Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1164

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The Betrothed, one of the world’s great historical novels, established its author as the leading Italian Romantic novelist of the nineteenth century. It is the work of Alessandro Manzoni, and The Betrothed in particular, that raised Italian fiction from the low estate to which it had fallen and made it, in the nineteenth century, assume a high place in European fiction. The simple, adventurous story that Manzoni tells has captivated readers ever since it first appeared. In the best tradition of historical fiction, Manzoni presents many facets of life and culture in Milan during the 1620’s, when much of Italy was under Spanish domination. In this novel, there are not only peasants and villainous nobles, who are the chief characters, but also the bravos, citizens, nuns, petty officials, churchmen, and scores of other types typical of seventeenth century Italy.

The complex and involuted history of Manzoni’s revisions of his work and the drama of his artistic self-consciousness in their elaboration are as Romantic, in essence, as the story itself. The Betrothed underwent its first massive revision from 1823, the date of its first completion, until its eventual publication in 1827 as Fermo e Lucia, a revision overseen by the author’s friend and adviser, Flauriel. The revision witnessed changes in the names and roles of most of the major characters, the modification of their motivation and psychology, and the excision of numerous digressions, such as the story of Gertrude, as well as endless linguistic and stylistic changes. Nevertheless, a second major revision of the retitled novel took place between its publication as Fermo e Lucia and its definitive form as I promessi sposi, which reflects not only Manzoni’s concern about such issues as the work’s commitment to doctrinal and historical truth but also his scrupulousness toward the language of the novel, down to its spelling, typography, and punctuation. The work underwent changes not only from edition to edition but also from copy to copy within the edition as whole pages were removed and reinserted. It would seem that the arbitrariness of time, more than artistic inevitability, governed the novel’s final form. Manzoni did not stop revising it until he died.

Manzoni’s Milan is alive with new ideas largely imported from France but lacks commanding figures to propound them. Milanese culture was undergoing a tumultuous change from the ideals of the Enlightenment to those of Romanticism, as the last waves of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era ebbed. The Italians of Manzoni’s time were painfully aware of their disunity, which found its most potent symbol in the absence of a national language. The creation of this national language became one of Manzoni’s goals in writing The Betrothed, and both literary and ethical concerns would converge on it. The novel demanded a language that would be current, literary, and rich enough to express the most profound values and ideas of seventeenth century Italy. The language also needed to remain accessible to the common reader, for whom it was intended. Manzoni found this language in Florentine during his 1827 sojourn in Florence. Thus began the linguistic revision that would eliminate from his novel the archaisms, stilted literary language, and regionalisms that impeded his goal for a national language.

Many of Manzoni’s revisions illustrate his personal rejection of the Enlightenment literary tradition and his espousal of Romanticism. The first version of The Betrothed yokes much of the picaresque violence of Voltaire to the rustic idylls popular at the time. These passages were fated for early excision. Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) replaced the influence of Voltaire’s Candide (1759) in the later versions. Scott’s conception of the use of poetic invention for a better understanding of history impressed Manzoni. However, history in Scott’s work is essentially the picturesque background for tales of adventure, but in Manzoni’s it becomes the means to an essentially moral end: understanding the limits of human freedom in the struggle between good and evil, and the particular nature of that struggle in a given age. Manzoni made the historical novel illuminate the nature of being in the world; the novel concerns itself with particular men and women and with minutely studied historical situations. If Manzoni appears obtuse about the larger historical and political implications of a major event, such as, for example, the siege of Casale, it is largely because of his concern with the individual.

Manzoni’s Romanticism and his Catholicism dictated the democratic ends and themes of the work. The novel is for and about the humble folk of the world—artisans, peasants, and laborers. Such an audience conditioned both the choice of spoken Florentine as the language of the novel as well as the characterization of the protagonists. They represent their class well in their spontaneity, naturalness, thirst for justice, and sincere religiosity. By making the poor the heroes of moral struggle, Manzoni shows that they need not merely suffer history, but, by realizing the Christian message, create it. The social and ethical struggle of the work is accordingly the central struggle of Christianity: the struggle between pride and humility. In Christianity, Adam falls in pride and, in so doing, damns humanity, which has to await its redemption in the humble Christ. In The Betrothed, pride is represented by Don Rodrigo and the Governor of Milan, whose lives are circumscribed by an irrationality that their high positions seem to impose on them. This is typified by their code of honor, which leads them to seek Lorenzo’s destruction. Humility is virtually personified by Lorenzo, Lucia, and Fra Cristoforo, who realize in their lives the values of gentleness, charity, and brotherhood. On a higher level, the struggle between pride and humility translates itself for Manzoni into the struggle between the oppressive Austrians and the subjugated Italians.

Criticism of The Betrothed centered about the degree to which the novel can be said to create new values and meanings that are not reducible to a simplistic catechism. The question for critics has often been, then, whether the novel does or does not have a Christian moral. An event such as the conversion of the Un-named would then display the violence of the miraculous on the development of plot and character. Others have argued that it is the extraordinary coherence of character that is at issue, since the Un-named’s fear of death and damnation conform perfectly to his previous behavior and virtually assure his conversion. Manzoni’s choice of weak characters such as Don Abbondio and ultimately perhaps the Un-named himself sets into relief Manzoni’s concern with the loneliness of moral choice. The authorial voice that tells the story and is aware of its outcome is unavailable to the character who must make his choice in anxiety. Manzoni’s Christianity may moralize reality and offer itself as the ultimate key to the understanding of human nature, but it does so only in the end; the novel is also artistically whole, independent of Christian doctrine.