Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1181
In the village of Trezza, on the island of Sicily, the Malavoglia family was once great. Now the only Malavoglias left are Padron ’Ntoni and his little brood in the house by the medlar tree. Nevertheless, they are happy and prosperous, living well on the income brought in by their boat, the Provvidenza.
When the oldest grandson, ’Ntoni, is conscripted, the first sadness falls on the household. In that same year, other things go badly, and the market for fish is poor. With ’Ntoni gone, the money that comes in has to be divided with extra help that Padron is forced to hire. Eventually, Padron ’Ntoni has to arrange a loan with Uncle Crucifix Dumbbell to buy a shipment of coarse black beans on credit from him. The beans are to be resold at Riposto by Padron’s son, Bastianazzo. Although La Longa, Bastianazzo’s wife, is skeptical of this deal, she keeps quiet, as she is expected to do. Soon afterward, Bastianazzo sails away on the Provvidenza with the cargo of beans aboard. All the villagers whisper that the beans are spoiled, and that Uncle Crucifix cheated the Malavoglia family. It is well known that Uncle Crucifix is an old fox in all money matters.
If the beans are sold, Padron ’Ntoni’s family will be well off. The man whose son is to marry Mena Malavoglia eagerly anticipates his boy’s good fortune. The women of the village, and others, too, agree that Mena is everything a woman should be, but luck goes against the Malavoglia family. In the early evening, a huge storm comes up. Down at the tavern, Don Michele, the brigadier of the coast guard, predicts the doom of the Provvidenza. When word comes that the boat is lost, and Bastianazzo with her, grief engulfs the Malavoglia family. To add to their troubles, Uncle Crucifix begins to demand his money. All the neighbors who bring gifts of condolence to the house by the medlar tree look about the premises as if they see Uncle Crucifix already in possession.
Padron ’Ntoni and his family stubbornly set to work to repay the loan. It is decided to have Mena marry as soon as possible. Alfio Mosca, who drives a donkey cart and often lingers to talk with the young woman, is grieved at the news. One day, the Provvidenza, battered but still usable, is towed into port. The Malavoglias rejoice. At the same time, ’Ntoni arrives home. Luca, the second son, is drafted. Each member of the family slaves to make enough money to repay the debt.
Uncle Crucifix is fiercely repeating his demands. At last, he decides to pretend to sell his debt to his assistant, Goosefoot; then, when officers are sent to Padron ’Ntoni’s house, people cannot say that a usurer or the devil’s money was involved in their troubles. A short time later, a stamped paper is served on the Malavoglia family. Frightened, they go to a city lawyer, who tells them that Uncle Crucifix can do nothing to them because the house is in the name of the daughter-in-law, and she did not sign the papers in the deal of beans. Padron ’Ntoni feels guilty, however; he borrowed the money and it must be paid back. When he asks advice from the communal secretary, the official tells him that the daughter-in-law must give dower rights on the house to Goosefoot, who is now the legal owner of the note. Although Goosefoot protests that he wants his money, he nevertheless accepts a mortgage.
As the family members gather money to repay the loan, luck again goes against them. New taxes are put on pitch and salt, two necessary commodities, and personal relations between Goosefoot and the family are strained when he and young ’Ntoni come to blows over a woman. In the village, there is talk of smugglers, and the rumors involve two of ’Ntoni’s close friends. Goosefoot enlists the aid of Don Michele to watch ’Ntoni closely.
When Mena’s betrothal is announced, Alfio Mosca sadly leaves town. Padron ’Ntoni, happy over the approaching marriage of his granddaughter, offers Goosefoot part of the money on the loan. Goosefoot, however, demands all of it and refuses to be moved by the fact that Mena needs a dowry. To add to these troubles, the Malavoglia family members learn that Luca was killed in the war. Goosefoot begins again to send stamped papers. When Padron ’Ntoni appeals to the lawyer, he is told that he was a fool to let La Longa give up her dower rights in the house, but that nothing can be done about the matter now. The family has to leave the house by the medlar tree and move into a rented hovel.
Somewhat repaired and on a fishing excursion, the Provvidenza runs into a storm. When Padron ’Ntoni is injured by a blow from the falling mast, young ’Ntoni has to bring the boat in alone. After the old man recovers, ’Ntoni announces his decision to leave home; he can no longer stand the backbreaking, dull work of his debt-ridden family. His mother, grief-stricken by his departure, contracts cholera and soon dies. Meanwhile, Mena’s engagement has been called off by her betrothed’s father. Everything is against the Malavoglias. Goosefoot and Uncle Crucifix give the family no rest, but insist that they, too, are poor and need their money.
When young ’Ntoni returns to his home with no fortune and clothing more ragged than ever, the villagers laugh with derision. Alessio, the youngest son, now begins to help with the work, and he and ’Ntoni are able to earn a little money to apply on the family debt. ’Ntoni, still discontented, is often drunk coming home from the tavern.
Don Michele tells the boy’s young sister Lia, whom he secretly admires, that she and Mena must keep their eyes on ’Ntoni, because he is involved with the smugglers. Although the frightened women plead with their brother, he refuses to listen to them. One night, Don Michele knocks at Lia’s door and tells her that she must find her brother, for the police are planning to ambush the smugglers. His warning comes too late for the sisters to act, and ’Ntoni is caught after he stabs Don Michele in a scuffle during the raid.
Padron ’Ntoni spends all of his savings in an attempt to rescue his grandson. Then he is told a false version of the incident, that ’Ntoni stabbed Don Michele because he learned of an affair between the soldier and Lia. The old man is so horrified by this news that he suffers a stroke, from which he never completely recovers. Lia leaves home immediately, without attempting to make known the true facts of the case, and young ’Ntoni is sent to the galleys for five years.
Under the direction of the youngest son, Alessio, the affairs of the family gradually mend. Uncle Crucifix and Goosefoot finally get their money, and Alessio and his bride regain possession of the house by the medlar tree.