The House by the Medlar Tree

by Giovanni Verga

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Critical Evaluation

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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 sudden profit; they commit what may be considered an act of collective hubris by trying to gain what is beyond their proper realm. The ensuing shipwreck, in which Bastianazzo dies and the family is torn asunder, may be seen as the resultant nemesis. It is only in their working together, unquestioningly, that the family is able to survive economically and retain a portion of their former prestige and dignity in the eyes of their fellow villagers.

The struggle is long, however—too long for some of the family to bear. Young ’Ntoni is the first family member to question the struggle, and the only one to question it on a rational level. Having been conscripted, he has seen other social environments and other values while in service, and soon refutes his grandfather’s principle that only total loyalty will bring the meager success so long accepted in Trezza as the maximum hope. He abandons the family when they need him most in order to find his fortune in the world outside, thus proving himself un-Christian in the eyes of the village and committing hubris on a personal level. When he returns home in failure, he is greeted with ridicule from Trezza and openly displays antisocial behavior.

Lia likewise commits individual hubris when she acknowledges Don Michele’s attentions. He is of a superior class, so the relationship is doomed and can only end in destroying her reputation and that of her...

(This entire section contains 932 words.)

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family. Her desperation and her attraction to his material gifts, however, are overwhelming. Although she is rebelling on an emotional rather than a rational level, the result is the same as it was for young ’Ntoni—her reputation is ruined, her family is dragged further down in the eyes of Trezza, and her moral decline begins. Thus, by a family member again acting as an individual bent on individual survival, the total family unit sinks deeper into poverty and debasement.

In the end, the united efforts of the least questioning—La Longa, Mena, Luca, Alessio, and Padron ’Ntoni—reverse the trend. Lines of good and evil, reward and punishment, however, cannot be clearly drawn. La Longa dies from suffering and exhaustion. Gentle, virtuous Mena cannot marry because of her sister’s reputation. Luca is drafted and killed in a war no one in the village really knows about. Padron ’Ntoni is sent to the poorhouse in his last illness. Alessio inherits the family’s somewhat reversed fortunes, and young ’Ntoni, after serving a prison term, sets out for the world again, partly because of village ostracism and partly because he is determined again not to be strangled by life. There is no comment by Verga on his rightness or wrongness or on his chances of failure or success.

In 1881, the author wrote: [The House by the Medlar Tree] is the sincere and impartial study of how most probably the first inquietudes for well-being must be born and develop in the humblest of conditions; and what confusion and disturbance the ill-defined desire for the unknown and the realization that one is not well-off, or could at least be better off, must bring into a family which has lived until now in a relatively happy state.

Interpretation and conclusion are the right of the reader, but in The House by the Medlar Tree, Verga’s contrary purpose of almost scientific objectivity as an author must be kept continuously in mind.