Invisible Cities

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  • Topic: Marco Polo, Kublai Khan, Invisible Cities
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Invisible Empire: The Power of Language and Metaphor in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities

by Sara Beth Seay

Departmental Honors Thesis The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga English

Project Director: Dr. Gregory O’Dea Examination Date: 5 May 2007 Dr. Craig Barrow, Dr. Matthew Guy, Dr. Robert Marlowe, Dr. Gregory O’Dea Examining Committee Signatures: _________________________________________________________ Project Director

Department Examiner

Department Examiner

Liaison, Departmental Honors Committee

Chairperson, University Departmental Honors Committee

Abstract In this analysis of a single text, I mean to demonstrate that I have fulfilled three purposes in the study of literature: becoming a better reader, understanding and developing increasingly complex metaphors, and discovering a personal voice in writing. Through a discussion of the critical dialogue and the thematic, structural and linguistic elements of a text, I demonstrate a capacity for conversing with text – wrestling it if necessary – a clear understanding of metaphor, its use and its limitations, an ability to explicate complex metaphors and construct them myself, and exercised a style and voice particular to myself and not entirely unpleasant. I begin with a discussion on the critical dialogue concerning Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, followed by a brief description of my methodology for studying the text. What follows is my own analysis of the book, informed by critical dialogue and postmodern theory, but not steered by it. I conclude that the power of language and metaphor in this text exemplifies the power they signify in life, that they offer us, the constructors and users of signs and words space to know and hope that we can manage change rather than be destroyed by it.


“The poetry of the invisible, of infinite unexpected possibilities – even the poetry of nothingness – issues from a poet who had no doubts whatever about the physical reality of the world.”

Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium


There is no shortage of critical dialogue concerning Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It does not hurt, of course, that Calvino’s writing is beautiful and terribly clever; critics revel in the study of such work. But the book is also extraordinarily complex, to the point of alluding classification, so to write about its elements necessitates covering a great deal of space – a critical “spreading out” as it were. Moreover, it is a text that leaves the reader with more questions than answers. Some critics have hailed it a masterpiece; one called it “‘ a sensuous delight, a sophisticated literary puzzle’” (Contemporary Authors Online), another “‘a work of unquestionable merit and enduring success’” (Ricci, “Italo Calvino”). Salman Rushdie had mixed feelings about the book. He appreciated its “jeweled sentences and glittering notions,” but said Calvino had incorporated into all that beauty “no storytelling worth a damn” (Rushdie 16). He suggests that Invisible Cities be kept for bedside reading “in small doses” (Rushdie 16). Whatever the individual reader’s taste, one theme is echoed in throughout the scholarship on this novel: the evolving series found in Invisible Cities works as both a structural and rhetorical element, which, though it could leave the reader with an impression of pessimism, instead bolsters the story, infusing it with a constant renewal of scene, and in the end an impression of hope. Rosetta Di Pace-Jordan is one of those critics who sees the serial structure of the novel as indicative of the author’s purpose. She contends that, for Calvino, seriality represents possibility in story-telling, because it provides a network of choices, conclusions and...
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