The setting of the novel is post world war two Italy where the citizens are showing signs of despair and numbness after a period of dictatorship and defeat in the war. The fascist structures have collapsed and the economic situation looks grim. The infrastructure was destroyed and the currency was debased. Organized criminal gangs were talking control of large areas of the country and profiting immensely from their activities. The rest of the population was facing a fight for survival.
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In the novel we see Carla and her cousin Guilia forced by circumstances to go and live with Carla’s boyfriend, Tullio, a leader of a criminal gang taking advantage of the prevailing situation. Tullio earns a living from crime and Carla supplements the household’s earnings with proceeds from prostitution. After several months, a new family member arrived in the form of Daniele, a boy from a middle-class background who had lost his parents in a bombing raid. In their daily miserable life, they are still able to enjoy moments of happiness now and then.
In such circumstances, the author felt that capitalism was the answer to the failed socialist policies. However he is cautious that if left unchecked, capitalism could transform into left-wing totalitarianism. The country had escaped Soviet occupation and was able to receive aid from the West to finance its rebuilding efforts. Capitalist and Communist ideologies combined to form what could be called a “mixed economy” that surprisingly thrived very well until the collapse of the Breton Woods institutions.