Call Me By Your Name

by

André Aciman

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Call Me By Your Name: Part 1: If Not Later, When? Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Elio has never heard a person use the word “later” to say goodbye. That is, he’s never heard this until Oliver comes to stay with his family in their summer home in the Italian village of “B.” These days, Elio can still shut his eyes and hear Oliver’s voice saying, “Later!” This memory vividly recalls Oliver and his “billowy blue shirt, wide-open collar, sunglasses, straw hat, skin everywhere.” Whenever Elio thinks about this word, he remembers Oliver hopping out of a cab, giving him his backpack, and shaking his hand while asking if his father is home. At first, he thinks Oliver will be just another “bore,” yet another summer houseguest who has come to work on a book project. “I could grow to like him, though,” he thinks.
Elio’s close attention to the way Oliver says “later” signals his sensitivity to language. From the very beginning of the novel, then, Aciman goes out of his way to show readers that Elio is very attuned to the words people use and the way they employ these words. What’s more, this scrutiny of Oliver’s use of “later” suggests that Elio is particularly compelled to analyze this man—an indication that he has taken a special interest in him.
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Each summer, Elio’s parents invite a young academic to “revise a manuscript before publication” while living with them in their Italian summer home. This means Elio has to switch bedrooms for six weeks, giving up his bed to sleep in an adjoining room that is connected by a small balcony. As long as the scholars help Elio’s father organize his correspondences and paperwork, they aren’t expected to do anything but live however they please and work on their projects. Other than these semi-permanent houseguests, Elio’s parents also frequently host dinner parties, inviting neighbors, colleagues, relatives, and academics of all sorts to sit around their dinner table for seemingly endless meals—a practice Elio refers to as “dinner drudgery.”
It is clear that Elio’s family is cultured and educated. Given the fact that his parents host young scholars every summer, it’s safe to assume that this is a family dedicated to intellectual pursuits. What’s more, Elio is an only child, meaning that he has grown up sitting through long dinners and navigating his way through an adult world. This kind of intellectual sophistication is an important part of his character, one that factors into his romantic relationships and the identity he seeks to build for himself as an adult.
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One afternoon not long after Oliver arrives, Elio notices how soft and pale this man’s skin is on his palms, neck, and the undersides of his feet. These places on his body, Elio thinks, are “private, chaste, unfledged,” and they tell him “things about [Oliver]” that he otherwise wouldn’t even know “to ask.” One day, he takes him on a tour of B., and this is the first time they spend alone together. Oliver asks questions as Elio shows off his knowledge about the area. However, when Elio asks if he wants to see a train car that has been taken over by “Gypsies,” Oliver says, “Later. Maybe.” This “polite indifference” cuts Elio to his core, as he feels like Oliver has recognized his desire to “play up to him.”
Already, Elio hangs on Oliver’s every word, dreading the idea that this man might cast him away with “polite indifference.” Eager to impress Oliver, he gives him a tour of the area and tries to act like a sophisticated adult who’s interested in local history. However, it’s clear he doesn’t fully grasp Oliver’s interests yet, and this distresses him. By stopping Elio from “playing up to him,” Oliver essentially keeps him from presenting himself as a cultured adult, instead making him feel like an over-eager child.
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As they bike to the bank so that Oliver can open an account, Oliver asks Elio what there is to do in B. during the summer. In his responses, Elio tries to seem mature and casual, saying he simply waits for summer to end. When Oliver asks what one does in B. in the winter, Elio smiles, and Oliver cuts him off, saying, “Don’t tell me: wait for summer to come, right?” Oliver’s ability to read Elio’s mind appeals to the boy, who notices that Oliver picks up on things like dinner drudgery sooner than other residents ever have.
Although Oliver has proven his ability to shut Elio down with just a few words, it’s evident that they both operate on a similar intellectual wavelength. Indeed, they communicate easily, thinking along the same lines and intuiting what the other might say. This is an important aspect of their developing relationship, as it eventually brings itself to bear on the many mental calculations Elio must make when talking to Oliver about more complicated subjects.
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Elio tells Oliver he plays tennis, swims, goes out at night, jogs, transcribes music, and reads. He purposefully lists reading last because he thinks Oliver isn’t the kind of person who spends much time reading, given his “brazen attitude” and casual “indifference.” However, when he really thinks about it, he remembers that Oliver has recently finished writing a book about Heraclitus, meaning that reading is “probably not an insignificant part of his life.” Because of this miscalculation, Elio knows he must now “perform some clever backpedaling” in order to let Oliver know that his “real interests” align with his. However, this thought bothers him in and of itself, as it forces him to admit that even during “casual conversation” he is trying to appeal to Oliver.
Once again, readers see how hard Elio works to present an appealing version of himself to Oliver. Trying desperately to come off as someone Oliver might find interesting, he pays careful attention to what he says. What’s most interesting, though, is that he doesn’t initially realize how much he’s working to do this—it’s only when he mistakenly misrepresents himself that he understands what he’s doing. More than anything, this naivety has to do with his youth. Having not had many serious romantic partnerships, Elio doesn’t recognize his own desire to flirt and lay the groundwork for a relationship with Oliver.
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On the way back from the bank, Elio offers to take Oliver to San Giacomo so they can “walk up to the very top of the belfry,” which he and his family have nicknamed “To-die-for” because of how much guests like it. However, he feels stupidly caught off-guard when, in response to this invitation, Oliver tells him that he’ll see the belfry “later.”
Aciman has already established a pattern in the novel. First, Elio gets drawn into his thoughts about Oliver, focusing intensely on their conversations. Then, without warning, Oliver reverts to his “indifferent” attitude, suddenly withdrawing from Elio. Not only does this demonstrate how easily Elio is attracted to Oliver despite himself, it also suggests that Oliver is hesitant to let Elio get too close.
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In retrospect, Elio wonders how he possibly could not have recognized his attraction to Oliver right from the start. “I know desire when I see it,” he writes, “and yet, this time, it slipped by completely.” Failing to fully acknowledge his attraction, he finds himself pontificating at dinner one night and hoping to impress Oliver. Because he’s only seventeen and always surrounded by older academics, he has a habit of speaking fast in order to fit in as many thoughts as possible. During dinner on Oliver’s third night, then, he speaks quickly about a musical transcription he’s working on, and when he falls silent, he can tell that Oliver is watching him. This pleases him immensely—Oliver must like him, he thinks. When he finally lets himself return the gaze, however, he’s horrified to discover that Oliver is staring at him with “a cold and icy glare” that is almost “cruel.”
Oliver’s feelings continue to baffle Elio. As he tries hard to win over his affections, he finds that Oliver is unpredictable. Yet again, then, readers see Elio’s naivety—whereas an adult experienced in the trials and tribulations of romance might recognize this pattern as the initial stages of a forbidden relationship, Elio finds Oliver’s emotional fluctuations completely inscrutable. However, Oliver’s sudden mood changes only hint at complicated feelings that he wants to hide behind his “cold and icy glare.” Elio is unable to recognize this, instead finding himself baffled by these sudden changes.
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In the aftermath of Oliver’s “icy glare,” Elio feels stupid for having “fallen for the skin of his hands, his chest, his feet.” He also feels silly for coveting Oliver’s kinder expressions, which seem like “miracles” now that he has seen this terrible look. In response, Elio returns this “wicked glance,” and they don’t speak to one another for two days, even avoiding each other on the balcony that connects their bedrooms. “He was going to be a difficult neighbor,” Elio notes. “Better stay away from him.”
Elio’s decision to “stay away” from Oliver aligns with his belief that this man’s stormy moods arise not from a place of affection but from a place of cruelty. Unable to speak openly with Oliver about their relationship (both because of their age difference and because he has never been with a man before), he’s forced to keep his distance.
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Without reason or warning, the silence breaks three days later when Oliver asks Elio if he wants to go swimming. Speaking in the present, Elio understands that “the pain, the stoking, the thrill of someone new,” all of these experiences can be traced back to his summer with Oliver, since his experience with him is now “embossed” on his entire life. Still, he comes to learn how quickly his relationship with Oliver can go cold, as if “distance” can abruptly slip between them at any moment. “It was almost as though he were doing it on purpose,” Elio thinks, “feeding me slack, and more slack, and then yanking away any semblance of fellowship.”
Throughout Call Me by Your Name, it’s important to remember that Elio is retrospectively narrating this story. As such, he often offers small insights into the nature of his relationship with Oliver that were unavailable to him in the moment because he was too young to recognize the nuances of their connection. Now, though, he knows that his experiences with Oliver were extremely formative, an idea that indicates just how significant romantic relationships can be when a person is still coming of age (especially when that person is involved with an adult).
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While playing guitar one day, Elio senses Oliver staring at him. When he looks up, he’s once more met with the “icy glare.” This time, though, Oliver can’t hide it, so he asks questions about the guitar as a way of diminishing his cruelty. They quickly begin arguing about how Elio was playing the song, so Elio moves to the piano, where he plays another variation. However, Oliver doesn’t like how Elio has changed it—he only wants to hear it the way he originally played it on the guitar, but Elio keeps presenting new and increasingly complex interpretations. Finally, when he has exasperated Oliver, he plays the work in the original way, knowing “exactly what phrase in the piece must have stirred him.” “We were—and he must have recognized the signs long before I did—flirting,” he writes.
In this scene, it becomes clear that Oliver isn’t the only tormentor in this relationship. Indeed, Elio is perfectly capable of driving Oliver crazy, though he’s perhaps not quite as aware of what he’s doing. As he withholds the “phrase” that Oliver wants so badly to hear in this piece of music, he creates a sense of anticipation and longing, one that reflects the unspoken desires lurking in their relationship.
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Not long after this interaction, Elio begins to admit to himself that he’d do anything for Oliver because he feels strongly for him. Then, one afternoon, he finds himself home alone with Oliver, and he feels as if “fire” is tearing through his “guts.” He sits in his bedroom, waiting in torment for something to happen and thinking about what it would be like to be with Oliver. “I had learned to leave my French windows ajar, and I’d lie on my bed wearing only my bathing suit, my entire body on fire,” he writes. “Fire like a pleading that says, Please, please, tell me I’m wrong, tell me I’ve imagined all this, because it can’t possibly be true for you as well, and if it’s true for you too, then you’re the cruelest man alive.”
Although he’s capable of alluding obliquely (through his music) to the anticipation that exists between Oliver and himself, Elio is ultimately ravaged by the fact that he’s forced to wait for something to happen in their relationship. As he sits in his bedroom and longs for Oliver to seek him out, he feels the pain of desire and thinks that Oliver is “the cruelest man alive” if he is indeed experiencing the same feelings and not acting on them. And yet, he can’t bring himself to make the first move to break this spell of anticipation, perhaps because he’s younger than Oliver and inexperienced when it comes to initiating sexual or romantic partnerships with men.
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When Oliver finally does walk into Elio’s bedroom, he asks why he isn’t with the others at the beach, and though he wants to, Elio can’t bring himself to say, “To be with you, Oliver. With or without my bathing suit. To be with you on my bed. In your bed. Which is my bed during the other months of the year. Do with me what you want. Take me. Just ask if I want to and see the answer you’ll get, just don’t let me say no.”
In his fantasies, Elio is much bolder than he is in real life. Indeed, he dreams of straightforwardly telling Oliver about his desires, revealing that he wants to be “taken.” It’s worth considering that he wants Oliver to “ask” for his consent, but also doesn’t want him to accept “no” for an answer. This is a potentially problematic desire, as it complicates the entire idea of sexual consent. This complicated viewpoint suggests that Elio yearns to be “taken” by Oliver but fears he won’t let himself actually go through with this desire if presented with the opportunity. In turn, readers see that he is in a situation that both entices and repels him, and this is yet another indication that his youth and sexual inexperience are complicating his ability to move forward with this relationship, even in his fantasies.
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Elio also wishes he and Oliver could talk about the other night, when Oliver came into his room and lay down flat upon his body, pressing him into the mattress. As Elio lay on his stomach, he didn’t know what to do, but he knew he didn’t want Oliver to leave. “This is like coming home,” he thought, “[…] like coming home to a place where everyone is like you.” Instead of saying any of this, though, he simply stayed still, pretending to be asleep but also trying to invite Oliver to do more. “I decided to convey without budging, without moving a single muscle in my body, that I’d be willing to yield if you pushed, that I’d already yielded, was yours, all yours, except that you were suddenly gone,” he writes.
Once again, Elio’s conception of sexual consent is complicated. On the one hand, he doesn’t do anything when Oliver lies on top of him, a fact that suggests he’s not ready to move forward with a physical relationship. On the other hand, he internally invites Oliver’s advances, hoping that he’ll “push” onward so that he himself can “yield.” Elio’s attraction to Oliver is genuine, but it’s not without an element of fear regarding the unknown sexual world that Oliver represents.
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While playing tennis the next day, Oliver throws his arm around Elio during a break and massages his shoulder. Although this is done in a very friendly way, Elio immediately flinches from his touch, scared that he’ll give in to his desire to embrace this contact. Startled, Oliver suggests that he must have pinched a nerve, though Elio thinks he only says this to play into the way he himself is reacting. “Knowing, as I later came to learn, how thoroughly trenchant was his ability to sort contradictory signals, I have no doubt that he must have already suspected something.” Nonetheless, Oliver simply tells Elio to “relax,” inviting a girl named Marzia to feel the knots in his back. “Feel it? He should relax more,” he says. “You should relax more,” Marzia agrees.
It’s clear in this moment that Oliver is testing the waters with Elio, ultimately trying to sense whether or not he’s open to a physical relationship. What he doesn’t know, though, is that Elio’s strong reaction actually arises from his intense desire to be touched. Wanting desperately to hide his feelings, Elio thinks he has to recoil from Oliver’s massage, and this only adds yet another layer of secrecy and complexity to their already tense bond. Marzia is only tangential to Elio’s feelings here, but because she’s later revealed to be attracted to Elio, this might be a significant moment for her as well.
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After the incident on the tennis court, Elio wonders why he’s so afraid to show Oliver how much he affects him. “Because I was afraid of what might happen then?” he asks. “Or was I afraid he would have laughed at me, told everyone, or ignored the whole thing on the pretext I was too young to know what I was doing?” Or, he wonders, perhaps he’s afraid to reveal his feelings because they might “tempt” Oliver to “act.” “Did I want him to act?” he asks himself. “Or would I prefer a lifetime of longing provided we both kept this little Ping-Pong game going: not knowing, not-not knowing, not-not-not knowing?”
Once again, Elio struggles to decide what he wants. His instinct to hide his feelings from Oliver has to do with the fact that he doesn’t conceive of himself as a gay or bisexual man. As such, he worries that Oliver might “laugh” at him or tell people. He isn’t even entirely sure he wants anything to happen with Oliver. In turn, he considers embracing a “lifetime of longing,” simply remaining in this anticipatory state without having to acknowledge and thus commit to his feelings, which frighten him.
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Elio is overcome by Oliver and his billowy blue shirt and the scent of his skin. More than anything, though, he’s drawn to the Star of David hanging from a gold necklace around Oliver’s neck. This, Elio feels, connects them to each other, as they are both Jewish. Because he and his family are what his mother calls “Jews of discretion,” he’s astounded to see how proudly Oliver displays his Star of David. “Staring at his neck with its star and telltale amulet was like staring at something timeless, ancestral, immortal in me, in him, in both of us […].” Elio thinks that his family and Oliver are the only Jewish people in B., but this doesn’t make Oliver want to hide his religion. Instead, he wears it with his shirt collar open in a way Elio can never manage to imitate without feeling self-conscious.
When Elio says that “staring” at Oliver’s Star of David necklace is like looking at something “timeless” in “both” of them, readers see that part of his attraction to Oliver is a recognition of himself in this confident man. Not only does Elio suspect that Oliver is—like him—attracted to both men and women, he sees that Oliver is also Jewish. To Elio, Judaism has always been something to hide, but Oliver wholeheartedly accepts who he is. As such, he represents a self-assured version of Elio himself, something that draws the boy to him all the more.
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On the day Oliver walks into Elio’s room and asks why he didn’t go to the beach with the others, Elio lies and says he has bad allergies. Oliver then suggests they go swimming together, pulling Elio off the bed and noticing his low-slung bathing suit. Elio turns away so Oliver won’t notice his erection, and as he does so he asks, “Must we?” This question, he feels, is the closest he can come to suggesting that they simply stay in the bedroom, where Elio will let Oliver put his hand down his swimsuit. However, Oliver only says, “I’ll meet you downstairs,” and when Elio looks down at his crotch, he’s mortified to find that it’s damp. “How could I have been so careless, so thoughtless, so totally stupid?” he asks himself. “Of course he’d seen.”
Slowly but surely, Elio’s attraction to Oliver becomes more and more obvious. Now he knows that Oliver must have at least an inkling about his desire. In this way, his body betrays his intention to keep his yearnings secret, forcing him to acknowledge—albeit in a roundabout and involuntary way—how he feels.
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In retrospect, Elio understands that he should have embraced Oliver’s attitude of self-acceptance and simply “shrugged” away any worries about Oliver noticing his damp crotch—“So what if he saw? Now he knows.” At the time, though, he’s unable to embrace this idea and unable to conceive of the fact that “someone else in [his] immediate world might like what [he] liked, want what [he] wanted, be who [he] was.” This thought has never crossed his mind, he notes, because he hasn’t heard of anybody his age wanting “to be both man and woman—with men and women.”
This is the first time that Elio references that part of his hesitation has to do with how little he has encountered other people who share his desires. Indeed, he’s never had friends who are openly gay or bisexual, and so he has no model upon which to base his newfound sexual preferences. As a result, he’s forced to make sense of his sexual identity in isolation, realizing that the only person who might understand what he’s going through is Oliver himself.
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Every night, Elio lies in bed yearning for Oliver to enter his room. During the day, he sits at a table by the pool and works on his music transcriptions. Unlike the residents before him, Oliver doesn’t work in isolation in his room, instead spreading a blanket on the grass and working on his book as Elio toils over his transcription nearby. Without fail, Oliver eventually migrates to the edge of the pool, where he lies down on the warm tiles and reads, saying, “This is heaven.” After lunch, he often says, “I’m going to heaven now.” When he lies down like this, Elio sometimes asks him if he’s sleeping, and they have slow, easy conversations.
Despite the unspoken tension running between Elio and Oliver, it’s clear that their relationship is developing on its own. At least at this point, they don’t need to acknowledge their feelings for one another. Instead, they naturally establish a bond by simply spending time together by the pool, talking and getting to know each other in a way that once again illustrates how they operate on similar wavelengths.
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Sometimes while lying in the orle of paradise—as he calls his poolside perch—Oliver repeats the things Elio says as a response to his questions. When, for example, he asks what he’s thinking about and Elio says his thoughts are “private,” Oliver says, “So you won’t tell me?” In response, Elio says, “So I won’t tell you.” “So he won’t tell me,” Oliver repeats in a way that comforts and assures Elio. In other conversations, Oliver asks Elio academic questions and marvels at the boy’s intelligence. “I don’t get it,” he says one day about how smart Elio is. “What’s not to get?” Elio replies. “Dad’s a university professor. I grew up without TV.” On another occasion, a glass falls off Elio’s table into the grass, and Oliver walks over to pick it up. “You didn’t have to,” Elio says. “I wanted to,” Oliver answers.
As the summer progresses, Elio and Oliver’s relationship develops in small ways. Elio is characteristically attuned to the way they communicate, taking pleasure in the way Oliver repeats his own words, as language is one of the things that brings them together. What’s more, Oliver’s attentiveness reveals itself gradually, suggesting that he is as invested as Elio in this relationship.
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Each day, neighbors and friends visit the house, including Chiara, a girl Elio’s age who was smitten with him last summer but now shows no interest in him. In just one year, she has developed into a strikingly attractive adult, and it isn’t long before she and Oliver start spending time together. Elio watches them flirt when one day she comes over and tells him to come swimming with her and her sister. Oliver dashes upstairs to change and comes down in his red bathing suit. By this point, Elio has decided that Oliver has four distinct moods that correspond with the color of his swimsuit: “Red: bold, set in his ways, very grown-up, almost gruff and ill-tempered […]. Yellow: sprightly, buoyant, funny, not without barbs […]. Green […]: acquiescent, eager to learn, eager to speak, sunny. […].” Blue, Elio notes, is the color Oliver wears when he’s most affectionate.
Once more, readers see how closely Elio pays attention to Oliver. This time, this manifests itself in the fact that he has ascribed different moods to each of Oliver’s four bathing suits, a perfect representation of the ways in which lovesick people often superimpose meaning onto things that are otherwise banal. Reading into everything Oliver does, Elio can’t help but jump to conclusions about him. Unfortunately, though, he doesn’t have to do much guesswork in order to understand that Chiara and Oliver are interested in one another.
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Everybody loves Oliver. Even Elio’s mother, who claims to dislike his gruff “Americanisms,” finds him charming and affectionately calls him “Il cauboi” and “La muvi star.” Elio’s father also takes a liking to Oliver, though he suggests that he’s shy—an idea Elio finds bewildering. “Could all of his gruff Americanisms be nothing more than an exaggerated way of covering up the simple fact that he didn’t know—or feared he didn't know—how to take his leave gracefully?” he wonders. Thinking this way, he remembers that Oliver declined soft-boiled eggs every morning when he first arrived, but that once Mafalda—the cook—offered to open them for him, he accepted them eagerly. This, he admitted with embarrassment, was because he didn’t know how to peel boiled eggs.
Because Elio worships Oliver, it’s inconceivable to him that this seemingly self-assured man might actually be shy and timid. The fact that this surprises Elio indicates just how much a person’s romantic feelings can affect the way they view the object of their desire. In turn, this serves as a reminder to readers that because Elio is so thoroughly entranced by Oliver, he is perhaps unable to see him clearly.
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Oliver now eats two soft-boiled eggs each morning, which Mafalda peels for him. When she offers a third, though, he declines, saying, “I know myself. If I have three, I’ll have a fourth, and more.” This strikes Elio, for he has never heard anyone say “I know myself,” and the phrase intimidates him.
The phrase “I know myself” implies that Oliver has an entire past about which Elio knows nothing. Oliver says he is well-acquainted with his own insatiability, and this suggests that he has over-indulged throughout his life and now knows how to keep himself at bay—a disappointing idea, considering that Elio wants nothing more than for Oliver to “indulge” with him. What’s more, the phrase “I know myself” strikes Elio because of its sense of self-possession. Since Elio himself is unsure about who he is or wants to be, it’s astounding to hear someone so confidently declare this kind of self-knowledge.
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In the coming weeks, Elio senses that Chiara is—like him—“smitten” with Oliver. However, this does nothing to change the way he himself feels. When his father asks what he thinks of Oliver, he makes sure to answer in a way that won’t make him suspect that he has a stronger affinity for Oliver than anyone else does. One night, Oliver goes out on the small fishing boat with Anchise—the gardener—and doesn’t return for quite some time. Everyone in the house is overcome with worry, and Elio allows himself to openly lament the situation, though he makes sure to match everyone else’s grief so no one will pick up on what he’s really experiencing.
Yet again, Aciman lets readers observe the tortured emotional calculations that Elio constantly makes in order to hide his feelings for Oliver. When everyone else displays how fond they are of Oliver, Elio takes care to calibrate his own affections so that no one (he thinks) detects his true desires. This, it’s safe to say, is an exhausting way to live.
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Elio and his family aren’t the only people vying for Oliver’s time. Indeed, locals invite him almost nightly to dinner, and Chiara and her sister often whisk him away. As a result, Elio waits to see if Oliver will be at the dinner table each night, and when he isn’t, his heart sinks. In light of this, he tries to curb his expectations, thinking that “there are certain wishes that must be clipped like wings off a thriving butterfly.” He decides that he wants Oliver “gone from [his] home so as to be done with him” and fantasizes about Oliver dying, at which point he switches to imagining his own death, thinking about committing suicide so Oliver will know how much pain he’s put him through.
The depths of Elio’s heartache become quite evident when he starts fantasizing about harming himself. Although there’s no reason to believe that these thoughts are about anything other than his desire to make a grand gesture, the mere fact that he thinks about this at all is a testament to just how much Oliver has affected him.
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Chiara spends much of her time with Oliver while Elio himself simply yearns for one night together. “Just one night—one hour, even—if only to determine whether I wanted him for another night after that,” he writes. “What I didn’t realize was that wanting to test desire is nothing more than a ruse to get what we want without admitting that we want it.” Chiara, on the other hand, goes forth and makes her intentions clear, spending most days with Oliver floating on a small rowboat and taking off her bra once they float out far enough. Elio watches them do this, thinking that he doesn’t want to lose Oliver to her and that, when he thinks about it, he also doesn’t want to lose her to Oliver.
Once again, Elio’s retrospective narration provides insight into the nature of his attraction to Oliver, suggesting that “wanting to test desire is nothing more than a ruse to get what we want without admitting that we want it.” He emphasizes the fact that, although his adolescent yearnings are visceral and real, he hasn’t—at this point in the story—fully come to terms with his sexual cravings. Instead of willingly embracing the fact that he wants to sleep with Oliver, he frames this desire as an experiment, thereby managing to convince himself that it’s not as permanent or consequential as it might otherwise seem.
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Watching Chiara and Oliver dance one night in town, Elio tries to convince himself that this is a good thing: now Oliver is taken, and he can’t do anything about it. Maybe this will help him “recover.” The next morning, though, his “heart jolt[s]” when he sees Oliver. Wanting to understand how his and Chiara’s relationship has advanced so quickly, he starts talking to each of them about the other. When talking to Chiara, he compliments Oliver and pretends that he doesn’t know what’s happening between them. When talking to Oliver, he describes Chiara’s naked body, which—he reveals—he saw two years ago. He admits to himself that he simply wants to watch Oliver become aroused, even if it has nothing to do with him. Similarly, he describes Oliver’s body to Chiara to see if she desires the same things he does.
The conversations Elio conducts with Oliver and Chiara highlight his struggle to make sense of his own erotic fixations. Talking to them about their sexual experiences, he seeks to understand what it is that he himself is so attracted to when he looks at Oliver. Once again, then, he looks to language when trying to interpret his feelings.
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In the coming days, Oliver and Elio stop talking, and Elio experiences pangs of jealousy as Oliver skips their tennis matches and swimming outings in order to spend time with Chiara. Before long, though, Chiara starts coming to the house and waiting for Oliver to appear, and it becomes clear that he’s beginning to lose interest in her, though not completely. While waiting for him one day, she overhears Mafalda talking about the fact that she’s much too young for Oliver. “Nobody asked you anything,” she retorts. “She’s not even seventeen yet and she goes about having bare-breasted crushes,” Mafalda laments. “Thinks I haven’t seen anything?” This aside makes Elio think about the fact that nothing can “escape this network of informed perpetue, housekeepers.” Eyeing Chiara, he understands that she’s “in pain.”
Elio’s realization that nothing will “escape” the housekeepers of B. is important, considering that he doesn’t want anyone to know about his feelings for Oliver. As such, if something does ever happen between them, he risks the entire town discovering that he likes men—a sexual identity he’s not yet ready to fully assume.
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In town one night, Oliver walks by with Chiara and sees Elio sitting with friends outside a caffè. Stopping for a moment, Oliver asks what Elio’s doing out past his bedtime, and Elio reminds him that his father “doesn’t believe in bedtimes.” Oliver then explains to Chiara that there are hardly any rules in Elio’s family, suggesting there’s “nothing to rebel against.” In response, Elio says, “We all have our ways of rebelling.” When Chiara tells him to name one way he rebels, he’s unable to furnish an answer, so Oliver jumps in and says, “He reads Paul Celan.” In turn, Elio wonders if he’s trying to make up for his “little jab” about Elio’s bedtime. Chiara, for her part, asks who Paul Celan is, and Elio gives Oliver a “complicit glance.” “A poet,” Oliver whispers as he and Chiara walk away. “Later!” he says.
When Oliver says that Elio is rebellious because he reads Paul Celan, he makes a reference that only Elio is likely to pick up on, since Elio’s the only person in the conversation (other than him) who is well-versed in poetry. This is why Elio sees this statement as making up for Oliver’s original insult about his bedtime—after all, Oliver has said something that is clearly for Elio’s benefit and Elio’s benefit alone, proposing a private line of conversation that even Chiara, his lover, can’t join. Once again, then, Elio and Oliver’s ways of communicating prove to be intimate and veiled, constantly alluding to a shared worldview.
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In the aftermath of this conversation, Elio is delighted that Oliver—with whom he hasn’t spoken to for several days—has remembered that he reads Paul Celan. Feeling high after this interaction, he dances excitedly with Marzia and walks her home along the beach. When they stop for a moment, he suggests they go swimming, and they both take their clothes off and plunge into the dark water. “You’re not with me because you’re angry with Chiara?” Marzia asks. “Why am I angry with Chiara?” Elio responds. “Because of him,” she says. Elio does his best to look confused, and when they’re done swimming he takes her face in his palm and kisses her. After this initial kiss, she presses back passionately, and they decide to meet in the same place the following night. “Just don’t tell anyone,” she says.
Because he can’t be with Oliver, Elio redirects his sexual desires, focusing in this moment on Marzia. It’s worth noting that his attraction to her is perfectly genuine, though it is of course unfair for him to lead her along when in reality his primary romantic feelings remain with Oliver. Still, though, Elio is an adolescent in the process of discovering his sexual identity. As such, he embraces sexual attention of any kind, and his blossoming relationship with Marzia is legitimate in and of itself because his attraction to her isn’t diminished by his attraction to Oliver. In this way, Aciman showcases the fluidity of Elio’s sexuality, suggesting that his desire for Oliver and his desire for Marzia can exist simultaneously.
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“We almost did it,” Elio tells his father and Oliver the next morning at breakfast. His father asks why they didn’t, in that case, and he says that he doesn’t know. “Better to have tried and failed…” Oliver chimes in. “All I had to do was find the courage to reach out and touch, she would have said yes,” Elio claims. “Try again later,” says Oliver, and as Elio works out the implications of this statement (is he criticizing him? making fun? seeing through his act?) Oliver adds, “If not later, when?” Mr. Pearlman likes this phrase, but it stings Elio. He thinks about how he will try again later with Oliver, but he doesn’t like applying if not later, when? to their relationship. “What if he had found me out and uncovered each and every one of my secrets with those four cutting words?” he worries.
Elio dislikes the phrase “If not later, when?” because it implies two things at once. On the one hand, it suggests that something is bound to happen between him and Oliver, an idea that simultaneously excites and scares him. On the other hand, though, the only actual answer to the question is less optimistic. After all, if something doesn’t happen “later,” then it will never happen. In this way, Elio senses Oliver’s conflicting desire to move forward with their relationship and stop it before it develops into anything serious.
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The summer trudges on, and Elio continues to debate whether or not he wants Oliver to know his true feelings. During a conversation about Chiara, Oliver finally snaps and admits that he’s not particularly interested in her, suggesting that maybe Elio should make a move on her. “I know you like her,” he says, to which Elio replies: “You have no idea what I like.” In this way, their conversations twist in and out of easy communication and tense allusion. When Oliver isn’t in “heaven,” he spends time with Vimini, a charming ten-year-old who lives in the nearest house and who everyone maintains is a genius. “It would be in rather bad taste for nature to have made me a genius,” she says the first time she meets Oliver. When she sees his look of confusion, she explains that she has leukemia and is expected to die young.
When Oliver suggests that Elio should pursue a relationship with Chiara, he turns the tables, effectively testing Elio in the same way that Elio has been testing him. This is the complicated nature of their communication, which can quickly flip and catch Elio by surprise. By contrast, Vimini is someone who speaks with the straightforward wisdom that only an intelligent child can muster.
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Oliver and Vimini start going to the beach together almost every day, where they sit and talk. Elio admits that he’s never “seen a friendship so beautiful or more intense,” though he isn’t jealous and doesn’t want to do anything to drive them apart.
Aciman uses Oliver and Vimini’s relationship as a juxtaposition to the complicated bond between Elio and Oliver. Because of their huge age differences, there is (thankfully) no sexual tension between them, and this enables them to have a “beautiful” and “intense” friendship, one that is quite unlike Elio and Oliver’s fraught connection.
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As the days pass, Elio’s parents worry about how much time he spends alone. Waiting for Oliver to turn up, he spends a large amount of time each day sleeping fitfully on the living room couch, reading, or working on scores. “You can always talk to me,” Mr. Pearlman says. “I was your age once. The things you feel and think only you have felt, believe me, I’ve lived and suffered through all of them, and more than once.” He assures his son that he knows “almost every bend, every tollbooth, every chamber in the human heart.” Along with Mrs. Pearlman, he urges Elio to go out and “do crazy things” so that he can “get to know people” and discover for himself “why others are so necessary in life and not just foreign bodies to be sidled up to.”
By this point in Call Me By Your Name, it’s obvious that Elio’s parents are quite comfortable with the idea that he’s a young man who will make mistakes and lead a potentially wild life. In fact, they emphasize the importance of this kind of exploration, suggesting that such activities are essential to a person’s identity formation. Nonetheless, it’s clear that Elio must discover this for himself, though instead of doing this he simply whiles away the time waiting for Oliver to pay attention to him.
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Elio tries to hide how closely he tracks Oliver’s movement, but it’s difficult to conceal his disappointment when he doesn’t appear for dinner. He’s especially eager to convince his parents that he doesn’t care what Oliver does, since they have always said that he gets “too easily attached to people.” “They worried for me,” he notes. “I knew they were right to worry. I just hoped they’d never know how far things stood beyond their ordinary worries now.” And yet, he’s certain they don’t know what he’s feeling, leaving him alone in his torment with no one to talk to. He wonders who he could possibly confide in, and the answer horrifies him: “There is no one else to tell, Oliver, so I’m afraid it’s going to have to be you…” he thinks to himself.
If Elio can’t talk to his parents and doesn’t want anyone to know about his feelings for Oliver, then he’s correct in thinking that there’s only one person to tell: Oliver himself. However, as he has previously worried, this might prompt Oliver to “act” on these feelings. Interestingly enough, this possibility doesn’t seem to scare him as intensely as it did the first time he thought of it, which indicates that he is slowly coming to terms with the fact that he actually does want something to happen between Oliver and himself.
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When no one is home one afternoon, Elio sneaks into Oliver’s room and finds his red swimsuit hanging in the closet. Before knowing what he’s doing, he shoves his face inside the suit and inhales, cozying up against the fabric and taking in the smell of Oliver’s body. He then takes off his own suit and puts Oliver’s on. “I knew what I wanted,” he notes, “and I wanted it with the kind of intoxicated rapture that makes people take risks they would never take even with plenty of alcohol in their system. I wanted to come in his suit, and leave the evidence for him to find there.” But then an even bolder idea overtakes him. Taking off Oliver’s suit, he jumps naked into his bed and gets between the sheets and wraps himself around Oliver’s pillow, kissing it and folding his legs around it and whispering his desires into it.
Elio has finally reached the point where he’s desperate to express his desires. However, the way he does this remains somewhat clandestine—what he does is bold, of course, but it’s still relatively secret. Oliver might walk into the bedroom or smell Elio on his sheets and pillow, but these are the only ways in which he could possibly find out what has happened. As such, Elio manages to act upon his feelings without fully having to face the consequences.
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One night Elio goes into his father’s library and reads an old fairytale about “a handsome young knight who is madly in love with a princess. She too is in love with him, though she seems not to be entirely aware of it, and despite the friendship that blossoms between them, or perhaps because of that very friendship, he finds himself so humbled and speechless owing to her forbidding candor that he is totally unable to bring up the subject of his love. One day he asks her point-blank: ‘Is it better to speak or die?’” Having read this, Elio is struck by the thought that he’d never be able to ask this kind of question. When he whispered into Oliver’s pillow, he realized that he’d “rather die than face” Oliver’s “steely look” after revealing his feelings.
The fairytale about the lovesick knight and the princess he desires perfectly encapsulates Elio’s dilemma. Unsure whether or not he should tell Oliver how he feels, he clearly wonders if he’ll regret it if he doesn’t. At the same time, he thinks he’s incapable of actually speaking up about his love, since he often finds Oliver so hard to read. If Oliver looked at him with his “icy” gaze, Elio feels like he would be plunged into irreversible heartache.
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