The Conformist is a psychologically complex novelistic study of an Italian fascist, although not necessarily a typical fascist, done in an existential style with intense interior monologues and introspection by Alberto Moravia's protagonist, Marcello Clerici.
No doubt Moravia intended Marcello as the conformist, but ironically it is his wife Giulia who nearly always conforms to what is considered normal behavior and who harbors uncritically knee jerk beliefs and opinions formed by church and state. In fact, that is part of the reason he married her. In contrast, Marcello struggles mightily with what he considers his abnormal tendencies. As a child he killed lizards for sport as any boy might, but felt uneasy about the wanton slaughter, and so sought from a friend and his mother some indication that killing lizards was okay. Later he kills a cat, although this is mostly accidental, and as a young teenager shots a homosexual limo driver named Lino. He feels something akin to consternation for these actions, not guilt exactly, but an unease since doing such things is not what he thinks normal people do.
It is his need to be--or at least to appear--"normal" that drives Marcello to conform to society's mores and persuades him to embrace fascism. He only feels really at ease when he sees himself as part of the common herd, on the installment plan, buying ordinary furniture, living in an apartment like a thousand others, having a wife and children, reading the newspapers, going to work, etc. He is not a peasant of course, but an educated functionary in the Italian Secret Service, a man with impeccable manners who seldom says more than is absolutely necessary.
The idea that fascists in general follow the herd and adopt a superficial and uncultured world view is no doubt largely correct, but the essence of fascism is the belief in authoritarian rule, the stratification of society, intolerance of diversity, and a willingness, even an eagerness to use force and violence to obtain such ends. The psychology underlying Moravia's portrait is the idea that Marcello sees in himself the violent and selfish tendencies and so it is only natural that he should adopt a political philosophy that condones and acts out such tendencies.
Moravia treats fascism in the person of Marcello more kindly than I believe he imagined he would when he began the novel, given Moravia's hatred of the fascist movement that seduced much of Europe following the First World War. But this is the necessary consequence of being an objective novelist. In drawing a living, breathing portrait of Marcello, Moravia allows us to see him as a complex person with strengths and weaknesses who deals with the trials of life sometimes in a despicable way, and sometimes, indeed often, in a way that most of us would choose were we in his shoes. Therefore it is impossible not to identify with him to some degree. It is an artifact of Moravia's artistry that we do in fact in the end identify with Marcello and may even realize that in his situation, we too might have embraced fascism or at least tolerated it.
A secondary theme in the novel is that of unrequited love or of desire that is not returned. All of the main characters, Marcello, Lino, Giulia, Quadri and Lina love someone who does not return their love. Marcello briefly falls madly in love with Lina who is a lesbian who despises him. Lina in turn is desperately in love with Giulia who only has eyes for her husband, who does not really love her. The inability of the characters to love the one who loves them is played out partly through a disparity in personality and political belief, and partly through differing sexuality. Lino and his latter-day incarnation in an old British homosexual who drives around Paris picking up indigent young men seldom if ever find their love returned although they might temporarily quench their desire. No one in the novel experiences love both in the giving and the receiving.
Part of Marcello's unease with himself comes from his ambivalent sexuality. He cannot return the intense passion that Giulia feels for him although apparently he does manage to perform his husbandly duties adequately. Perhaps even more to the point, he seems to project a need for the "abnormal" experience. He is twice mistaken for a homosexual, and he falls in love with a homosexual of the opposite sex--thus the "Lino" and the "Lina" of his life. Marcello seems to have a blindness about invert sexuality just as he has a blindness about human morality. He is a man who does not what he thinks is right but what others think is right. He fears his natural impulses. Moravia illustrates this by occasionally having him nearly give into what he feels inside, as in the case of Lina, only to have him realize that to act from his heart is dangerous.
In the final analysis Marcello finds that "the normality that he had sought after with such tenacity for so many years...was now revealed as a purely external thing entirely made up of abnormalities" (quote from near the beginning of Chapter Nineteen).
Moravia (born Alberto Pincherle) is in my opinion one of the great novelists of the 20th century and The Conformist is representative of his best work. Incidentally this was made into a beautiful film by Bernardo Bertolucci while not entirely true to the novel, is nonetheless very much worth seeing.