Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Silvestro Ferrauto

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

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

Great Lombard, a nickname given to one of Silvestro’s fellow passengers on the train journey across Sicily. He is Sicilian but of Lombard...

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The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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.


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.