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Captain Corelli's Mandolin explores many varieties of love. We see the initial lust-based love between Pelagia and Mandras, which burns out as a result of the war, and the change it prompts in both of them. Corelli and Pelagia's slow-developing love is the central focus of the novel. Love is described by Dr Iannis as "what is left when the passion has gone", and it certainly appears that this criterion is fulfilled by the love of Corelli and Pelagia. The paternal love of Iannis for Pelagia is also strong and is heavily compared and contrasted to that of Corelli.
The theme of music is predominant, offering a direct contrast to the horror and destruction that the war brings and showing how something beautiful can arise from something horrible.
The war is described in graphic detail, particularly the death of Francesco. It is responsible for the fall of Mandras and Weber, the deaths of Carlo and Francesco, and the separation of Pelagia and Corelli.
Throughout the novel, Bernières takes a harsh view of all forms of totalitarianism, condemning Fascism, Nazism, and Communism alike. Bernières himself described this as a novel about "what happens to the little people when megalomaniacs get busy."
Another theme of the novel is the study of history. Dr Iannis spends much of his spare time attempting to write a history of Cephallonia, but he often finds his personal feelings and biasses running through whatever he writes. There is also a strong feeling against 'professional' history, which is suggested by Carlo Guercio's statement that "I know that if we [the Axis] win then there will be stories about mass graves in London and vice versa". This is reinforced by a quotation from Bernières which says that: "history ought to be made up of the stories of ordinary people only." From this viewpoint, it can be seen that Bernières is very much a revisionist historian, considering social history superior to political history.
Bernières takes an ambiguous attitude towards heroism and villainy in the novel: many of the characters, despite committing atrocities, are viewed as human victims of bad circumstances. For example, the character Günter Weber receives a great degree of sympathy from the writer, even though he fully engages with the Nazi ideology and is guilty of taking part in the killing of an entire Italian division. Despite having become friends with many of the men, Weber must follow orders. Similarly, Mandras is guilty of murder, torture, and rape, yet the author portrays him sympathetically: "just another life tarnished... by war."
- Dr Iannis – The island's unofficial, unlicensed doctor, who spends much of his time writing about the history of Cephallonia. He is respected by the community, although regarded as a bit odd, and is thanked for his medical services by means of food and drink.
- Pelagia – Dr Iannis's daughter, who is not like the other women on the island (she is well educated and has a lot of respect from her father), who at first falls in love with Mandras, then later with Corelli.
- Antonio Corelli – An Italian captain with a love of music and life. He detests the war and gradually falls in love with Pelagia; but the war inevitably tears them apart again.
- Mandras – A young, handsome fisherman who falls in love with Pelagia, only to destroy their relationship by going to fight in the war, and ultimately humiliating himself.
- Carlo Piero Guercio – A good-natured homosexual Italian soldier who falls in love with Francesco only to lose him to the war. He later falls in love with Corelli and sacrifices his life to save the Captain's.