lunedì 11 maggio 2015

Fate in the works of Giovanni Verga

Giovanni Verga
by Olga Lenczewska

Fate, a notion largely explored and realised in art, philosophy, and literature from ancient times until the present day, can be generally defined as a condition predetermined by a Divine being or nature, invincible necessity, a power which projects one's future. As opposed to the notion of planning which involves an agent organising his own future, fate is supposed to be both independent of one's will, and necessary in its occurrence. In Giovanni Verga's works, however, this notion is substantially challenged and adapted to the society and times he depicts – let us take a close look at that.

Verga, born to a rich Sicilian family during the times of the island's poverty and Italy's social underdevelopment, was inspired by the French naturalism to think of the role of literature as that of portraying the reality as it really was. His particular focus in his mature works such as “I Malavoglia” and “Vita dei campi”, however, was not the “gran mondo” with which the French movement and Alessandro Manzoni dealt, but the “classi inferiori” of the southern Italian villages that, Verga claimed, suffered the most from the difficult economic situation; in the opening story from “Vita dei campi” entitled “Fantasticheria” he clearly presents his ideology: “per poter comprendere siffatta caparbietá, che é per certi aspetti eroica, bisogna farci piccini anche noi, chiudere tutto l'orizzonte fra due zolle, e guardare col microscopo le piccole cause che fanno battere i piccoli cuori”.

Verga’s interpretation of the notion of fate is clearly visible in his portrayal of a boy nicknamed Rosso malpelo, a protagonist of one of the short stories from “Vita dei campi”. The boy was called Rosso malpelo because, according to the villagers, ginger hair was an attribute of malicious people. The reasoning of the peasants may be evidenced by the use of a causal “perché” in the following statement: “aveva i capelli rossi perché era un ragazzo malizioso e cattivo, che prometteva di riescire un fior di birbone”. From a commonsensical point of view the prejudicial assumption of the peasants seem absurd and it is rather them who 'create' the boy's destiny than himself. Moreover, it is not only the boy's hair colour, but also the popular opinion concerning his father, that contributed to Rosso malpelo's bad fame: the boy 'inherited' the bad fame from his father who, also unjustifiably, was negatively perceived by the society which would judge his stubbornness and hard-working manners as arrogance and selfishness. When the father died during work only he was brave to do, the fellow workers judge Rosso malpelo's mourning as a nasty, arrogant, even animalistic behaviour. A number of animalistic comparisons appear also in other parts of the story, for example, when the reader finds out that even the boy's mother believed he was a malicious just because people were saying so, putting the opinion of others over the bond of family: “La vedova di mastro Misciu era disperata di aver per figlio quel malarnese, come dicevano tutti, ed egli era ridotto veramente come quei cani, che a furia di buscarsi dei calce e delle sassate da questo e da quello, finiscono col mettersi la coda fra le gambe e scappare alla prima anima viva che vedono, e diventano affamati, spelati e selvatici come lupi”. Even more tragically, the boy seemed to be aware of his situation in the village and surrounding him injustice, but unable to free himself from it, accepting is and taking for granted instead: “Mio padre era buono, e non faceva male a nessuno, tanto che lo chiamavano Bestia. Invece è là sotto, ed hanno persino trovato i ferri, le scarpe e questi calzoni qui che ho indosso io”. It becomes clear that it were the villagers' prejudicial opinions, not some higher power, that projected and directed Rosso malpelo's fate.

Moreover, the boy felt obliged to work were his father used to, even though he died there and the place was not only extremely dangerous, but constantly reminded Rosso malpelo of the tragedy. Despite his unwillingness to do so, the boy believed he was born into working at his father's trade: “Certamente egli avrebbe preferito di fare il manovale, come Ranocchio, e lavorare cantando sui ponti, in alto, in mezzo all'azzurro del cielo, col sole sulla schiena, - o il carrettiere, come compare Gaspare, che veniva a prendersi la rena della cava, dondolandosi sonnacchioso sulle stanghe, colla pipa in bocca, e andava tutto il giorno per le belle strade di campagna (…). Ma quello era stato il mestiere di suo padre, e in quel mestiere era nato lui”. Also the job itself seemed to be linked to fatal fate. The ultimate tragism of the injudicious opinion shared by the society the boy lived in is represented and particularly stressed at the very last sentence of “Rosso malpelo”, when the boy goes away, convinced that nobody will look for him anyway: “Così si persero persin le ossa di Malpelo, e i ragazzi della cava abbassano la voce quando parlano di lui nel sotterraneo, ché hanno paura di vederselo comparire dinanzi, coi capelli rossi e gli occhiacci grigi”. The public fear of Rosso malpelo remained even after he had left his home and went missing.

In sum, the short story “Rosso malpelo” from “Vita dei campi” presents the fate of the protagonist as being in hands of the society he lives in that shared injudicious prejudices based on his physical appearance and his mourning after the death of his father; a negative social opinion greatly influences his and his family's life. Moreover, despite not willing to work where his father did, the boy believed he was born into continuing his father's trade and did not see any other possibility, thus being unable to free himself from his family's 'heritage'. The notion of fate in “Vita dei campi” is based on, or mainly expressed by, the social beliefs and opinions shared by the locals of the villages the plots are set in. Finally, the notion of fate in Verga's works directs the protagonists' lives from the 'bottom' – by the society, fellow locals – rather than from the 'top' – by some kind of Divine and omnipotent power, even if the protagonists themselves do not realise this and attribute this force to God. This might be due to the fact that for the protagonists do not want to accept they are controlled by their society's values and other people rather than by God, as they would not be able to explain and accept their course of life otherwise. Such definition of fate as coming from the 'bottom' is very different from its original definition from ancient times of the Greek tragedy. Thus it can be questioned that the force that controls Verga's protagonists cannot really be called fate. Obviously it depends how liberally we treat the definition of fate, but in my opinion it cannot be; I would rather call it 'social inescapableness', which transform the notion of 'fate' into a power that does not bear the notion of a Divine being projecting one's life.

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