Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531
Silvestro Ferrauto (fehr-rah-EW-toh), the narrator of the story, who is thirty years old. Disturbed by the turmoil in Italy, he decides to return to his native Sicily, which he left at the age of fifteen. He is especially moved to take the trip after receiving a letter from his father stating that he has left his mother; Silvestro spontaneously decides to visit her in Recalmuto, his birthplace, in part to discover himself. Leaving his job as a Linotype operator in Milan, Silvestro travels by train to Sicily, meeting a number of unique characters who help him to find peace and understanding of the world in which he lives.
Concezione Ferrauto (kohn-chay-ZEE-oh-nay), the narrator’s mother, who lives simply in the village and makes a living giving injections to the inhabitants, who are plagued by consumption and malaria. She takes Silvestro on her rounds of giving injections and introduces him to the many different characters in the village. When asked why her husband left her, she pretends that she threw him out. Her simple life impresses Silvestro, especially the stoicism with which she faces the wartime death of Silvestro’s brother.
Great Lombard, a nickname given to one of Silvestro’s fellow passengers on the train journey across Sicily. He is Sicilian but of Lombard stock; that is, of Germanic background. Silvestro is impressed by his hearty, bold manner, not at all like most of the poor, struggling Sicilians usually encountered. A landowner, he typifies to Silvestro the proud Sicilian spirit, which is not bowed by fate.
The Knife-Grinder, a village character, tattered and poor. He goes through the town offering to grind knives and scissors but finds little to do. Silvestro gives him his pocketknife to grind, and the Knife-Grinder then leads him to Ezechiele, a leatherworker.
Ezechiele (eh-zeh-kee-EHL-ay), a leatherworker and harness maker, a philosopher who takes both the Knife-Grinder and Silvestro to an inn to drink wine. Ezechiele quickly takes on a symbolic nature, calling Silvestro a man who suffers for the “insulted world.” He and the Knife-Grinder show pity for Silvestro and his torment over the tumultuous Italy of Benito Mussolini (although no mention is ever made of Mussolini or Fascism). Ezechiele says of Silvestro, “He suffers for the woes of the outraged world.”
The Soldier, an unseen voice that Silvestro hears while in the village cemetery and that holds a dialogue with Silvestro. The voice represents Silvestro’s younger brother, killed on one of Mussolini’s wars of conquest. Silvestro asks him if he suffers, and the voice of the Soldier tells him that he does, especially because of the propaganda and monuments that are raised to the glories of war and soldiery (though the Soldier avoids naming names or giving any specifics).
No Mustache, two Sicilians whom Silvestro meets on the train, men who typify the worst in the Sicilian character for Silvestro. They are callous toward the poor and repressive. “Every starving man is dangerous,” states No Mustache. Both characters are symbolic of the Sicilian problem in Silvestro’s mind, that of lack of charity and consideration for others.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 360
Although more than a dozen men and women play a role in the novel, the story revolves around only three people. Silvestro derives from the same mold that supplies so many protagonists to twentieth century literature. Disaffected, uprooted from his ancestral culture, and tired of a life that neither interests the intellect nor wrings joy from the emotions, he recalls the citizen of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and seems a direct forerunner of Albert Camus’ Meursault in L’Etranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946). Even though the type is well established in a number of national literatures, Silvestro’s depiction has an especially Italian cast. Culturally and economically, Italy’s deepest division is between north and south. Silvestro, like the author, is not only a southerner but also a Sicilian who, for exactly half his life—the desiccated part—has been the product of the industrialized, modern north. The return to his origins represents a renewal of life that draws nourishment from its essential tragedy.
More than Silvestro’s mother, Concezione is an Earth Mother, an embodiment of the female principle. She is associated with the Virgin Mary (whose name day is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, whence comes Concezione’s name), but she is also a vegetation goddess (her sons believed she produced melons from her womb), and the epithet “old sow” alludes to an archetypal representation of the life-giving, nurturing mother. At the same time, however, the regeneration she symbolizes implies the circularity of life and death. Yet before the reader interprets Concezione’s role as a figure for Female Mystery, he is fascinated by Vittorini’s masterly creation of a complicated flesh-and-blood woman who wrestles for dignity and life itself against an ultimately indomitable adversary.
Costantino directly enters the narrative only in the epilogue—and then as a veritable ghost. Even so, through the memories of his son and wife, he is seldom far from the story’s meaning. To the same extent that Concezione is the Female, he is the Male. Exuberant and fatally attracted to illusion in his search for affirmation of life, he is a puer aeternus destined never to understand his failure.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 51
Heiney, Donald. Three Italian Novelists: Moravia, Pavese, Vittorini, 1968.
Lewis, R.W.B. “Elio Vittorini,” in Italian Quarterly. IV (Fall, 1960), pp. 55-61.
Pacifici, Sergio. A Guide to Contemporary Italian Literature: From Futurism to Neorealism, 1962.
Schneider, Marilyn. “Circularity as Mode and Meaning in Conversazione in Sicilia,” in Modern Language Notes. XC (1975), pp. 93-109.
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