The premise of Alessandro Manzoni’s only novel is a timeworn one: The author claims to have discovered an interesting, but primitive, anonymous manuscript of the seventeenth century dealing with the war, famine, and pestilence occasioned by the occupation of Lombardy by Spanish troops; because this narrative is poorly written, he has decided to retell the story in his own words.
Somewhere in the Milanese region, the story begins, around Lecco and Lake Como, two young peasants wish to marry and seek the services of the village priest. Renzo Tramaglino and Lucia Mondella are good, honest people, and at first they cannot understand Don Abbondio’s equivocation followed by a refusal, until it becomes known that the local tyrant, the evil and feared Don Rodrigo, wants Lucia for his own pleasures and through his bravi (ruffians) has threatened the priest accordingly. Eight hundred pages later, the two finally marry. The epic of The Betrothed lies in between.
From the microcosm of Lecco, the events swell into a macrocosmic panorama of life itself, with all its confusion and wandering, suffering and barbarism, death and destruction. The simple threads of private events weave into ever more complex fabrics until the tapestry of calamities reaches fateful public proportions. The lives of Renzo and Lucia fork at the outset. Fra Cristoforo, a sternly upright monk, arranges for the latter to leave her town and seek shelter in a convent directed by a nun with a dark past, Sister Gertrude, whose story shows Manzoni to be one of the finest psychologists in literature. For his part, Renzo looks for help from a crooked lawyer, Azzeccagarbugli; travels to Milan, where he is greeted by bread riots and other difficulties; and escapes to the Adda River after talking too long at an inn.
Meanwhile, angry Don Rodrigo requests assistance in his wrongdoing from a powerful and enigmatic figure, a kind of regional overlord whose name is never told but who goes under the appellation of the Unnamed (l’innominato). This spirit of evil (and as such he acquires impressive literary stature, to be considered along with Honoré de Balzac’s Vautrin, William Shakespeare’s Iago, and the like) has Lucia kidnapped and brought to his secluded castle. One of the most debated issues in literature occurs here: the conversion of this formidable figure to good, seemingly occurring overnight in the presence of the purity and radiance of the innocent peasant girl, but actually occurring over a period of time preceding the novel’s action. A famous colloquy takes place between him and the historical cardinal of legendary sanctity, Federico Borromeo.
The ills continue, however—indeed, multiply: drought, famine, war (a ramification of the Thirty Years’ War), infection introduced by the Spanish army, and the devastating plague of 1630, which decimated the population of the Milanese, whose bodies were carried off by hooded monatti to the hospital camp known as the lazzeretto or to burial ditches. Manzoni’s description of the terror of the “greasers,” or untori, the supposed spreaders of disease, and of the horrible plague itself, must be considered literary landmarks. Many characters perish: Don Rodrigo; his henchman, Il Griso; Fra Cristoforo; the village priest’s gossipy housekeeper, Perpetua; the ostentatious intellectual, Don Ferrante; and his wife, Donna Prassede. Lucia recovers miraculously, and her mother, Agnese, is spared. Fires burn the evil out,...
(The entire section is 1440 words.)