Last Updated on December 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522
Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli is a personal memoir of the author’s exile to a remote part of southern Italy in 1935 for political dissidence. It is also an examination of the phenomena of extreme poverty, regional alienation, and hopelessness among neglected rural populations.
The title of the memoir refers to a popular saying among the people of Gagliano, the town where Levi spends his exile: they insist, “Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli.” Christianity, they claim, never came to their town, and as a result, they see themselves (and are seen by others) as inhuman—as “beasts of burden” or “mere creatures of the wild.” Catholic elements are not entirely absent from Gagliano, as the townspeople attend mass and decorate their houses with images of the Madonna. However, Gagliano is no Rome in terms of Catholicism: many townspeople, such as Levi’s housekeeper, Giulia, practice magic.
As Levi’s memoir progresses, it becomes apparent that it is not only Christianity that has neglected Gagliano. The Italian government, no matter who is in power at the time, has always failed to consider Italy’s disadvantaged southern regions. Even the authorities present in Gagliano fail to help the townspeople, and some demonstrate great indifference for their well-being. As a result of this neglect, Gagliano is
[another] world, hedged in by custom and sorrow, cut off from History and the State . . . [a] land without comfort or solace, where the peasant lives out his motionless civilization on barren ground in remote poverty, and in the presence of death.
Levi, a physician, painter, and writer from northern Italy, is immediately acquainted with the desperation of the people of Gagliano upon his arrival as an exile. Despite the fact that the town has two doctors, the people flock to Levi for medical care (though he has not studied medicine in years). Levi quickly realizes that both of the town’s doctors are unhelpful and unreliable, and he provides what help he can to them. He grows fond of the townspeople and is intrigued by their ways, and the people see him as a “miracle man.” Eventually, Levi receives an official order to stop practicing medicine, much to the townspeople’s dismay:
“We’re dogs,” they said to [Levi], “and in Rome they want us to die like dogs. One Christian soul took pity on us, and now they want to take him away.”
For the people of Gagliano, who have been neglected by Christianity and viewed as “beasts” by the rest of the country, Levi’s ban from practicing medicine is an outrage. The seemingly eternal hopelessness of the town comes full-circle with Levi’s ban, although the mayor eventually turns a blind eye and allows him to see patients in secret. At the end of the memoir, Levi explains that unless a fundamental change occurs in the government, and unless government authorities begin to take disadvantaged rural populations into account, towns like Gagliano will continue to suffer. Levi critiques not only Fascist Italy’s neglect of Gagliano, but also the tendency of elites and authorities everywhere to ignore rural populations throughout history.