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
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. His earlier imagination, naturally, went out into the great world.
The family of the future author lived chiefly at Catania, the seaport of east Sicily, under Etna. And Catania was really Verga's home town, just as Vizzini was his home village.
But as a young man of twenty he already wanted to depart into the bigger world of "the Continent," as the Sicilians called the mainland of Italy. .. . A true provincial, he had to try to enter the beau monde. He lived by journalism, more or less: certainly the Vizzini lands would not keep him in affluence. But still, in his comparative poverty, he must enter the beau monde.
He did so: and apparently, with a certain success. And for nearly twenty years he lived in Milan, in Florence, in Naples, writing, and imagining he was fulfilling his thirst for glory by having love-affairs with elegant ladies: most elegant ladies, as he assures us.
To this period belong the curiously unequal novels of the city world: Eva, Tigre Reale, Eros. They are interesting, alive, bitter, somewhat unhealthy, smelling of the 'seventies and of the Paris of the Goncourts, and, in some curious way, abortive. The man had not found himself. He was in his wrong element, fooling himself and being fooled by show, in a true Italian fashion.
Then, towards the age of forty, came the recoil, and the Cavalleria Rusticana volume is the first book of the recoil. It was a recoil away from the beau monde and the "Continent," back to Sicily, to Catania, to the peasants. . . .
Cavalleria Rusticana marks a turning-point in the man's life. Verga still looks back to the city elegance, and makes such a sour face over it, it is really funny. The sketch he calls "Fantasticheria" ("Caprice") and the last story in the book, "Il Come, il Quando, et il Perchè" ("The How, When, and Wherefore") both deal with the elegant little lady herself. The sketch "Caprice" we may take as autobiographical—the story not entirely so. But we have enough data to go on.
The elegant little lady is the same, pretty, spoilt, impulsive, emotional, but without passion. The lover, Polidori, is only half-sketched. But evidently he is a passionate man who thinks he can play at love and then is mortified to his very soul because he finds it is only a game. The tone of mortification is amusingly evident both in the sketch and in the story. Verga is profoundly and everlastingly offended with the little lady, with all little ladies, not for taking him absolutely seriously as an amorous male, when all the time he doesn't quite take himself seriously, and doesn't take the little lady seriously at all.
Nevertheless, the moment of sheer roused passion is serious in the man: and apparently not so in the woman. Each time the moment comes, it involves the whole nature of the man and does not involve the whole nature of the woman: she still clings to her social safeguards. It is the difference between a passionate nature and an emotional nature. But then the man goes out deliberately to make love to the emotional elegant woman who is truly social and not passionate. So he has only himself to blame if his passionate nose is out of joint.
It is most obviously out of joint. His little picture of the elegant little lady jingling her scent-bottle and gazing in nervous anxiety for the train from Catania which will carry her away from Aci-Trezza and her too-intense lover, back to her light, gay, secure world on the mainland is one of the most amusingly biting things in the literature of love. How glad she must have been to get away from him! And how bored she must have been by his preaching the virtues of the humble poor, holding them up before her to make her feel small. We may be sure she didn't feel small, only nervous and irritable. For apparently she had no deep warmth or generosity of nature.
So Verga recoiled to the humble poor, as we see in his "Caprice" sketch. Like a southerner, what he did he did wholesale. Floods of savage and tragic pity he poured upon the humble fisherfolk of Aci-Trezza, whether they asked for it or not;—partly to spite the elegant little lady. And this particular flood spreads over the whole of his long novel concerning the fisherfolk of Aci-Trezza: I Malavoglia. It is a great novel, in spite of the pity: but always in spite of it.
In Cavalleria Rusticana, however, Verga had not yet come to the point of letting loose his pity. He is still too much and too profoundly offended, as a passionate male. He recoils savagely away from the sophistications of the city life of elegant little ladies, to the peasants in their most crude and simple, almost brute-like aspect.
When one reads, one after the other, the stories of Turiddu, La Lupa, Jeli, Brothpot, Rosso Malpelo, one after the other, stories of crude killing, it seems almost too much, too crude, too violent, too much a question of mere brutes.
As a matter of fact, the judgment is unjust. Turiddu is not a brute: neither is Alfio. Both are men of sensitive and even honourable nature. Turiddu knows he is wrong, and would even let himself be killed, he says, but for the thought of his old mother. The elegant Maria and her Erminia are never so sensitive and direct in expressing themselves; nor so frankly warm-hearted.
As for Jeli, who could call him a brute? or Nanni? or Brothpot? They are perhaps not brutal enough. They are too gentle and forbearing, too delicately naïve. And so grosser natures trespass on them unpardonably; and the revenge flashes out.
His contemporaries abused Verga for being a realist of the Zola school. The charge is unjust. The base of the charge against Zola is that he made his people too often merely physical-functional arrangements, physically and materially functioning without any "higher" nature. The charge against Zola is often justifiable. It is completely justifiable against the earlier D'Annunzio. In fact, the Italian tends on the one hand to be this creature of physical-functionary activity and nothing else, spasmodically sensual and materialist; hence the violent Italian outcry against the portrayal of such creatures, and D'Annunzio's speedy transition to neurotic Virgins of the Rocks and ultra-refinements.
But Verga's people are always people in the purest sense of the word. They are not intellectual, but then neither was Hector nor Ulysses intellectual. Verga, in his recoil, mistrusted everything that smelled of sophistication. He had a passion for the most naïve, the most unsophisticated manifestation of human nature. He was not seeking the brute, the animal man, the so-called cave-man. Far from it. He knew already too well that the brute and the caveman lie quite near under the skin of the ordinary successful man of the world. There you have the predatory caveman of vulgar imagination, thinly hidden under expensive cloth.
What Verga's soul yearned for was the purely naïve human being, in contrast to the sophisticated. It seems as if Sicily, in some way, under all her amazing forms of sophistication and corruption, still preserves some flower of pure human candour: the same thing that fascinated Theocritus. Theocritus was an Alexandrine courtier, singing from all his umusk and insolence" of the pure idyllic Sicilian shepherds. Verga is the Theocritus of the nineteenth century, born among the Sicilian shepherds, and speaking of them in prose more sadly than Theocritus, yet with some of the same eternal Sicilian dawn-freshness in his vision. It is almost bitter to think that Rosso Malpelo must often have looked along the coast and seen the rocks that the Cyclops flung at Ulysses; and that Jeli must some time or other have looked to the yellow temple-ruins of Girgenti.
Verga was fascinated, after his mortification in the beau monde, by pure naïveté and by the spontaneous passion of life, that spurts beyond all convention or even law. Yet as we read, one after the other, of these betrayed husbands killing the co-respondents, it seems a little mechanical. Alfio, Jeli, Brothpot, Gramigna ending their life in prison: it seems a bit futile and hopeless, mechanical again.
The fault is partly Verga's own, the fault of his own obsession. He felt himself in some way deeply mortified, insulted in his ultimate sexual or male self, and he enacted over and over again the drama of revenge. We think to ourselves, ah, how stupid of Alfio, of Jeli, of Brothpot, to have to go killing a man and getting themselves shut up in prison for life, merely because the man had committed adultery with their wives. Was it worth it? Was the wife worth one year of prison, to a man, let alone a lifetime?
We ask the question with our reason, and with our reason we answer No! Not for a moment was any of these women worth it. Nowadays we have learnt more sense, and we let her go her way. So the stories are too old-fashioned.
And again, it was not for love of their wives that Jeli and Alfio and Brothpot killed the other man. It was because people talked. It was because of the fiction of "honour."—We have got beyond all that.
We are so much more reasonable. All our life is so much more reasoned and reasonable. Nous avons changé tout cela.
And yet, as the years go by, one wonders if mankind is so radically changed. One wonders whether reason, sweet reason, has really changed us, or merely delayed or diverted our reactions. Are Alfio and Jeli and Gramigna utterly out of date, a thing superseded for ever? Or are they eternal?
Is man a sweet and reasonable...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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