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Freedom in Fiction: The Leopard

While the Irish celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day this week, Italians are celebrating National Unification Day, memorialized by Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s classic novel The Leopard.

This “great book,” often called Italy’s Gone with the Wind, follows the private thoughts of a scientifically minded Sicilian prince as he tries to make sense of the newly emerging Italian democracy and his place in it. This tumultuous upheaval in 19th century Italy―obscure to most Americans―forced the aristocracy and middle class to face social and cultural change not terribly different from Margaret Mitchell’s observations of the American South during roughly the same timeframe.

The Leopard also offers a prism through which we Americans might reflect on the dramatic changes unfolding in our political landscape this presidential primary season.

Don Fabrizio―The Leopard’s protagonist―wants to preserve his aristocratic lifestyle while recognizing that the future will belong to a new kind of man. The “new man” will not be an aristocrat, but a politician. Aristocrats, for all their faults, represent stability, predictability, and unchanging order. Sicilians know what to expect of them.

In contrast, the Garibaldi revolution inaugurates the democratic age. The man and woman who can succeed socially, politically, and financially make quick impressions, change their views when their factions fall from power, and work a room full of people to their advantage.

Don Fabrizio’s nephew and his middle-class, newly rich, fiancée are this “new” man and woman:

Conquered for ever by the youth’s [his nephew’s] affectionate banter, he had begun during the last few months to admire his intelligence too: that quick adaptability, that worldly penetration, that innate artistic subtlety with which he could use the demagogic terms then in fashion while hinting to initiates that for him, [the nephew], this was only a momentary pastime….Tancredi, he considered, had a great future….[H]e lacked only one thing: money; this Tancredi did not have; none at all. And to get on in politics, now that a name counted less, would require a lot of money: money to buy votes, money to do the electors favors, money for a dazzling style of living.

The new regime respects Don Fabrizio’s “dignified and liberal attitude,” made manifest during the town’s first election; but he refuses to take a seat in the Italian Senate when begged to do so:

“I belong to an unfortunate generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both. And what is more, as you must have realized by now, I am without illusions; what would the Senate do with me, an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for wanting to guide others? We of our generation must draw aside….Now you need young men, bright young men, with minds asking ‘how’ rather than ‘why,’ and who are good at masking, at blending, I should say, their personal interests with vague public ideals.”

Don Fabrizio’s melancholy nostalgia for the old order coexists with his belief in the inevitability of the new. However, Lampedusa is clear-eyed about the human failings that can corrupt all political systems. Democracy promises an equal voice for the common man, but electoral politics are only as fair as individuals are honest. Lampedusa paints a poignant image of the middle class struggling for acceptance on equal footing with the “old families.” He shows how transparently money buys power and influence until the “new families” in time become as entrenched in their social positions as the old.

Gone with the Wind describes the blending of classes and shifting political realities under uniquely American circumstances. Lampedusa’s The Leopard shows how universal Mitchell’s themes are. Italy’s history of revolution and social change can shed light on our own American story. The consequences of cynicism, civic complacency, political corruption, and rapid change are vivid when we view them through another country’s eyes. The cultural phenomena depicted by both writers are especially worth thinking about this spring, as populist candidates from both ends of the political spectrum successfully appeal to fed-up voters—voters who have the power to bring about the next seismic wave that reshapes American politics.

(Burt Lancaster starred in an award-winning film version of The Leopard in 1963.)

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