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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Nathan Haskell Dole (1852–1935)

By Giovanni Verga (1840–1922)

ONE of the chief representatives of so-called “realistic” fiction in Italy is Giovanni Verga, who was born in Catania, Sicily, in 1840. His youth was spent in Florence and Milan; and after living a number of years in his native district, he returned to Milan, where he still resides. He has himself acknowledged that his best inspiration has come from the places which he knew as a boy. He has painted the Sicilian peasant with a master hand. The keen jealousy that leads too frequently to the sudden flash of the stiletto; the grinding poverty which is in such contrast to the beauty of the Sicilian landscape; the squalid sordidness that looks with greater sorrow on the death of an ass than the death of wife or child; the pathetic history of the girl who must go to her shame because life offers no aid to the virtuous poor; the father deprived of his son who must serve his time in the army,—all these motives are used by Verga with consummate power. He understands the force of contrast. He has a rapier wit; the laugh, sardonic too often, follows on the heels of pathos. But it is pathos that is most frequently brought into play,—pathos and the tragic. Few of his stories are not tragic. There is no glamour of triumphant virtue. The drama always ends with death and defeat.

The best known of Verga’s works is the ‘Cavalleria Rusticana,’ which by reason of Mascagni’s genius has become familiar to opera-goers all over the world. The story is short; there are no words wasted: for a moment the sky is bright, then the swift tropic storm comes; one blinding flash, and all the ruin is accomplished. Verga’s flights are generally short. His longest story—‘The Malavoglias’—is in reality a welding into one of a number of short stories. But throughout there is the same minute study of the reality,—the hard, gloomy life of the peasant. Verga, in the introduction or proem to one of his Sicilian tales, gives his notion of what fiction should be:—

  • “The simple truth of human life,” he says, “will always make us thoughtful; will always have the effectiveness of reality, of genuine tears, of the fevers and sensations that have afflicted the flesh. The mysterious processes whereby conflicting passions mingle, develop, and mature, will long constitute the chief fascination in the study of that psychological phenomenon called the plot of a story, and which modern analysis tries to follow with scientific care through the hidden paths of often contradictory complications…. We replace the artistic method, to which we owe so many glorious masterpieces, by a different method, more painstaking and more recondite: we willingly sacrifice the effect of the catastrophe, of the psychological result, as it was seen through an almost divine intuition by the great artists of the past; and we employ instead a logical development, inexorably necessary, less unexpected, less dramatic, but not less fateful. We are more modest, if not more humble; but the conquests that we make with our psychological verities will be none the less useful to the art of the future…. I have a firm belief that the triumph of the Novel, the completest and most human of all the works of art, will increase until the affinity and cohesion of all its parts will be so perfect that the process of its creation will remain a mystery like the development of human passions themselves. I have a firm belief that the harmony of its forms will be so absolute, the sincerity of its reality so evident, its method and justification so deeply rooted, that the artist’s hand will remain absolutely invisible.
  • “Then the romance will seem to portray a real event; and the work of art will apparently have come about by itself, spontaneously springing into birth, and maturing like a natural fact, without any point of contact with its author. It will not have preserved in its living form any stamp of the mind in which it originated, any shade of the eye that beheld it, any trace of the lips that murmured the first words of it as the creative fiat: it will exist by its own reason, by the mere fact that it is as it should be and must be, palpitating with life, and yet as immutable as a bronze statue, the author of which has had the divine courage to eclipse himself, and disappear in his immortal work.”
  • Verga’s earlier stories show decidedly the influence of the French school of fiction. His society novels are conventional and rather vapid, with little native power manifested. Such stories as ‘Helen’s Husband,’ or ‘Eros,’ or ‘Royal Tiger,’ are no more valuable than the average run of French novels. Some of them are over-sentimental, as for instance the ‘Storia di una Capinera.’ But his Sicilian stories have an entirely different character. They smack of real life, and take hold of the imagination. The little story here presented as a specimen of Verga’s realism may perhaps be regarded as morbid; but at the same time it fulfills to the letter the programme laid down in his literary creed quoted above. The story-teller has completely effaced himself. You forget that you are reading fiction: it seems like a transcript from life. Its dramatic power is none the less because it is so repressed. Much is left to the imagination; but the effect of the passions here contrasted—love and jealousy—is clearly seen by the desolation that follows, all the more pathetic because of the relationships of the three protagonists.