Cavalleria Rusticana by Giovanni Verga, 1880
by Giovanni Verga, 1880
The publication of "Cavalleria Rusticana," collected in Vita dei Campi in 1880, signaled a new departure in the fiction of Giovanni Verga, the application of narrative techniques that, even more than the choice of subject, form the basis of what is known as verismo . Though he later dramatized the story as a vehicle for the actress Eleanora Duse and a libretto was adapted for Mascagni's opera, the original has a particular power that owes everything to its author's penetrating imagination and consummate craftsmanship.
Verga had begun by writing historical romances whose conventions derive from Scott and Dumas, and from the mid-1870s he wrote short stories and contes that show the influence of Flaubert, Maupassant, and Zola. The first of these, Nedda (1874), has for its principal character a poverty-stricken peasant girl and for its setting rural Sicily. Though the theme constitutes a move towards social realism, the handling of the tale, especially in the well-worn opening, remains within conventions that predate Verga's remodeled approach to narrative as he embarked on the series of regional novels beginning with The House by the Medlar Tree (I Malavoglia). In "Cavalleria Rusticana," "The She-Wolf," ("La Lupa"), and the other stories published in Vita dei Campi and subsequent collections, Verga applied innovative theories about realism, objectivity, and fictional truth in ways that profoundly affect the narrative stratagems open to the author.
Like many of his stories about i vinti, the defeated and dispossessed Sicilian peasantry, "Cavalleria Rusticana" was based on a true incident. Destined at first for incorporation in The House by the Medlar Tree, it was removed in the course of rewriting and developed into a freestanding story that was first published in the literary weekly Fanfulla. It is a tragic tale of dishonor revenged.
Turiddu, a poor widow's son, returns from military service to his native village, expecting to resume his courtship of Lola, a farm manager's daughter. She meanwhile has become engaged to Alfio, a well-to-do carrier, and rejects Turiddu. Finding employment as a farmhand, Turiddu starts to court Santa, the only daughter of a prosperous wine seller. Lola, now married, overhears their flirtations and, to Santa's chagrin, encourages Turiddu to visit her during Alfio's absence. On Alfio's return Santa tells him of Lola's infidelity. Alfio challenges Turiddu, the two fight it out with knives, and Turiddu is killed.
Verga's handling of the plot shows both originality in the authorial approach and a masterly control of balancing internal cross-references, whose cumulative effect is woven into a complex unified design.
The authorial approach is dictated by Verga's own thoughts about realism in fiction. The author should not intrude as commentator. The unfolding of the story should be managed by the objective reporting of successive acts or by advancing the narrative through dialogue. The actions and motivations of individuals should be presented as the participants themselves would perceive them and be expressed in language appropriate to their perceptions. In this way the author can achieve the realization of artistic truth to the events and emotions he seeks to portray. It is worth noting that Verga preferred to talk of verità ("truth") rather than verismo ("realism"); he expressed distrust of critical theorizing and of labeling individual writers and their work with isms.
A close reading of "Cavalleria Rusticana" shows that the development of the plot is carried forward almost entirely in passages of objectively reported narration. The passages of dialogue, on the other hand, are dramatized illustrations of the impact on the characters of events that have already been revealed. The conversations between Turiddu and Lola, Turiddu and Santa, Santa and Alfio, and finally Alfio and Turiddu carry the main weight of the psychological insights into the minds and emotions of these individuals, and within these conversations Verga introduces the network of cross-references that helps to knit the story together.
The notions of personal honor implicit in Sicilian society, and of the appropriate sanctions when the code of honor has been transgressed, are probably well enough understood by most readers; but there are certain details whose import may require explanations and which pose problems for translators that cannot be solved by a footnote gloss. This is unfortunate when the details are part of the referential complexity mentioned above—for instance, the contrast between Turiddu's military cap with its swaggering tassel and Alfio's cap worn over the eyes, a habit of the mafioso . Similarly, the formalities of Alfio's challenge to Turiddu in the tavern may at first cause surprise with its initial embrace, which is a ritual preliminary to the exchange of il bacio della sfida, the kiss of challenge, sealed by Turiddu's formal biting of the challenger's ear in acceptance.
Other balancing details in the patterning of the story are more easily picked up. In his first encounter with Lola, Turiddu speaks of Alfio's four mules: "but my mother, poor thing, had to sell off our bay mule and our patch of vineyard on the highway while I was away on service." Again, Alfio is a native of the neighboring village of Licodia; and when Turiddu determines to get his own back by flirting with Santa under Lola's very eyes, he says to Santa, "Your mother's from Licodia, we know! Hot blood you've got! I could just eat you up with my eyes!" This thread is picked up again in the final dialogue between Turiddu and Alfio; Turiddu, confessing that he is in the wrong and therefore should let Alfio kill him, is nevertheless determined to kill Alfio (a further transgression of the code) in order to spare his old mother's tears—"she seems never out of my eyes." "Open them up then, those eyes!," Alfio yells at him. The handful of dust that blinds Turiddu permits Alfio's last fatal knife thrusts.
The inevitability of this retribution, the increasingly doom-laden tension, and the swift, tragic climax of the tale have been managed with extraordinary skill. They fully vindicate Verga's self-imposed constraints in his search for artistic truth.
—Stewart F. Sanderson