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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1379

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First published: 1880

Type of work: Story

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century

Locale: Sicily

Principal Characters:

Turiddu Macca, a Sicilian peasant

Lola, his former sweetheart

Alfio, her husband

The Story:

When Turiddu Macca returned from soldiering, he swaggered like a hero through his tiny Sicilian village. Each Sunday, he wore his rifleman’s uniform and a red cap with a tassel that swung jauntily about his shoulders. In addition, he smoked a pipe with a figure of the king on horseback carved on the bowl. In short, he cut a dashing figure as he strutted about the town square, and the girls eyed him approvingly and longingly if they passed him on their way to or from mass. Small boys tagged at his heels and begged him to tell stories of the faraway places he had seen.

Turiddu, however, had eyes only for Lola, Master Angelo’s daughter, who had given him her handkerchief and wept many tears when he went away to be a conscript. While he was away, however, she had been betrothed to Alfio, a young carter who had four mules in his stable. Turiddu was enraged when he heard the news on his return, and he swore that he would have revenge on the man who had stolen his sweetheart. Although he lingered day after day in the neighborhood of Master Angelo’s house, Lola neither appeared on the balcony nor went to mass. Unable to speak to her, Turiddu had to content himself with singing derisive songs under her window. The neighbors began complaining instead of laughing after awhile; they felt the time had come for him to end his disruptive displays and earn money to support his widowed mother, Mistress Nunzia.

At last, Turiddu came face-to-face with Lola as she was on her way home from church. She answered his reproaches by saying that she was soon to marry Alfio. Turiddu angrily declared that their friendship was at an end.

The first Sunday after her wedding, Lola appeared on the balcony of her new home, her hands outspread against her dress so that the neighbors could see the gold rings that Alfio had given her. That show of wealth was an added insult to Turiddu, a peasant so poor that Mistress Nunzia had been forced to sell their vineyard while he was away.

In order to make Lola jealous, Turiddu went to work for Master Cola, the vine grower, whose house was directly across from Alfio’s. Before long, Turiddu was making pretty speeches to Santa, his master’s unmarried daughter. When the girl asked him pertly why he did not keep his compliments for Lola, he told her that his former sweetheart was not even fit to carry Santa’s shoes. Santa was greatly pleased by his rustic gallantry, in spite of her father’s disfavor. Every evening, after Master Cola had closed the door behind his young workman, Santa would show herself at her window and stand there talking with Turiddu until long after bedtime. Because the two houses stood so close together, Lola, loitering on her balcony night after night, overheard Turiddu’s protestations of love to Santa, just as he had intended.

One day, Lola was unable to control herself any longer and called down to ask her old lover why he no longer greeted her as a friend. At the time, Alfio was away showing his mules at country fairs. Turiddu gave the watchful neighbors, especially Santa, much to gossip about when he went to see Lola in secret during her husband’s absence. Santa was jealous and closed her window in his face.

When Alfio returned home, he brought Lola a new dress to wear on feast days. Santa met him and scoffed at the fine gift. She said that Lola had been seeing Turiddu Macca at night while her husband was away.

Now that Alfio was back, Turiddu no longer loitered near Lola’s balcony. Disconsolate, he spent his days and nights carousing with his friends at the tavern. On Easter eve, Alfio went to the inn, where Turiddu and his friends were feasting. When Alfio refused the wine offered him, Turiddu knew that they must fight. The two men solemnly exchanged the kiss which was Alfio’s challenge to a duel, and Turiddu bit the carter’s ear as a sign that he would meet his rival in mortal combat. They agreed to fight at sunrise in a thicket of prickly pears not far from the village.

That night Turiddu told his mother that he might be going on another long journey. He took the old clasp knife which he had hidden under the straw when he went soldiering and started off down the road before daybreak. Mistress Nunzia, who had risen early with the excuse of feeding her chickens, watched him go. Meanwhile, Alfio had left Lola in tears, for she realized what her husband intended and that she was to blame.

The two arrived at the appointed meeting place at sunrise. Turiddu frankly admitted that he was in the wrong and deserved to die. He declared, however, that he intended to kill Alfio like a dog, in order to spare his mother more grief and tears. The carter threw off his coat and dared Turiddu to strike his hardest with his knife. Turiddu took the first thrust in his arm before be stabbed Alfio in the groin. The wounded carter told Turiddu to open his eyes wide so that he would be ready for the next blow. Then Alfio picked up a handful of dust and threw it into his rival’s face. Blinded, Turiddu shouted and leaped backward. While he was groping for his enemy, Alfio stabbed him in the stomach and the throat.

Mortally wounded, Turiddu fell among the prickly pears. With blood gurgling from his throat, he died before he could call his mother’s name.

Critical Evaluation:

Ironically, Giovanni Verga’s greatest strengths as an artist, as well as his limitations, lie in his immersion in the life and spirit of Sicily. Verga was spiritually and emotionally molded by his Sicilian upbringing; and although throughout his literary career he made repeated attempts to shift his focus and widen the range of his subject matter, he ultimately realized that his true genius lay in his capacity to explore the hearts of his Sicilian countrymen. The problem, however, was that, over the course of years, this single theme proved limited; after Verga had revealed every aspect of the life he knew so well in depth and with great insight and sensitivity, nothing remained but to reiterate the theme and recast the old story in superficially new ways.

Verga’s story “Cavalleria Rusticana” represents the author’s talent at its best. The simple story, of a basically good-hearted but rather weak-minded young man swept by jealousy into passions he cannot control or understand, is a familiar one; in Verga’s hands, the tale achieves heights of emotional intensity yet remains starkly simple in its powerful realism. Characters and land alike come to life through the carefully observed and meticulously recorded detail. Particularly apparent in “Cavalleria Rusticana” is the author’s deep love for humanity and especially for the poor and ignorant, the helpless and suffering.

Also representative of Verga’s outlook is the feeling of powerlessness which pervades the story: Behind all the events and characterizations lies a pessimistic resignation, a sense of destiny, a conviction that events in man’s life are not subject to his free choice. This fatalistic vision, however, does not evince an emotional response from the author; his tone is always strictly objective and calm—sad perhaps but unresentful.

In “Cavalleria Rusticana,” as in all of Verga’s fiction, there is no mention of God—although the author was born and died a Catholic—and no attempt to personalize the external forces responsible for man’s essentially tragic situation. Likewise, there is no concept of sin in the story; man is not to be blamed for his actions, which are inevitable but pitied. Turiddu and the other peasants command the reader’s sympathy because they are not guilty of willful crimes so much as they are victimized by passions larger than they can comprehend.