Call Me By Your Name

by

André Aciman

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Call Me By Your Name: Part 4: Ghost Spots Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Anchise picks Elio up at the train station in B. and asks him if “Signor Ulliva” has left. When Elio confirms that he has, Anchise says, “Triste.” Elio agrees, and Anchise adds, “Anche a me duole, I too am saddened.” When they get home, Mrs. Pearlman is excited to hear about Rome and tells Elio that they’ve moved his things back into his old room. “I was instantly saddened and infuriated,” Elio writes. “Who had given them the right? They’d clearly been prying, together or separately.”
Throughout Call Me by Your Name, Elio’s parents give him a fair amount of space, respecting his privacy as he develops his relationship with Oliver. Now, though, he’s “infuriated” to find that they’ve moved him back into his old bedroom, since this means he can’t pretend Oliver is still in the house (as he planned to). Of course, this isn’t a rational thing to be angry about, since his parents have only done something nice for him, but his anger shows his emotional fragility in the aftermath of Oliver’s departure.
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Elio goes upstairs and sleeps, thinking there will be “plenty of time for mourning.” And yet, he knows that “anticipating sorrow to neutralize sorrow” is “paltry, cowardly stuff.” Still, he thinks about all the ways he will suffer—perhaps he’ll never be able to sleep alone without Oliver, or live with himself without having his lover’s touch. “Even in my sleep,” he writes, “I knew what I was doing. Trying to immunize yourself, that’s what you’re doing—you’ll end up killing the whole thing this way—sneaky, cunning boy, that’s what you are, sneaky, heartless, cunning boy.”
Now that Oliver has finally left, Elio has no choice but to face the heartache he knew was coming all along. However, he tries to “immunize” himself from this emotional pain by “anticipating” it, thinking that if he properly prepares, he’ll be able to minimize his sorrow. Despite this, he ultimately understands that there’s nothing he can do to escape the turmoil he’s bound to feel.
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Elio rises from his nap in the evening and goes downstairs, where he finds Vimini. They decide to go swimming together, walking out and sitting on a rock where she and Oliver used to pass the time. “We missed you,” Vimini says, and when Elio asks who we is, she says, “Me. Marzia. She came looking for you the other day.” Vimini explains that she told Marzia where Elio was, then says, “I think she knows you don’t like her very much.” Vimini then reveals how hurt she was herself when Oliver left without saying goodbye, since she’ll probably never see him again.
Vimini’s comment about Marzia reminds Elio that he has completely neglected his relationship with her. Whereas he thinks about every detail of his relationship with Oliver, he hasn’t thought about Marzia since he last saw her when they had sex in the shack on the beach. It’s easy to see that this is unfair, but Elio doesn’t realize this until Vimini points it out to him—yet another indication of how preoccupied he’s been with Oliver (and how preoccupied Oliver’s been with Elio, since he neglected to even say goodbye to Vimini).
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After dinner that night, Oliver calls and tells Elio he has arrived safely in New York. Their conversation is sad and somewhat stilted, though Oliver promises to visit during the holidays. He also tells Elio that he took a keepsake from his bedroom. After their conversation, Elio bounds upstairs and sees that Oliver took an “antique postcard of Monet’s berm” that used to hang on the wall. Apparently, one of the family’s summer residents gave this to Elio, knowing how much he liked the berm. On the back, he inscribed, Think of me someday. This resident’s name was Maynard, and he lived with the Pearlmans when Elio was fifteen. One afternoon he asked to borrow some ink from Elio and, while asking, let his eyes sweep over the boy’s body. “I wouldn’t have said no,” Elio notes.
Aciman reveals that Oliver isn’t the first summer resident to have taken an interest in Elio, though Maynard didn’t act on his feelings. As such, it seems Elio’s encounter with the errand boy in Rome wasn’t the only time he considered the idea of having sexual relations with a man. The difference, of course, is that his experience with Maynard only alerted him to the possibility of such relationships, whereas his experience with Oliver brought him into the world of sexual adulthood (albeit before he fully reached adulthood). Nonetheless, his run-in with Maynard paved the way for his relationship with Oliver.
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Downstairs, Elio sits with his father, who asks about his trip. Throughout the conversation, Mr. Pearlman’s questions hint at Elio’s relationship with Oliver. “You two had a nice friendship,” he says eventually. “You’re too smart not to know how rare, how special, what you two had was.” Elio tries to sidestep this by saying, “Oliver was Oliver,” but his father presses on, saying, “What lies ahead is going to be very difficult. […] Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot. Just remember: I am here. Right now you may not want to feel anything. Perhaps you never wished to feel anything. And perhaps it’s not with me that you’ll want to speak about these things. But feel something you did.” Elio looks at him, feeling like he should say something to avoid this conversation, but he can’t bring himself to do so.
This conversation confirms that Mr. Pearlman has known all along about Elio and Oliver’s relationship. A man who claims to know the many “chambers” of the human heart, his advice is wise and empathetic. Instead of telling Elio that everything will be okay, he speaks honestly with his son, admitting that “what lies ahead is going to be very difficult.” However, he emphasizes that this difficulty arises from the mere fact that Elio felt something genuine and real, and this puts a rather positive spin on the idea that pain and heartache “lie ahead.”
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“In your place, if there is pain, nurse it,” Mr. Pearlman continues, “and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it. […] We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!” Elio is shocked to hear this, but he doesn’t pretend his father is imagining things. “I may have come close,” Mr. Pearlman says, “but I never had what you had. Something always held me back or stood in the way.” Elio wonders how his father knew about him and Oliver, but all he can ask is if his mother knows. “I don’t think she does,” he replies.
When Mr. Pearlman advises Elio not to “rip out” the pain he will feel in the aftermath of his relationship with Oliver, he suggests that heartache and emotional suffering are important parts of being alive. Under this interpretation, hardship is unavoidable and educational, something that makes a person stronger and keeps them from becoming desensitized to the world.
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Oliver returns over Christmas but doesn’t treat Elio with the same kind of open passion as before. Just when Elio thinks they may never speak in earnest again, though, Oliver comes into his bedroom. Declining to get under the covers, he sits next to him and tells him he’s engaged to be married. The relationship, he explains, has been “on and off for more than two years.” Elio is surprised, but this doesn’t stop him from trying to convince Oliver to kiss him and take off his clothes. Admitting that he’d like nothing more than to hold him, Oliver says that he can’t do this anymore.
Although news of Oliver’s engagement surely upsets Elio, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t seem to bother him as much as the fact that Oliver refuses to kiss or touch him. This is because Elio is focused on what happens in the moment, not the future. He has already come to terms with the idea that he and Oliver won’t be together for the rest of their lives, so the fact that Oliver is engaged isn’t particularly distressing. What he really wants is to have one more moment of intimacy, but Oliver can no longer give this to him.
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Oliver gets married the next summer. Elio writes him a letter when Vimini dies, but by the time Oliver—who’s traveling when he receives the letter—responds, his sorrowful note renews the Pearlmans’ sadness. “Then came the blank years,” Elio notes. Hardly ever hearing from Oliver, he has a number of lovers—some of whom are important, some of whom aren’t. Like Oliver, several of these lovers Elio can’t imagine living without. Then, nine years later, Elio’s mother calls him over Christmas and says she has a surprise and puts Oliver on the phone. Elio can hear Oliver’s children running around the living room with his wife. The conversation is short, because Oliver starts crying. “He’s all choked up,” Mrs. Pearlman says, and then Elio himself begins to cry, surprised to feel this way about someone he has “almost entirely stopped thinking about.”
It’s significant that Elio has “almost entirely stopped thinking about” Oliver, considering how important their relationship was to him. Indeed, this is a testament to how time influences emotional pain, soothing even the most devastating wounds. At the same time, though, Elio finds himself crying on the phone when he hears Oliver’s voice. As such, Aciman showcases that, although time heals emotional hardships, it doesn’t completely erase them from a person’s history.
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After another four years, Elio finds himself passing through the New England town in which Oliver teaches. As such, he pays him a visit at the university. At first, Oliver doesn’t recognize him because of his beard, but then he’s overjoyed to see him standing before him. It has been fifteen years, but Oliver still looks handsome and lively. He insists that Elio must come over for dinner, but Elio says he can’t. When Oliver presses, Elio says, “You don’t understand. I’d love to. But I can’t.” By this he means that he can’t “bring [himself] to do it,” though he doesn’t know how to express this to Oliver. How, he wonders, can he explain that he can’t possibly stand to see his wife and children? After a moment, Oliver says, “So,” and the word seems to capture all of Elio’s “uncertainties.” “So,” Elio repeats.
Once again, Aciman demonstrates the strange influence of time on old emotional wounds. Although Elio has no problem coming to see Oliver and dredging up the memory of their relationship, he can’t “bring” himself to face Oliver’s wife, a fact that suggests he hasn’t fully healed from the pain of losing Oliver as a lover. Thankfully, Oliver seems to understand this and therefore lets him off the hook, content just to see Elio after all these years.
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Oliver and Elio walk to Oliver’s office together. On the way, Oliver stops to introduce him to his colleagues, surprising Elio by telling people specific details about his career—details he can only have learned by reading about Elio online. In the office, Oliver shows him the postcard of Monet’s berm hanging on his wall. “I had hoped one day to let one of my sons bring it in person when he comes for his residency,” Oliver says. “I’ve already added my inscription—but you can’t see it.” Elio then invites him for a drink at his hotel, and though Oliver hesitates, he eventually accepts. “In another eight years, I’ll be forty-seven and you forty,” Oliver says at the bar. “Five years from then, I’ll be fifty-two and you forty-five. Will you come for dinner then?” “Yes,” Elio replies. “I promise.”
That Oliver still displays the postcard of Monet’s berm and has clearly kept up with Elio’s career suggests that he still clings to the memory of their relationship. This is an important moment, for it calls attention to the fact that Oliver himself was not very old during that summer, meaning his experience with Elio was most likely quite influential too. Indeed, he was only twenty-four, an age at which people are often still forming their identities. In turn, readers realize that Elio wasn’t the only one engaging in this relationship during a fraught and formative time in his life. This idea aligns with what Oliver said to Elio outside the post office one day, when he suggested that he hadn’t yet “figured out” the implications of their relationship and that this “scared” him. What becomes clear is that Oliver’s love for Elio wasn’t simply a casual summer fling, but a monumental connection that deeply affected him.
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Elio tells Oliver, “You are the only person I’d like to say goodbye to when I die, because only then will this thing I call my life make any sense.” He then asks what Oliver wrote on the back of the postcard, and though Oliver wanted it to be a surprise, he tells him: “Cor cordium, heart of hearts.” He then says that he’s “never said anything truer in [his] life to anyone.”
Oliver’s inscription on the back of the postcard confirms the idea that his relationship with Elio was a memorable and significant part of his life. Elio, he suggests, is his “heart of hearts,” a phrase that implies a pure kind of love that can’t be matched.
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“Last summer he finally did come back,” Elio writes, explaining that Oliver returns to B. for one night on his way through Italy. He arrives with a wrapped gift for Mrs. Pearlman, who Elio says is suspicious of everyone. Elio then takes Oliver on a tour of the house, showing him how the place has remained the same—the orle of paradise is “still there,” as is the same gate to the beach, though things are also different because Vimini, Anchise, and Mr. Pearlman have all died. And although Elio wants to show Oliver that nothing has changed, he also wants to make clear how much time has passed. “Part of me wanted him to sense there was no point trying to catch up now,” he writes, “we’d traveled and been through too much without each other for there to be any common ground between us.”
Once again, Aciman portrays time as something that is both capable of distancing a person from a certain emotion and bringing that person back into contact with that same emotion. In this case, Elio wants to show Oliver that the life they had together during their one summer is still alive, but he also wants Oliver to feel as if “too much” has happened between now and then to perfectly recall their relationship and what could have existed between them if they had continued their romance.
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The old lovers sit on the rock Oliver used to visit with Vimini. “She’d be thirty today,” he says. “She wrote to me every day. Every single day. Then one day she stopped writing.” Soon conversation turns to Mr. Pearlman, and Elio shows Oliver the garden where they buried some of his ashes. “I call it his ghost spot,” he says. He explains that he spread his father’s ashes in many different places, but that this is where he comes when he wants to be with him. “I know he would have wanted something like this to happen, especially on such a gorgeous summer day,” he says, referring to Oliver’s visit.
When Mr. Pearlman and Elio spoke after Oliver first left Italy, Mr. Pearlman suggested that he had “come close” to having the kind of relationship Elio had with Oliver, but he he’d never quite experienced the same kind of connection. In doing so, he implied that, like Elio, he had relationships with both women and men, though he made it clear that he was never able to fully embrace this fluid sexual identity, instead committing to the monogamous life of a heterosexual man. This, it seems, is why Elio thinks his father would be pleased to see Oliver and Elio reconnecting on a “gorgeous summer day.” Mr. Pearlman was always sensitive to Elio and Oliver’s relationship when he was alive, and now that he’s gone, Elio remembers his kind encouragement and fatherly acceptance—something that ultimately enabled Elio to embrace himself.
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Elio says he’s going to take Oliver to the belfry in San Giacomo before lunch. When he asks if he remembers the way, Oliver says he does. “I’m like you,” he says. “I remember everything.” This makes Elio pause. “If you remember everything, I wanted to say,” he writes, “and if you are really like me, then before you leave tomorrow, or when you’re just ready to shut the door of the taxi and have already said goodbye to everyone else and there’s not a thing left to say in this life, then, just this once, turn to me, even in jest, or as an afterthought, which would have meant everything to me when we were together, and, as you did back then, look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name.”
Elio’s last words reiterate the fact that part of his romantic relationship with Oliver involves a recognition of himself in his lover. If Oliver were to call Elio by his own name, Elio thinks, this would confirm that he does indeed “remember everything,” since this was seemingly the most important moment of their romantic partnership. When they traded names while making love, they forged an intense connection, one in which they not only shared parts of themselves with each other, but actually became each other. In turn, this is why it is so difficult to see Oliver leave, even after all these years—in saying goodbye to his lover, Elio must also say goodbye to part of himself.
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