Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 990

When Grazia Deledda won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1926, there was controversy because her reputation was not yet international and her prize provided a propaganda victory for Benito Mussolini’s government, which she detested. Luigi Pirandello, the Sicilian widely regarded as the leading Italian writer of the twentieth century, was so angry that he dashed off a satirical novella, with a caricatured Deledda as its heroine. Others alleged that Deledda was chosen by the Scandinavian award committee because her bleak landscapes reminded them of the gloom of their own national authors.

Deledda’s writing holds up well, and she appears to be one of the more durable Nobel laureates of the 1920’s. A nostalgia for a lost time and place operates in her favor. She evokes her native Sardinia as an island of peasants, small landowners, priests, and bandits. From a safe distance, city dwellers are charmed by this pastoral scene.

Simple statements and clean metaphors not easily lost in translation characterize Deledda’s style. She knows how to choose the precise detail to render the flavor of a moment, the personality of a character, or the atmosphere of a place. Italian was not Deledda’s native tongue. As a child, she spoke Logudoro, a dialect not even understood throughout her entire island. From Giovanni Verga, the Sicilian novelist, Deledda learned to provide the color of the actual speech of rustic people while writing in the standard literary language of Italy. Like Verga, she became skilled at convincingly converting the rhythms and images of provincial speech into recognizable, dignified, and poetic Italian.

Deledda had little formal education. Although her family was reasonably affluent by the standards of Nuoro, where they lived, education for women was not a priority among a people who equated books with laziness and wondered how a “scribbling woman” could ever find a husband. Through a program of self-directed reading, Deledda absorbed the bardic style of Homer and the Bible. Other influences were Giovanni Verga, the realist, and Gabriel d’Annunzio, the decadent romantic. Among the French, English, and Russians, she discovered Victor Hugo, Thomas Hardy, and Fyodor Dostoevski. Her affinities with these sources are evident in her writing.

The Mother is by far Deledda’s best-known work, although its position as her masterpiece is less clear. The narrative approaches the classicism outlined by Aristotle, and the book is marked by consistency of mood and totality of effect. The action unfolds during a two-day span. The three principals—the priest’s mother, Maria Maddalena; Paul, the priest; and Agnes, the woman he covets—are quintessential Deledda characters, whose raw emotions seem appropriate to folk inhabiting Mediterranean islands visited and ravished by Vikings, Arab conquerors, and Vandals. However, the social and spiritual crises faced by Paul are timeless.

Celibate priesthood originated before the cross was first raised on Sardinia. Paul’s tragedy works itself out in a milieu that happens to be Catholic, yet his dilemma is that of the Protestant clergyman in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) or of the Druid priest in Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma (1831). Deledda and her characters are not theologians. They do not concern themselves with the rationale behind the Roman Catholic Church demands. They do understand, however, the mystery that surrounds sacred consecration. The dimly understood teachings of Christianity mingle with the older superstitions of the island and the unspoken belief that a grim Providence presides over all.

Paul’s pain is intensified by the solitude of his environment. If he possessed deep spirituality, intellectual interests, companions, or even the opportunities to fraternize with other priests and safe parishioners, his deprivations would seem less keen. If the obsessive family ties could be loosened or his life led under less scrutiny, his burden might lift.

Paul’s inner resources are further depleted by his never having developed a conscience of his own. His mother remains his conscience, and God speaks in her voice. At one point, he has a vision of her lying on an altar, like a mysterious idol whose hand he is being forced to kiss. He is the victim of this woman, who is equally lonely and lives only through him. His priestly role raises her from servant to Madonna status. Having given him to the Church before his own age of consent, she never really gives him to God.

A great contrast to Paul is his altar boy, Antiochus. The young man ardently desires to be a priest, even though he must assert his choice against the wishes of his own mother, a usurer who also practices “certain other trades.”

Maddalena, a mother who follows her son to assignations and monitors his every act, is as controlling and destructive as Sophia Portnoy in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), which, incidentally, had enormous success in Italy. However, Deledda does not pass glib judgment on this woman whom the island people view as noble, even heroic, whose struggle is the central focus of the novel.

Operatic adaptations of Deledda’s writing were unsuccessful, but she has an eye and ear for the grand scene. The Mother builds to a climax during Sunday mass, in a village church rendered in full sensuous detail. Agnes appears, threatening publicly to expose her relationship with Paul. Although she fails in the end to denounce him, she casts a witchlike spell over his mother, who dies in anticipation of shame and scandal. Agnes is the succubus who gives Maddelena the evil eye, that fearsome glance against which Sardinians wear their horned amulets.

At one time, critics labeled Deledda as a local colorist, because she commemorated Sardinians of her generation much as Berga did Sicilians and Prosper Mérimée did Corsicans. However, her simple folk are neither the morally depraved country people of an Erskine Caldwell novel nor the noble primitives of a Victor Hugo tale. They are real people, confronting the human situation in a defined time and place, however claustrophobic.

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