Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

The She-wolf is dominated by a single, overriding passion that ultimately destroys her and those closest to her, yet it is a passion that remains true to its own nature throughout, giving her an exalted role in what might otherwise be an undistinguished rustic domestic drama. Nanni stammers out his final curse; he is unable to cry out with the same strength of resolve that characterizes the sure, determined movement of the woman who faces him. Does he kill her? The author does not say, because ultimately it is not important. What is important is that the She-wolf has no power over the forces that have brought her to this point, nor can Nanni resist her. They are both victims of a tragedy that is played out over and over again in every age and in all socioeconomic circumstances. There are crucial differences, however, between the two: The She-wolf is as proud in her strength as she is unswerving in her purpose; Nanni’s weakness is as inevitable and inexorable as is the She-wolf’s obsession.

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Adhering to the Verist canon of impersonality, Giovanni Verga insisted that the work of art must rise spontaneously, naturally: It should appear “to have made itself,” the hand of the author never seeming to interfere. It must be a human document, direct, unadorned, plunging directly into “the necessary development of passions and facts leading to the denouement, which is thus rendered less unforeseen, less dramatic, perhaps, but not less fatal.” This briefest among Verga’s greatest short stories gives full credence to his doctrine. This simple peasant woman, perhaps his finest creation, expresses both the power and the vital force of a cultural entity that had been denied a voice in Italian literature before the 1800’s, before Verga.

The She-wolf, transformed by her passion, establishes a terrible superiority of isolation over the common tenor of communal life that levitates against her. Its structures, its mores, and its punishments are fixed; thus, the outcome of the story will be fatal, whatever form that fatality may take. The She-wolf plays out her tragic drama in every gesture and every linear action that she initiates. She is the parched fields under a blazing summer sun, the desire of the new plant for life in a harsh terrain. Although she knows that she is a sinner and accepts her fate, she is, at the same time, an awesome, albeit oblique, example of integrity, of purity.

Deterministic in every detail, the story moves immediately to the level of the deepest implications of desire and despair, to those places in the heart where differences of class and status have no meaning. The violent truth of the She-wolf’s tortured soul takes her beyond the specific Sicilian setting to achieve the stature of the Greek heroines who have reappeared in every succeeding epoch, beyond the consolations of religion, beyond plaint.

In the introduction to another story from the collection in which “The She-Wolf” first appeared, “Gramigna’s Mistress,” Verga asks the question: “Shall we ever reach such perfection in the study of passions that it will become useless to continue in this study of the inner man?” His answer is that of the artist who captures a reality and presents it in the form of a modern myth, remaining true to his theory of the human document, enhancing it with the subtlety of his art.

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