Due to its modernist structure and meta-narrative plot, the reader is Calvino’s main character. He does not try to employ a universal reader, however, as the novel needs at least a semi-specific viewpoint, so the ‘you’ here refers to a middle-aged, single man who is a fairly enthusiastic reader and is drawn to pretty, mysterious women. This may be a criticism of the assumed readership of novels at this time, as women in novels were often treated as sex objects for the appetites of this ‘average’ reader, rather than individual protagonists whose perspectives could be related to by the reader.
The reader is also "the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything" (4), suggesting a certain level of disappointment or disenchantment with his life. The only risk he takes is getting invested in books. This characterization sets up the reader to be taken out of his comfort zone later, but it also gives the actual reader normal, safe expectations for a normally structured plot (with a clear beginning, middle, and end) that will be subverted. The character of the reader puts the actual reader at ease with its conventional viewpoint (that of a middle-aged man) and safe expectations so that they are in a position to be shocked by the novel’s modernism and re-evaluate how they read books. The reader embodies the expected conventions of literature.
Ludmilla is treated as an object in the novel, similar to the books the reader has started: he wants to possess both of them because they are always just out of reach. Ludmilla is constantly enigmatic, but the items in her apartment create an idea of an "extroverted, clear-sighted woman, sensual and methodical" (143). Ludmilla, or the Second Reader, clearly sees the world in a different way from the Reader. This is shown through her approach to books. Contrary to the Reader’s practical expectations for clear plotlines and interesting characters, Ludmilla has complicated and sometimes contradictory expectations for the books she reads to have a specific mix of reality and fantasy. She is highly averse to thinking about the process by which books are created because she wants books to be organic and full of magic. This is why she refuses to accompany the Reader to the publishing house, and why she is interested in the author Silas Flannery. Ludmilla is certainly more open-minded in her reading than her sister, Lotaria, against whom the text juxtaposes her.
Lotaria is Ludmilla’s sister, an academic who is far more socially aggressive towards others, as well as more politically motivated. She approaches books in an analytical manner, looking for their themes and counting their use of words in order to force them into her personal theories. As opposed to Ludmilla’s open-mindedness, she reads with an agenda and finds the aforementioned openness escapist and low-brow. This character’s viewpoint clearly represents a habit in academia that Calvino dislikes, because the character herself is so unlikeable.
Ermes is the duplicitous translator whose false translations and counterfeit books create the numerous interrupted readings that make up If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. Despite initially seeming like an opportunist simply out to make money through posing as a translator, it is revealed that he has founded a group called the Organization of Apocryphal Power that produces counterfeit books worldwide. The character’s aim is to subvert the idea of any truth or meaning in literature. Everything Marana does is supposed to undermine the joy of reading and create chaos and uncertainty, so he serves as the novel’s most obvious antagonist.
Silas is an aging author who considers himself to be a sell-out, as he has been using a successful formula for writing best-selling detective books for years and allowing brands to advertise themselves in those books for money. This shameless superficiality only brings him misery, conveying Calvino’s message about the importance of artistic integrity.
In his diary, Silas writes about his longing to do something more with his writing; rather than selling thousands of copies, he longs to become a conduit to the forces of the outside world. He later meets a group of young boys who assert that extraterrestrials are using him to channel secret messages, and he realizes that he would never be aware of becoming a conduit even if it actually happened. He could never enjoy his ideal writing situation even if it became reality.
The Professor is an eccentric academic who admits to the lack of appeal of his department, the fictitious Department of Bothno-Ugaric Languages and Literatures. He surrounds himself with books in his cramped office and seems to have an enthusiasm for literature, but he gets too caught up in pointless small details (for example, the long debate he has with another Professor about an author’s nationality).
Mr. Cavedagna is an employee at a publishing house who is made to take on the most difficult and tedious work. He must work to clean up the messes made by the translator Ermes Marana. He has a sense of nostalgia for his childhood, when he read books with total innocence in his small village. He wishes to return to that mindset when he retires.
The Reader meets Irnerio in the university hall, while looking for Ludmilla, and is immediately jealous of him for his presumed relationship with Ludmilla. This jealousy is intensified when the Reader finds that Irnerio seems quite at home in Ludmilla's apartment. The primary feature of this character is symbolic. He has trained his brain to stop recognizing groups of letters as words, and instead turns books into artworks, neglecting their original purpose to make new meaning out of them. Like Ermes Marana, Calvino uses this character to challenge assumptions about the sanctity of books.
Dr. Marne, Chief Gorin, Madame Marne
Characters in the story-within-a-story If on a winter's night a traveler. Dr. Marne and Chief Gorin are the two men on whom the people at the cafe take bets. Madame Marne is the former wife of Dr. Marne, who owns a shop in town. The narrator of the story becomes interested in her and strikes up conversation, causing him to be noticed by Dr. Marne and the other patrons of the cafe.
Gritzvi, Ponko, Brigd, Zwida, Mr. Kauderer, Bronko, Aunt Ugurd
Characters from the story-within-a-story Outside the town of Malbork. Gritzvi and Ponko are two boys who are switching homes to learn other trades. Brigd and Zwida are their respective love interests. Mr. Kauderer is the father of Ponko. Bronko and Aunt Ugurd are relatives of Gritzvi. Some of Griztvi's other relatives are also mentioned in the story, but are not referenced by name.
Miss Zwida, Mr. Kauderer
Characters in the story-within-a-story Leaning from the steep slope. Miss Zwida is the narrator's love interest, a woman who likes to sketch and seems to be hatching a plan to break a prisoner out of prison. Mr. Kauderer is a mysterious figure who gives the narrator the task of checking on meteorological devices in an observatory.
Valerian, Irina Piperin, Alex Zinnober
Characters in the story-within-a-story Without fear of wind or vertigo. Valerian, Irina, and Alex are close friends and lovers. Alex and Valerian are old friends, and Irina is introduced to Valerian through Alex, who helped her during a case of vertigo. All three regularly have sex together. During a particular instance of intercourse, Alex sneaks out of the bed and discovers that Valerian has orders for Alex to be killed for treason.
Jojo, Bernadette, Ruedi the Swiss, Mademoiselle Sibylle, Madame Tatarescu/Vlada
Characters in the story-within-a-story Looks down in the gathering shadow. Ruedi the Swiss is the main character, on the run from his past. He has participated in the murder of a man named Jojo, and, with the help of Bernadette, he is attempting to dispose of the body without being found out. Mademoiselle Sibylle and Madame Tatarescu/Vlada are revealed, near the end of the story, to be his estranged daughter and wife.
Character in the story-within-a-story In a network of lines that enlace. The narrator, Marjorie's professor, saves Marjorie from being killed in a purposeful house fire. Instead of being thankful, Marjorie calls the professor a bastard.
Characters in the story-within-a-story In a network of lines that intersect. The narrator of the story, who is a paranoid man obsessed with mirrors, has an affair with Lorna behind the back of his wife Elfrida. At the end of the story, Elfrida arranges for her husband to be kidnapped and taken to a mirrored room where Lorna is bound and gagged.
Mr. Okeda, Makiko, Madame Miyagi
Characters in the story-within-a-story On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon. The narrator is a young man who lives with and works for Mr. Okeda, a prominent intellectual. The narrator becomes sexually involved with Mr. Okeda's daughter, Makiko, and his wife, Madame Miyagi.
Characters in the story-within-a-story Around an empty grave. Nacho is the son of Don Anastasio Zamora, a man who left the town of Oquedal after killing Faustino Higueras in a duel. Nacho does not know who his mother is, but it seems to be either Anacleta Higueras, sister of Faustino Higueras, or Doña Jazmina Alvarado, an upper-class woman. Nacho romantically pursues Amaranta Higueras and Jacinta Alvarado, the daughters of Anacleta and Jazmina respectively, in an attempt to force one woman to reveal that she is his mother.
A woman of many names whom the Reader meets in Ataguitania. She uses so many names because she is a double-agent, pretending to be part of the police force while actually being a revolutionary. The Reader suspects she could actually be Lotaria, but this is never made clear. Once the Reader discovers her many names, she is referred to with different groupings of them such as "Sheila-Ingrid-Corinna" (218) and "Lotaria-Corinna-Sheila" (219).
Director General of the State Police Archives of Ircania. The Reader is sent by Ataguitanian High Command to meet with Arkadian Porphyrich and discuss banned books.
The only named character in the story-within-a-story What story down there awaits its end? She is the friend and perhaps romantic interest of the narrator, a man who dislikes most of society and can (or at least imagines he can) make things disappear with his mind.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler literature essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino.