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Literature / The Betrothed

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The Betrothed (in Italian I promessi sposi) is an Italian historical novel by Alessandro Manzoni (1785 - 1873). It has been called the most famous and widely read novel of the Italian language.

First published in 1827, the definitive edition dates 1842, the novel is set in northern Italy during the years 1628 - 1630 and narrates the adventures of a peasant couple (Renzo and Lucia) which tries to get married against the wish of a local nobleman. From there a variety of problems ensues. The novel is known for its extreme historical accuracy (which stemmed from an almost obsessive research by the author in first-hand documents of the era), its cast of memorable characters and diverse interpretations and possibilities of meaning (Christian allegory, social commentary etc).

What is undoubted is the great eye of the author to social, political and cultural milieu of the XVII century, which in turn winks an eye to the situation of pre-unification Italy.

The novel is very important for the development of the modern Italian language as it's spoken by the masses, as Manzoni felt the necessity of the unification of the land (Italy as a country would not exist until 1861) and deemed necessary to help establish a simple, elegant, clear form of the Italian language which had no ties to Italy’s numerous regional languages and dialects, but could be read and spoken everywhere in the peninsula. Manzoni made basically the same linguistic choice Dante Alighieri did with the Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) in 1300: he picked the Florentine version of the language (not the over-complex written "official" one, though, but rather the common-spoken "vulgar" Florentine Italian) despite him not being Tuscan, an operation which he himself described as "washing clothes in the river Arno".

Questi tropes non s'han da fare:

  • Amoral Attorney: Azzecca-garbugli the lawyer will always take the side of the rich and powerful.
  • The Atoner: Cristoforo the Monk.
  • Big Bad: Don Rodrigo, the corrupt aristocrat opposed to Renzo and Lucia's marriage.
  • Black Comedy: Don Ferrante's monologue about the impossibility of contagion and that the plague was actually caused by an unlucky astral conjunction while mocking the medics and their precautions against it, and immediately following it up with him being infected and dying while insulting the stars, before guessing his prized library had been dispersed after his death
  • Bilingual Bonus: the Spanish regent of Milan, Antonio Ferrer, speaks in Italian to the crowds gathered in the streets during a revolt to calm them down, and in Spanish to his assistant, in order to have his carriage move out of the way quickly.
  • Country Mouse: Renzo in Milan. His initial naïvete causes him a lot of trouble.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: the Nun of Monza has one: her parents were distant and abusive and forced her to become a nun so that they wouldn't had to pay for her dowry. She felt isolated and trapped in a life she didn't want, and so she ended up breaking her vow of celibacy with a local nobleman and helping him murder a nun who knew about them. The story of the real-life Nun of Monza is even more sordid.
  • Defiant Stone Throw: a captain of the guards gets one while he's trying to calm the rioting population. It ruins his affabily quite a bit.
  • The Dreaded: The Unnamed, so feared that nobody, not even the narrator, dared to pronounce his name, even after his Heel–Face Turn.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Renzo and Lucia get together at the end.
  • The Famine: Two years of poor weather and the war have caused a famine, in both the countryside and Milan. This is the main reasons behind the protests that Renzo finds himself involved in.
  • Heel–Face Turn: The Unnamed: a lord and brigand so scary that not even the narrator dares to pronounce his name and with an uncompromising personality, the meeting with Lucia causes him a spiritual crisis that nearly has him commit suicide, and the encounter with Federico Borromeo completes his turn to good. Aside for Lucia's involvement, this is one of many historical events included in the story.
  • Hot-Blooded: Renzo, despite being a good guy, often acts impulsive and wants to take action and get vengeance. Brother Cristoforo was like this in his youth as well, and sometimes it's still evident.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: No matter what happens to Lucia, she will never question or forget about her faith and moral values.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Two examples:
    • When don Rodrigo discovers to have contracted the plague he tells Griso to bring him a doctor in secret so he wouldn't be quarantined, but Griso instead calls the monatti to have him quarantined and goes through his lord's pockets for loose change. Going through don Rodrigo's pockets results in him contracting the plague and die in two days.
    • Don Ferrante and Donna Prassede host Lucia for a while and try to get her separated from Renzo, resulting in Lucia ultimately ditching them and move to the lazaretto to help caring for the ill. This get them to contract the plague and die, also helped by don Ferrante's strange theories on the causes of the plague and utter denial of contagion, against which he took no precaution.
  • Loophole Abuse: There's quite a few used by both don Rodrigo and Renzo and Lucia:
    • The Tametsi, a decree from the Council of Trento, established that marriage depended only by the will of the spouses, thus banning Parental Marriage Veto and other such vetoes... Except the decree was valid only from its publication in the various countries and parishes, and as it was never published in any parish of the Duchy of Milan don Rodrigo could oppose his veto as the local lord (even if this stretched things).
    • The Tametsi also banned the practice of clandestine marriage, by which a couple could become wedded as long as they declared themselves man and wife in the presence of a priest and two other witnesses (the decree maintained that the priest was only another witness, but also established that the banns of marriage were to be published before the wedding), due this practice, usually reserved for emergency situations, being much abused. As the Tametsi had not been published in the Duchy of Milan and the situation being exactly one the clandestine marriage existed for, Agnese (Lucia's mother) told her daughter and Renzo to do it, and had don Abbondio not been fast enough to throw a carpet at Lucia and run the story would have been much shorter.
  • No Name Given: The Unnamed.
  • Nun Too Holy: Gertrude, the Nun of Monza. The narrator comments about her care for her appearance, her restlessness and general attitude being strange for a nun.
  • The Plague: Part of the story is set during a devastating bubonic plague outbreak, with the plague acting as a mean of divine justice toward the various characters: Renzo, Lucia and don Cristoforo, the good guys, get it but survive without trouble; don Rodrigo, his accomplices and various other villains die of the plague; and don Abbondio, who helped don Rodrigo out of fear, contracts it and survives, if crippled. It's also an occasion for the author to show his research, to the point that two whole chapters are about the (historically recorded) progression of the outbreak and population's reactions to it.
  • Plain Jane: Lucia is a type 2, attracting Renzo for her personality and don Rodrigo because she's a near-impossible conquest, not because of her looks. Lampshaded by some people that after hearing her story were expecting to meet someone much more beautiful.
  • Rabble Rouser: Renzo is mistaken for one after a drunken and personal tirade about the injustice of noblemen manages to excite a crowd who was casually listening
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: In one of the early chapters, Friar Cristoforo goes to Don Rodrigo's palace to convince him to recede from his purpouse. Don Rodrigo is obnoxious, rude and threatening towards the good friar, but Cristoforo patiently bears it all... until Don Rodrigo uncaringly tells him that Lucia should put herself under his protection. At that point, Friar Cristoforo has had enough of this and lays into Don Rodrigo with a blistering speech.
Cristoforo: Your protection? YOUR PROTECTION? 'Tis good that you spoke like that, that you have made such a proposal to me. You have filled the measure; and I fear you no longer."
Don Rodrigo: How dare you speak, friar?
Cristoforo: I speak as one speaks to he who is abandoned by God and is no object of fear. Your protection! I well knew that innocent child is under God's protection. But you, you make me feel it now, with such certainty, that I no longer need have any concern to speak to you about it. Lucia, I say: see how I pronounce this name with my head high, and eyes unblinking.
Don Rodrigo: What! In this house!
Cristoforo: I have compassion of this house: a curse is upon it. You have believed that God made a creature in His own image, to give you the pleasure of tormenting her! You have believed that God would not know how to defend her! You have despised His warning! You have judged yourself. Pharaoh's heart was as hardened as yours; and God was able to break it. Lucia is safe from you: I tell you, poor friar that I am; and as for you, hear well what I promise you. A day will come...
  • Shoot the Messenger: Discussed for the Podestà and Count Attilio, who have an argument about chivalry. Attilio thinks it's legal and moral to beat a messenger who carries bad news, especially if the message is the challenge to a duel.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Renzo and Lucia, the betrothed from the title, for a series of events beyond their control. Avoided in the end.
  • Shown Their Work: What this novel is most famous and praised for. Many characters, including the narratively decisive Nun of Monza, cardinal Federico Borromeo and the Unnamed, are actually Historical Domain Characters doing what they were famous for in the appropriate location and (mostly) time.
    • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Amazingly enough, a story of a local nobleman trying to stop the wedding of a local girl and being opposed by a friar actually happened, down to the famous intimation "This wedding has to not happen!". The main differences with the novel is that the actual events happened in Orgiano, then part not of the Duchy of Milan but of the Republic of Venice, and that it's the Venetian authorities to take care of the nobleman, imprisoning him for life for this and his other crimes.
  • Techno Babble: Used by don Abbondio, a clergyman. He's just trying to find an excuse to convince the young Renzo to postpone his marriage (he has been threatened by the henchmen of a local noble to do that) and starts sprouting nonsense in Latin to impress him. Renzo, although, doesn't fall for it and just roars "Enough of your Latinorum!".
  • Vow of Celibacy: Several characters have taken one. Most relevant in the cases of Lucia, who vows to the Virgin Mary that she will remain a virgin if she's saved from a threat and Gertrude, who breaks her vow with a local nobleman.