Study Guide

If on a winter's night a traveler Themes

By Italo Calvino

  • Literature and Language

    It's kind of impossible to sum up what Calvino thinks about literature and language, since all of If on a winter's night a traveler is pretty much one big chaotic treatise on it. How are we supposed to read? Is there truth within or behind words? What does literature have to offer us? One thing we can say for sure is that Calvino is pretty sure there's no such thing as completion or perfection in language and literature. At least in his ideal world, there would always be new ways to read a text. Shmoop would have to agree.

    Questions About Literature and Language

    1. What's with all the vague talk about the "silence" or "void" that lurks behind words? How can we know about this silence if it's impossible to talk about?
    2. How does Calvino's description of the train station in If on a winter's night a traveler challenge your normal understanding of how words work in books? What is the effect of saying that "steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph"? (2.1)
    3. Why has the dude named Irnerio taught himself not to read? How has he done it? Could you ever see yourself learning such a skill? What would be the biggest challenge in doing it?
    4. If you were Silas Flannery, why would you wish that you could write without feeling like you were an individual person? Isn't the point of writing to do something great and slap your name on it? Isn't that why authors' names are printed in larger letters than the titles of books?

    Chew on This

    In If on a winter's night a traveler, Italo Calvino suggests that all language and all knowledge is ultimately meaningless in the face of a real world that has nothing to do with words.

    Calvino's novel shows us that true communication is impossible, since we can never break through the personal "spin" that someone else's brain puts on our words.

  • Jealousy

    Want to experience jealousy in If on a winter's night a traveler? Just get a lady involved. Whether it's you (the character), Silas Flannery, or Ermes Marana, someone's always feeling the envies about a girl. And of course, jealously even rears its ugly head in a few of the fictional novels that Calvino puts out in his book. If one thing's for sure, it's that it's a guy thing. The desire to read and to somehow capture meaning is connected to the desire to capture or possess a woman sexually. Reading will never be the same again.

    Questions About Jealousy

    1. In a nutshell, what possible connection can the book draw between your jealousy of other men in Ludmilla's life and the fact that she likes to read many books at once?
    2. How is your jealousy as a reader connected to Silas Flannery's jealousy as a writer, or more specifically, his jealousy toward the book that gives such great pleasure to the woman he watches through a spyglass?
    3. In what way is jealousy "a kind of game that you [play] with yourself" (13.53)? Is there something enjoyable about feeling jealous? In what way can jealousy in this book be considered as a form of lying to yourself?

    Chew on This

    In If on a winter's night a traveler, feelings of jealousy are deeply connected to the male Reader's desire to possess a woman and have her all to himself.

    Jealousy shows a person's desire to get between someone else and his or her book; it's basically just anger about the fact that reading is like an inside joke, filled with private meanings and secrets.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Think about this: is there any point in If on a winter's night a traveler when you, the character, are totally and completely sure that the book you're reading is, well, the book you're reading? And doesn't that kind of mess with you, the human Shmooper?

    The trickster-translator Ermes Marana has counterfeited and mistranslated text to the point where titles are constantly confused, books with completely different storylines are posing as the same text, and there's actually an international literature conspiracy based completely on lies. Ultimately, Calvino brings into question the authenticity of any text you read, which is kind of concerning to us Shmoopers.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. What is Ermes Marana's main motive for all of his lying and counterfeiting? What does he hope to accomplish by doing it? Is it possible to sympathize with him, or is he just a jerk?
    2. What about Marana's lies makes them so difficult to untangle? By the end of this book, is it possible to trust anything the narrator tells you?
    3. What is the significance of the word "apocryhpa" in Marana's activities? What does this word add to your understanding of his role in this book?
    4. By the time you get to the end of the book, it's impossible to tell who anyone is, who the real and fake police are, or which kidnappings are real and fake. Does this completely take you out of the action as a reader, or does it serve some worthwhile purpose?

    Chew on This

    Ultimately, Ermes Marana is the true hero of If on a winter's night a traveler.

    In the conflict between two sects of The Organization of Apocryphal Power, Calvino is on the side of The Archangel of Light, the group that believes it can encounter absolute truth if it finds the right book.

  • Disappointment

    As the actual human reader of If on a winter's night a traveler, you'll probably be able to identify pretty closely with this one. Over and over, Calvino offers you really interesting beginnings to novels, only to break them off just when they're starting to get good. And it's all crafted, too—it's a technique he's using to show how pleasure is connected to your sense of potential in what you're reading.

    As much as you, the Reader, are disappointed with books in this text, your way with the ladies is no different. You're continually attempting to find concrete points of connection with Ludmilla, only to see them swept away by her pesky insistence on being her own person (what nerve). This sort of disappointment arises whenever you try to make the world mean something, then have it constantly contradict your reading. Ugh, world.

    Questions About Disappointment

    1. What point is Calvino making by intentionally (and continually) disappointing your normal expectations as a reader?
    2. Is it possible for a book to be more enjoyable because it disappoints you? Are you on board with what Calvino's doing, or would he do better to stick to a traditional plot?
    3. Do you think that Calvino is actually pulling a dirty trick by cutting off his fictional novels the way he does? Is this his way of breaking the promises that truly great writers are able to fulfill? In other words, is this book too gimmicky?
    4. What is the connection between your desire to continue reading the books you've begun and your desire to possess Ludmilla as a sexual object? What do you learn about both by the end of the book?

    Chew on This

    The "disappointment" experienced by the Reader isn't actually disappointment at all, but rather a prolonged feeling of excitement.

    Calvino's text suggests that Readers who come to books expecting a clear, straightforward plot are ignorant and don't deserve to feel satisfied.

  • Gender

    The men in If on a winter's night a traveler love them some sexy women. The dynamic of male desire for a female sex object is actually present in every one of the ten phony first chapters Calvino writes into his book. And as a matter of fact, they become increasingly explicit and aggressive as the novel goes on. There's no question about it: for Calvino, there's a major connection between the pleasure of reading and the pleasure guys get from chasing women.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Do you think that Calvino gives a fair portrayal of women in this book? Why do you think he chose to have only male protagonists for all ten of his fictional novels?
    2. Do you feel like you have a good general idea of what kind of person Ludmilla is, based on what the book gives you?
    3. Is Calvino's overall depiction of Lotaria, the angry feminist, downright sexist? Why or why not?
    4. What connection do you see between the male desire to possess and penetrate women, and the Reader's desire to have a final and definitive ending to a book? How is a sense of closure connected to both of them?

    Chew on This

    Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, both through its general depiction of women and specific depiction of Lotaria, is a sexist book.

    In this book, the Reader's final scene with Ludmilla shows that the man has overcome his desire to possess women and books as objects.

  • Education

    Are you a jaded grad student? Then If on a winter's night a traveler is the book for you. Throughout the novel, Calvino satirizes university education without mercy. Lotaria's political, feminist reading of books is often scorned, contrasted against Ludmilla's innocent desire to simply read for pleasure. Shmoop is all for literary theory and analyzing great books (duh), but we agree with Calvino that there should be pleasure in reading, too. Professor Uzzi-Tuzii gets the royal Calvino mockery treatment, too, because he shuts himself up in a dusty office and studies stuff that no one else care about. Bottom line: no one associated with the university is getting out unscathed in this one.

    Questions About Education

    1. In this book, does Calvino suggest that all university education is stupid? Why or why not? How does this relate to the fact that he's clearly had his share of education?
    2. How does the book make you feel about Professor Uzzi-Tuzii? Do you have any sympathy for his situation, or is he just a sad little man who studies boring things?
    3. Frankly speaking, is this book too bookish? Do you find Calvino's philosophical rants effective or just irritating? What might he be trying to accomplish with some of his more highbrow passages?
    4. Based on your reading of this book, do you think that too much education truly ruins your ability to read for pleasure? Did you enjoy reading before you were forced to start doing it for school? Is there a "fall from innocence" that happens when you start analyzing books too closely?

    Chew on This

    In If on a winter's night a traveler, Calvino is essentially telling us to torch all of the institutions of higher learning so we can live in a world where we can read completely for pleasure.

    Calvino's approach to education in this book is socially irresponsible, since our ability to question what we read is what keeps us from falling under the spell of propaganda.

  • Fate and Free Will

    In If on a winter's night a traveler, you, the Reader, are constantly being pulled along by a conspiracy that works in ways you don't understand. And you have no say in the matter. Every time you act or think, you have to wonder if this is the way you've been intended to act or think by some higher power. This question finds its biggest expression when Silas Flannery wonders if his thoughts are secretly being dictated to him by aliens. (Um, what?) It might seem really weird and out of place, but it refers back to the larger question of how much free will you actually have as a human being—especially when you're immersed in the world of reading. In this world, interpretation might belong to you, but the world itself has been created by some author you've probably never met.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. What active role, if any, do you have in this book as a reader? Are you just being carried along for the ride, or is there something more to what you can do with this book?
    2. Why does Calvino include the little plot point about Silas Flannery and the extraterrestrial messages? What bearing does it have on the book's larger themes?
    3. Why would writers ever want to give up control of what they are writing? Why would they want to lose their individual personalities in writing? What would the benefit be?
    4. Why does Calvino go to such pains to constantly remind you that you are living inside a story that he has written?

    Chew on This

    In If on a winter's night a traveler, Calvino suggests that you have just as much control over what happens in a book as you do in real life. It all depends on how you look at it.

    By constantly talking about how wonderful the pleasure of innocent reading is, this book basically teaches its readers to take a more passive approach to life, and to accept whatever happens to them with a smile.

  • Innocence

    Innocence comes in all shapes and forms, but have you ever thought about being an innocent reader? If on a winter's night a traveler introduces us to this idea by exploring Ludmilla's desire to avoid authors, publishers, and anyone else who has any part in the creation of a book. She wants to remain innocent—i.e., reading only for pleasure. In this way, Ludmilla is always contrasted with her sister, Lotaria, who is a very analytical, political, and intellectual reader.

    Questions About Innocence

    1. Does the novel in fact side with Ludmilla over Lotaria? If so, how much does it side with her? Which sister do you like more? Why?
    2. Do you think Mr. Cavedagna from the publishing house has any chance of recovering the lost innocence of his youth? In a symbolic way, will he ever truly be able to go back to his family's chicken coop and read in the corner?
    3. Do you sympathize at all with Ludmilla's decision to stay away from the publishing house? What legitimate reasons does she give? Is she just being weird about the whole thing?
    4. How does being a professional writer ruin the pleasure of reading for Silas Flannery?

    Chew on This


    Innocence in reading is the highest value put forward by If on a winter's night a traveler. It should be pursued at all costs.

    Even while Ludmilla, Cavedagna, and Flannery all have some desire to read innocently, Calvino recognizes that this type of reading could be considered ignorant and irresponsible.