Agnes and Mary Magdalene, modern heroines.
A contemporary reading of The Mother (Grazia Deledda)
The writer Mario Ciusa Romagna says that during a Good Friday service, at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Snow in Nuoro (Sardegna), Grazia Deledda was openly rebuked by the preacher, who, significantly, was not from Nuoro. He “directly pointed at her saying that rather than writing certain unworthy stories, she should to pray to God.”1 This angered the congregation, and the insult suffered by Deledda did not remain without consequences. Gentleman Antonio Ballero, a prominent figure in the city, confronted the overzealous priest outside the church, and the two, tells Ciusa Romagna, came to blows. In her hometown it was intolerable that Grazia Deledda’s honour was to be offended, even when the accusations come from men of the church.
The men of the church did not forgive Deledda’s audacity for writing about priests. She was charged of not surrounding them of the halo of the “priestly character”, as Giovanni Colombo (Cardinal Archbishop of Milan from 1963 to 1979) stated. The prelate reprimanded Deledda for considering, in the priest, “almost the man only”; in short of having committed a crime of lese-majesty. “She is hopeless,” Colombo continued, “Deledda’s religion is immanent rather than transcendent, and the soul of the Catholic priesthood escapes her completely.”2 I beg to differ radically from a judgment so rushed and soaked in the very same clerical rhetoric that Deledda denounced in her novels.3
The Mother was published in 1920 but became famous worldwide after its English translation in 1923.4 The 1928’s edition was introduced by a long essay by David Herbert Lawrence.5 This was the same year that the British writer wrote his most famous novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Lawrence, while contributing to the novel’s fame, hijacked its reception along with a questionable interpretation. He reproached Deledda for not emphasizing ‘primitiveness’ and ‘passion’, qualities most sought by Lawrence. On the contrary, Deledda proposes two figures, Mary Magdalene and Agnes who can be considered forerunners of feminist emancipation. It was in the years immediately following the First World War, when Deledda wrote her novel, that the first stirrings of women’s emancipation began
The consciousness of Agnes, modern heroine
Agnes is a young woman with whom Paulo, the parish priest of the village of Aar, has woven a loving relationship. Giovanni Colombo, without human understanding or sympathy, used the usual clichés of clerical sexism, to describe her as ‘femme fatale’, ‘seduced and seductive’, the one who has the priest as her slave, and then threatens him with scandal and revenge. But Agnes is not like this. She is, rather, a ‘modern heroine’. I used this last expression for the first time in my speech at the event dedicated to Deledda in Macau (May 28, 2014). It seemed to me that it might sound somewhat excessive. But then I read the article that Prof. Giuseppe Marci, one of the leading Deledda’s experts, presented in Macau and Hong Kong. I noticed with satisfaction that he also described Agnes in exactly the same fashion, a ‘modern heroine”.6 And this is why I chose the title of this article, and extended the definition to Mary Magdalene, the mother of the priest Paulo.
Agnes unmasks clerical rhetoric
Paulo visits the home of Agnes with the apparent intention of terminating the relationship. He uses religious wording, of which he, as a priest, is the depository, to corner Agnes. His speech is peppered with big words such as truth, consciousness, God, sacrifice. But Agnes exposes the true motivations of Paulo: he is not driven by the search for truth; or for the fear of God; but by the fear of his mother, of the people and of a scandal. Agnes counters him with another truth, the truth they had already experienced together:
Then what is the truth? Why did you not speak like that last night? And the other nights? Because it was a different kind of truth then. Now somebody has found you out, perhaps your mother herself, and you are afraid of the world. It is not the fear of God which is driving you away from me!7
Agnes was right. The same Paulo had admitted to himself that,
more than the fear and the love of God, more than the desire for promotion and the hatred of sin, was his terror of the consequences of an open scandal.8
Agnes is well conscious of her dignity as a adult woman; she can’t suffer being treated like a capricious girl, or as a toy. She rejects the idea of being the seducing one, or the one without a moral conscience:
Conscience? Of course I have a conscience, I am no longer a child! And my conscience tells me that I did wrong in listening to you. (…) I did not go to your home, but you came to mine and played with me as if I had been a child’s toy.9
The titanic confrontation between Agnes and Paulo is getting harsher: God himself is now being called into question. And Agnes, a truly ‘modern’ woman, casts doubts on the action and even, in some way, on the very existence of God:
Why did not God make you see things clearly at first? (…) O God, if there be a God, He should not have let us meet each other if we must part again. And you came to-night because you love me still. You think I don’t know that? I do know, I do know, and that is the truth!10
But rather than rebel against God, Agnes rebels against his exploitation, against Paulo’s attempt of using him a convenient alibi. Agnes rejects the religious language used as a shield that hypocritically defends only one side, the priest’s one. It is as though God himself is clerical, and must necessarily take that side:
We must be pure and brave, you say, but you never said that before tonight. You fill me with horror! Go away, far away, and go at once, so that to-morrow I can wake up without the terror of expecting you and being humiliated like this again. (…) Last night you said, ‘Let us go away, we will get married and I will work.’ Didn’t you say that? Didn’t you? But to-night you come and talk to me instead about God and sacrifice. So now there is an end of it all: we will part. But you, I say it again, you must leave the village this very night, I never wish to see you again. If tomorrow morning you go once more into our church to say Mass I shall go there too, and from the altar steps I shall say to the people: ‘This is your saint, who works miracles by day and by night goes to unprotected girls to seduce them!’11
An adult woman and independent
We are in 1920, and the story is set in Barbagia, Sardinia’s most inland and remote mountain region. Undoubtedly Deledda has a great courage and a sound self-assurance to defy the inevitable scandal that the church hierarchy would stir up by her unconventional writing about priests. It’s the same courage and self-awareness that Agnes has. Empowered by her feelings, she rejects the facade to which even some clergymen were accustomed. Agnes is a wounded woman; she plays her cards to keep the man she loves, but not at any cost, not at the expense of her own dignity. She is a woman who has respect for herself; her feelings are, even if it may seem paradoxical under the circumstances, pure and noble:
Do you think you are speaking to a child? I am old, and it is you who have made me grow old in a few hours. The straight path of life! Oh, yes, it would be going straight if we continued this secret intrigue, wouldn’t it? I should find myself a husband and you should marry me to him, and then we could go on seeing each other, you and I, and deceiving every one for the rest of our lives. Oh, you don’t know me if that is your idea! (…)So now there is an end of it all: we will part. But you, I say it again, you must leave the village this very night, I never wish to see you again.12
Agnes shouts and repeats, with great passion and dignity, that she is a woman, not a child, an adult woman who is economically independent. Perhaps there is an echo here of the feminist emancipation movement that came to life in those years. Deledda seems aware that, for real emancipation, women must not only achieve self-respect and respect for their dignity as adults, but achieve economic independence as well. Deledda offers us a portrait of a modern heroine, able to make her decisions independently and who is emancipated from subordination to the paternalistic and male-dominated world that surrounds her:
I have money, you know, it is my own. And your mother and my brothers and every one else will excuse us afterwards when they see that we only wanted to live according to the truth. We cannot go on living like this, no, we cannot!13
Grazia Deledda herself, in a radio interview released after the 1926 Nobel Prize, proudly declared that she had achieved everything a woman would ever want for herself. Attracted by the world, she chose to live in Rome, “where after the radiance of youth, I built my house, where I live a quiet life with my partner.”14
Agnes and Paulo face each other and, as Giuseppe Marci rightly points out, they are simply a man and a woman who must deal with their own feelings and the impediments that hinder their implementation. Yes, Paulo is a man! His name is never accompanied by ecclesiastical titles such as “don”, “father”, or other. Deledda had the audacity of bringing the arguments between Paulo and Agnes to the universal one between a man and a woman who love each other, and who at the same time seek and repel each other. Agnes, however, seems possessing a lucidity and clarity that is missing in Paulo:
Go, go!… I did not send for you! Since we must be brave, why did you come back? Why have you kissed me again? Ah, if you think you can play with me like this you are mistaken! If you think you can come here at night and write me humiliating letters in the day you are mistaken again! You came back to-night and you will come back tomorrow night and every night after that, until at last you drive me mad. But I won’t have it, I won’t have it!15
As often happens to men in the complicated romances, Paulo is not a man evil without scruples; more simply he is a helpless man who lacks the courage to do the right thing:
Yes, I must leave tonight. Christ Himself commands us to avoid creating scandals. (…) But he felt that all this was mere exaltation and that he had not the courage to do as he proposed.16
Deledda and the priests
The author of this critical note is impressed by the knowledge displayed by Grazia Deledda on what, in a similar situation, can happen in the soul and mind of a priest. I think that some priests or former priests could relate to Paulo’s inner drama. They might very much relate to the unremitting and dramatic swing between God and the devil; passion and duty; grace and sin; guilt and atonement; crime and punishment; heaven and hell; bliss and torment; spirit and flesh; good and evil; salvation and damnation; light and darkness. Deledda depicts heavily colored atmospheres, where the life of the priest is described in terms of proximity, dialogue and daily struggle with the devil. Our mind goes to the novels of George Bernanos’ Under the Sun of Satan (1926) and Diary of a Country Priest (1936). Obviously, the novels of Deledda precede those of Bernanos.
Deledda well knows another issue which affects the lives of priests: the very special bond that, for better or for worse, binds many priests to their mother. Movie director Nanni Moretti had clearly perceived this same matter in the beautiful film La messa è finita (The Mass is ended, 1985). More than once, priests find the courage to leave the priesthood only after the death of the mother (we will return to this at the end of the article). Giovanni Colombo accuses Deledda of understanding nothing about priests. On the contrary, I think that Deledda knows them quite well! Where did she obtain this information?
In Deledda’s family, there were “wise people, but also of violent one and primitive artists”.17 There was an uncle, Sebastiano, who was a priest. In his library, the young Grazia found many books to read avidly. What surprises me is that Deledda was in correspondence with Primo Mazzolari, the priest writer and partisan, one of the most vibrant and noble voices of the twentieth century Catholicism. He was, needless to say, reprimanded by the hierarchy. The rather unique connection between Deledda and Mazzolari originated because the well-known pastor of Bozzolo (Mantova) knew Grazia’s husband, Palmiro Madesani, a native of nearby Viadana. The same Deledda spent periods of time in northern Italian region of Lombardy, where her great-grandchildren now live. I do not know the contents of the correspondence between Grazia and Fr. Primo; but if Grazia wanted to meet with a priest who was free, sincere and non-conformist, in Don Primo she had found the very best.
Beyond her familiarity with some priests, Deledda knew how to dig deep into the recesses of the human soul and its anxieties. Paulo was a priest but, above all, he was a man. Knowing men, Deledda also knows priests.
Towards the clergy, Deledda seems to have an attitude of respect, disenchantment and detachment at the same time. A friend told me that Sardinian people (often) share this attitude towards the clergy. There is respect for their sacred function; it is accepted that they represent a potent and unavoidable power; a power which is not only spiritual, but also political and economic. This power has weighed heavily on the history of Sardinia. Sardinian people realize very well that their (of the priests) sermons are not believable; and it is from them that a sincere believer would expect an example of evangelical life; or a secure and selfless guide for their souls.
The faith of Deledda
If the church hierarchy was irritated with Grazia Deledda, the Sardinian writer lived her life following a profoundly religious sentiment. During the radio interview mentioned above, Grazia declares her faith in God. She claims to have had “all what a woman can ask for to her fate; but above all, the great fortunes of faith in life and faith in God.”18
Deledda’s novels are full of life and nature. We will come back soon to this aspect when talking about the wind, the natural element omnipresent in Deledda’s narratives. Deledda’s works tell of her faith in God. The Mother is a novel imbued with religious spirit, quotes and images from the Bible especially the Gospels. Deledda knew the Bible well, and the protagonists of her novels carry biblical names, Agnes is a rare exception. Professor Ugo Collu, in a personal conversation with the author of this note, pointed out that the behaviors of Deledda’s personages are contrary to their biblical namesakes. My verification regarding The Mother proves that it is so. It is so for Paulo, the parish priest of Aar, who, after a life dedicated to God, falls into sin. Conversely, the Apostle Paul, after a godless life, falls from the horse and converts to God. Paulo’s mother, Mary Magdalene, reaffirms the prevalence of duty and sacrifice over passion and self-realization; on the contrary, the woman in Gospels that the carries the same name represents -in the Christian imagination- passion, sensuality and exuberance of the sentiments.
The wind and its dark omens19
Besides ‘mother’ and ‘Paulo’, the word that recurs more often in the novel is ‘wind’, a definite protagonist in this and other Deledda’s novels. In the Bible the Hebrew word ‘wind’ is the same as spirit, agent of the creation, sign and instrument of the divine presence; in the narration of the Pentecost the Holy Spirit is described as a strong wind. In The Mother the wind describes plastically the anxiety that shakes the souls of the protagonists; the devastating torment that anticipates the arrival of the devil. Paulo’s soul,
was fighting savagely, with a violence greater even than that of the wind on those high hills; it was the supreme struggle of the blind instinct of the flesh against the dominion of the spirit.20
And it’s still the wind signifying the anguish of the mother, the protagonist who gives the title to the novel:
The elder trees which grew along the parapet of the piazza before the church were bending and tossing furiously in the wind, black and shapeless monsters in the gloom, and in answer to their rustling cry came the lament of the poplars and reeds in the valley. And in all this dolour of the night, the moaning wind and the moon drowning midst the angry clouds, was merged the sorrow of the mother seeking for her son.21
The presence of the wind is pervasive and disturbing; it is a harbinger of the devil’s actions:
The mother had already closed the house door and barricaded it with two crossed bars, in order to prevent the devil, who on windy nights roams abroad in search of souls, from penetrating into the house.22
The very village of Aar is stricken by a demoniac curse -personified by the spirit of the old parish priest- a course which impregnates of itself humans, animals and nature. As mother, son and accompaniers naively and unaware reach the village, the wind blows as a dark and frightening omen of the horrible fate that awaits the new parish priest and his mother:
At the point where the road turns, overlooking the valley, and then descends towards the river, there was such a sudden onslaught of wind that the horses came to a dead stop, pricking their ears and neighing with fear. The storm shook their bridles like some bandit who had seized their heads to stop them that he might rob the travellers, and even Paul, although apparently he was enjoying the adventure, had cried out with vague superstition in his voice: ‘It must be the evil spirit of the old priest trying to prevent us coming here!’ But his words were lost in the shrill whistling of the wind.23
As rightly noted by Ugo Collu, the joint action of the wind and the devil has a cosmic, metaphysical implication. The wind devastates not only the pastor and his church, but all the world around:
Outside the wind moaned and whistled more loudly still; the devil was destroying the presbytery, the church, the whole world of Christians.24
If Agnes is the modern heroine of the novel, no less noble and modern is the figure of the mother, Mary Magdalene. A servant from a childhood, the woman has emancipated herself from the miserable condition by sacrificing her entire life to gain the social and cultural elevation of her only son. It is remarkable that Mary does not act against her son’s mistress, even if Agnes had part in the destruction of the project for which the mother has sacrificed her life. Experience tells us that, almost always, priests’ mothers, sisters and the female faithful blame not the priest, but his woman for his failing fidelity to his priestly ministry. And this is regardless of what happened in reality! It was her, the woman -they sentence- who was supposed to keep her distance. After all a priest is a priest; or rather he is a man!
Mary Magdalene does not justify nor defend her son; on the contrary, she rebukes him, while she does not have a word of condemnation for Agnes. The surprising respect that the mother feels for Agnes can be understood, in a society still deeply divided along social and economic categories, as acquiescence of an inferior toward a superior. Mary Magdalene is a servant, daughter of servants; while Agnes is a landlady, daughter of landowners. But perhaps it is not just that. Mary Magdalene nicely understands the kind of predicament Agnes is going through. Agnes, according Mary Magdalene, was, after all, a woman in distress; in need of attention and companionship. The mother imagines herself engaged in a conversation with the bishop, asking his help to save not only Paulo, but Agnes as well:
And the woman must be saved, too. After all, she is a woman living alone and she has her temptations also in that lonely house, midst the desolation of this little village where there is nobody fit to bear her company. (…) And the woman is rich, independent, alone, too much alone! (…) And this orphan girl lives alone with bad servants. Who directs her, who advises her? Who is there to help her if we do not?25
Mary Magdalene realizes that, after all, Agnes gives Paulo the joy that she, the mother, cannot give him any more. She wants to save her son from the scandal and the sacrilege. At the same time she understands that forcing her son to return to the right path would prevent him from being happy and fulfilled. Confronted with so much grief, even Mary Magdalene’s granite faith cracks. She is capable of asking embarrassing questions and formulating modern objections quite unusual in the context of the conservationism and clericalism of the time. The mother has the audacity to correct Antioco, the young sacristan, even too naive in his desire to become a priest: the obligation of celibacy is not imposed on the priests by God:
“God? But it is the Pope who has forbidden it,” said the mother, somewhat taken aback. (…) “But in olden times priests had wives and families, just as the Protestant clergy have now”.26
Mary Magdalene dies during the celebration of a dramatic Mass, in which the son trembles in terror that Agnes, sitting in the pews, might take vengeance by revealing the scandal. Why does the mother die? To atone the sin of her son? To die in his place? To prevent Agnes from exposing the scandal, and so saving both Paulo and Agnes? Giovanni Colombo, contemptuously and mercilessly judges the poor mother, even in her supreme sorrow. She, writes Colombo, “dies in horror- a superstitious horror for the damnation of her son and for the dishonor; but not for the horror of sacrilege.”27 According to him, it would be more proper for the mother dying because her son was celebrating Mass in a state of mortal sin.
The ending of the novel is, very modernly, open. My high school literature teacher, who was a film critic, taught us that one must pay attention even to the movie’s last frame, as the key to understanding the meaning of the movie might be there. Maybe we need paying a similar attention to novel’s last words. In The Mother, the last word is ‘Agnes’.
While he collapse on the dead mother, and grits his teeth to keep from screaming, Paulo meets Agnes’s eyes, and so the narration ends. What is the meaning of the crossing of their gazes? What does it prelude? Let me suggest that Mary Magdalene wants to die because she realizes that, at the end, she has lost her battle. As long as he remains in the priesthood and renounces his love for Agnes, Paulo would be devastated by unhappiness. She, the mother, has become the main obstacle between her son and his happiness. She hassacrificed her wholelifefor him,and she is now ready for anothersupremesacrifice: onlystepping forever aside, she would give him back a new life, the lifewith the womanhehad chosen, Agnes.
Interview broadcasted by Rai Sardinia and available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8XBNigpMss (accessed May 31, 2014).
Colombo, p. 8. Giovanni Colombo, ““Il sacerdote nella letteratura del primo novecento” was republished (for the fifth time!), by the L’Osservatore Romano, August 12, 2009. The article had appeared for the first time in 1943 in La Scuola Cattolica; was republished in Studi Cattolici in 1987 and subsequently included in the collection of the writings of Cardinal Colombo: La letteratura del primo novecento. Appunti, NED, 1989. It appears also in 2009 in Quaderni Colombiani, a series that collects the writings of Giovanni Colombo edited by Fracantonio Bernasconi, also accessible online (from which we quote): http://www.coinoniacaronnopertusella.com/colombo/38%20-%20il%20sacerdozio.pdf(accessed June 4, 2014).
When she was not roundly criticized, Deledda was ostentatiously ignored by Catholic critics. In a long essay dedicated to the priests in the literature of the twentieth century Ferdinando Castelli, the literary critic of the prestigious La Civiltà Cattolica, cites more than a dozen writers, some little-known, but he does not mention the only Italian woman to win a Nobel prize for literature. Not surprising, this is the same magazine that in 1959 mercilessly condemned the book Esperienze Pastorali by the priest Lorenzo Milani. The latter, together with Primo Mazzolari (on whom we shall return), is today hailed as one of the Italian Catholicism’s most significant voices in twentieth century. Ferdinando Castelli S.I., “Il prete nella letteratura”, in La Civiltà Cattolica, 2009 IV, 541-554, n. 3828 (19 December 2009).
 Grazia Deledda, The Mother (translated from the Italian by Mary G. Steegmann). New York: Macmillan, 1923.
 Grazia Deledda, The Mother, with an Introduction by D. H. Lawrence; London: Jonathan Cape, 1928.
 Agnes is described as “a potential modern heroine” by Giuseppe Marci, “Primitivism and Modernity: The Mother by Grazia Deledda”. Macau-Hong Kong, 28-30 May 2014, p. 8.
The quotations in this article refer to the electronic version: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/deledda/mother/mother.html
 The Mother, chapter XI.
 The Mother, chapter XI.
 The Mother, chapter XI.
 The Mother, chapter XII.
 The Mother, chapter XII.
 The Mother, chapter XII.
 The radio interview, with the voice of Deledda, was broadcast by Rai Sardinia and is available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8XBNigpMss (accessed May 31, 2014).
 The Mother, chapter XII.
 The Mother, chapter XIII.
 See the interview quoted above.
 See the interview quoted above.
 Prof. Ugo Collu in “Sources in Grazia Deledda’s Formation”, Macau-Hong Kong, 28-30 May 2014, illustrates in a similar fashion the theme of the wind. The comparison between the meaning of wind in Deledda’s novel and in the Bible is mine.
 The Mother, chapter III.
 The Mother, chapter I.
 The Mother, chapter I.
 The Mother, chapter II.
 The Mother, chapter I.
 The Mother, chapter I.
 The Mother, chapter III.
 Colombo, p. 8.