Critical Evaluation

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 941

Ignazio Silone, Italy’s chief novelist of the 1930’s and 1940’s, was attracted to communism in the 1920’s, but by 1930 he became disillusioned with the party’s hypocrisy and tyranny. Bread and Wine, his best novel, which was first published in German, is in part a study in political disillusionment. The novel reveals that reaction to social injustice is at the root of Silone’s impulse to write fiction. He has said, “for me writing has not been, and never could be except in a few favored moments of peace, a serene aesthetic enjoyment, but rather the painful continuation of a struggle.”

The central question in Bread and Wine is whether one can satisfy the demands of the soul and of social betterment at the same time. At the beginning of the novel, Pietro Spina is a full-fledged political propagandist and organizer for the Communists. He opposes the private ownership of land and he seems to believe that the world’s wealth will eventually be shared equally. Forced to hide and rest in an out-of-the-way village in the garb of a priest, he begins to change his views. He asks himself whether he has not lost his sincerity in his wholehearted pursuit of party ideology. He asks whether he has not fled “the opportunism of a decadent church to fall into the Machiavellianism of a sect?” In his self-examination, the question of good faith is paramount. Political action in Silone’s belief demands as much honesty and composure of soul as does a true religious vocation.

Two factors in particular contribute to Spina’s change. The first is his assumption of the role of Don Paolo. As a priest, people come to him in trust, and his own instinctive love of truth and justice is, ironically, rekindled. The second has to do with the peasants he encounters and the region in which they live. The Abruzzi region is central in Silone’s fiction. It is bleak and poverty-stricken, but its peasants are tough and basic. They and their land bring Spina back to the basic problems governing the individual’s relationships with others.

Spina’s problem can be put another way: As he becomes more and more influenced by his role as Don Paolo, he must not lose sight of Pietro Spina. He must keep Don Paolo and Spina together and integrated. His old schoolteacher Don Benedetto helps him here. Don Benedetto has moral authority and candor. His advice to Spina confirms him in his way. His death is a further sign to Spina that he must not back away from social problems. In his dialogues with Cristina Colamartini, Spina is also confirmed in his spiritual change. She, too, is sacrificed at the end of the novel. For Silone, such sacrifices are necessary to the pursuit of political justice and spiritual wholeness.

Two scenes in particular reveal Pietro’s independence and help to define his rejection of party politics. In the first scene, Pietro refuses to follow the party line as enunciated by a character named Battipaglia. He points out that if he conforms to an edict in which he does not believe, he will be committing the same sin of which the Communists accuse the Fascists. The second scene follows directly after the first and is really a continuation of the argument begun in the first. Uliva, an old friend of Pietro, says he already foresees the corruption of their movement into orthodoxy and tyranny. The enthusiastic ideas they had as students have hardened into official doctrine. The party cannot stand any deviation, even if it leads to the truth. Uliva’s disillusionment is great: “Against this pseudolife, weighed down by pitiless laws,” he cries out, “the only weapon left to man’s free will is antilife, the destruction of life itself.” Later, he is killed in his apartment by a bomb that police evidence shows he meant for high government officials gathered in a church. This is his physical end, but he really was destroyed by the dialectical process. Between Battipaglia’s cynical rigidity and Uliva’s honest but misguided nihilism, Spina must find a way to perpetuate the cause. He succeeds because his faith cannot dry up and because he is able to pass on his belief to two or three others. The process of simple communion replaces the idea of the Communist state, and the revolutionary spirit is saved. Silone’s communism is the primitive communism of early Christianity. Poverty is its badge of honesty, and its heroes are men who travel in disguise from place to place looking for kindred souls. They like to listen to peasants and simple people rather than to the learned.

In a scene that is repeated throughout Silone’s work, Spina meets one such man and says he wants to talk with him. The man proves to be a deaf mute, but that does not prevent Spina from communicating with him. Indeed, it is the wordless nature of their communication that is important, for words can neither confuse nor betray them. Their spiritual communion is the most solid base on which to build a relationship. Spiritual communication is, Silone seems to be saying, the one thing absolutely necessary for successful political action, the only thing which should never be betrayed.

The humanistic basis of Silone’s politics is stated most fully by Spina when he says to Uliva, “man doesn’t really exist unless he’s fighting against his own limits.” At the end of Bread and Wine, the spirit of clandestine rebellion is abroad in the land. As in early Christian times, the history of martyrdoms and miracles has begun.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access