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Giovanni Verga: An Italian Realist Writer

Alessio enjoys sharing cultural facts about his country, its history, and its literature.

Portrait of Giovanni Verga (1840-1922)

Portrait of Giovanni Verga (1840-1922)

"Verismo" is a word popular in the US because of the Starbucks brewing system. Besides coffee, Verismo was one of Italy's most significant literary movements of the late nineteenth century.

The Italian word "vero" means "true," and in fact, Verismo was the literary evolution of Realism. This more general cultural movement also embraced art, of which Gustave Courbet was one of the best-known exponents.

Main Peculiarities of Verismo

As Verismo is the Italian literary evolution of Realism, it shares some aspects with it:

  1. The interest in an objective narrative that merely describes facts without expressing opinions;
  2. Featuring the less well-off social classes as the protagonists of literary works: Giovanni Verga, for example, often tells about the peasants' lives;
  3. Using a third-person narrative to emphasize the narrator's detachment, who must not comment in any way on the facts told;
  4. A pessimistic vision of reality, which sees the humble social classes unable to redeem themselves: those born poor, are destined to remain poor for life.
Gustave Courbet - The Stonebreakers (1849) - Oil on Canvas

Gustave Courbet - The Stonebreakers (1849) - Oil on Canvas

Giovanni Verga

Giovanni Verga was one of Italy's most important exponents of literary Realism. It was born in 1840 in Catania, Sicily, and died in 1922 in the same city.

Verga focused on the situation of Sicily in his time, with a particular interest in agricultural life, which he well described in his novellas (a novella is a work of narrative fiction, which is shorter than regular novels, but still longer than short stories).

Novellas are the most relevant Verga's literary productions and describe the lives of farmers, miners, and other workers in Sicily in the late nineteenth century. The author has also written various novels, whose most important are I Malavoglia (1881) and Mastro-don Gesualdo (1889).

Below are some of the most famous Verga's literary works:

Rosso Malpelo (1880)

This novella talks about a red-haired youth who works in a mine with his father and faces discrimination because of his hair color (the title means "red evil hair").

In a desperate effort to earn more money, his father dies while doing a dangerous job the other workers refuse to do. From that moment, the youth becomes aggressive towards animals and other co-workers. The other miners gradually leave the employment or face death because of the harsh conditions.

One day, remaining alone, Malpelo takes his father's tools and accepts to perform a dangerous activity, walking into the mine, and never coming back.

Eugenio Interguglielmi - "Sicily - Carusi (boys) before a sulphur mine" (1899)

Eugenio Interguglielmi - "Sicily - Carusi (boys) before a sulphur mine" (1899)

Nedda (1874)

This novella describes the life of a humble olive harvester who lives on odd jobs at several farms, trying to assist her mother, who later dies. Nedda also has a love story with Janu, a farmer who is ill with malarial fever and, despite his illness, works hard to survive.

One day, due to his weakness, he falls from a tree and dies on the job. Nedda was expecting the birth of a baby along with Janu, who would later die after birth. Nedda, in the end, thanks the Virgin Mary for not allowing the baby to live a life full of sufferings like hers.

The life of the peasants is one of the main subjects of Verga's novellas.

The life of the peasants is one of the main subjects of Verga's novellas.

La Lupa (1880)

The title means "Wolf," a surname given by villagers to Pina, a woman with an insatiable sexual desire who tries to seduce all the men in the village.

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One day, the woman becomes infatuated with the young Nanni and forces his daughter to marry him so she can always have him at home. The man, unable to repel Pina's advances, will kill her with an ax.

La Roba (1880)

This is the first novella in which we see Mazzarò, a poor farmhand who, thanks to his cunning, achieves to seize the lands of his master.

Apparently, the novel deviates from the main characteristic of Verismo, the pessimistic vision of a world in which humble people will never be able to redeem themselves. The truth is that Mazzarò is, in some way, a defeated man: in fact, the former farmhand does not know how to manage his lands, is aggressive with his sharecroppers, and ends up devoured by his greed.

The novel ends with an elderly and desperate Mazzarò, who feels that death is near and knows he will not be able to carry all the accumulated riches with him. So, in a moment of madness, he kills all the animals who populate his properties and says one of the best-known phrases of Verga's literature:

My stuff, come with me!

— La Roba

I Malavoglia (1881)

This is one of the most famous Verga's novels. The protagonists are a family of fishermen who live in a small town in Sicily, and fishing is their only means of livelihood.

The Malavoglia family, made up of people of honor, will later find themselves amid various misfortunes:

  • debts,
  • the loss of their home,
  • the destruction of their boat,
  • the death of one of the youths during military service, and
  • a sentence for one of them following a fight for love reasons.

All these episodes break the balance and the honor in a family that was initially united and happy. In the end, one of the sons pays all the debts, rebuys the house, and settles down with his new wife. This makes the family's patriarch happy, who dies shortly after in hospital.

Mastro-don Gesualdo (1889)

This is the second Verga's most famous novel. This work of literature differs from others because of the protagonists, who are not of humble origins like most of those depicted in Verga's novels and novellas.

The protagonists are a fallen noble family in whose house, one day, a fire breaks out. Bianca, one of the three brothers composing this family, gets caught in bed with her cousin, so his brother tries to combine a marriage. This gets refused because Bianca lacks dowry: the promised spouse, on the other hand, will be Gesualdo Motta, a character on which the whole story focuses. Gesualdo is a bricklayer and becomes noble thanks to the arranged marriage with Bianca, which turns out to be a failure later, as she does not love him.

A situation of arranged marriages made for convenience will make Gesualdo renounce the marriage with the servant Diodata, with whom he had several children. A story characterized by complex family events where convenience and interest in social status will lead Don Gesualdo to remain alone, abandoned by everyone, and overwhelmed by his greed.

Like in the novella "La Roba" it is portrayed the defeat of a man who initially seemed destined to redeem himself from a humble condition, that of a bricklayer. Both works of literature show us how Verga did not automatically associate humble social statuses with a life of misfortune and defeat. Mazzarò from "La Roba" and Don Gesualdo are two examples of people who get defeated in some way by their riches.

Conclusions

Giovanni Verga represented one of the most important cultural trends of the late nineteenth century: the search for truth, which derives from a growing interest in the scientific method and the objective analysis of human behavior.

With Verga, literature places at the center of its interest the daily life, the situation of South Italy, and the facts concerning the humblest sections of the population.

This description would be too simplistic, as Verga dealt in some way with what he used to call vinti, an Italian word that means "defeated." Verga, in fact, portrayed characters facing misfortunes of any kind.

In most cases, Verga denounced labor exploitation's social issue by talking about farmers who survived on hard and underpaid jobs commissioned by greedy landowners.

In other cases, he talked about humble people who redeemed themselves and became rich while ending in other misfortunes. In the end, Verga dealt with people who get defeated by the situations of their lives.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Alessio Ganci

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