Mushrooms in the City by Italo Calvino

December 10, 2011
Following World War II, Italo Calvino rose to renown as one of Italy’s most illustrious short-story authors. He often concealed his controversial governmental views in his written works by his deliciously austere plots and stratal characters. His tales are perhaps the embodiment of multiple-layer literature. In his enduring short story “Mushrooms in the City,” Calvino symbolically contrasts the dangers of capitalism and the safety of socialism.
“The wind, entering a town from far away, brings unaccustomed gifts, of which only a few sensitive souls become aware, such as sufferers from hay fever…” Calvino launched his piece by emblematically establishing “gifts” as foreign ideology that was both dangerous and unpleasant to his people. The uneducated laborer Marcovaldo, protagonist of “Mushrooms in the City,” was such a “sensitive soul.” His eyes wandered indolently over city life; his fascination lay in the quiet marvels of nature. “There was never a horsefly on the back of a horse, a worm-hole in a table, the peel of a fig squashed on the pavement, which Marcovaldo did not notice and did not reflect upon, observing the changes of the seasons, the longings of his soul and the wretchedness of his existence.” Calvino emphasizes the blinding qualities of select foreign principles, namely, capitalism.
Through his perceptiveness for nature, Marcovaldo zealously discovered the growth of mushrooms in the very nucleus of the city. With this discovery, the author inaugurates a new campaign of symbolism: the mushrooms specifically represent the evils of privatization and free enterprise. At the outset, the mushrooms appear to be innocent spectacles of natural life engendered by the “gifts” of the wind. But Calvino utilizes his early denotation of “gifts.” The mushrooms grow in Marcovaldo’s mind, suffocating all other thought, possessing his mind, and haunting every aspect of his life. “At work he was more absent-minded than usual. He thought to himself that while he was there unloading parcels and crates, in the darkness of the earth silent, slow mushrooms, known only to him, were maturing their porous pulp, absorbing subterranean juices, breaking the crust of the soil.” His family life decayed to a state of “mania[c] possession” and “jealous, suspicious fear.” Would his children expose the fungus’ presence? Would the mushrooms “end up in someone else’s pot”? Marcovaldo wanted desperately to indulge in the “delicacy” and “beauty of… edible fungi.” No one else should be able to share in his harvest of palatability.
But, alack and alas, a street sweeper noticed the mushrooms, too. In fact, on the day that Marcovaldo saw fit to pick his bounty of fungi, his son interrupted his plucking rampage: “Daddy, look how many that man has taken.” Marcovaldo had been so intent on garnering his crop that he had not even detected the presence of another man – the street sweeper. Here Calvino illuminated the difficulty of capitalism; here he made his biggest argument against the system.
The street sweeper approached the fungi-jealous Marcovaldo. “Ah, you’re picking them too… Then they really are good to eat?” the sweeper asked. Marcovaldo had been so blinded by his obsession that he had not questioned the safety of eating them. His mind was solely focused on the potential gain of a good meal; or, in the case of capitalism, his obsession with prosperity had caused him to fail to question the safety of the investment. Strike one against Marcovaldo- he had not questioned the edibility of the mushrooms.
Strike two commenced here: the street sweeper generously added, “There are even bigger ones further along the street.” Marcovaldo –nature-wary Marcovaldo with the eyes so keen- had missed the bigger mushrooms! He had been so preoccupied with guarding his secret mushroom plot that he had been blinded to even better, even bigger fungus! As a free enterprising system would have it, Marcovaldo had submitted to preoccupation with his time and money that he had been sightless to larger, more profitable investments. But there are three strikes to an out, and Marcovaldo indeed struck out. Strike three: he ate the mushrooms.
Despite the question of the sweeper, he brushed aside the implausible idea that perhaps the fungus was not edible. In doing so, Marcovaldo determined his fate, sending the eaters of the poisonous mushrooms to the hospital. He had jeopardized his own safety and that of his family only for potential gain.
Italo Calvino very manifestly asserted his opinion of capitalism: it was a dangerous idea that blinded individuals to the dangers of the system. But, indeed, he offered a safe solution. Socialism, he communicated, was the reliable alternative. Once Marcovaldo confirmed that the mushrooms were “eatable” to the street sweeper, he called over a host of by-standers, telling them of the secret bounty of edibles. When they turned out to be poisonous, however, Calvino included this statement: “But [the mushroom pickers] soon met again; that very same evening, in fact, in the same hospital ward, after the stomach pump that had saved them all from being poisoned, though not very seriously because the quantity of fungi eaten by each one was very small.” In essence, the common interest, the share-and-share-alike ideology of the socialists won out in the end, saving selfish Marcovaldo death by mushroom. It was only by dividing any gain equally among the people that safety was achieved. And such is socialism.
Throughout the course of the twentieth century, most Americans maintained that socialism was a foolish system of failed equal distribution. Inevitably, the socialist population ceases to work for the common good. Capitalism, free enterprise, privatization, democracy: that was the way of the future. Italo Calvino, however, depicted socialism as the ideal government structure. It was dependable! He conveyed his trust of socialism in his tale “Mushrooms in the City.”

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mrvars said...
Dec. 8, 2014 at 6:45 am
What an amazing analysis of the story from a historical/biographical standpoint. You're writing is quite impressive in its structure and word choice. Most importantly, you assert clear claims, support them with textual evidence, and explain your interpretations thoroughly. I hope you have persued a career in literature or writing as you most definitely have a gifting for it. Thank you for sharing this essay with the world.
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