Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 579

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Antonio Fogazzaro, one of the great authors of the period of Italian history known as the risorgimento, was a native of Vicenza, Italy. Like his contemporary Giovanni Verga, he successfully combined reminiscences of his homeland with modern realism, and themes of local culture with universal themes, thus creating a new type of literature popular in Italy around the turn of this century. Fiction of this type is still read and studied in Italy, but unfortunately it has never been as popular elsewhere because of its strong regionalistic flavor and concern with highly specific national issues.

THE SAINT was the third novel in the trilogy in which Fogazzaro expressed his deepest intellectual and religious concerns; it followed PICCOLO MONDO ANTICO (1896, THE PATRIOT), perhaps the author’s finest novel, and PICCOLO MONDO MODERNO (1900, THE MAN OF THE WORLD), sometimes translated as THE SINNER. The main character of THE SAINT, the pious monk Benedetto, preaches for the reformation of the Church and is in turn forced to leave his monastery because members of the local clergy do not want their corruption revealed to the people. The monk devotes all of his energies to the poor, until a vision compels him to seek an audience with the pope and warn him of the four great sins of the modern-day Church which must be overcome if it is to survive. (It is interesting to note that Fogazzaro himself requested an audience with Pius X and was refused.) Benedetto’s temptations and turns of fortune parallel the history of the Modernist movement within the Italian Church which the author supported. The Church was not only hostile to the movement, as might be expected, but condemned THE SAINT as well; its condemnation, however, did not deter a wide audience from admiring it and being influenced by its arguments. The author himself was deeply affected by the Church’s criticism of his book. While many of the leaders of the Modernist movement eventually left the Church, Fogazzaro, a devout believer, was unable in right conscience to do so; his later works, which all fall far short of the trilogy in emotional power and literary merit, even reveal a softening of his views on reform.

The inspiration for THE SAINT was rooted in the author’s deep love for the Catholic Church; ironically, this love was also responsible for both the power and depth of the novel and for its artistic weaknesses. The work is moving and powerful in those places where Fogazzaro’s inner conflicts are played out through the narrative; the dramatization of the conflicting demands of man’s reason and his mystical nature, the clash between the old faith and new scientific thought, and the gulf between the clergy and the laity provide the story with its energy. At the same time, Fogazzaro’s ambitious attempt to create a believable character of transcendent spiritual qualities, who raises himself from a life of dependence on earthly pleasures to a life of sainthood, is unsuccessful. Benedetto is not a convincing figure. He lacks human frailties to the extent that neither author nor readers can really identify with him. Yet it was the same deep-rooted feeling for the Church that produced the novel, that made Fogazzaro even attempt the characterization which proved to be beyond his means. As it turned out, it is the struggling, tormented, and very human figures of the earlier novels, rather than the saint, who are the most memorable of the author’s creations.