Luigi Pirandello’s short story ‘‘A Day Goes By’’ is considered to be an allegory of a man’s life. How do we know, however, that the story is not real? Until the very end, when the main character ages overnight, nothing completely implausible occurs. And one could argue that the character has been old all along—when he sees that he is an old man, it is the first time he has looked in a mirror. It could be the tale of an actual man suffering from amnesia after falling (or being pushed) from a train. The clues to allegory in this story are much more subtle than in a fairy tale; for instance, no animals talk, no genies appear. The clues are found in the character’s reactions to, and assumptions about, the people he encounters.
As the story begins, the narrator is both literally and figuratively in the dark. ‘‘Rudely awakened from sleep—perhaps by mistake—I find myself thrown out of the train at a station along the line.’’ Not train, but train. Somehow, though he claims to have forgotten everything, he knows that there will not be another train for him—this is the train.
Throughout the story, there are subtle indications that the narrator does remember, that traces of his identity remain from his past. For instance, in the first sentence of the story, he allows that his awakening and exit from the train may have been a mistake. However, in the next paragraph, he says, ‘‘Nowhere on myself can I find any sign of the violence I’ve suffered.’’ He does not have even ‘‘the shadow of a memory’’ of the incident. This, of course, prompts the question: how does he know there has been violence at all? He has made an assumption, and one cannot make an assumption without the benefit of past experience as a guide. This is one of the first clues that he knows more of his former identity than he realizes or reveals.
The narrator’s perception of himself as an outcast, as inferior to the others in the town, is not necessarily based on objective observation. Several people wave to him in greeting, and he asserts that the other townspeople ‘‘all look like me, too.’’ From this evidence he could easily conclude that he is one of them, that he belongs, even though he cannot remember this belonging. Instead he decides that they are ‘‘right’’ and he is ‘‘wrong.’’ In just one paragraph he repeats this belief three times. Does his sense of separateness, of alienation, come from his lack of identity—his loss of memory—or from a pre-existing perception of himself as inferior, a past identity that still clings to him? He has no objective evidence of the scorn or judgment he attributes to the townspeople, but still he draws these conclusions: ‘‘ must be in the wrong. . . . Not only do they seem to know this, but they also know everything that makes them sure that they never make a mistake.’’ This is obviously not a conclusion that can be drawn from observation alone, and the narrator never speaks to any of these people.
This raises another question that must occur to any reader of this tale: why does the narrator never ask anyone for help? He asks the restaurateur about his decrepit banknote, but only because ‘‘a scruple’’ obligates him—he wants to be sure he can pay for his meal. At no point does he ask anyone where he is, or if they know him, or if there is another train. And how does he get an account at the bank without a name? Surely the banker would require his name, and if the banker already knows his name, surely it would be inscribed upon the passbook the bank gives him. And yet the narrator never reveals this information to the reader.
There is an obvious answer to these questions, of course, and that is that this was never intended as a realistic story as an allegory of identity. On an intellectual level, the narrator knows perfectly well who he is, and where he is, but in a more figurative sense, he has been asleep, unconscious. Until being ‘‘rudely awakened’’ at the opening of the story, he has lived his life in an unconscious, detached manner, not truly experiencing the world or the people around him. He was headed towards some destination (on the train) without stopping to actually look at his life. The reader does not know what event ‘‘awakened’’ him. People faced with a catastrophic illness or a near-death experience often find that afterwards, their priorities are clarified, and their ability to fully appreciate life is heightened. It is useful to note that at the time Pirandello wrote this story he himself was aware of serious health problems (affecting his heart) that would lead to his death a few months later.
Still, the narrator’s ‘‘awakening’’ does not initially seem to be increasing his appreciation or enjoyment of life. The main emotions he experiences are bewilderment and a sense of alienation. Knowledge of his respectability and financial success does little to dispel these feelings. Even when he arrives home, he feels like ‘‘a kind of intruder.’’ Finally, he opens the bedroom door and finds his fiance´ e, and he is welcomed with open arms. If there is any doubt that he has found what he has been looking for, Pirandello puts a spotlight on it for us: he writes that the room is ‘‘ablaze with light.’’
The next morning, however, the woman is gone, as are the light and warmth. The narrator is forced to wake up all over again, this time to the realization that he is now an old man, near death (the bed is now ‘‘freezing cold, just like a tomb’’). He describes the realization as ‘‘a nightmare.’’ But when his children and grandchildren arrive, there is a marked change in the atmosphere.
Though the narrator claims no memory of his family, the rapid change in his behavior when they arrive indicates otherwise. For only the second time (his encounter with his fiance´ e being the first), he allows himself to be touched. His family reproves him ‘‘lovingly’’ for getting up, and encourages him to ‘‘lean on them.’’ He looks upon his children, close enough to see the hairs on their heads and to watch them turn gray. His granddaughter wants to climb on him and hug him around the neck. At one point, he says, ‘‘I feel the urge to leap to my feet.’’ There is more physicality in this one scene than in all the others combined.
The language becomes warmer and lighter in tone. He teases his family about it all being a joke they are playing on him, and he looks upon them with ‘‘compassion.’’ This is by far the warmest and most human scene. At the beginning of the story, the narrator ‘‘wakes up’’ to a cold life in which he finds no friends and feels he is being judged by society. The unconscious way that he has lived his life has left him with no one, it seems, until he is reunited with his family. Family is the one connection remaining to him, and finally, with what little life he has left, he is able to appreciate it. The allegory comes full circle, from the darkness of the station, to the warmth and light of family, and back to darkness again (his impending death). It is a bittersweet story of a man who sees the light (and feels it) with hardly any time left to enjoy it.
Laura Pryor, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Luigi Pirandello, Published by Gale Group, 2010