In Dino Buzzati’s “Seven Floors,” a man named Giuseppe Corte checks in at a highly reputable, beautiful hospital. The hospital has a unique system of management: patients are placed on the floors according to the severity of their illness, with the least severe at the top, the seventh floor, and the dying, the “condemned,” on the first floor. Giuseppe is placed on the seventh floor, as he appears to only have a mild fever. Looking out of the window, at the beautiful trees and the city, Giuseppe has a view of the windows of the lower floors. He strikes up a conversation with a fellow patient on the balcony next to him, who elaborates on how the shades on the bottom floor closed once a patient died.
With this information, Giuseppe is extra fearful of moving down to lower floors. To his delight, he is forced to move down to the sixth floor, so the hospital can accommodate a family in his room. Before he could protest, he was assured it was a temporary placement. The sixth floor is where it gets serious; the seventh is really just a joke, patients were just there for “fancy.” To try to get back to the seventh floor, Giuseppe bothers the nurses by exhorting that his time on the sixth floor was just TEMPORARY, that his illness was MINOR. While on the sixth floor, we learn about Giuseppe’s unnamed illness. It is “obstinate,” ineffectual, but when it does strike, it hits the entire body.
So the rest of Giuseppe’s stay at the hospital is him moving down the floors of the hospital, for reasons that mostly don’t have to do with his actual sickness. He goes down to fifth because the hospital just wants to split up the floors; then to the fourth to take care of some eczema that has nothing to do with his illness; to the third because the doctor advises him that the treatment is better on the third floor; to the second because the ward employees are going on vacation; and finally to the first, because the chief doctor, Professor Dati, makes an order that he be moved there, which seems like a mistake even to the other doctors. On the first floor, Giuseppe sees his shades mysteriously closing, leading us to believe that he dies.
Every time Giuseppe moves down, the doctors assure him that he is only temporarily on that floor, he gets more angry and disheartened as he moves farther away from the “real world,” the seventh floor, and the doctors are more concerned about his sickness.
The chronic tension is Giuseppe’s sickness, or his impending death, and the acute is his passage down the hospital.
What makes the story compelling?
One thing that made me fall in love with this story on the first read is how Buzzati plays with our expectations. The doctors continuously reassure Giuseppe that he will return to the top of the hospital, that his illness is a minor case, that these transfers are just simple errors on the hospital’s part, that Giuseppe will be out of there in no time, that he will live. But, contrasting with this is how Giuseppe gets closer and closer to death. Dino sets up our expectations that he will live, but no matter how much he complains, he gets closer and closer to death. Giuseppe’s fate is unfathomable, but Dino successfully makes it a reality with the allegorical nature of the story, and, more specifically, fairly believable, various reasons for Giuseppe to be moved down the floors despite his good health. It makes us think: was Giuseppe’s health ever all that good in the first place? Was the hospital playing some sort of sick trick in the end? Why is this called a state-of-the-art hospital if this happens? The questions that Buzzati raises in the reader are good questions to have, as they all, while questioning the story, question ourselves. In the end, Buzzati leaves plenty of room for the reader to have his own interpretation.
Another thing that makes “Seven Floors” compelling is just the concept of the piece, of the idea that one side represents life, the other death, and the character involuntarily traveling to the death side (this plays into what I say about symbolism later). The story is not driven by the characterization, nor imagery and honestly, not much the setting. The only thing the setting does is facilitate the plot, really. Buzzati somehow makes this story interesting with an unchanging plot; the same thing keeps happening over and over again. But we are getting closer, and closer, and closer. We don’t want to accept it, but it’s still happening. The reader is just waiting for Giuseppe to return to the seventh floor, but it doesn’t happen, and it was never going to happen. Does Giuseppe change? Not really. Does he learn his lesson, to shut your mouth, be positive, and maybe you’ll feel better? He dies in the end, so no. That tells that this story is more just a picture of human nature, a tale where the protagonist doesn’t learn his lesson, but the reader does.
What can we use in our own writing?
One craft element that we can learn from “Seven Floors” is the close third person point-of-view. This particular perspective magnifies the story by aligning the reader with Giuseppe’s emotions, and keeping the reader in the dark, for the most part, about what kind of things are happening elsewhere in the ward or in the world. Although we don’t learn anything about Giuseppe’s life outside of the hospital, we feel his disbelief. As I read this for the first time, I kept saying to myself “there is no way he actually makes it to the first floor,” but guess what. We also get to watch how Giuseppe’s reactions to moving down the hospital, one floor at a time, escalate and fall. In the beginning, Giuseppe intentionally keeps his composure when he expresses his eagerness to stay in his room on the seventh floor. Moving down to the fourth floor, Giuseppe is in outrage, but still has hope. But once Giuseppe is moved down to the first floor, he is in an obvious state of depression, something that we could only feel the full effect of if we were in close third person. The POV, by only centering around Giuseppe, makes us ignorant of what else is going on in the ward, and how the doctors are personally dealing with this rogue patient. We feel the same disconnection Giuseppe has with the room outside his hospital room. I was perplexed as his gray shade closed on the first floor as well. And here’s another thing. Because the hospital made so many errors, I started to question if Professor Dati is out to get poor Giuseppe. The doctors seem to be on his side, but are they really? It’s just strange, kind of unfathomable how this state-of-the-art hospital can let an almost perfectly healthy patient die. We can talk about this later.
Another thing that we should take away from this story is Dino Buzzati’s great use of symbolism. On the second read, it struck me how allegorical this story was. Giuseppe is barely characterized; as I said, we don’t know a thing about his life outside the hospital. We also don’t know what exactly Giuseppe’s particular disease is called. What this does is easily let us fill the spot of the main character, and suddenly this story becomes a comment on human nature. The trees outside Giuseppe’s window is a symbol for his diminishing connection with the outside world. Perhaps, as the leaves shake in the wind even from the bottom floor, Buzzati is saying that the world still goes on after we die. Similarly, the seventh floor is an obvious symbol for life, for good health. Where the real world is all there when you look out the window. And, of course, the first floor is a symbol for death. Giuseppe is obviously not dead as he watches the shades close, or is he? Giuseppe’s behavior as he descends the hospital is Dino pointing out the faults of human nature. Dissatisfaction drives us toward an unhappy death that we feel is unjustified. I noticed how Giuseppe’s fever always strengthened as he moved down the hospital. This could definitely be for other reasons (which we can talk about) but I think it is because of his terrible temperament. The doctors also often link Giuseppe’s deteriorating condition with his emotions, saying that he will be healthier with a happier spirit.
What kills Giuseppe? Was it his passage to the first floor? Was it his temperament? Was his illness much more severe than everyone thought? He dies, right?
What is the climax of the story?
What was your relationship with Giuseppe?