Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1644
First published: I vecchi e i giovani, 1913 (English translation, 1928)
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Historical chronicle
Time of work: 1891-1892
Locale: Sicily and Rome
Flaminio Salvo, a Sicilian capitalist
Roberto Capolino, a politician friend
Prince Auriti, Capolino’s political opponent
Prince Gerlando Laurentano, Auriti’s cousin and a Socialist
Dianella Ippolito Laurentano, Gerlando’s father and the fiance of Salvo’s sister
Aurelio Salvo, Salvo’s daughter
Mauro Costa, Dianella’s lover
Mortara, an old man who had followed Garibaldi
As late as the last decade of the nineteenth century the political air of Italy and Sicily was troubled by the events of the Garibaldi uprisings of 1848 and 1860. There were still people of influence who looked back a half century to the time when the Bourbons had dominated Italy. There were also those who had followed Garibaldi in his revolution, and now, among the younger people, there were those who had become Socialists and took to heart all the preachings of that doctrine. Italian politics were as confused as they were corrupt.
In Sicily, where a representative to the Chamber of Deputies had died, a campaign was under way for a successor to represent the district of Girgenti. One of the candidates was Roberto Auriti, who at twelve years of age had been with Garibaldi in Rome and whose father had been a Garibaldist leader. Auriti was opposed by Capolino, who was backed by the clerical party, and Flaminio Salvo, a capitalist who owned the coal and sulphur mines in the district.
The situation was particularly strained for Salvo because he wanted to marry his spinster sister to Auriti’s uncle, Prince Ippolito Laurentano, an old man who still believed in the Bourbon influence and lived apart from the world on his Sicilian estate. Salvo’s plans for the marriage were blocked because the old man refused to submit to the civil ceremony of a government he had never recognized. The prince swore he would have only the Church officiate at his wedding. Salvo was also disturbed because the old man’s grown son, Gerlando Laurentano, declared that he would not attend his father’s wedding, thus withholding his sanction. Since Salvo was after money and power, it was necessary for his honor that young Laurentano be at his father’s second marriage ceremony.
To further complicate the affairs of Salvo, there was a real effort to foster discontent among his workers by the Socialists, under the leadership of Gerlando Laurentano. His activities did not endear young Laurentano to the financier, who stood to lose much by the young man’s refusal to agree to terms that Salvo thought reasonable and proper.
When the election returns had been counted and the excitement of the election had begun to die down, it was found that Capolino had been elected to represent the district in which Salvo’s interests were located. Salvo was soon to discover, however, that the government did not take kindly to his candidate because of the backing which Capolino had also received from the clericals. Capolino was reduced to a place among the minority opposition in the Chamber of Deputies.
Meanwhile Capolino’s wife, Nicoletta, a woman much younger than her husband, had formed an attachment for another deputy, a scapegrace named Corrado Selmi, who owed a great deal of money and who had been Auriti’s backer in the election. In addition to being a source of trouble to her husband, Nicoletta was a source of vexation to Salvo, her husband’s patron.
After the election most of the principals returned to Rome, where further intrigues, political and amorous, began to develop. During the election Auriti’s mother, who had not seen her brother, Prince Ippolito Laurentano, for over forty years, had gone to him and asked him to support her son. The prince had refused because of the marriage pending between himself and Salvo’s sister. In Rome it developed that there was an incriminating letter in existence which would make Auriti responsible for forty thousand lira misappropriated by Corrado Selmi, who was about to be impeached by his fellow deputies for bribery and misuse of government funds. Giulio, Roberto Auriti’s brother, appealed to Capolino and then to his cousin, Gerlando Laurentano, for aid. Both refused to have anything to do with the affair, despite the protestations of old Mauro Mortara. Mortara was an aged Garibaldist, a comrade of Gerlando Laurentano’s grandfather and Roberto Auriti’s father, when all three had followed Garibaldi in ’48 and ’60. The old veteran could not realize that the descendants of his old revolutionary comrades were so divided in their politics that they would not aid each other when they were in need.
Selmi committed suicide and left a note admitting his guilt in the matter of the forty thousand lira, but Auriti had already been imprisoned. When his mother learned of the dishonor to the Auriti family, she died of grief.
Meanwhile the Socialists planned a coup in Sicily. When a strike had been called in the district of Girgenti, Salvo had closed his mines in an attempt to starve out the workers. His superintendent, Aurelio Costa, had been summoned to Rome to receive orders. Costa had been befriended by Salvo after he had saved the capitalist from drowning. Dianella Salvo, his daughter, was in love with Costa, but Salvo refused to permit their marriage because Costa had no money. In an effort to be rid of the superintendent, Salvo sent Costa back to Sicily to face the angry strikers. Planning to leave Salvo’s employ, Costa returned to Sicily with the wife of Deputy Capolino. On their return they were murdered before Costa could explain to the mob that he wanted to join forces with the strikers.
When word of the double murder reached Rome, Capolino rushed to Salvo’s home and told Dianella Salvo what her father had done by forcing Costa to return. Dianella went mad and had to be locked up. The only person who could calm her was old Mauro Mortara, who had become friendly with the woman during the election campaign.
Gerlando Laurentano had become more deeply embroiled in Socialist activities in Italy and Sicily. When word came of the strike at Girgenti, he went with members of a committee of his party to investigate the trouble in Sicily and to learn how the Socialists might benefit from the strike. He was horrified at the hunger and poverty among the strikers.
Despite Socialist attempts to aid the peasants, the people did not want a Socialist government. At mass meetings the workmen carried pictures of the king and queen and images of the cross. The government, on the other hand, took advantage of the rioting to send troops and police to quell all disturbances.
Gerlando Laurentano was finally forced to flee from Sicily at night because the authorities had discovered that he was a Socialist organizer. During his flight he encountered Mauro Mortara. The old veteran was ashamed that the grandson of a Garibaldist leader would be involved in Socialist troubles. Shot when troops opened fire on a crowd, the dying Mortara wondered what was wrong in Italy, since even in his old age the peace and freedom for which he and his generation had fought were not secure. The young people seemed to have made just as great a turmoil in his native land as had his own revolutionary generation.
Although primarily a historical novel, THE OLD AND THE YOUNG also presents Luigi Pirandello’s philosophical dialectic of life versus form in its various aspects: self versus mask, what one desires to be versus what one becomes, nature versus society, past ideals versus present realities, and feelings versus reason. For, according to Pirandello, life is flux, flow, becoming, but in order for life to exist—to “be”—it must enter some form. Form, however, stifles life. Thus, the Pirandello paradox: Life in order to “exist” must become form; once it becomes form, it ceases to be life.
There are various ways of escaping this dilemma. One way to escape the imprisonment of form is death, for death causes one to return to the eternal flow of life. In this novel, many individuals seek death through suicide to overcome the tragic realization that comes with the awareness of the dilemma of “life in form.” This dilemma is presented historically and socially as the disappointment that occurred after the heroic ideals of the Risorgimento had become formalized and corrupted by the necessities of political form and expediency.
Another method of escape is abstracting oneself from life. This type of escape into pure form or pure abstraction necessitates the character’s separation from any involvement in life and feeling. This is the choice of Don Cosmo who lives a life of pure reason in philosophy.
His brother, Don Ippolito, escapes the dilemma of life by retreating into conscious illusion; he lives in the past, in his archeological studies of the site upon which his palace rests. He converts his estate into a replica of the Bourbon past and lives a life of conscious madness. Other characters in the novel (Dianella and Mortara) escape the dilemma of life through unconscious madness.
The novel not only presents the dualism of life and form thematically, but structurally as well. Book 1 deals with the past, with Sicily, with the hopes of the Risorgimento, with life as possibility. Book 2 presents Rome, the corruption of the heroes following the formalization of their heroic ideals, and the subsequent destruction of all hope, the escape from reality.
Thus the setting of the novel, the depiction of a historical moment in Italian history, is interwoven with the basic Pirandellian theme of the conflict of life and form and the multiple ways in which individuals cope with the awareness of this conflict.