Giovanni Verga’s first experiments with the short-story form in the 1870’s were quite conventional in theme and offered no originality of form or technique. At best, critics have discerned in this work the struggles of a writer in a period of crisis seeking a new basis for his art. The publication of the group of stories about Sicily, under the title Under the Shadow of Etna, demonstrated that he had found that new basis. For these stories he developed a new literary language and a new style: Description and rhetoric were reduced to the barest minimum possible, and characters and action were portrayed in terse, nervous prose which was more impressionistic notation than precise narrative, and which often reproduced, as direct or indirect discourse, the speech patterns of the characters themselves.
The most renowned of these stories, “Cavalleria rusticana” (“Rustic Chivalry”), exemplifies this new style fully. The opening paragraph informs the reader that the story’s hero, Turiddu Macca, having completed his military service, is trying unsuccessfully to attract the attention of his former beloved, Lola, by peacocklike antics in the public square. When he learns that she has betrothed herself to another during his absence, Turiddu swears that he will destroy his rival, and Verga makes this known to the reader by switching in mid-sentence to implied indirect discourse, in which Turiddu’s own characteristic language, including curses, is abruptly intruded into a normal third-person narrative sentence: “When Turiddu first got to hear of it, oh, the devil! he raved and swore!—he’d rip his guts out for him, he’d rip ’em out for him, that Licodia fellow!” (Although D. H. Lawrence’s translation is less than accurate, it nevertheless conveys the effect of the mixed narrative mode well enough.) A few paragraphs later Verga reports a direct conversation between Turiddu and Lola, and their words include local proverbial expressions, coarse language, and rough, ungrammatical constructions—all designed to communicate impressionistically but with great economy of means the nature of the characters and of their world.
Brevity and suggestion are the keynotes of Verga’s prose style. Much is left unsaid, and transitions are abrupt, unelaborated, and unexplained. Thus, after the early conversation between Turiddu and Lola, Verga quickly states that Lola married the man from Licodia, and Turiddu swore he would get even “right under her eyes, the dirty bitch” (in Giovanni Cecchetti’s much more accurate translation). Without the least probing of psychological motives, Verga then recounts Turiddu’s cruel courtship of a girl named Santa, who lives across the street from Lola’s house, to arouse Lola’s jealousy and the abrupt success of the maneuver when Lola invites Turiddu to become her lover. Swiftly and relentlessly, the action moves to its inevitable climax; there is always a minimum of explanation or analysis from the narrator and as much as possible through the vehicle of direct or reported speech by the four principal characters. The jilted Santa tells Lola’s husband, Alfio, that he has been cuckolded by Turiddu. In accordance with the crude customs of local “chivalry,” Alfio challenges Turiddu to a “duel” to the death, with clasp knives. The violent fight is rapidly and vividly recounted in half a page, much of it dialogue, at the end of which Alfio is seriously wounded, and Turiddu is dead, having lost the fight when Alfio suddenly threw dirt in his face, blinding him. The ironic intention in the title of the story becomes especially clear in this last circumstance: In a primitive Sicilian village, the savage, violent, animalistic resolution of an “affair of honor” provides a mocking parody of the aristocratic traditions of chivalry. The Sicilian behavior is not admirable, but it is instinctive and entirely natural, compared to the ritualistic and artificial modes of chivalry.
(The entire section is 1650 words.)