Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1021
In 1860, Sicily, a land reduced to political apathy by centuries of conquest and foreign rule, is being invaded by Giuseppe Garibaldi’s red-shirted volunteers. Don Fabrizio, prince of the ancient feudal house of Salina, waits to see whether Garibaldi is only another upstart adventurer or a patriot dedicated to the...
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In 1860, Sicily, a land reduced to political apathy by centuries of conquest and foreign rule, is being invaded by Giuseppe Garibaldi’s red-shirted volunteers. Don Fabrizio, prince of the ancient feudal house of Salina, waits to see whether Garibaldi is only another upstart adventurer or a patriot dedicated to the unification of Italy under il galantuomo, the Piedmontese king Victor Emmanuel. A tawny-haired man of passive disposition, great physical energy in the hunting field, strong sensual appetites, and some reputation as an amateur astronomer, the prince rules his family and the peasants on his estates with unconscious arrogance. Although his allegiance is to King Francis II, his common sense tells him that the Bourbon regime in Naples is tottering and will soon fall. At the same time, he is too shrewd and worldly-wise to expect that the Risorgimento will greatly transform a way of life that has been molded by Byzantine tax collectors, Berber emirs, Spanish viceroys, the Catholic Church, and the Bourbons. Faced with the necessity of choosing a side, he hesitates and, in the end, does nothing. For him, while all Italy is being shaken, life goes on very much as before. He ignores his pious wife, dislikes his heir, keeps a mistress close at hand for his bodily needs and a browbeaten chaplain for his soul’s salvation, and watches the stars.
The only person for whom the prince has any real affection is his penniless, scapegrace nephew Tancredi, prince of Falconeri, in whom he finds a reflection of his own restless youth. Ironically, his fondness for the boy turns out to be his salvation. When Tancredi goes off to join Garibaldi in the hills, Don Fabrizio gives him a roll of gold pieces. This act of love and family feeling has political consequences, for when the Garibaldists triumph, Don Fabrizio finds himself regarded as a supporter of their cause.
As for Tancredi, he bobs like a cork on the wave of the future. His philosophy, as he explains it to his uncle, is simple: If people like he and his uncle do not join in the cause, the rebels will form a republic; thus, if the princes do not want real change, they must help the rebels to make change. Tancredi fights with Garibaldi in the hills, takes a commission in the Piedmontese army before Garibaldi and his ragged followers are defeated by il galantuomo’s troops at Aspromonti, and, to recoup his family fortunes, courts and marries the beautiful daughter of a rich, vulgar provincial upstart.
Don Fabrizio meets the future three times. The first is in the person of Don Calogero Sedàra, the mayor of Donnafugata, who in the time of the Risorgimento buys, trades, and sells so shrewdly that before long his revenues almost match those of the Salina estates. The second occasion is the time of the plebiscite for unification. Don Fabrizio, knowing that there can be no return to the old ways, advises those who ask his opinion to vote yes. Secretly he knows that a number have voted against unification, but when the votes are counted in Donnafugata, 512 out of 515 votes are yes votes—the wily mayor has stuffed the ballot box. The third time Don Fabrizio meets the future is again in the person of Don Calogero, when Don Fabrizio has to swallow his pride and go to the town hall to ask the mayor formally for the hand of the mayor’s daughter Angelica in the name of his nephew, Tancredi Falconeri. In earlier times, the Salinas had exercised droit du seigneur over handsome girls like Angelica; in the new Italy, spendthrift young noblemen try to marry them. Don Fabrizio is made no happier by the knowledge that his daughter Concetta also loves Tancredi and has now lost him to the daughter of a grasping, ambitious peasant father and a mother who once tended pigs.
When the Cavaliere Aimone Chevalley di Monterzuolo asks Don Fabrizio to accept a post as senator in the new kingdom, the prince, being what he is, feels this to be no particular honor and pretends not to understand whether “senator” is a title of honor or a decoration. Chevalley is sincerely disturbed, whereupon the prince undertakes to explain his attitude, the one occasion Don Fabrizio allows himself to speak openly and bitterly about the history of Sicily and the character of Sicilians, who never want to improve because they think themselves already perfect and whose vanity is greater than their misery. He explains that he is caught between the old world and the new, and he feels ill at ease in both. Moreover, he is without illusions and lacks the talent for self-deception, a necessary quality for guiding others. He is unable to blend personal interest with vague public aims and ideals. Don Fabrizio ends his remarkable discourse on time, mutability, and knowledge of tragic destiny enclosed in the ambiguities of the past by suggesting that Don Calogero Sedàra, a man for the future, be named to the new senate.
In 1888, Don Fabrizio dies. He had been the survivor of a way of life that was feudal and despotic but in many ways fruitful and good; he had lived to see the new class of money and bourgeois power exercising its authority with brutal realism. By 1910, Tancredi is dead and Angelica a dashing widow. Don Fabrizio’s spinster daughters, Carolina, Concetta, and Caterina, live in pious seclusion amid religious relics and souvenirs of the past. Concetta realizes too late that she lost Tancredi to Angelica because of her own pride and folly, and that it had been a futile love that had caused her to reject Tancredi’s friend Count Carlo Cavriaghi when he wooed her. In a final gesture, she throws out on a rubbish heap the moth-eaten pelt of Bendicò, a Great Dane that had been her father’s favorite dog. As it falls from the open window into the courtyard, it assumes for a moment the appearance of a dancing quadruped with long whiskers and one foreleg raised as if in imprecation—a ghastly travesty of the Salina crest.