The House by the Medlar Tree
The House by the Medlar Tree
by Giovanni Verga
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in Sicily in the 1860s and 1870s; published in Italian (as I Malavoglia) in 1881, in English in 1890.
The Malavoglia family struggles to remain faithful to its traditional values in the face of poverty, debt, and social upheaval.
Giovanni Verga was born in 1840 in Catania, Sicily, to an upper-middle-class family’s of landowners. His mother, Caterina di Mauro, was considered an intellectual—rare for a woman in those days—and was politically liberal. Verga’s father, Giovanni Battista Verga, descended from a noble family’s. Verga received his education in a school run by Antonio Abate, a revolutionary who fought in the 1848 uprising in Sicily against the Bourbon monarchs (who ruled Sicily until 1860, the year Italy achieved formal unification). Abate instilled a patriotic, anti-Bourbon sentiment into young Verga. At 18, at his father’s urging, he enrolled in law school at the University of Catania. But far from concentrating wholeheartedly on law, he began to write the historical novel I Carbonari della montagna (1862; The Carbonari of the Mountain). After presenting it to his father as evidence of his promise as a writer, he was permitted to pursue his calling. The following year Verga published Sulle lagune (1863; On the Lagoons), a love story set in Venice. He also founded the patriotic journal Roma degli italiani (Rome of the Italians) and wrote for various new journals in Catania. At about the age of 25, Verga left Sicily for Florence, where he wrote two romance novels—Una peccatrice (1866; A Mortal Sin, 1995) and Storia di una capinera (1872; Sparrow, 2002)—both highly popular in his day. Verga next moved to Milan, continuing to write in the same romantic-passionate vein. In 1874, his style took a sharply realistic turn in the short story “Nedda,” a sketch of a poor young Sicilian woman exploited by her employers. After publishing a collection of short stories in the same vein (called Vita dei campi [1880; Life in the Country, 2003]), he began writing a cycle of five novels depicting people who fail in the struggle for survival because of a tragic human error in the face of the struggle’s unavoidable and cruel economic reality. The first in this cycle was The House by the Medlar Tree; the second, Mastro-don Gesualdo (1889; Mastro-don Gesauldo: A Novel, 1979). The other three were never completed. The two novels were written between 1878 and 1889, during which Verga produced his most widely acclaimed stories and plays. He afterwards withdrew from society and stopped writing almost completely, convinced that literature was useless as a way to institute change. While Verga believed in the unification that linked Sicily to the rest of Italy, his works portray the problems that occurred when the central government imposed its laws and customs on Sicily, disrupting traditional Sicilian ways. He saw himself as an observer and a documenter of society and its victims, as shown by the unique way in which he wrote The House by the Medlar Tree.
Sicily and the Unification of Italy
In 1860, the year of Italian Unification, the island of Sicily had been under Spanish-Bourbon rule for more than a century (1730s-1860s). Earlier it had been ruled by various foreign powers, including the Arabs, the Normans, the French, and the Austrians. After the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, there was a restoration of old boundaries and rulers over the Italian lands (1815-48). During this Age of Restoration, the idea of a united Italy began to spread through the peninsula, motivating local rebellions. In 1848, Sicily became the site of several revolutionary outbursts, prompted mainly by poverty and taxes but also by patriotic sentiment. The outbursts resulted in a break with the ruling Bourbon monarchy and in the formation of the “Sicilian Assembly,” which named Ruggiero Settimo president in March 1849. Sicilian independence was short-lived, however, because the movement for national unification, led by Piedmont, could not open a second military front in the South while fighting the Austrians in the North. Ferdinand II sent troops to sack the two major Sicilian cities of Catania and Messina. The ensuing conflict ended in May 1849, when the Sicilian Assembly surrendered to the Bourbons. A decade later, in 1859, Sicilian peasants again rose up against the Bourbons, and this time leaders on the Italian peninsula took interest, most notably the Republican patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi. Piedmont had by then already launched a second war of independence against Austria in the North; in view of this fact, Garibaldi seized on the local unrest in Sicily as an opportunity to turn a peasant revolt into a national revolution.
Garibaldi, not exactly trusting the Piedmontese government but knowing he needed its help, appealed to the king, who backed his idea for an expedition to liberate Sicily from the Bourbons. In the end Garibaldi’s Spedizione dei Mille (Expedition of the Thousand) was highly successful. He and his army of 1,000, mainly young men with no military training, left Quarto, near Genoa, on May 6, 1860, and arrived in Marsala, Sicily five days later. The group began its march inland, taking the Sicilian town of Palermo and other towns both on Sicily and the Italian mainland, all the way up to Naples, and proclaiming Victor Emmanuel to be king of Italy, which, given Garibaldi’s recent victories, now included southern Italy. Frustrations converged to the benefit of his enterprise:
The main reason for Garibaldi’s success lay in the convergence of a cluster of often negative feelings around the banner of revolution. For the peasants, Garibaldi offered the hope of a relief from suffering; for the landowners, the overthrow of the Bourbons meant an opportunity at last to secure independence from [the Kingdom of] Naples; for the provincial middle classes … there was the chance to seize control of local government and worst their enemies. The majority of those who took part in the revolution probably did so with little clear sense of what they were fighting for. Most had never encountered the term Italia before: some even imagined that ‘La Talia’ was the name of Victor Emmanuel’s wife.
(Duggan, p. 130)
While the movement for Italian independence and unity inspired great hope, it was also the source of much disillusionment in the post-Unification period, when the victors faced some difficult realities. Garibaldi’s democratic ideals and his great popularity among “the people” were threatening to the king and his prime minister who, through many political machinations and much military strategy, managed to peacefully wrest power from Garibaldi and bring together all of Italy under a constitutional monarchy headed by the king of Piedmont, now of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II. To many of the new country’s citizens, however, the lack of discussion about the constitution and structure of government implied that the king and prime minister felt their own region, Piedmont, had conquered all the other parts of Italy and so could impose their own terms on the new-formed country. Moreover, while many intellectuals and politicians shared the goals of unifying the territories into a country and developing a modernized Italy that could compete economically with other countries in Europe, the peasants worried about their immediate material needs. Economic growth and industrialization were having a positive impact on the standard of living for some in the North but provided no economic relief for the South. Sometimes northern prosperity even exacerbated poverty in the South, as demonstrated by new hardships portrayed in Verga’s The House by the Medlar Tree. Among these hardships were new taxes on salt and mules (but not, notably, on cows, mostly the property of rich landowners) and the obligatory military service, which was required of young Sicilian men and deprived poor families of their most precious re-source: labor. There were meanwhile few new benefits. The little government money sent to Sicily was often selfishly squandered by unscrupulous local officials on their own material comfort, bribes, or superfluous projects to please the aristocrats—a grand theater instead of road-building, for example.
The “Southern Question.”
Southern Italy is generally considered to consist of the areas now known as Campania, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, and Sicily. In the 1870s a concept called the “Southern Question” developed with respect to the area. Studies by Pasquale Villari, Leopoldo Franchetti, and Sidney Sonnino highlighted the differences between the North and the South, ex-posing the horrendous living conditions and exploitation of workers in the South and the indifference of most northerners to the abysmal situation their southern compatriots had to endure. However noble these intentions, the studies contributed to the perception of the South as a barbaric threat to the “more civilized” North and of the North as duty-bound to bring civilization to the “unwashed southern masses.”
Before Unification, a large economic gap separated Italy’s two halves. There was, of course, disparity within the North as well as between the North and South. Tuscany, in the North, for example, contended with formidable economic and agricultural problems that kept it from making the same progress as some nearby areas. But Sicily was even poorer and it still bore the traces of the feudal system, which endured well into the nineteenth century and stunted the island’s economic and industrial growth. Yes, Sicilian society included some exceedingly rich aristocrats and landowning nobles, but most Sicilians were farmers, fishermen, and peasants. While northern regions like Lombardy could boast advances in industrialization, production, and agriculture, Sicily lagged far behind, as did other areas of the South. The crop yield for each hectare in the region was far below that of Lombardy, for example. The South had only a primitive banking system, and by 1860 only 60 miles of railway track. Illiteracy prevailed, totaling about 85 percent in 1881, two decades after Unification.
The image of the backward South meant that even though the two halves of Italy had been formally united into one nation, the economic and social wedge between them was growing deeper. It has been asserted that the negative image of the South owes as much to the insecurities of the Italian political elite as to reality. At the time, many Italians “were haunted by a sense of their country’s backwardness” (Moe, p. 2). While their civilization had paved the way during the Renaissance, in the centuries that followed, the Italian states were overpowered politically and outpaced culturally by countries to the north. Differences between areas of the Italian peninsula had long been acknowledged, but now a new prejudice emerged. Northerners, and even some southerners, perceived of the South as primitive, ignorant, and embarrassingly destitute, and as a burden to the North. The new Italian elite was committed to participating in the march of progress in Western Europe. In the drive to make Italy more like nations to the north, the southern part of the country was branded different. “When, in the fall of 1860, a northern general reported back to Count Cavour in Piedmont about the conditions in the south, he put it quite succinctly: This is not Italy! This is Africa’” (Moe, p. 2).
In the years after Unification, repression and chaos pervaded Italy, brought on mainly by at-tempts to suppress revolts and bring people under the central rule of King Victor Emmanuel. The South caused his government the most severe problems; to quell the disturbances in Sicily, the government resorted to violence. This suppression was couched in the rhetoric of a “war against brigands,” but the brigands (another negative image widely associated with Sicily) were more likely political dissenters than criminals. Many “brigands” were executed and whole towns suffered because of the government’s drive to centralize authority at all costs.
The unrest was provoked by a number of perceived injustices, including the new centralized government’s attempts to impose its ways on Sicily without understanding the effects. Taxes had been abolished by Garibaldi when he liberated the island, but they were immediately rein-stated by the central government—which, again, was located in Piedmont—at rates based on Piedmontese standards of living. The central government also introduced obligatory military service for the first time in Sicily, which was deeply resented. In fact, the military service was “one of the principle sources of opposition to the new state” (Duggan, p. 139).
On the one hand, there was little understanding by the peasants about the meaning of a unified nation. On the other hand, the national politicians evinced a continuing indifference to the peasants’ needs. Verga’s novel reflects this state of affairs, as well as the fact “that the annexation of their Island to Italy meant for many Sicilians a new enslavement” (Montante, p. 48).
Sicilian family’s life
In The House by the Medlar Tree Verga portrays a time of political, economic, and social transformation in Sicily. Progress in areas such as communication and education, while slow, was being made, which prompted the dissolution of traditional social and economic ways. There were both advances and declines, and they were transpiring all over Italy, but especially in the South and Sicily. Verga’s novel portrays different attitudes toward modernization on the island. The novel depicts the erosion of both the primacy of the nuclear family’s (or “religion of the family’s,” as it has often been called in Sicilian life) and the values that long bound Sicilian society together. This erosion comes with the discovery of a larger world where not all people outside the upper class have to work incessantly just to survive. For the young especially, the discovery stimulated a drive for upward mobility, a desire to leave one’s birthplace in order to better one’s station in life.
The image of the ideal Sicilian family’s can be gleaned from the proverbs, customs, and folktales documented by folklorists such as Giuseppe Pitre in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. This ideal family’s revolved around the married couple, which was seen as a harmonious, cooperative unit, with the husband at the helm, wielding financial and moral authority, and the wife at his beck and call—obedient, industrious, child-bearing, and nurturing. Finding a decent husband or wife for sons or daughters consumed much of a Sicilian family’s’s time. Marriage negotiations were very complex and tenuous, depending significantly on the financial benefits that would accrue to either family’s and on the virtue of the potential wife. Rarely were romantic love and the opinions of the betrothed taken into consideration.
Some Sicilian Proverbs in Verga’s Novel
- You can’t sail a boat without a helmsman.
- You must learn to be sexton before you can be Pope.
- Do the job you know; if you don’t make money, at least you’ll make a living.
- Be satisfied to do what your father did, or you’ll come to no good.
Upon marriage it was typically the husband’s duty to provide the house and furniture; the wife’s, to contribute the linens, mattresses, a loom, and accompanying equipment. Ordinarily the husband served as breadwinner, but, in poorer families, the wife, and even the children when they reached a certain age, were expected to contribute. If the wife worked outside the home, her primary duties continued to revolve around housekeeping and cooking. Verga’s portrayal of the perfect housewife, Maruzza, relies heavily on her ability to make a little money selling eggs and nuts and still have the fire burning under the pot when the men come home from their daily fishing expeditions. Such a family’s structure, which relied heavily on rigid gender roles and division of labor, did not necessarily lack deep affection and a sense of respect between husband and wife or different generations. Verga portrays both the rigid roles and complexity of family’s emotions in his novel.
Neighbors played an important role in family’s life. The family’s treated them almost as if they were extended family’s members. A neighbor could be a positive or a negative force, based on the neighbor’s goodwill or gossip. Two Sicilian proverbs capture these dual aspects: “Your true kinsman is your neighbor” and “You can hide from everyone except your neighbors” (Montante, p. 99).
The House by the Medlar Tree takes place in Aci Trezza, a fishing village between Catania and Acireale in eastern Sicily. The title refers to the house of the Malavoglia family’s, whose story begins in 1863 and spans roughly 13 years.
In Chapter 1 the narrative introduces the Malavoglia family’s members: Master ‘Ntoni, the patriarch; ‘Ntoni’s son, Bastiano; Bastiano’s wife, Maruzza; and their five children—young ‘Ntoni, Luca, Mena, Alessi, and Lia. Kept together by Master ‘Ntoni, they are an extremely close-knit family’s, attached to their work as fishermen, known for their integrity, and firmly rooted in the traditional values of Sicilian peasant life. While Bastiano won’t “even blow his nose without his father’s permission,” Maruzza is “a little woman who [sticks] to weaving, salting anchovies and bearing children, like the good housewife she [is]” (Verga, The House by the Medlar Tree, p. 8). The only potential rebel is young ‘Ntoni, “a great lout of twenty … [who is] always getting cuffed by his grandfather, and some-times kicked as well,” says the narrator, who seems to be a local gossip, speaking in the tone and using words that any villager might (The House by the Medlar Tree, p. 8). Along with the family’s, we meet its two prized possessions—a fishing boat called Provvidenza (Providence) and the family’s home, both so prominent that they resemble actual characters.
The story proper begins with an account of the family’s failed attempt to exempt young ‘Ntoni from obligatory military service. The temporary absence of the family’s oldest son is not only an emotional loss; it also brings on more economic hardships than usual. To relieve the situation, Master ‘Ntoni makes an uncharacteristic business deal with an unscrupulous money-lender called Uncle Crocifisso; Master ‘Ntoni buys—on credit—a load of lupins (beans) that he has been convinced he can sell for a profit in an-other town. Not only do the lupins turn out to be rotten, but on his voyage to the other town, Bastiano encounters a terrible storm and is lost at sea, along with the useless cargo. This tragedy is the first in a series that will bring about the family’s’s downfall.
Before the Malavoglia family’s finds out about its loss, the novel introduces a long list of other villagers, who serve almost as a collective entity amounting to one character—the village itself. Women are introduced through their gossiping at the water well (about who has marriage de-signs on whom) and men through their talk of village business and politics on the church steps, at the barbershop, and in the tavern. Readers come to understand that there is no escape from the watchful eyes of the neighbors. It is they who eventually bring the bad news to the Malavoglias.
The family’s is devastated by Bastiano’s death. They receive little sympathy from Uncle Crocifisso, who refuses to forgive the debt for the lupins under any circumstances. Master ‘Ntoni, honorable to a fault, does not put up a fight even though he knows the lupins were rotten. Mena is doubly sad because not only has she lost her father, but also her dowry, which imperils her chances of a good marriage. However, in the works is a quick plan to marry her off to Brasi Cipolla, son of Master Cipolla, one of the richer villagers. Mena, though, has fallen in love with Alfio Mosca, a poor salesman who struggles just to feed himself.
In the meantime, the Provvidenza is brought up from the sea and found to be repairable, so the Malavoglia family’s decides it can once again go fishing. Because of his father’s death, young ‘Ntoni wrangles a discharge from the military.
‘Ntoni’s return is a joyous day for the family’s and is widely celebrated in the village. The young man himself comes swaggering into town after his experience of the large world (Naples). However, the following day when he has to rise before dawn and start working on Master Cipolla’s boat—a job Master ‘Ntoni has secured for them—young ‘Ntoni is clearly displeased and gripes about the family’s’s unfair lot in life. As the days pass, the Malavoglias take on any work they possibly can in order to feed the family’s and relater, Pay their debt, but they find themselves unable to make the payments. After many months, Uncle Crocifisso still has not received his money. The other villagers tell him the money would be tainted anyway because the lupins were rotten, but their warning fails to detour the resolute loan shark. He plans to pretend to sell the debt to an-other, more financially comfortable villager, Piedipapera, and thereby cleanse the money of its stigma. Thus, the two men enter into a business deal, which leads the bailiff to serve papers on the house by the medlar tree on Christmas Eve, further disgracing the Malavoglias. The family’s visits a lawyer who says they don’t have to pay Uncle Crocifisso because the lupins were rotten, and although the family’s is momentarily relieved, Master ‘Ntoni’s sense of dignity reasserts itself and he realizes he must anyway pay his debt for the lupins. He agrees that if by Easter he cannot pay, the debtor can have the house.
To make matters worse, Luca is conscripted into the military. On the bright side, the family’s re-launches the Provvidenza among the good wishes and cruel gossip of the villagers. Young ‘Ntoni be-gins to court one of the village girls, Barbara Zuppidda, who has also caught the attention of Don Michele, the sergeant of the customs guards. When young ‘Ntoni asks for Barbara’s hand, her parents say they will consent if his family’s does, but Master ‘Ntoni declares that Mena must marry first and admonishes young ‘Ntoni for not consulting with him, in traditional fashion. Young ‘Ntoni is incensed and he begins to direct his frustration at his rival, Don Michele, the customs guard.
The arrangements for Mena’s marriage into the rich family’s continue. Meanwhile, the lovelorn Alfio Mosca decides to try for work in another town and packs his things. Before he leaves, he exchanges a few words with Mena that sum up the emotional center of the novel: their ill-fated relationship and the uselessness of human emotions in the face of such harsh economic realities. Mena asks, “Why are you going to La Bicocca if there’s malaria there?” And Alfio replies: “What a question! … And why are you marrying Brasi Cipolla, I should like to know?” (The House by the Medlar Tree, p. 102).
After a while the Malavoglias manage to save a little money from all their odd jobs, and their Provvidenza resumes its work at sea. The family’s seems well on its way to repaying the debt. Yet, as Mena’s engagement party takes place, Uncle Crocifisso and Piedipapera plot to prepare legal papers to claim the Malavoglia house. A few days later, more bad news reaches the house by the medlar tree. Luca has been killed in the Battle of Lissa, fought against the Austrians as part of Italy’s attempt to gain control of the Veneto region. This comes as a great surprise to the villagers because both the enemy and reason for battle are unknown.
Barbara Zuppidda’s mother quickly breaks off her daughter’s engagement to young ‘Ntoni, reasoning that Luca’s death now puts the entire financial burden of the Malavoglia family’s on ‘Ntoni’s shoulders. Next the family’s finally loses its house to Crocifisso and Piedipapera, and the Malavoglias move into a tiny hovel and become outcasts. Mena’s wedding is cancelled, and, spurned in love himself, young ‘Ntoni mopes. He starts hanging around the tavern, drinking, and longing for jobs that require no work, meanwhile nursing his in-tense hatred for Don Michele. Young ‘Ntoni begins to publicly threaten his rival.
One day young ‘Ntoni meets two rich travelers who speak of exotic places, which inflames him with grand ideas. He starts telling his family’s about the world’s large cities and his dreams to travel and grow rich. Complaining ever more bitterly, ‘Ntoni begins to lash out at the family’s; their hard work is for nothing, he says. Mena counters with the traditional Malavoglia values:
“Leaving your own village, where even the stones know you, is worse than anything,” said Mena. “It must be heartbreaking. Blessed the bird that makes its nest where it was born!”
“Yes,” muttered ‘Ntoni, “and in the meantime, while we toil and sweat to build your nest, no doubt we’ll have to go short of food. When we do manage to buy back the house by the medlar tree, we’ll still have to go on wearing ourselves out from Monday to Saturday. We shall be no better off than we were before!”
(The House by the Medlar Tree, p. 157)
Haunted by this thought, ‘Ntoni withdraws from his family’s. He declares that he wants to change the conditions of his life, to be rich rather than poor, to “go and live in town, and do nothing, and eat macaroni and meat every day!” (The House by the Medlar Tree, p. 159). The family’s un ravels further when its matriarch, Maruzza, dies of cholera during an outbreak. The outbreak, which requires people to sequester themselves indoors, hinders the family’s from selling its daily catch and other goods for their small income, and the Malavoglias lose half the money they had managed to save. At this point, young ‘Ntoni finally musters the courage to leave, and Master ‘Ntoni sells the Provvidenza to Uncle Crocifisso, in a deal brokered by Piedipapera. The dignified Master ‘Ntoni and Alessi go to work for Master Cipolla, despite the fact that he broke off his son’s marriage to Mena.
Eventually young ‘Ntoni comes slinking back home from his adventures in the big world, poorer than before and ashamed to show his face in the village. Although his family’s welcomes him, he is ridiculed mercilessly by the gossips. He walks about the village raving, unable to reconcile why “there were people in the world who were born lucky and were able to enjoy them-selves all day long without doing any work, while others were born penniless and had to spend their lives pulling wagons with their teeth” (The House by the Medlar Tree, p. 184). Frustrated, he returns home drunk every night and unable to work the next day, which devastates Master ‘Ntoni. This kind of thing has never happened before in his hardworking family.
Gossip begins to circulate that Don Michele desires ‘Ntoni’s youngest sister, Lia, and Don Michele’s visits to the Malavoglia girls (while the men are at sea or ‘Ntoni is loafing about town) increase. One day Michele tells Mena and Lia to warn ‘Ntoni not to trust some of his companions and to stay away from the lava field where smugglers anchor their boats and pretend to fish. The girls are hysterical and relay the message, but ‘Ntoni, who is actually involved in smuggling, convinces himself that Don Michele is bluffing and knows nothing of his plans. In a fit, he goes to the tavern and picks a fight with Don Michele. The other customers break them up, but ‘Ntoni vows to finish the job the next time they meet.
The next time they meet, however, Don Michele is intercepting ‘Ntoni and his gang in the act of smuggling. Unfortunately for Don Michele, ‘Ntoni stabs the customs sergeant before he can defend himself. ‘Ntoni is led to the barracks to await trial while a wounded Don Michele is taken to the hospital. The scandal confers the ultimate disgrace on the Malavoglia family’s and, if possible, results in their being even more ostracized. The villagers gather in their usual spots to talk about the shamed family’s and about the positive economic randfications of the arrests, now that the families will have fewer mouths to feed. At the trial ‘Ntoni’s lawyer mounts all kinds of defenses, from the darkness of the night to the lack of con-crete evidence. He mentions the longstanding feud between young ‘Ntoni and Don Michele and claims that a hundred witnesses have seen enough to corroborate the love affair being carried on by Don Michele and ‘Ntoni’s sister, Lia. This last accusation, while partly but not entirely true, brings the final dishonor onto the family’s. Although the strategy wins ‘Ntoni a lighter sentence, that evening, Lia, the disgraced young woman, walks out of the house and is not seen by the family’s again. Later the family’s finds out that she has become a prostitute.
At this point, Master ‘Ntoni is a completely broken man, unable to work, not caring anymore about buying back the house by the medlar tree; despite the protests of his grandchildren, he has taken to living in the poorhouse, where he sits waiting for death. Alessi, on the other hand, finds work, marries, buys back the house by the medlar tree, and starts a family’s of his own. Mena, still unable to marry due to her sister’s dishonor, re-signs herself to life as a spinster.
The concept of family honor was, and in some cases remains, central to rural Sicilian societies. It depended heavily on the sexual purity of the family’s female members; one misstep, or even false accusation, could affect the reputation of the entire family unit. Men who committed violence or murder in defense of family honor or in reaction to the advances of another man toward a female relative would often receive lighter sentences in court. If a woman behaved immorally, all the men in the family felt betrayed, and the other women in the family usually shared in her tainted reputation. On the other hand, if the husband had extramarital affairs or his sons behaved immorally, there was no damage at all to the reputation of the women in the family.
In the novel’s final pages, the remaining Malavoglia family’s receives a surprise visit from young ‘Ntoni. Just out of jail, he has come to say his goodbyes. Having ventured beyond the boundaries of village life, he cannot reconcile the modern world with the fading traditional one, and therefore must go. He hesitates, then picks up his bundle and leaves, thinking soon the people who matter to him will be gone, after which the village day begins as usual.
Out of time
In writing this novel, Verga aimed to make the author’s voice disappear, to create a work of art that seemed to create itself using the perspective, speech, and thoughts of the people about whom he was writing. To achieve his goal, he created a narrator who seems to be a village gossip, speaking in the rhythms and syntax of the Sicilian Peasants, relying heavily on dialog rather than description, and incorporating Sicilian proverbs that capture the mood and mores of the island. His narrative strategies create a world outside historical time, one based on cyclical events, natural rhythms, and the isolated life of a small Sicilian village. Unlike the world out-side, Verga’s characters do not mark time by dates and years, but by feast days, harvests, and seasonal occurrences.
To portray a population out of touch with contemporary history, the novel depicts the events that impinge on their lives in a slightly distorted way, as these events would have seemed to the characters. When news reaches Aci Trezza that Luca Malavoglia has been killed in military service, it is vaguely described in the voice of the villagers: “there had been a battle in the direction of Trieste between our ships and those of the enemy—nobody knew who the enemy was” (The House by the Medlar Tree, p. 113). A confused exchange between the village men brings out how detached the villagers are from the newly created Italy, and their obsessive con-cern with only their own immediate affairs:
“But all the newspapers say we’ve lost!”
“Lost what!” said Uncle Crocifisso, putting
his hand to his ear.
“Who lost it?”
“I, you, everybody, the whole of Italy,” said
“I haven’t lost anything!” replied [Crocifisso], shrugging his shoulders. “It’s Piedipapera’s business now; let him worry about it!”
(The House by the Medlar Tree, p. Ill)
The informed reader understands more than the characters—that this is the Battle of Lissa in 1866 in a third War for Independence aimed at taking the Veneto region from the Austrians. De-spite the fact that their Sicilian sons are being called to serve, this fight for Italian unity and independence is so far from the villagers’ world that they don’t even know why or against whom the battle is being fought.
This fictional unworldliness reflects a genuine one that has several historical causes. First is the lack of time or means on the part of Sicilian peas-ants to do anything other than attend to their urgent material needs. Sending children to school was often not a priority, since many needed their young to help work, and even when it was a priority, schools were not easily accessible. The Casati Law of 1859 required Italian children to attend elementary school to learn to read and write. But public funds were often controlled by corrupt local governments and an elite that man-aged to avoid complying with the law. The new schools that did appear were often understaffed with unqualified teachers who would go months without receiving their proper pay. Consequently men like ‘Ntoni often learned to read during their military service, acquiring a skill that, again, proved not very useful once they resumed a village life worrying about basic survival.
Those who did read and took an interest in national events tried to inform their fellow Sicilians. On several occasions Verga has Don Franco, the pharmacist who manages to get the newspaper delivered to him from the city, interpret the news for the small group of men who gather around his shop, but he has a hard time getting anyone to listen or convincing anyone that the news matters to them. Travelers brought news too, but they were few and far between, and mostly regarded with suspicion. The House by the Medlar Tree takes place just before emigration be-came commonplace for Sicilians, so villagers could not even rely on letters home from relatives. At the time, the best way to gain knowl-edge of the outside world was to get drafted into the military, like young ‘Ntoni and Luca. But this could be deadly, as it was for Luca, and it could make reintegrating into the rhythms of traditional life untenable, as it ultimately was for young ‘Ntoni, a man alienated from both worlds since he cannot accept the archaic qualities of one nor survive without the support system of the other.
Sources and literary context
The House by the Medlar Tree is the first in a cycle of novels designed to present “a sort of phantasmagoria of the struggle for existence, extending from the rag picker to the cabinet minister and to the artist—taking all forms, from ambition to greed” (Verga in Cecchetti, p. ix). If the relationship between this design and naturalist writing, which emphasizes heredity and environment, seems clear, Verga is considered the primary exponent of verismo. An Italian literary and artistic style, verismo was loosely inspired by French naturalism and realism (as reflected in works by Emile Zola, Honore Balzac, and Gustave Flaubert, to whom Verga acknowledged a debt). The style is indebted as well to empiricism, a doctrine con-tending that the five senses are the only acceptable basis of human knowledge and precise thought. Empiricism demands rigorous adherence to experienced reality, calling for faithful observation of situations, facts, settings, and people in order to present an “unmediated” reality, particularly in depicting feelings and the language of characters. In his preface to the novel, Verga lays out his stylistic objectives: that the novel writes itself, that it is an organism that develops without the direct participation of the author (contrary to Romantic notions of the author and his role), that the author writes from a detached, dispassionate, impersonal vantage point akin to that of a scientific observer. His descriptions are conveyed through the characters’ reactions and dialog, not the narrator, and herein lies his newness in Italian fiction. Usually, the characters in such a literary study portray people in the lower classes; Verga goes so far as to declare that he wants to write about those who are trampled in the great forward movement called (sometimes ironically) progress. This declaration was in itself highly original in Italian literature.
In his depictions of the tragedies of human life, Verga was affected by ideas stimulated by the scientist Charles Darwin. Verga based much of his thinking about society on the “struggle for existence,” a concept Darwin applied to the animal world. Progress, in Verga’s view, was a violent wave; once confronted with modern life, a person can never acquire enough material goods, and someone’s success is always at the expense of someone else, so no one can really ever be declared a winner.
As noted, The House by the Medlar Tree infuses into the story Sicilian proverbs. Also included are customs of the island’s peasants and fishermen. Verga relied heavily for these components on the writings of Giuseppe Pitre (1841-1916), a folklorist from Palermo whose work was widely read and respected during his lifetime. Especially influential was Pitre’s Proverbi siciliani, raccolti e confrontati con quelli degli altri dialetti d’ltalia (Sicilian Proverbs, Collected and Compared with Those from Other Italian Dialects), a four-volume work published in 1879-80.
The House by the Medlar Tree was not a popular success in its time. The writer, critic, and primary theorist of verismo, Luigi Capuana, praised it enthusiastically, as did a few of Verga’s friends, but it was not widely reviewed. Verga was disappointed by the novel’s cold reception but unswayed in his convictions, as shown in some lines from a letter to Capuana: “Luigi, I can tell you that the indifference with which the so-called literary public’ here in Italy looks upon our efforts absolutely nauseates me” (Verga in Alexander, p. 89). Zola, whom Verga greatly ad-mired, had promised to write an introduction to the French translation but did not, and when the novel was released in France in 1886, it met with silence there too.
In general, critics of the time disliked the pessimism and harshness of the life Verga described. They furthermore took issue with the form, dismissing the linguistic experimentations as unacceptable. The biographer Alfred Alexander notes that,
In Verga’s time … any acceptable Italian prose was meant to follow the tradition which Manzoni had set in I promessi sposi [The Betrothed , also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times]. Because Verga used the words that were natural to his characters, because he used a language restricted in vocabulary, frequently incorrect in syntax, and sometimes even in grammar, the critics as well as the public found it difficult to accept his innovations.
(Alexander, p. 85)
Edoardo Scarfoglio, one of Verga’s harshest critics, called the language “a boring monotony,” while G. A. Cesareo faulted the novel for a “lack of a noble literary language” (Scarfoglio and Cesareo in Viti, p. 101). By the end of the nineteenth century, the work had been all but forgotten. Just two decades later, however, in 1919, Italian critics began to re-evaluate the initial harsh judgments, and Verga acquired the status of a major literary figure (thanks largely to the critics Benedetto Croce and Luigi Russo). Verga’s status continued to grow thereafter, with critics and literary historians alike proclaiming him to be the “greatest Italian novelist after Manzoni” (Bergin, p. 46).
Alexander, Alfred. Giovanni Verga: A Great Writer and His World. London: Grant & Cutler, 1972.
Cecchetti, Giovanni. Introduction to The House by the Medlar Tree, by Giovanni Verga. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Duggan, Christopher. A Concise History of Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Mack Smith, Denis. A History of Sicily: Modern Sicily After 1713. London: Chatto & Sr Windus, 1968.
Moe, Nelson. The View from Vesuvius: Italian Culture and the Southern Question. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Montante, Michela. A Psycho-Social Study of the Sicilian People Based on Selected Characters from Verga’s Novels. Caltanissetta, Italy: Salvatore Sciascia Editore, 1976.
Verga, Giovanni. The House by the Medlar Tree. Trans. Eric Mosbacher. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1953.
Viti, Gorizio. Guida a I Malavoglia. Florence: Felice Le Monnier, 1971.