(Essentials of European Literature)

Shortly after sunrise the bells of San Giovanni began ringing. There was a fire in the Trao house, and the village awakened to answer the summons. Through the smoke the villagers saw the frantic faces of Don Ferdinando and Don Diego, and a voice called out that there were thieves in the house as well. At the same time Don Diego called for his sister, Bianca, who was somewhere in the burning building. Mastro-don Gesualdo appeared, showing great concern for his own house nearby, and other Mottas, including Gesualdo’s brother Santo and his sister Speranza, came running both to witness the spectacle and to protect their own property.

Don Diego discovered, to his dismay, that the stranger in the house was not a thief but his sister’s lover, the young Baron Nini Rubiera. After the fire had been extinguished, Don Diego went to the baron’s mother, the Baroness Rubiera, one of the Trao relatives, and meekly requested that Nini marry Bianca. The baroness refused. Any girl who married her son, she declared, must come prepared with a large dowry. Since Bianca’s brothers were poor, though proud of their family heritage, there was no hope of convincing the baroness to change her mind. Consequently, after great persuasion, they agreed to allow Bianca to marry Gesualdo Motta, a peasant who by his cleverness in business and industry had managed to make himself a rich landowner. Gesualdo had for some time been happy with Diodata, a servant girl, as his mistress, but now he hoped to elevate himself socially by marrying one of the gentry.

The gentry were aroused to anger by the news that Gesualdo intended to bid for the communal lands at the auction for the taxes on land which had been in the hands of Baron Zacco, another of the Trao relatives. They commented that wealth, not family, was what counted in Sicily. When Mastro-don Gesualdo hesitantly attended a gathering at the Sganci house, he was welcomed into the house but put off to one side, even though it was known that he was to marry Bianca. Heartbroken, Bianca talked to the young Baron Nini about his mother’s plan to marry him to Fifi Margarone, one of the daughters of Don Filippo Margarone, the political leader in the village. Knowing that his mother’s mind was made up, the young man finally managed to escape from Bianca.

Mastro-don Gesualdo continued to work with his laborers, fulfilling contracts to build walls, roads, and bridges. As he sweated with the men and supervised their work, he thought of his father’s complaints about losing his position as the head of the family. The elder Motta, Nunzio, had even taken on contracts, using his son’s money, in order to reestablish himself as master of his house; but his ventures had been unsuccessful. Nevertheless, Nunzio continued to criticize his son’s enterprises and to make things difficult for him.

Gesualdo, returning home from work, always found faithful Diodata, who greeted him humbly and made him comfortable. When he told her of his plan to marry Bianca Trao, she replied that he was the master; it was apparent, however, that she would never be happy without him. When she was finally married off to another servant, Nani l’Orbo, the children she bore him had been fathered by Gesualdo. Nani took advantage of his position to force Gesualdo to support him with money and property.

A major blow to Gesualdo’s fortunes came when a bridge he was building under contract to the town collapsed. His father complained that the failure was Gesualdo’s fault, and the villagers who were jealous of Gesualdo’s wealth exulted over his misfortune. Only Diodata, who had not yet married Nani l’Orbo, was sympathetic.

Despite the objections of her brothers, Don Diego and Don Ferdinando, Bianca persisted in going ahead with the plan to marry Gesualdo. The brothers finally agreed, only because it was hopeless to forbid her. Bianca knew that she would never marry Baron Nini Rubiera, and she hoped that by marrying a rich man she could ease the burden on her brothers.

When the wedding was held in the old house of the La Gurna family, which Gesualdo had leased, only Donna...

(The entire section is 1690 words.)