The House by the Medlar Tree was planned by Giovanni Verga to be the first of five novels dealing, each in its turn, with the economic, social, and ethical aspirations of the five principal social classes in nineteenth century Italy. It is generally agreed that Verga drew the inspiration for this literary structure from the cyclical works of Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola. Only two of Verga’s five novels were finished: The House by the Medlar Tree and Mastro-don Gesualdo (1889; English translation, 1893, 1923). The former is striking for its choral presentation of human relationships, its success in achieving a poetic, eternalizing tone to realistic investigation, and its astounding objectivity. The latter makes near-perfect use of classical novel structure by depicting, in a linear manner, the inner life of one man through his outward existence.
The House by the Medlar Tree, while complete in itself, must also be considered as but one level of interest in Verga’s vast design. Despite the author’s objectivity, the central theme common to this design is that humans, no matter what their discomforts and tragedies, are ultimately better off in the position in which they are born. Portrayal of a static world, however, is not the result of such an assumption. Verga’s characters fight desperately and in infinitely different ways against the cruelty of their condition. Verga does not pronounce judgment upon their reactions: The heroic, the pathetic, and the cruel all are portrayed realistically.
The mainstream of criticism on The House by the Medlar Tree views the disintegration of the Malavoglia family somewhat in the terms of Greek tragedy. The family, headed by paterfamilias Padron ’Ntoni, who unquestioningly guides their moral, social, and economic life with ancient Sicilian proverbs, begins the novel in a state of relative success on all three levels. A familiar theme of Padron ’Ntoni’s proverbs is that prosperity is possible only when the family works completely together, at all times, and does not try for more than its due share. Strangely enough, it is he who arranges to buy the black beans on credit. Although La Longa is afraid, almost the entire family is enthusiastic about the possibility of...
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