Verga, Giovanni 1840-1922
Italian short story writer, novelist, and dramatist.
Verga is a major figure both in Italian literature and in the evolution of modern Western literature. During the era of his mature genius he was the leading voice of verismo, an Italian movement of literary realism roughly corresponding to the school of Naturalism originated by French novelist Emile Zola. Verga employed a unique style in which the story is told completely through direct and indirect speech of the characters. The form, diction, and tone of the story mirror the attitudes and consciousness of its characters, both individually and collectively. This method was particularly effective in Verga's depictions of Sicilian peasant life. One of his most successful examinations of this peasant world was "Cavalleria rusticana," which the author wrote as both a short story and a drama, and which was adapted as the libretto for Pietro Mascagni's well-known opera of the same title.
Verga was born in Sicily into an upper-class family, and for a time he studied law at the University of Catania. His interests, however, were resolutely literary, and after publishing some undistinguished early novels he decided to leave Sicily in 1869 and pursue his career in the more cosmopolitan centers of Florence and Milan. The novels he produced during the next few years were fashionable romances dealing with the passions of the rich, and they did not yet display his ultimate style. While living in Milan, Verga's artistic concerns altered dramatically, from romanticism to realism, and from the culture of high society to the rural life that surrounded him when he was growing up in Sicily. By 1879 Verga had returned completely to his Sicilian roots and moved into his childhood home in Catania. He died there in 1922 after twenty years of literary silence.
Major Works of Short Fiction
"Nedda," which Verga subtitled "A Sicilian Sketch," is one of the earliest stories to exhibit the cultural and stylistic focus of his later genius. With the publication of this story in 1874, Verga truly began to develop his style of verismo. In his later work Verga sought to efface the author's identity and allow the fictional subject to dictate the form of the work. Thus, in his later short stories and novels Verga let the dialects and idioms of his characters permeate every level of his narrative. Some of the stories that best exemplify Verga's mature style are "Cavalleria rusticana," "The She-Wolf," "Gramigna's Mistress," and "Rosso Malpelo," all of which are included in his major collections: Vita dei campi (Cavalleria Rusticana, and Other Tales of Sicilian Peasant Life) and Novelle rusticane (Little Novels of Sicily). Verga writes each in the style indirect libre, or "free indirect style," where the characters seem to narrate themselves with no intrusion from the author. In these stories, Verga anticipates such modernist artistic devices as interior monologue and stream of consciousness.
Critics agree that Verga's genius is most brilliantly displayed in his development of verismo. His gift for letting action and dialogue relate the story, with never a word wasted, is universally lauded. Commentators consider him the first Italian writer to accurately represent the language of the Sicilian people and the peculiar subtleties of their dialects. Critics debate whether Verga's method of verismo developed independently of others with similar styles, but his mastery of the technique is rarely questioned. Although he produced the body of his work in the nineteenth century, Verga is perhaps best understood in terms of twentieth-century modernist literature and the search for new forms of expression.
Vita dei campi [Cavalleria Rusticana, and Other Tales of Sicilian Peasant Life, 1893; also published as Cavalleria Rusticana, and Other Stories, 1928] 1880
Novelle rusticane [Little Novels of Sicily, 1925] 1883 Per le vie 1883
Don Candeloro e c' [Don Candeloro and Co., 1958] 1894 Pane nero, and Other Stories 1962
The She-Wolf and Other Stories 1973
Other Major Works
Una peccatrice (novel) 1866
Storia di una capinera (novel) 1871
Eva (novel) 1873
Tigre reale (novel) 1873
Eros (novel) 1875
I Malavoglia: Romanzo [The House by the Medlar-Tree, 1890] (novel) 1881
Il marito di Elena: Romanzo (novel) 1881
Cavalleria rusticana (drama) 1884
Mastro-don Gesualdo: Romanzo [Master Don Gesualdo, 1893] (novel) 1889
La Lupa. In portinaio. Cavallerìa rusticana. Drammi (dramas) 1896
La caccia al lupo. La caccia alla volpe. Bozzetti scenici (dramas) 1902
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SOURCE: A preface to Cavalleria Rusticana, and Other Stories, by Giovanni Verga, translated by D. H. Lawrence, 1928. Reprint by Greenwood Press, 1975, pp. 7-33.
[Lawrence was an English novelist, poet, and essayist noted for his introduction of the themes of modern psychology to English fiction. In his lifetime he was a controversial figure, both for the explicit sexuality he portrayed in his novels and for his unconventional personal life. Much of the criticism of Lawrence's work concerns his highly individualistic moral system, which was based on absolute freedom of expression, particularly sexual expression. In the following excerpt, Lawrence notes Verga's interest in peasant characters as they exemplify the passion, naivete, and spontaneity lacking in urban-dwelling sophisticates. Lawrence argues that Verga did not glorify his peasant characters or glamorize their impoverished state.]
Cavalleria Rusticana is in many ways the most interesting of the Verga books. The volume of short stories under this title appeared in 1880, when the author was forty years old, and when he had just "retired" from the world.
The Verga family owned land around Vizzini, a biggish village in southern Sicily; and here, in and around Vizzini, the tragedies of Turiddu and La Lupa and Jeli take place. But it was only in middle life that the drama of peasant passion really made an impression on Giovanni Verga....
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SOURCE: "Nedda," in Giovanni Verga, Yale University Press, 1931, pp. 38-45.
[In the following excerpt, Bergin studies the themes, characters, and technique of "Nedda, " demonstrating that it is the first example of Verga's more accomplished, mature style.]
Placed demurely and inconspicuously in the middle of the romanzi giovenili, flanked, as it were, by the exotic Tigre Reale and the passionate Eros, the story "Nedda," containing the germ of the author's later and more famous tales, made its unassuming appearance. The year is 1874, seven years before / Malavoglia; but many of the characteristics destined to make of the latter volume a rallying ground for the veristi and a point of attack for their opponents are already present in "Nedda."
When we, who have the good fortune to be able to view his work in retrospection, consider the results that Verga eventually achieved in this new style, it is rather amusing to read contemporary comment on the work. The Nuova antologia, while praising the courage of Signor Verga, cannot but warn him that "proseguendo per questo via egli deve giungere fino al punto che il lettore debba chiuder gli occhi e turarsi il naso." It evidently seemed strong stuff. It will be worth our while to examine in some detail the elements of "Nedda" and to consider more thoroughly those new details which were apparently viewed...
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SOURCE: "Appendix: Pirandello on Verga," in Verga's Milanese Tales, by Olga Ragusa, S. F. Vanni, 1964, pp. 106-26.
[In the following excerpt, part of a speech that was first presented to the Royal Academy of Italy celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of I Malavoglia in 1931, Pirandello investigates the concept of reality in art and takes issue with the claim that Verga wrote objective, realist fiction.]
It is probable that every nation produces two human types from its stock: the builders and the adaptors, the necessary beings and the beings of luxury; the former endowed with a "style of objects" and the latter with a "style of words." These two great families or categories of men, living contemporaneously within every nation, are quite distinct and easily recognizable in Italy, perhaps more so than anywhere else. But only for someone who knows our situation well and is able to analyze it with understanding. Because inattentive observers, be they Italian or non-Italian, are easily deceived by the noise, the pomp, the frequent self-display of those whom I have called of the "style of words," and think that this type only exists in Italy. It is easy to be deceived, first of all, because these individuals are much more numerous, more sociable, more accessible than the others, and also, because Italy actually seems to have been created for them, to give vividness, color, and meaning...
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SOURCE: A review of Little Novels of Sicily, in The Canadian Forum, Vol. XXXIII, No. 393, October, 1953, p. 161.
[In the review below, Weaver praises the modern qualities of Verga's stories and the author's deft combination of sympathy for and detachment from his characters.]
His two novels and handful of stories about Sicily are enough to make Giovanni Verga rank as an important writer. In many respects, it seems to me, Verga should seem as important to us as, say, Balzac or Zola. And for some modern readers Verga will have an advantage over many of the writers of his own time: for although he belongs to the nineteenth century, his work has a strong contemporary flavor. There are few digressions in his novels, little moralizing, no heavy undergrowth of description. His dialogue is quick and revealing, his narrative prose firm, rapid and vigorous. His descriptive passages and metaphors are fresh, vivid, closely related to the life of the people he is writing about. Perhaps Verga's contemporary feeling owes something to D. H. Lawrence, who translated three of his books (how Lawrence must have loved this task!); but the novel which Lawrence did not translate, The House by the Medlar Tree, also seems very modern, if you read it in the translation which was published two or three years ago.
Verga was born in Sicily in 1840, and he died there in 1922. For a time he made a...
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SOURCE: "The Last Stories of Giovanni Verga," in Italian Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer, 1957, pp. 8-14.
[In the following essay, Cecchetti examines Verga's last collection of stories, Don Candeloro e Compagni, which is often overlooked by critics.]
The English-speaking readers of Italian literature know of four books by Giovanni Verga: two novels—I Malavoglia (The House by the Medlar Tree) and Mastro Don Gesualdo—and two volumes of short stories—Vita dei Campi (Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Stories) and Novelle Rusticane (Little Novels of Sicily). These four books are unquestionably Verga's masterpieces, the ones which have placed him among the great European writers of the last century. They were all written between 1878 (the approximate date when Verga began to work seriously on I Malavoglia, after having thought about the subject for three years) and 1889, when the second and final version of Mastro Don Gesualdo was published.
In this period Verga's creativity was at its peak. Before then, during his youth, he had devoted himself to writing sentimental novels mostly dealing with love affairs between hot-blooded southern Italian men transplanted in the Florentine aristocratic world and the sexually rapacious women whom they were pursuing. These works are now read mainly by scholars who want to delve into his formative...
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SOURCE: "Critical Assessment of Verga's Milanese Tales," in Verga's Milanese Tales, S. F. Vanni, 1964, pp. 1-6.
[In the following excerpt, Ragusa examines the critical dismissal of Verga 's Milanese tales, finding that the lasting reputation of these stories is based largely on the opinions of critic Luigi Russo.]
The works of Verga that do not reflect the Sicilian peasant world have rarely been considered favorably by critics. The so-called mundane narratives that belong to his youthful production, stories peopled by idle aristocrats and budding young artists with their typical fin de siècle anxieties, have indeed received some measure of attention, if only because of their importance for the artist's formative years. But the Milanese tales, almost all written during Verga's maturity, have been completely overshadowed by the more numerous and more successful works set in Sicily. The impoverished working people, the low-class prostitutes, the starving music-hall entertainers, the crooks, invalids, consumptives, unemployed—the urban derelicts, in short—who appear in most of Verga's Milanese tales, have elicited little sympathy and have been brushed aside as figures inspired almost exclusively by his desire to vie with the popular naturalist novels of France. This negative judgement, due largely to Luigi Russo's 1919 groundbreaking work on Verga [Giovanni Verga] has up to now precluded...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The She-Wolf, and Other Stories, by Giovanni Verga, translated by Giovanni Cecchetti, revised edition, University of California Press, 1973, pp. v-xx.
[In the following excerpt, Cecchetti probes the motivating forces behind Verga's characters. The critic then describes Verga's search for a new, completely impersonal narrative form, which, Cecchetti argues, "helped [Verga] to reject worn-out expressive patterns, approach reality more directly, and achieve an often naked but always lyrical prose."]
One of the recurrent themes in the writings of Verga's second period is economic. His people are constantly engaged in a struggle for the most elementary means of survival. Their incessant need for material security often determines their actions and leads them to tragedy and ruin.
The novel / Malavoglia tells of a family of Sicilian fishermen prompted to speculate on a cargo of lupins to better their lot. But unfortunate circumstances bring about the loss of the cargo, the death of the oldest son, the eventual loss of the family house, and the disintegration of the family itself. The theme of poverty is equally evident in the short stories. In "Cavalleria Rusticana," Lola jilts Turiddu because Alfio is better off; in "Malaria," the disease seems to prostrate only the poor because they cannot afford to move away from the infested region; in the "Story of the...
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SOURCE: "Fantasticheria: Verga's Declaration of Transition," in Italian Culture, Vol. II, 1982, pp. 91-102.
[In the following essay, Hallock champions "Fantasticheria" as Verga's "statement of transition" from "decadent romanticism" to the verismo school of writing.]
Of all Giovanni Verga's works, "Fantasticheria" is most singular for its special content and the scant critical attention it has received. Scholars have historically regarded it as a peripheral work in their studies of Verga's poetics or have used it in reference to their investigations of / Malavoglia. However, "Fantasticheria" does not deserve such superficial treatment, for it is a serious work of art in its own right. Moreover, it establishes the beginning of Verga's changed literary focus. In fact, the 1879 "Fantasticheria" is Verga's structural and stylistic masterpiece with which he denounces his previous voguish literary concern—decadent romanticism—and declares his return to his Sicilian roots as the source of his new orientation. As such, "Fantasticheria" is Verga's declaration of transition in the evolution of his writing.
It is easy to understand why "Fantasticheria" has not been recognized as such a crucial work in Verga's writing. On the surface it appears to be merely a superficial, appropriately-entitled reminiscence which records his memories of a brief, romantic sojourn he and an...
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SOURCE: "Verga's La Lupa: A Study in Archetypal Symbolism," in Forum Italicum, Vol. 17, No. 2, Fall, 1983, pp. 196-206.
[In the following essay, Jehenson reads "La Lupa " as a cyclical tale of classic archetypal symbolism, with the She-Wolf acting as the primordial goddess.]
In his discussion of the effectiveness of the great realistic novelists, Georg Lukács predicates two essential aspects of their art. It has a poetic quality which "manifests itself precisely in the ability to overcome the unpoetic nature of their world," and it has as its central category and criterion the literary type. By "type" Lukács means a peculiar synthesis which "organically binds together the general and the particular," thereby rendering concrete, "the peaks and limits of men and epochs." Lukács' description is especially appropriate to Giovanni Verga's novella "La lupa."
"La Lupa" or "The Shewolf is included in Verga's 1880 collection of short stories, Vita dei campi. In "The She-wolf," Verga rises above the stiflingly oppressive setting of a conventional Sicilian village by giving it the timelessness and universality of true poetry. In his description of the Shewolf herself, however, Verga goes beyond Lukács' description of the type and evokes the even more universal archetype. Thus Verga taps deep human reactions in the reader, who is moved on both conscious and the unconscious...
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SOURCE: "The Historical Imperative: Giovanni Verga and Italian Realism in the Light of Recent Critical Trends," in Neohelicon, Vol. XVI, No. 2, 1988, pp. 149-74.
[In the following essay, Lucente offers a critical overview of Verga's work as an Italian realist.]
Nineteenth century Italian realism in general (or verismo) and Giovanni Verga's works in particular have received a great deal of critical attention over the past three decades. From the biographically and thematically oriented idealist treatments of the 1950s and 1960s through the post-1968 Marxist reinterpretations of the 1970s, Verga criticism has remained in the forefront of Italian literary debates. This has been the case in large part because of the representational slant of verismo's aesthetic and because of the extraordinary complexity that any adequate theory of literary representation necessarily involves.
In recent years, two trends have dominated Verga studies: on the one hand, an interest in textual criticism, in the establishing and re-editing of Verga's major texts; and on [the] other an interest in the details of Verga's historical milieu, in recapturing the nineteenth century Sicilian environment that Verga's realist narratives endeavor, in literary terms, to re-create. While the first of these trends is a matter of editorial refinement within Verga studies, the second, in its openly historicizing...
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Alexander, Alfred. Giovanni Verga. London: Grant & Cutler, 1972, 252 p.
Biography compiled with the assistance of Verga's nephew; includes letters and photographs.
Cattaneo, Giulio. Verga. Torino: UTET, 1963.
An Italian monograph regarded by many scholars as the definitive Verga biography.
Biasin, Gian-Paolo. "The Sicily of Verga and Sciascia." Italian Quarterly 9, Nos. 34-5 (Summer-Fall 1965): 3-22.
Discusses the region of Sicily as portrayed in Verga's stories. Biasin calls Verga "the first and best writer who brought his native land to the fore."
Cecchetti, Giovanni. Giovanni Verga. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978, 172 p.
Critical study of the author's work by a noted scholar in Verga studies. Cecchetti includes a selected bibliography.
De Vito, Anthony J. "Politics and History in the Work of Giovanni Verga." Forum Italicum III, No. 3 (September 1969): 386-403.
Identifies correspondences between political references in Verga's work and contemporary political events in Italy.
Erickson, John D. "A Milanese Tale by Giovanni Verga." Symposium XX, No. 1 (Spring 1966): 7-12.
A stylistic and thematic study of "L'ultima giornata" ("The Last Day")....
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