous and irremediable rift tears open the foundation of Anna’s life. She had permitted herself to be seduced by the superficial appearance of stability, the fiction of solid ground, the seemingly placid surface beneath which nature conceals her shifty proclivities.
Could it have been that until that very moment, in all of those three years, there had been no evidence, no hint, no suggestion even of a shaky foundation? It must have been that the awareness of something was so deeply buried under such a profound and impermeable stratum of ignorance – or denial – that no expression of it was permitted to rise to the surface.
Pirandello does not tell us directly, or in any great detail, what Anna saw when she stared into the fissure: but he doesn’t have to. She is marooned in a desolate wasteland. She has no family, and no children, and there is the strong suggestion that she will have none. Pirandello has deftly added a hovering cloud of ruin in the future, due to Vittore’s habit of reckless financial speculation. Anna may have had three years of relatively untroubled slumber, but now she is awake. She is trapped, isolated in a loveless marriage, in which the gradual decay of any previous happiness is inevitable, and death the most probable means of escape.
In other stories with which we are familiar, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca come to mind, first wives are represented as sinister and dangerous artifacts of the past, whose resurgence into the present signals the incipience of a severe threat, or even the possible destruction of the second marriage. The sub-text, however, suggests that they represent hidden parts of the second wives’ psyches. I find myself concluding that this theory also finds its application in Pirandello’s story.
Anna’s happiness thus far has been procured at the cost of a deadened awareness, as forgotten and concealed as an old photograph in the pocket of an old suit belonging to someone else. From its place of concealment between the suit and lining, it has now emerged into the light of a lovely spring day. She has been unconscious, but now the protection offered by that unconscious state has been stripped away. Now her only ally, the only one who shares her understanding of her predicament, is a face in an old photograph. It bears a mute witness to her newly dawning realisation that all is not as it had seemed. Two women, one dead and one who risks a living death, are each other’s only allies. They share the knowledge of their deception by a ruthless man, a brute, a vulgar little bounder with eyes like a rodent’s, whose humanity is as vestigial as a human tail.
I had supposed when I first read this story, that Quiroga’s version was the darker, and Pirandello’s the softer and kinder, but now I am not so sure. I must suppose that Pirandello’s Anna is made of sterner stuff than either his Almira, or Quiroga’s Alicia (“rubia, angelical y tímida”), and that she is better equipped to resist than the other two. Quiroga’s provision determined that Alicia’s suffering was to be of a relatively brief duration, and death provided her an expeditious and permanent end to it.
The only basis for any trace of optimism in a speculation of how her future might turn out, is that Anna, unlike the others, was awakened from her sleep. She has been warned by Almira, that taking a lover will not be a good option. She must constrain her emotional needs, and devise a way to negotiate the odium of all the empty years that lie ahead of her, however blighted they might be. She will have to mature, to grow wise, to rely on her own strengths, even though her only weapon appears to be one of negation, that is, to refuse to allow her heart and mind to be corrupted. I hope that she will succeed, because, I think, she must. It is imperative that she be able to find a way in which she will not merely endure, but survive a loveless life, and to go on living in spite of its horror.
There is an art, I believe, of finding a measure of freedom even within the confines a prison, and so the gaoler’s more advanced age must be allowed to count in Anna’s favour.