The Leopard (Critical Evaluation)
The fundamental theme of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard is death—the death of a civilization, of an era, and, eventually, of the hero of the novel. From the novel’s opening line, taken from the traditional “Ave Maria” prayer, the narrative moves through a series of passages that describe various declines. The novel’s first scene begins with Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae (Now and in the hour of our death) and takes place in the hero’s palace near Palermo. The drawing room’s decor, a mélange of rococo style and Roman mythology, offers an odd backdrop for a Christian service, but the contradictions inherent in this scene set the tone for the narrative’s basic themes.
The novel’s story encompasses some twenty-eight years in the lives of Sicily, the new united Italy, and Prince Don Fabrizio Corbera, who is a transitional figure himself, a symbol of the old order’s reaction to the new world. Don Fabrizio, like Sicily and Italy, is a tangle of paradoxes. He is proud, conscious of his aristocratic heritage, a cultivated, sensitive, and sensuous man who regrets seeing the past give way to the future. At the same time, he realizes that change and death are inevitable and inescapable; if he is unable to summon great enthusiasm for the new Italy, he nevertheless accepts the transformations that are taking place in the country, in his family, and in himself as he ages.
Don Fabrizio finds comfort in his sons, in his nephew Tancredi, and in the stars. As an amateur astronomer, Don Fabrizio has gained a certain amount of notoriety; moreover, his research satisfies his need for stability amid the flux he sees around him on earth. Beyond his sons, his nephew, and the stars, he finds little of interest or fulfillment. His onetime passion for his wife—ironically named Maria Stella (Mary Star)—has long since faded into quiet affection and occasional mild contempt. Much of the novel, therefore, concerns how Don Fabrizio reacts to the changes in Sicily and the ways in which Tancredi adapts to the new society and its conditions.
Early in the novel’s first chapter, there appears a symbol that establishes the tone of what is taking place in Sicily and foreshadows some of the tragedy that befalls Don Fabrizio. He and his villa caretakers discover, in a grove of trees on Don Fabrizio’s estate, the body of a young soldier who had been wounded in a skirmish with Garibaldi’s rebels. In its state of ugly decomposition, the...
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