Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1012
The fundamental theme of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard is death—the death of a civilization, of an era, and, eventually, of the hero of the novel. From the novel’s opening line, taken from the traditional “Ave Maria” prayer, the narrative moves through a series of passages that describe various declines. The novel’s first scene begins with Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae (Now and in the hour of our death) and takes place in the hero’s palace near Palermo. The drawing room’s decor, a mélange of rococo style and Roman mythology, offers an odd backdrop for a Christian service, but the contradictions inherent in this scene set the tone for the narrative’s basic themes.
The novel’s story encompasses some twenty-eight years in the lives of Sicily, the new united Italy, and Prince Don Fabrizio Corbera, who is a transitional figure himself, a symbol of the old order’s reaction to the new world. Don Fabrizio, like Sicily and Italy, is a tangle of paradoxes. He is proud, conscious of his aristocratic heritage, a cultivated, sensitive, and sensuous man who regrets seeing the past give way to the future. At the same time, he realizes that change and death are inevitable and inescapable; if he is unable to summon great enthusiasm for the new Italy, he nevertheless accepts the transformations that are taking place in the country, in his family, and in himself as he ages.
Don Fabrizio finds comfort in his sons, in his nephew Tancredi, and in the stars. As an amateur astronomer, Don Fabrizio has gained a certain amount of notoriety; moreover, his research satisfies his need for stability amid the flux he sees around him on earth. Beyond his sons, his nephew, and the stars, he finds little of interest or fulfillment. His onetime passion for his wife—ironically named Maria Stella (Mary Star)—has long since faded into quiet affection and occasional mild contempt. Much of the novel, therefore, concerns how Don Fabrizio reacts to the changes in Sicily and the ways in which Tancredi adapts to the new society and its conditions.
Early in the novel’s first chapter, there appears a symbol that establishes the tone of what is taking place in Sicily and foreshadows some of the tragedy that befalls Don Fabrizio. He and his villa caretakers discover, in a grove of trees on Don Fabrizio’s estate, the body of a young soldier who had been wounded in a skirmish with Garibaldi’s rebels. In its state of ugly decomposition, the corpse brings home the cruel reality of war as well as the unpleasant death of the old Bourbon monarchy for which the soldier died.
The image of the dead soldier reappears, directly or somewhat transformed, at later points in the novel. Don Fabrizio recalls the corpse when his tenant farmers present him with some newly slaughtered lambs; when he is hunting, he sees the lacerated corpse of a rabbit, which inspires him to ponder the similar futility of human life and death. Near the end of the story, Don Fabrizio’s obsession with the dead soldier’s body resurfaces as he thinks about his son Paolo’s fatal equestrian accident and his own forthcoming death, and acknowledges how everyone faces the same fate.
In a discussion with the Cavaliere Aimone Chevalley di Monterzuolo, a representative of the Piedmontese government of unification, Don Fabrizio declines to serve as a senator, citing Sicily’s fundamental collective death wish. Instead, in a gesture of enlightened resignation, he recommends Don Calogero Sedàra, an ambitious provincial mayor of peasant stock, for the senate post.
To a great extent, The Leopard focuses on coming to terms with life and the disappointment it brings, and with death. For Don Fabrizio, there is considerable regret. In the novel’s penultimate chapter, just before Don Fabrizio expires, he calculates that very little of his seventy-three years has been real living; most of it has been pain and boredom. His final moments contain a certain logic, however: Death appears to the sensuous prince as a beautiful woman whom he has long courted and with whom he has long been familiar. Death comes to Don Fabrizio in the guise of his love of beauty and sensuality, but also as something and someone he has seen in the stars.
Ironically, some of Don Fabrizio’s fondest memories are of Tancredi, the nephew who, by marrying Angelica Sedàra, has compromised with modern Italy. Tancredi (ironically named for a legendary hero of the Crusades) understands that the old order is passing and that survival is better than complete extinction. His marriage is of the kind familiar to European aristocracy since the Renaissance, when hereditary nobility began to see the necessity of union with the more prosperous emerging middle classes. Tancredi’s marriage, like that of his uncle, begins in passion, but also in Tancredi’s consciousness of the need to accept the fact that the bourgeoisie and the people inevitably will have roles in modern society. The former two Sicilies will be united as one with the new Italian monarchy; Don Fabrizio understands that he is the last of his line and that Garibaldi and those like him—the new revolutionaries—have won the struggle for change.
The last chapter of The Leopard is a lugubrious epilogue, a coda that takes place in 1910, twenty-two years after the death of the novel’s hero. The focus of this chapter is demythologization on two levels. First, many of the Christian relics that Don Fabrizio’s daughters have collected in the family chapel are judged by the Church to be profane. Then, in the novel’s final image, one of the daughters at last throws the mummified remains of Bendicò, what is left of the prince’s faithful dog, on the trash heap. Thus the image of the leopard, the symbol of the Salina line, disintegrates into the pitiful bits of what was Bendicò, whose final gesture, as the carcass flies from a villa window, is a curse.