Theses Doctoral

Reality and Representation in Giovanni Verga

Arrigoni, Carlo

The works published by Giovanni Verga (1840-1922) between 1878 and 1889 exposed Italian culture to the most innovative European literary trend, French Naturalism, and marked a turning point in the landscape of Italian literature. While Verga’s stylistic choices are meant to create, in his own words, ‘the complete illusion of reality’ (having the author disappear from the text in order to make way for a supposedly unmediated representation), I argue that Verga’s Verist fiction ends up emphasizing precisely the ways in which people represent reality according to their own relative point of view. Since the narrative is given from the unreliable perspective of the characters, all the distortions inherent in every storytelling act become apparent. Their viewpoint is purposefully shown as being partial and informed by individual interests, feelings, and desires. These complex dynamics of representation, or misrepresentation, in Verga’s Verist production are at the heart of my enquiry. This critical focus allows me to reevaluate the traditional representation of Verism and Naturalism as backward-looking phenomena, firmly tied to a notion of art as a mirror up to nature. The present study is situated within a growing body of work (inaugurated by Luperini, Pellini, and Merola) that intends to re-frame Verga as having demonstrably paved the way for twentieth-century Modernism.

The first chapter interrogates the way in which space is transfigured by characters in I Malavoglia (1881). By looking at how narratives of country vs city, past vs present are formed and shaped by the characters’ relative points of view, I argue that the novel should be read not simply as the account of the modernization of a rural village in post-unification Italy, but mainly as a study into how such oppositional narratives are formed and what aims they serve. The second chapter focuses on a specific character-type, the malevolent observer. I argue that this figure can be seen as a representation of the readers in the texts and that it is instrumental in exemplifying Verga’s skepticism toward the heuristic potential of literature. The third chapter examines the gap between reality and representation as articulated in Mastro-don Gesualdo (1889) by situating Verga in a completely new intellectual framework, that of elite theory as formulated by political theorist Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941) and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923). This move allows me to re-read what has become a commonplace of Verga criticism – the theatrical conception of politics in Mastro-don Gesualdo as a bitter commentary on trasformismo – as a much wider point on social history, human nature, and on the inherently slippery essence of language, on its built-in capacity to deceive and dissimulate.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Leake, Elizabeth
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 16, 2021