(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

As Ignazio Silone’s novel Bread and Wine opens, Don Benedetto, a Catholic priest, is sitting outside his modest home. It is his seventy-fifth birthday, and he is awaiting the arrival of some former students to celebrate the occasion. Don Benedetto is a socialist in the Fascist Italy of the early 1930’s, and he refuses to seek any accommodation with the regime. Talk of a new war of imperial expansion in Africa is in the air.

Three former students arrive. Each has found a place in the new social order, and the priest reflects sadly on the moral compromises people make to survive. Then talk turns to a former pupil and classmate, Pietro Spina, who has not compromised. As a student he was idealistic, compassionate, and fiercely committed to justice. He became a socialist and was later exiled to various places in Europe, where he lived and labored under wretched conditions. He is rumored to have returned recently to Italy, to work on behalf of the communists.

The scene shifts to Spina’s home village, to which, in fact, he has returned. He is seriously ill and is being hidden by a former comrade. When he is able to move, Spina leaves the village disguised as a priest with the name Don Paulo Spada. As Don Paulo, Spina sets off for the mountain village of Pietrosecca in the Abruzzi area. On the way, he comes across Bianchina, a young, unmarried woman apparently dying of complications from an abortion and in mental agony from fear of eternal damnation. Moved by compassion, “Don Paulo” tells her that all is forgiven.

The next day Don Paulo travels to an inn in Pietrosecca, where he hopes the mountain air will contribute to his recovery. Life in Pietrosecca is extremely hard; the peasants are poor, intensely superstitious, and politically naïve, and they are without hope of any change in their condition. There is only one family of any material substance, the Colamartini family. The miraculously revived Bianchina arrives in Pietrosecca, seeking the compassionate priest who saved her life, believing him to be a saint or perhaps Jesus. While they talk, Cristina Colamartini arrives, and the two young women recognize each other as former classmates. A complex relationship develops between Don Paolo and the two women. Bianchina is...

(The entire section is 927 words.)

Bread and Wine Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In the Italian village of Rocca dei Marsi, Don Benedetto, a former Catholic teacher, and his faithful sister, Marta, prepare to observe the don’s seventy-fifth birthday. It is April, and war with the Abyssinians is in the making. Benedetto invites several of his old students to observe his anniversary with him. Three appear, and the group talks of old acquaintances. Most of Benedetto’s students compromised the moral precepts that the high-minded old scholar taught them. Benedetto asks about Pietro Spina, his favorite pupil, and learns from his guests that the independent-minded Spina is a political agitator, a man without a country. It is rumored that Spina returned to Italy to carry on his work among the peasants.

One day Doctor Nunzio Sacca, one of those who was at the party, is summoned by a peasant to come to the aid of a sick man. Sacca, upon finding the man to be Spina, is filled with fear, but the sincerity and fervor of Spina make him ashamed. Spina, only in his thirties, used iodine to transform his features to those of an old man. Sacca administers to Spina and arranges for the agitator’s convalescence in a nearby mountain village. Later, he furnishes Spina with clerical clothes. Disguised as a priest and calling himself Don Paolo Spada, Spina goes to the Hotel Girasole in Fossa, where he brings comfort to a young woman who is believed to be dying as the result of an abortion.

In the mountains, at Pietrasecca, Paolo—as Spina calls himself—stays at the inn of Matelena Ricotta. In his retreat, Paolo begins to have doubts concerning the value of the life he is leading, but the brutal existence of the peasants of Pietrasecca continue to spur him on in his desire to free the oppressed people.

Bianchina Girasole, the woman whom Paolo comforted at Fossa, appears, well and healthy. Attributing her survival to Paolo, she says that the man is surely a saint. Disowned by her family, Bianchina goes to Cristina Colamartini, a school friend who lives in Pietrasecca. The two women, discussing school days and old friends, conclude that most of their schoolmates took to ways of evil in one way or another. When Bianchina seduces Cristina’s brother, Alberto, the Colamartinis are scandalized. Paolo lost his respect for Cristina, who shows only too plainly that her devotion to God excludes all reason and any humanity; she avows that a Colamartini can never marry a Girasole because of difference in caste.

Paolo begins to visit more frequently among the peasants. Soon he has a reputation as a wise and friendly priest. In his association with those simple people, he learns that no reformer can ever hope to be successful with them by use of abstractions; the peasants accept only facts, either good or bad. He leaves the valley. At Fossa, he again seeks out potential revolutionary...

(The entire section is 1153 words.)