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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2319

First published: 1889 (English translation, 1893)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social chronicle

Time of work: First half of the nineteenth century

Locale: San Giovanni, Sicily

Principal Characters:

Gesualdo Motta, an ambitious peasant

Donna Bianca Trao, one of the poor gentry

Don Diego Trao, and

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(The entire section contains 2319 words.)

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First published: 1889 (English translation, 1893)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social chronicle

Time of work: First half of the nineteenth century

Locale: San Giovanni, Sicily

Principal Characters:

Gesualdo Motta, an ambitious peasant

Donna Bianca Trao, one of the poor gentry

Don Diego Trao, and

Don Ferdinando Trao, her brothers

Nunzio Motta, Gesualdo’s father

Santo Motta, Gesualdo’s brother

Speranza Motta, Gesualdo’s sister

Fortunato Burgio, her husband

Baroness Rubiera

Baron Nini Rubiera, her son and Bianca Trao’s cousin

Baron Zacco, one of the Trao relatives

Donna Sarina, (or Cirmena), a poor aunt of the Trao family

Donna Marlanna Sganci, a rich aunt

Nani Diodata, Gesualdo’s servant girl

l’Orbo, a peasant and Gesualdo’s servant

Canon-Priest Lupi

Corrado la Gurna, Donna Cirmena’s nephew

The Story:

Shortly after sunrise the bells of San Giovanni began ringing. There was a fire in the Trao house, and the village awakened to answer the summons. Through the smoke the villagers saw the frantic faces of Don Ferdinando and Don Diego, and a voice called out that there were thieves in the house as well. At the same time Don Diego called for his sister, Bianca, who was somewhere in the burning building. Mastro-don Gesualdo appeared, showing great concern for his own house nearby, and other Mottas, including Gesualdo’s brother Santo and his sister Speranza, came running both to witness the spectacle and to protect their own property.

Don Diego discovered, to his dismay, that the stranger in the house was not a thief but his sister’s lover, the young Baron Nini Rubiera. After the fire had been extinguished, Don Diego went to the baron’s mother, the Baroness Rubiera, one of the Trao relatives, and meekly requested that Nini marry Bianca. The baroness refused. Any girl who married her son, she declared, must come prepared with a large dowry. Since Bianca’s brothers were poor, though proud of their family heritage, there was no hope of convincing the baroness to change her mind. Consequently, after great persuasion, they agreed to allow Bianca to marry Gesualdo Motta, a peasant who by his cleverness in business and industry had managed to make himself a rich landowner. Gesualdo had for some time been happy with Diodata, a servant girl, as his mistress, but now he hoped to elevate himself socially by marrying one of the gentry.

The gentry were aroused to anger by the news that Gesualdo intended to bid for the communal lands at the auction for the taxes on land which had been in the hands of Baron Zacco, another of the Trao relatives. They commented that wealth, not family, was what counted in Sicily. When Mastro-don Gesualdo hesitantly attended a gathering at the Sganci house, he was welcomed into the house but put off to one side, even though it was known that he was to marry Bianca. Heartbroken, Bianca talked to the young Baron Nini about his mother’s plan to marry him to Fifi Margarone, one of the daughters of Don Filippo Margarone, the political leader in the village. Knowing that his mother’s mind was made up, the young man finally managed to escape from Bianca.

Mastro-don Gesualdo continued to work with his laborers, fulfilling contracts to build walls, roads, and bridges. As he sweated with the men and supervised their work, he thought of his father’s complaints about losing his position as the head of the family. The elder Motta, Nunzio, had even taken on contracts, using his son’s money, in order to reestablish himself as master of his house; but his ventures had been unsuccessful. Nevertheless, Nunzio continued to criticize his son’s enterprises and to make things difficult for him.

Gesualdo, returning home from work, always found faithful Diodata, who greeted him humbly and made him comfortable. When he told her of his plan to marry Bianca Trao, she replied that he was the master; it was apparent, however, that she would never be happy without him. When she was finally married off to another servant, Nani l’Orbo, the children she bore him had been fathered by Gesualdo. Nani took advantage of his position to force Gesualdo to support him with money and property.

A major blow to Gesualdo’s fortunes came when a bridge he was building under contract to the town collapsed. His father complained that the failure was Gesualdo’s fault, and the villagers who were jealous of Gesualdo’s wealth exulted over his misfortune. Only Diodata, who had not yet married Nani l’Orbo, was sympathetic.

Despite the objections of her brothers, Don Diego and Don Ferdinando, Bianca persisted in going ahead with the plan to marry Gesualdo. The brothers finally agreed, only because it was hopeless to forbid her. Bianca knew that she would never marry Baron Nini Rubiera, and she hoped that by marrying a rich man she could ease the burden on her brothers.

When the wedding was held in the old house of the La Gurna family, which Gesualdo had leased, only Donna Cirmena came to represent the Trao family. When Gesualdo was alone with Bianca he was afraid to touch her, and they talked to each other apprehensively, as if they could never overcome the distance between them.

At the tax auction of the communal lands, an effort was made to convince Mastro-don Gesualdo that for the sake of harmony between the Motta and the Trao families he should divide the land with Baron Zacco and the Baroness Rubiera. When Gesualdo refused, Don Filippo Margarone pretended that there was no guarantee that Gesualdo would be able to pay the bid with his own money. For the time being the auction was called off. The Trao family attempted to put pressure on Bianca to dissuade her husband from bidding on the communal lands, but she refused to take part. In the meantime the canon-priest Lupi tried to ingratiate himself with Gesualdo by criticizing the business tactics of the Trao family and by warning Gesualdo that an effort was being made to stir the laborers to revolt against him. Gesualdo began to realize that his money was not bringing him the satisfaction he had hoped for and which he had always associated with wealth.

An uprising of the peasants was quelled by the nobility with military aid. During the trouble Gesualdo sought shelter with Nani l’Orbo, who took advantage of the moment to demand land from Gesualdo as payment for harboring him and for having married Diodata. Until peace was restored Gesualdo was in danger from both the laborers and the police. One result of the disturbance was that Baron Zacco allied himself with Gesualdo, for the peasants were angry at anyone who had anything to do with the communal lands.

When news came that Don Diego was dying, Bianca hurried to the house where her brothers lived. Her arrival caused a great disturbance among the relatives, and matters were further complicated when Bianca fainted because her child was about to be born. In the midst of the uproar, Don Ferdinando walked about talking of documents which he claimed proved that the Traos were entitled to royal lands.

Although Baron Nini Rubiera was engaged to be married to Donna Fifi Margarone, he became infatuated with an actress, Signora Aglae. He sent a note to her, composed by Ciolla, a local troublemaker who had stirred up the peasants to revolt. The note was intercepted by Master Titta, the barber, who gave it to Fifi; as a result of that disclosure, the engagement was ended. The young baron’s mother was furious with him—not so much because of the scandal as because Baron Nini had gone deeply into debt with Gesualdo in order to entertain the actress.

Bianca’s child was christened Isabella. There were rumors that since the child arrived seven months after the marriage and since she looked so much like a Trao, it was possible that Mastro-don Gesualdo was not the father.

Baron Nini, finally becoming disgusted with Signora Aglae, returned home to a furious scene with his mother. The baroness accused him of trying to impoverish them all by his dealings with Gesualdo, and in her frenzy she suffered a stroke and became paralyzed. After his mother’s stroke Baron Nini found himself hopelessly entangled by his debts to Gesualdo. In desperation he married a rich widow, Madame Giuseppina Alosi, but even that was not enough to save him. He then tried to get help from Bianca. Although she was affected by his presence, she refused to yield to his appeal.

At school Isabella suffered from taunts that she was a peasant’s daughter, and in defense she finally called herself a Trao. Gesualdo allowed the change of name because he loved her more than his own pride.

When a cholera epidemic threatened San Giovanni, Gesualdo brought Isabella home from college; and he then moved his family to Mangalavite. Don Ferdinando, Nunzio, Speranza, and Burgio, however, chose to stay. At the last moment Donna Cirmena joined the Gesualdo Motta group, bringing with her Corrado La Gurna, who had been orphaned in a cholera epidemic.

At Mangalavite, Isabella fell in love with Corrado, but Gesualdo finally put an end to the romance by sending Isabella to a convent and by putting out an order for the arrest of Corrado. Later, he signed a marriage contract, giving his daughter to the Duke di Leyra, a high-living lord who promptly exhausted Isabella’s dowry and used up whatever other resources he could obtain from Gesualdo.

From then on Mastro-don Gesualdo’s downfall was rapid. His father had died of fever, and the Motta relatives, quarreling over the inheritance, demanded that Gesualdo divide his property among them. Because his wife was ill with tuberculosis, the servants left for fear of catching the disease. When the laborers revolted again, Gesualdo paid little attention to them, for by that time Bianca was dying and his own life was losing its meaning.

After Bianca’s death, Gesualdo was hurried from place to place to hide him from the rebelling mob. His lands and houses were raided and sacked. At last, wearying of turncoat friends like Baron Zacco, Gesualdo allowed himself to be controlled by his relatives. He lay in bed with a cancerous disease while his son-in-law, the duke, exercised the power of attorney he had wrested from Gesualdo in order to despoil more of his property. One by one his lands disappeared into the hands of others. When he made a last appeal to his daughter to use some of the remaining money for those to whom he owed much, she looked at him from a distance; she was a Trao and he a Motta. After his death the servants, knowing little of his life, commented enviously that Gesualdo must have been born lucky since he died in fine linen like a prince.

Critical Evaluation:

Giovanni Verga, author of the short story, “Cavalleria Rusticana,” which was used as the libretto for Pietro Mascagni’s opera, is generally regarded as the finest Italian novelist since Alessandro Manzoni. MASTRO-DON GESUALDO is the second in an unfinished series of what was to be five novels, the first was I MALAVOGLIA (1881; THE HOUSE BY THE MEDLAR TREE). The series, titled “I vinti” (the conquered), was to have included a third novel about the Sicilian aristocracy, titled “La duchessa di Leyra.” MASTRO-DON GESUALDO is a naturalistic study of the rise and fall of an ambitious Sicilian peasant. His efforts to elevate himself place Mastro-don Gesualdo between two worlds—the peasantry and the gentry—and his marriage to one of the Trao family, who are of the gentry, only widens the gap between him and the others on either side.

Although solidly in the late nineteenth century tradition of realism, MASTRO-DON GESUALDO is a unique book in many respects. Gesualdo Motta, despite his peasant background, assumes the stature of a tragic figure by the end of the novel. Like Emma Bovary and Willy Loman, he never understands his own tragedy or the flaws of his own character which propel him to his fate, but his force of personality and drive, his vision and intense purpose, lift him beyond the essentially petty world in which he struggles, and, more important, raise him to the status of a symbol. He is clever and strong and soon amasses a fortune and acquires the power that usually accompanies riches, but he does not comprehend the inner drive which pushes him relentlessly to seek ever more money and more power, although to the people around him he can never be more than a rich peasant.

The title “Mastro-don” literally means “sir-workman,” with all the ironic implications that the name suggests. Here are the seeds of his tragedy. His very lack of inner life, the flatness of his perceptions, must inevitably turn against him and destroy his victory. He is a sympathetic figure, despite his limitations, for his vitality, ambition, and uninhibited emotions give him a humanity all too rarely encountered in literature.

Verga was a highly sophisticated craftsman who deliberately attempted to transform his ltalian prose into the rough, dynamic style of the Sicilian vernacular. The result in this novel is a marvelous vitality in the writing and in the lively, realistic dialogue. The scenes are presented with effective dramatic force and are rich in an irreverent peasant humor. From the spectacular, perfectly realized opening scene of the fire in the villa, the novel moves swiftly and dramatically to its conclusion—the pathetic death of Gesualdo after his money and lands are stripped from him. The other characters are as vividly presented as the protagonist, particularly the impulsive Bianca and the rest of the ruthless Trao clan. MASTRO-DON GESUALDO deserves recognition and a high position in the history of realism for its attempt to portray the tragedy of a man without inner vision.

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