He longs for decent food, better health, a good night's sleep, a glimpse of stars in the night sky, but his schemes to achieve such things inevitably go awry. Even the simplest tasks -- shovelling snow, collecting firewood, returning home from a movie, taking his family to a supermarket just to gaze at the food -- have ridiculous consequences.
Three times he ends up in hospital, and even when he takes his ailing children out of the city for fresh air, they end up on the grounds of a sanatorium.
Some of the stories have an almost cartoonlike quality, as when Marcovaldo steathily lowers a line from a restaurant's roof into a fishtank, only to lose his catch to a cat. Or when he is entrusted with the care of a potted plant and mounts it on his motorbike to chase after a passing raincloud.
In the final story Marcovaldo becomes a company Santa and delivers presents. When his children get involved, the Society for the Implementation of Christmas Consumption comes up with a new gimmick "to speed up the pace of consumption and give the market a boost" -- destructive gifts.
The book's 20 stories have a fable-like quality due to their beguiling simplicity, seasonal ordering, and presence of many animals. As we chuckle at Marcovaldo's foibles we come to realize that his longings are our own, and that no matter where we live -- city or country -- it's a chimerical world.
The book ends in this fashion:
There was a line where the forest, all black, ended and the snow began, all white. The hare ran on this side, and the wolf on that.
The wolf saw the hare's prints on the snow and followed them, always keeping in the black, so as not to be seen. At the point where the prints ended there should be the hare, and the wolf came out of the black, opened wide his red maw and his sharp teeth, and bit the wind.
The hare was a bit farther on, invisible; he scratched one ear with his paw, and escaped, hopping away.
Is he here? There? Is he a bit farther on?
Only the expanse of snow could be seen, white as this page.