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How do belli, verga and serao voice a sense of collective identity?

I Sonetti Romaneschi (1865) , I Malavoglia (1881) and Il Ventre di Napoli (1884) , by Belli, Verga and Serao respectively all work to voice a sense of collective identity for the lower class and expose their socio-economic challenges to wider Italy. One can summarise I Sonneti as ‘a manifesto denouncing the corruption and wrongdoings of the ruling class whilst asserting the rights of the impotent poor’ . The rejection of standardised Italian in favour of dialectical flourishes is a common feature of all three writers. Their linguistical nuances help to establish the identity of the impoverished and give them a sense of legitimacy amongst the rest of society. Belli’s success was in voicing this community however his work produced little social change. Verga and Serao however had the legitimacy of Verismo and so were able to mobilise their musings and precipitate social reform. Their works have more weight than Belli’s commentary on society. Verga’s efforts to voice a sense of collective reality can be summarised as ‘an exercise in moral imagination and self-reflection ’. In ‘the polyvalence of a multi-perspective concept of reality’ and style of moral realism, Verga presents us with a solemn story of the Malavoglia family who fall to ruin in Sicily. Parks argues that Verga ‘presents life as it is, free from the distortions of idealistic perspectives’ . Verga’s novel helps the reader to understand Italian history during this new epoch of nation building and loss of regional individualism. Serao’s articles ‘depicts both the vitality and despair of her beloved Naples’ . Against a backdrop of severe cholera outbreaks, we see Serao inspired by Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris to take an anthropological approach in investigating the living conditions of the poorest sect of Italian society. Serao understood the power of “the novel born as merchandise” and consequently utilised Verismo to offer a powerful and positive presentation of Neapolitan lower-class life.

Belli’s Sonetti can be summarised as a ‘feat of dirty realism’ . His poetry attempts to change Mazzini and the upper echelon’s dismissal of the lower class as inactive members of society through voicing a resilient, tragic and at times inspirational plebe identity. In thousands of sonnets he prompts discussion of religion, society, corruption and community. However it is in Belli’s construction of domestic tableaus that he most aptly voices a sense of collective identity. Stocks argues that Belli’s use of language ‘reveals itself as a primary and synthetic symbol of truth in the face of an artificially constructed social order’ . We see proof of this in Belli’s increased use of dialect and diminutives in his sonnets. The word endings of “carbonc-ello”(line3) and “buccal-etto”(line 12 in La bbona famijjia evoke images of meagreness and voice a sense of resilience as a family make the best of their low quality of life. In the phrase “zanta pasce”(line 14) Belli and the reader are forced to appreciate the peasant community and their sense of peace in battling through hardship. It is a united front always. The use of “Noi” as the opening word in Li du’ggenri’umani and “pijjeremo er pane”(line 8) coupled with “viè in braccio a mma tua che tt’ariscalla”( line14) in La famijja poverella positively voices this sense of community and self-sacrifice for the more vulnerable.

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Contrasting to Belli, Serao’s use of dialect does not aid in the construction of characters, but instead encouraged a discourse of community spirit and support to those living in Naples. Her use of suffixes and diminutives do not have an intended effect of humour or sarcasm, they emphasise her understanding of the poverty situation, that she was one of them. Serao places herself between the two poles of Naples and richer Italy. In Quello Che Mangia , her linguistical focus has a didactic formula; her exoticising of food in ingredient lists such as “acete, orginano, formaggio”(P.3) gives a sense of this populace’s vitality and moves to excite the reader. Similarly to Belli’s Roman plebs, Serao’s poverty-stricken Neapolitans still pride themselves on their meals even as they don’t eat regularly. Although Belli’s Sonetti have a positive intention he falls victim to playing to a gallery of northern readers, at times presenting the plebs ‘from jaundiced perspectives of other highly compromised characters’ . Serao however makes clear that the Neapolitans are not a spectacle like “di fotagrafie napoletane, che gli inglesi comprano”(P.3), but a strong community who deserve the government’s support.

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Indeed, Serao seems to go a step further than Belli in constructing an image of hardship by inserting herself into the action. In Quello che mangia, her scientific approach in mentioning a food or delicacy such as “il soffritto”(P.5) and then defining it fits with the objective model of verismo journalism. However, she always strives to bring her writing back to a sense of collective identity, including herself through emphatic language like “in bocca, sembra dynamite” (P.5). Serao emphasises here that she is one of them, that they will survive these times of extreme poverty together. Further, her opening fable of “il suo astro impalidì e tramontò, in Roma; pianta esotica, morì in questa solennità romana” (P.1) sets the moralising tone of her articles; if you’re not from the South you won’t understand the Southern issue without a proper education. Additionally, in the phrasing of “la gente agiata”(P.4) in Quello Che Mangia, she defines her people as those with only “un soldi”(P.2) and in her use of dialect numerical systems (vintiquatto! Sissantannove!) (P.3) in Il Lotto she physically inserts herself into these scenarios and encourages the reader to join.

Akin to Serao, Verga’s I Malavoglia has moments of celebrating his tragic characters. Examples are seen in the fisherman use a united phraseology in “gente di mare”(P.1) to define themselves and Mena choosing her family’s betterment over her individual happiness. As the age of industry is on quite literally on the horizon, one wonders whether the community’s homogenous identity is at threat. Baldini argues that ‘modernity has eroded the locally rooted traditions that preserved authentic values’ in the novel. We see this in young ‘Ntoni’s desperation to join those in the city who eat “carne e pasta” every day. Verga voices an identity here that aligns with that of Serao’, but contrasting to her positive, politicising purpose, Verga merely presents a desire for betterment as a catalyst for increased suffering.

At a point of difference with both Belli and Serao, Verga adopts a stricter, more anthropological verismo. One could argue that he objectively depicts the traditionalist regional identity through Padre ‘Ntoni, and the break from this in favour of social betterment and industrial prosperity through his corrupted grandson. In essence, Verga is simply revealing the tragic effects of any attempt to either circumvent or take advantage of this moment of societal and historical uncertainty. Verga presents the dichotomy of the southern collective identity within a context of dramatic historical change. This supports Baldini’s view that ‘the literary value for I Malavoglia consists either in the expression of a nostalgia for the good life within a traditional community, or in the defiant attitude towards a nihilist modernity’ . Italian unification undoubtedly left the poorer sects of Italian society in a worse position. Verga employs a heavy usage of free indirect discourse to voice the subsequent conflict between ‘the earliest manifestations of bourgeois individualism within a community that is still archaic’ . Through an eye witness narrator, Verga exhibits the new singularity of the Malavoglia identity. There is a poignant contrast between the warm description of the community “in ogni casa si ornavano di frasche e d’arance le immagini dei santi” and the alienated, confused identity of the Malavoglia family, “solo in casa dei Malavoglia la statua del buon pastore rimaneva all’oscuro” .There is no longer a sense of ‘an idealised picture of the close community as the bulwark against a heartless and alienated society’ , for one can see the Malavoglia identity becoming more singular as they are ostracised from the village’s uniformity by their misfortune.

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Whilst Verga was aware of the politicising power his novel would have and supported social and economic progress, I Malavoglia can be categorised as a novel of historical realism, a depiction of the downfall that comes as a result of a breakdown of this past collective identity. By resisting the changes brought by unification, the once homogenous group of proud fisherman seems to be trapped in a “melancolia soffocante” . Padre ‘Ntoni’s break with tradition in his attempts to secure financial stability by irresponsibly taking out a loan sides with Tellini’s argument that this new industrial Italian identity prompted ‘tragic historical degradation that sweeps away even the humble, drawing them into the ‘fiumana del progreso’ . The past way becomes separate from this collective identity, for this identity has become unpredictable for the first time. Verga makes use of an eyewitness discourse to belittle ‘Ntoni as “un uccelacio di camposanto” who rattles “proverbi senza capo e senza coda” . The mutual congruity is disappearing as ‘the old patriarch appears in the end…as a sort of poor imbecile’ . Baldini comments that Verga would become the first post-unification writer to tell stories about ‘un italia d’identità nazionale non vacante né labile, bensì un’ identita nazionale plurima’ . Verga’s is a valiant effort to construct an informed and accurate insight into southern Italy’s living and social conditions.

The subtle religious discourse of all three writers further voices a collective identity. Belli is the most blatant in his discussion of religious relief and its inclusion in the identity of the Roman plebs. The line “provedeteme voi che lo potete”(line 3) in La famijja poverella is emphatic in its portrayal of the working class desperately seeking help from a higher being. Further Belli’s endearing suffixes of “pissciatina” and “sarvereggina”(line 13) in La bbonna famijjia heighten the plebe’s desperation for physical and spiritual relief from their impoverished circumstance. We see the intense desire for “tutti anelan di salir più siu”(line6) again in Le classi sociali . It seems faith, however foolish Belli deems it to be, is the only constant source of comfort for this community and thus becomes a part of their identity. This draws parallel to Il Lotto, where Serao makes use of religious language to criticise the state and its “rimedi fittizi”(P.6) for the Neapolitan poverty crisis. She appropriates religious language in condemning this “malattia dello spirit”(P.2). The naïve hopes of the Neapolitans will be crushed, as will their blind faith in the Pope to come to their aid. We also see criticism of the Papal system in Verga’s ominous naming of the ‘Provvidenza’ boat. There is a clear reliance on faith which has penetrated this poverty-stricken community in all three historical time periods. Serao even extends this collective naivety to the upper classes “per l’oppressione di una nota di sarta che il marito non salderà mai”(Il Lotto, P.5). Are the writers then criticising the poor’s religious identity, or are they simply demonstrating that without a system of effectual government support whole communities must fall back on the “acquavite”(Il Lotto, P.6) of hope that religion brings?

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Thus all three writers make use of varying linguistical devices to voice a positive sense of collective identity. Belli’s dialectical constructions position in him in a new category of social commentary, it cannot be ignored for it is literally voicing the poor’s identity and struggles in their own language. Dialect provides him with licence to transcend the conventional restrictions of 19th century mores on literary expression but on the other hand dialect is undoubtedly the reason for his relative neglect. In contrast, Verga ultimately voices this collective identity as tragic, and rapidly dissolving. Arguably Verga’s work is a comment on the risked dilution of Italy’s strong traditional southern heritage in the wake of technological advances and Garibaldi’s nation building that promoted an amalgam of conflated Italian identity and oneness. To this effect, one has must side with Parks in his claim that the poignancy in I Malavoglia is ‘the collective failure- is it Verga’s failure too?- To imagine the world as anything other than a long and ruthless power struggle’ .

This is at contrast to Serao who’s conclusive goal is to celebrate the Neapolitan working class community and its unique identity whilst emphasising their unjust living conditions. Serao wanted to change the popular perception of Neapolitans as ‘semi-barbarian Africans’ . Serao’s articles work to uplift the perceived position of Napoli in the wider Italian society but one also sees her objective in presenting an issue the state cannot ignore. The Neapolitan identity is strong but suffers under the weight of the state’ neglect. Serao’s articles are to be consumed by the state and higher classes in an effort to inspire change. In this light Salsini argues that Serao asks readers to’ examine the social and economic factors that have brought them to this state’ . She forces her readers to look beyond the external façade of social decay and poverty, asking them to ‘enter into the secret of those lives, which are odes to daily martyrdom, to incalculable sacrifices, to burdens endured without a murmur’ . Serao’s narrative strategy is a tool to voice a sense of collective unity and to inspire “simple morality in action” .

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