Forming the Soul – Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed

Hieromonk German (Ciuba) | 15 August 2012

 On the recommendation of an acquaintance, I had some time ago put on my mental list of books to read, The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. Although my old Catholic Encyclopedia referred to it as a great work by the greatest Italian novelist, I had a difficult time tracking down a copy. Finally, I received a copy as a gift from my brother, who had found it in a second-hand book store; it had been discarded by the New York Public Library.

Archbald Colquhoun, translator of this 1951 American edition, writes in a biographical note about Manzoni: “Few novelists have tried to concentrate as much into one book as Manzoni has in I Promessi Sposi. It is not only the first modern Italian novel; for Italy it is all Scott, Dickens and Thackery rolled into one volume. … It has gone into over 500 editions, and been translated into every major language, including Chinese. … Children in Italian Government schools now begin studying it at the age of nine. Tuscan peasants quote pages of it by heart.” Curious as to whether it deserved the high praise given it by such illustrious writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Walter Scott and Goethe, and why it became a national classic in Italy, I decided to read it sooner rather than later. So, when I left for my vacation in October, I took with me The Betrothed.  I was quickly captivated by the story, the style and the characters, and, having finished it, I can say that it does indeed merit the high praise it has been accorded. I number it among those novels of Providence, as I like to call them, which have become favorites of mine, such as Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey, or Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop.

The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi), which appeared in its final form in 1840, is the story of two Italian peasants, Renzo and Lucia, who are deeply in love and engaged to be married. A cruel nobleman, however, has evil designs on poor Lucia, and sets out to prevent their marriage and to force himself on Lucia. That sounds like a typical nineteenth-century romance, the type which makes for good opera. But to say that The Betrothed is such a romance would be like saying that Crime and Punishment is a detective story. Manzoni took a familiar and attractive literary genre, as did Dostoevsky, and used it as the vehicle for something more complex than it seems on the surface. Manzoni makes his narrator the reteller of a tale found in an old book written by an anonymous chronicler. This device gives the story another layer, a story within a story. We are not simply reading an old book; we are hearing its story recounted by a congenial storyteller, who is very present throughout the book, offering comments and opinions.

Nowadays romance has been debased to the level of mere passion. Stories labelled as romances are all too often narrations of how the passion of lust affects two or more people. Now that our society has practically abandoned traditional religious strictures against pornography, romances are typically supplied with steamy scenes, not fit for a Christian reader or viewer’s eyes. I can tell you that you won’t find even a single passionate kiss in The Betrothed, or, for that matter, anything less that would offend the sensibilities of a monastically-inclined reader. It is a true romance, in which love, not lust, is the important ingredient. Following true Christian principles, both marriage and virginity are held in high honor. In the beginning of the story, when Renzo visits with Lucia, he does so in the presence of her solicitous mother, Agnese, whom he comes to love as his own mother. It is unthinkable to them that their relationship should be anything other than a Christian marriage, blessed by the Church in the person of its priest. The obstacles which others put in the way of their church wedding set the whole story in motion.

How refreshing it is to see this Christian attitude towards marriage! One of the ways in which God’s plan for man’s happiness and salvation is now being violated is the destruction of the sacrament of marriage, and with it the grace of raising a family that flows from it. The communists in Russia made church weddings a rarity, while promoting civil marriage, divorce and abortion. The secularists who are taking over our society are carrying out the same program here. Their methods are slower and less violent, but their effects are the same. Reading a work from our Christian legacy from the past serves as a corrective to our acceptance of the immoral standards of today’s society. In The Betrothed we find a society clearly committed to the age-old Christian moral way of life: virginity before marriage, for both men and women; marriage for life, blessed by the Church; family life as the logical outcome of marriage. Finally, marriage is seen in the perspective of death, which leads to eternal life. A young couple about to be married is given this sound and sober counsel: “Love each other as fellow travellers, with the thought that you must leave each other and with the hope of finding each other again for ever.”

The story soon assumes a wider scope than one of two lovers. It turns into a historical novel. Historical fiction is not usually a favorite genre of mine. Generally, I prefer to read either straight history or pure fiction. Manzoni, however, does not confuse history by fictionalising it; rather, he weaves documented accounts of historical fact into the course of his novel. History is not spiced or sugared, but placed in between layers of the story, like lasagna. And what a brutal history! The action takes place in Lombardy in the years 1628-1630, years which saw Milan and the villages around it devastated by war, famine, pestilence and death in quick succession. Because mass media now span the globe, we are at once informed of calamities taking place in all parts of the world. The constant waves of horrific stories serve to produce in us a general sense of mental malaise. We are overwhelmed by spectres of ever-threatening disaster, though for the most part most of us are untouched by it. It has become politically correct to call for massive government action against certain diseases, often those whose sufferers have the best means for political lobbying. There is nothing in the experience of any of us who have grown up in North America that can compare with the catastrophe of the plague that struck Milan in 1630. According to one source cited by Manzoni, the population of the city was reduced from 250,000 to 64,000 by about one year of the plague. Everyone in the city, not to mention the surrounding towns and countryside, was affected in some way, including the characters of the story.

Alessandro Manzoni’s 1827 classic, by many accounts the first modern Italian novel, concerns star-crossed lovers in 17th-century Lombardy. It remains hugely popular in Italy, where it has been made into several films and even a stage musical. Better known as I Promessi Sposi in its original Italian 

 One of the things that charmed me about The Betrothed is that, in reading it, one enters into a period and a place that breathed Christianity. There was no shortage of evil, cruel and venal people. Indeed, one of the most striking things in the novel is the sight of the rich and powerful ignoring all laws with impunity, surrounded by gangs of hired killers. It reminded me of urban America or post-communist Russia. Yet even the evil have a grounding in Christianity; somewhere buried deep down within remains a shred of the fear of God, which may be enough to bring them to repentance in the end. In fact, two of the most moving portrayals in the whole book are of great public sinners who repent. Everything is affected by the Church and the moral law it upholds. Among the chief characters of the story are the saintly Capuchin Franciscan friar, Fra Cristoforo, the historical personage of the admirable Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, the very ordinary parish priest Don Abbondio and the startling, wretched figure of the Nun of Monza. Lucia, when in her deepest distress, turns to the Madonna in prayer. Her fiancé, Renzo, a young man in love, an illiterate peasant who is a skilled silk-weaver by trade, is forced to leave his native land, fleeing for his life; when, exhausted after travelling all night, he finds shelter in a hut in the fields, he does not fail to kneel down to pray before going to sleep. For those of us who live in the world and fall short of the high level of spirituality found in the writings of the Holy Fathers, even a short novel can serve as a teacher of prayer. We know that our sanctification lies in doing the will of God. The Gospel of our salvation opens with the most pure Virgin Mary saying to God’s messenger, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” Our Lord teaches us to pray to our heavenly Father, “Thy will be done.” About to die, He Himself says to His Father, “Not My will, but Thine be done.” With the Psalmist we sing, “Teach me to do Thy will, for Thou art my God.” Yet how often our wills rebel against God’s will; how often our minds find it difficult to pronounce the words, “Thy will be done,” with full conviction. Listen to how Fra Cristoforo taught Renzo and Lucia to pray: “Let us all pray to the Lord … that He may give you strength and love, so that you yourselves may desire what He has desired for you.” What a gentle little way of expressing what we most need, to do God’s will! Perhaps we are not strong enough to say simply, “Thy will be done.” Very well, we pray God to give us strength and love that we may ourselves desire what He wills. This thought, at once condescending to our weakness and uplifting it, sheds light on what we pray every day in our morning prayers: “By Thy true light and with an enlightened heart vouchsafe (or allow, permit, grant) me to do Thy will.” Fra Cristoforo’s own life is witness to the spirit of this prayer. When, already infected with the plague, he is asked, “How are you?” he replies, “As God wishes, and as, by His grace, I wish too.” At the very end of the book, the author tells us that the “juice of the whole tale” is that troubles are inevitable in life, but confidence in God can lighten them and turn them to our improvement. A book of spiritual reading could give no better lesson.

The Christian’s conformity to God’s will is nothing like Oriental fatalism. It does not take away from us the power to act, even the duty to act; it teaches us not to rely too much on our own action. To do acts of charity is to do the will of the Lover of mankind. Fra Cristoforo is always ready to fight for justice, to stand up for the oppressed against the wealthy and powerful. The religious order to which he belongs, the Capuchins (a particularly strict branch of the Franciscan order), are entrusted with the care of the sick and dying in the Milanese lazaretto. Cardinal Federigo is famous for his charity. There are many instances of charity in the lives of the ordinary characters who people the novel; for instance, Renzo, himself a refugee, gives away his last coins to a starving family, saying, “Here’s to Providence!”

Another spiritual theme which runs throughout the book is that of forgiveness. Fra Cristoforo’s own story is one of pride, sin, repentance, and then forgiveness. He led a worldly life before a stunning incident moved him to embrace the poverty and penitence of the Franciscan order. I was reminded a little of that greatest of fictional monks, Dostoevsky’s Starets Zosima. Asking forgiveness, forgiving and being forgiven changed his life, and he became a preacher of forgiveness. His advice of raising children is, “Tell them always to forgive, always. Everything, everything.” When Lucia and Renzo have been gravely wronged by a cruel enemy and forced to separate and flee, Fra Cristoforo offers this prayer for them: “We pray to Thee also for the poor wretch who has brought us to this pass. We should be unworthy of Thy mercy if we did not implore it for him from the bottom of our hearts; his need of it is so great. … Take pity on him, O Lord; touch his heart; reconcile him to Thee; grant him all the blessings we could wish for ourselves.” There is nothing more fundamentally Christian than this insistence on forgiveness, which comes from our Lord Himself. In the end, both the oppressed and the oppressors must face death and be humbled.

Another charming thing about The Betrothed is the gentle humor with which the narrator tells his story. He sees all the foibles of his characters; he does not justify their mistakes, but recounts them with a kindly tolerance and forbearance. It is a refreshing humor, so unlike the crude leering and the acid sarcasm which are passed off for humor today. We should not laugh to ridicule people because they are ridiculous and we are superior; but we can smile at the comedy of the life in which we are all equally funny players. In reading The Betrothed, we have Alessandro Manzoni as a friendly companion, self-deprecating and cheerful as he retells his tale. Speaking of one of the minor characters, Bortolo, a relative of Renzo’s who helps him generously but not without a certain self-interest, he comments, “Perhaps you, reader, would prefer a more ideal Bortolo? If so, then all I can say is make one up for yourself. This one was like that.” In the end, the whole story of The Betrothed, the promessi sposi, hinges on a promise. The promise is sacred and must not be violated; it has consequences that condition all other considerations. The very sacredness of the promise stands as a rebuke to our age of insincerity, instability and deceit. I don’t want to give away more details of the story, because I hope that some of you will want to read it for yourselves. Like anything worthwhile, it requires some effort, since the subject and the style are far removed from those of contemporary writing. Manzoni once wrote, “Religion is so beautiful, that almost necessarily it decorates the works where it is introduced, however weakly; its grandeur, wisdom, sweetness and usefulness have, I should say, a literary attraction.” Having read his masterpiece, I can say that his work shows the truth of his words. Hieromonk German Ciuba

Source: Ortodox America website

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