The Leopard (Long Fiction Analysis)

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The title of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard, was inspired by the Lampedusas’—and fictional Salinas’—coat of arms, which functions as a recurring symbol within the text and as a bond connecting the author to his creation. This feline emblem of position and power represents the best qualities of the aristocracy, in contrast to the jackals and hyenas destined to replace it in a new social order. The leopard is the pride and essence of the Salinas, embodied spiritually and physically in the prince of Salina, Don Fabrizio Corbera. Its origins are in the history and consciousness of an ancient family and in the traditions of a ruling caste. Like the nobility, the leopard comes face-to-face with its vulnerability and mortality as an individual, a family, a social group, and a way of life. Clearly, the novel’s point of view, generally expressed through the character of Don Fabrizio, is aristocratic.

Plot and characters

The story begins in 1860. It is the Italian Risorgimento; General Garibaldi and his Red Shirts have landed in Sicily with the intent of unifying the peninsula and ending the Bourbon monarchy. Here and elsewhere in the text, the historical events function as a backdrop to the incidents in the life of Don Fabrizio and his family. Chronologically, the eight chapters composing the novel are unevenly divided. The first covers only twenty-four hours in the life of Don Fabrizio, concurrent with the arrival of Garibaldi in Marsala, an event that is mentioned but not stressed. The following three chapters are dated later the same year; chapter 5 is dated 1861; chapter 6, 1862; the final divisions leap to 1883 and, last, 1910—a total span of fifty years. A day in the life of Don Fabrizio introduces the reader to many of the personalities who inhabit the novel—the slightly neurotic princess, the seven Salina children, the beloved and ambitious nephew Prince Tancredi Falconeri, the family priest, Father Pirrone, and the friendly dog Bendicò—and to the environment of aristocratic life: the daily rosary, family meals and conversations, the palace and gardens, the casual administration of the estate.

Very little actually occurs; the first chapter develops characterizations, introduces relationships, paints an atmosphere, and renders a lifestyle. Tancredi announces his decision to join the Red Shirts, not out of revolutionary fervor but to protect the standing of the Sicilian ruling class during the inevitable political upheavals, because “everything must change so that everything remains the same.” His words appear prophetic some months later as the family members travel to one of their summer estates; they are surrounded by the same feudal respect as in the past, but times have changed somewhat. A plebiscite joins Sicily to the Kingdom of Italy, and the local mayor, Calogero Sedàra, has amassed a fortune almost equal to that of the prince.

Tancredi, who is shrewd and bold, decides to marry the mayor’s voluptuously beautiful daughter Angelica, thus uniting her wealth with his impoverished title, to the proud but quiet despair of Concetta, one of the Salina girls. The remaining chapters center on the sensually agitating courtship of the new fiancés, on Father Pirrone’s visit to his peasant family (a section that has often been criticized as irrelevant to the plot), on a fashionable ball that seems to celebrate the survival and continuity of the nobility, and on the death of Don Fabrizio, the last true Leopard. The episode dated 1910 functions as an epilogue about the fate of the remaining Salinas.

The preceding outline does a great injustice to Lampedusa’s novel, which is a subtle, poetic work and not an adventure story. Such a summary also points out the error of defining The Leopard as a traditional historical novel. Historical events take place in the story’s background, whereas the protagonists experience the resulting sociopsychological changes in their daily existence. The marriage of Tancredi and Angelica is the most prominent example, the first union of blood and money, aristocracy and nouveaux riches. Others are less dramatic but equally significant: the entrance of former peasant Sedàra in a tuxedo; a lowering in public respect for Don Fabrizio when he demonstrates excessive, nonfeudal friendliness; the switch from the Red Shirt of the guerrillas to the uniform of the regular Piedmontese army; and an offer the prince receives to become a senator in a constitutional parliament.

Issues and themes

While history moves in the novel’s background, historical discussion dominates the foreground. Don Fabrizio’s conversations often enter into current affairs, touching on many of the issues crucial to postunification Italy: the failure of the ideals of the Risorgimento because of personal egotisms and mismanagement; the impossibility of channeling the southern part of the peninsula into a modern, progressive, and democratic state; and the continuing class divisions. Salina, as the voice of Lampedusa, judges history negatively. One king replaces another; one government is substituted for another, while people continue to live and die. Things change and remain the same. The prince’s vision of history is not new; rather, it continues a tradition of humanistic pessimism. The actions of human beings are interpreted as futile; the destinies of individuals are insignificant in the eternal flow of time, which they are impotent to alter or stop.

A symbol of this impotence and history’s indifference to the individual is Sicily, where millennia of political shifts and invasions have had little influence on the people, who reject the possibility of real change and choose apathy, desiring immobility or, more exactly, death. Sicily, as a landscape and a state of mind, dominates The Leopard. In fact, the novel presents two Sicilies: on one hand, the exquisitely beautiful and sensuous land of sea, sun, vegetation, and overpowering scents; on the other, the arid, desolate interior of hunger and pain. The light and the dark Sicilies are actually the same Janus-land of the mind, with its inherent dichotomies. Life, with its vigor, hides the promise of death. The natural settings in the novel possess dual personalities, such as the garden of chapter 1, the olfactory excesses of which denote this complementary contradiction of death in life—the...

(The entire section is 2602 words.)