Christ Stopped at Eboli

by Carlo Levi
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Last Updated on December 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 836

Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli is a memoir detailing Levi’s experiences living in exile in Gagliano, a town in the region of Lucania (known today as Basilicata) in southern Italy. The first chapter explains the saying that gives the book its name: there is a tradition among the people of Gagliano that Christ never came to bring Christianity to them, but only traveled as far as the town of Eboli, which is north of Gagliano. The people of Gagliano claim that they are “not Christians” because of this. Levi further explains that these people see “Christian” as equivalent to “human” and feel that they are seen as “beasts” by the rest of Italy. They are forced to “submit to the world of Christians, beyond the horizon, to carry its weight and to stand comparison with it.”

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Levi’s story begins with his arrival at the town of Gagliano in 1935. He had been arrested as a political dissident in Fascist Italy and is sent south to Gagliano in exile. Upon his arrival, he is escorted to the home of the village clerk’s sister-in-law and, because the villagers have heard that he studied medicine, is immediately asked to visit a patient. Levi initially refuses, explaining that he has not practiced medicine in years, but eventually agrees. The people of Gagliano inform Levi that there is no doctor in their town but later specify that the doctors there are not helpful. Levi cannot save the patient, who soon dies of malaria. 

The people of Gagliano live in extreme poverty and “in the presence of death.” Though the cultural differences between northern and southern Italy are well-known to Levi, Gagliano is even more unlike the rest of Italy than he anticipated; the level of poverty is shocking, and the people lack hope. 

Levi soon meets the mayor of Gagliano, Luigi Magalone, who is also the town’s elementary school teacher and in charge of political prisoners. Levi perceives that Don Luigi is eager to prove to Levi that he is “cultivated.” Don Luigi’s uncle, Dr. Milillo, is one of two doctors in town and appears to feel threatened by the arrival of a third doctor; from their first encounter, Levi perceives that Milillo is “gone completely to seed” and “no longer [has] the slightest knowledge of medicine.” Levi soon meets Gagliano’s second doctor, Dr. Gibilisco, who expresses contempt for the townspeople, demonstrates even greater ignorance than Milillo, and only cares about receiving money and food from his patients. Despite the fact that both Milillo and Gibilisco are clearly unqualified to treat the people of Gagliano, both fear that Levi will steal their clients. 

Other figures of authority in Gagliano, such as the local priest, prove to be equally as unqualified in their positions as the town’s doctors. Levi finds the culture of Gagliano to be quite different from that of northern Italy: the people’s religion, for example, is a mixture of superstition, magic, and certain elements of Catholicism. When Levi manages to find a house to live in during his time in Gagliano, he learns about the superstitions of the town through his housekeeper, Giulia. Just as they feel cut off from Christianity because “Christ stopped at Eboli,” the people of Gagliano feel they are cut off from the rest of Italy because the government in Rome is hostile to their interests. This animosity for the Italian government is not new: Levi believes they have been alienated and neglected by the government since antiquity. 

Despite the great cultural differences he perceives between the people of Gagliano and those of northern Italy, Levi is accepted by the locals and bonds with them. He had initially reassured Milillo and Gibilisco that he had no intentions of practicing medicine in the town, but he changes his mind out of compassion for the people and helps them with the knowledge and the few resources he has. The people, in turn, trust Levi more than their local doctors and support him when the town authorities threaten to imprison him if he continues to practice medicine. 

Though Levi is officially banned from practicing medicine, Don Luigi asks Levi to examine his sick child; in return for this, Don Luigi turns a blind eye to Levi’s medical practices, as long as he keeps them a secret. Levi thus continues to help the people of Gagliano, and he becomes fond of them. When he is released from his conditions of exile and allowed to return home, he leaves Gagliano with a promise to return. 

Levi concludes his memoir with an analysis of the social and economic problems he has witnessed in Gagliano. He sees Italy’s neglect of Gagliano and the poor regions of the south as representative of governments’ tendencies to ignore impoverished people in their countries. Levi asserts that political elites of all persuasions must change their attitudes toward poor and rural populations and form governments that consider and represent them.

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