*Trezza. Village on the east coast of Sicily. Verga’s family saga could only take place in a village as claustrophobic and as removed from the opportunities offered by the broader world as Trezza. There, superstition motivates action more strongly than the nominal Roman Catholic religion. Villagers all know one another and know each other’s family histories. They wrest their livings from land and sea, and the novel presents details of their daily work realistically. The very repetitiveness of the descriptions conveys the monotony of existence in the village.
Villagers thrive in good times and almost perish in evil ones. Members of families work together to pay their debts and provide dowries for their daughters. Marriage is sometimes for love but more often because of family needs. Some strive to rise above their class and discover how impossible this is. When one member of the Malavoglia family commits an act of violence and runs afoul of the law, the entire family is stigmatized. Even the innocent are defeated because of the bad reputation of one family member. Neighbors gossip and foretell misfortune. Honor must be upheld at any human cost.
Uncle Crucifix, the local usurer, is a known cheat with whom villagers must nevertheless conduct business. Padron ’Ntoni, the Malavoglia patriarch, slaves to repay a loan. His life is guided by the wisdom of ancient Sicilian proverbs. A younger Malavoglia serves a prison term. A daughter sacrifices herself by leaving home when she brings disgrace upon her family. The tragedy of the Malavoglia family is that of limited possibilities, and the village is one of the reasons their possibilities are limited.
A real Sicilian village, approximately ten miles north of Catania, modern Trezza is overrun by tourists who savor its quaint charm. In Verga’s time, the village was more remote, a hinterland of Western civilization, though still in Sicily, an island associated with pastoral poetry since antiquity.
*Sicily. Island off the southern tip of the Italian peninsula, which, while an integral part of modern Italy, has a distinctive history and culture of its own. The island is a real presence throughout The House by the Medlar Tree. Verga knew well its loneliness, isolation, and sometimes hostile face, and he never forgot the courage and dignity of its people. The sense of humans at the mercy of fate—or naturalistic determinism—is especially strong in his Sicilian stories. In this novel and in his other writings, he developed a standard Italian diction that echoes in every sentence the rhythms of the Sicilian dialect, a tongue which itself has a substantial poetic literature. This is sparse, dignified writing, resembling classical tragedy in some ways. Verga founded a school of southern Italian writing that is not unlike “southern schools” in the United States and elsewhere.
Deeply influenced by the writings of Émile Zola and Zola’s belief in the effects of environment and heredity, Verga was nevertheless an inverted romantic. He admired the Sicilian code of honor and the eloquence and courtliness of the island’s people. He respected the hard work and strength of character that enabled Sicilians to endure poverty and whatever the fates that brooded over the land sent.
Medlar tree. Tree growing beside the Malavoglia house in Trezza that symbolizes the family, whose roots go deep into the Sicilian soil and who—like the tree—are dependent upon the erratic elements of nature for their survival. (A member of the rose family, the medlar produces a fruit resembling crab apples that is used in making preserves.)
Alexander, Alfred. Giovanni Verga: A Great Writer...
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and His World. London: Grant & Cutler, 1972. Critical study aimed at providing English-speaking readers an introduction to Verga’s ideology and the background of his fiction. Pays special attention to the development of The House by the Medlar Tree.
Alexander, Foscarina. The Aspiration Toward a Lost Natural Harmony in the Work of Three Italian Writers: Leopardi, Verga, and Moravia. Lewiston, N.J.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990. Analyzes the family in The House by the Medlar Tree as the social group that stabilizes society. Demonstrates how the breakdown of family ties leads to social disintegration.
Bergin, Thomas G. Giovanni Verga. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1969. Critical study of Verga’s canon, demonstrating the novelist’s development of his craft. A chapter on The House by the Medlar Tree explicates the novel and explores Verga’s debt to French naturalist writers.
Cecchetti, Giovanni. Giovanni Verga. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Introductory study of the writer’s career. Excellent, detailed analysis of The House by the Medlar Tree, establishing its place in Verga’s canon and commenting on structure, plotting, and style.
Pacifici, Sergio. The Modern Italian Novel from Manzoni to Svevo. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967. Asserts that Verga intended The House by the Medlar Tree as a realistic assessment of human existence and human passion. Discusses several important themes, including generational conflict and the disillusionment of youth with political and social systems.