Burt Lancaster as Don Fabrizio in Luchino Visconti's 1963 film adaptation of The Leopard (Keystone Press / Alamy Stock Photo)

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard fooled me twice when I recently read it. First, I thought what mattered most about the novel was the story of how it came into existence rather than what it was about. Lampedusa was an Italian aristocrat whose forebears held royal office in Sicily before Italy’s reunification in the latter half of the nineteenth century. He wrote the book in his final years and failed to find a publisher for it before he died in 1957. Almost immediately after his death, his book found a publisher. It fast became a modern Italian classic, selling millions in multiple editions, and has since been translated and published around the world. Most recently, the author’s experiences inspired an eponymous novel-cum-homage, Lampedusa, in which Canadian novelist Stephen Price artfully imagines Lampedusa’s life as he writes The Leopard. The story-of-the-story, in other words, has long been more accessible and popular than the story itself, insofar as it’s a universal consolation and promise to every frustrated author. The second way the novel fooled me has to do with its opening lines: “Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen. The daily recital of the Rosary was over. For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Glorious and Sorrowful Mysteries; for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum…”

Catholic novel! Catholic novel! Modern-literary-classic-little-known-as-actually-a-Catholic-novel! The lizard part of my religio-literary brain began throbbing at this discovery, but this was a mistake. From its Hail Mary start to its ramshackle reliquary finish—replete with family chapels and village churches and assorted priests, bishops, and even cardinals—the book features a thick and rich (if not healthy) vein of Mediterranean Catholicism that’s braided into its larger account of personal and public life. That said, Lampedusa discloses the main matter of the novel in its second paragraph, which describes the situation after the family finishes reciting its daily rosary one afternoon in May 1860: “Now, as the voices fell silent, everything dropped back into its usual order or disorder.” The keyword is “usual.” Don Fabrizio, the middle-aged Prince of Salina, which is part of greater Sicily, presides over this world, whose deep-set patterns are about to be permanently unsettled. Within a few weeks, Garibaldi and his Redshirts will land in Sicily; thereafter he will lead military and political campaigns to help bring the lands of Sicily and Naples out of their Bourbon monarchical autonomies into what became, by 1870, the geographically unified modern nation-state of Italy (minus Vatican City).

The Prince, modeled on Lampedusa’s great-grandfather, is an ambivalent, self-preserving, and self-defeating actor in these developments, which pose clear risks to himself and his family. The prospect of change also calls into question the nature of his responsibilities to the many people in his greater household and lands who have long depended on his laissez-faire leadership and largesse, whether gratefully or resentfully. As the novel begins, he wanders with melancholic languor around his house and properties, all marked with variations on the family’s leopardine coat-of-arms. He spends his days and nights eating with his seven children, sleeping with his wife, sleeping with his mistress, hunting, dabbling in astronomy, chatting up his loyal Great Dane and long-suffering family priest, receiving peasants bearing meager gifts in place of payments for what they reap on his land. Lampedusa makes it clear that the Prince, like the princes before him, has always lived like this and can’t imagine his descendants living otherwise—but now he has to decide how to respond to the approach of a new world in which this way of life can no longer be taken for granted. I can’t think of another novel that provides such an intimate and fine-grained sense of what it means for a family man of public standing to confront the pressures of modernity increasing day by day, visitor by visitor.

Lampedusa evokes this pressure through the novel’s most famous line, when the Prince conferences with Tancredi (his charismatic, hustling nephew) about Garibaldi’s encroaching presence and the greater implications for the Prince’s life. Tancredi tells him: “‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. D’you understand?’” He does, and he doesn’t, and the novel movingly presents the Prince’s attempt to understand and live out a relationship between continuity and disruption he struggles to accept, whether it has to do with supporting family members’ marriages to new-money people with vulgar mores, or deciding whether—and then how—to vote in a plebiscite about Italian unification or join a new Italian Senate. Given the Prince’s standing, his participation legitimates the very thing that delegitimizes that standing, some portion of which he might be able to preserve if he joins a greater popular movement that seeks to deny his hereditary primacy altogether.

Most contemporary readers won’t agree with the Prince’s general approach to life and will rightly reject the embittered passivity that wins out over his better qualities.

Lampedusa brilliantly captures the Prince’s dilemma in a sequence where he and his family journey to their palatial holding in the town of Donnafugata. The trip takes place a few months after Garibaldi’s initial landing and a couple of weeks before Garibaldi and his men take Naples, the decisive event in this stage of the Risorgimento. It’s a tense time, and the Prince looks forward to a kind of stability and reassurance otherwise increasingly imperiled: “‘Thanks be to God, everything seems as usual,’ thought the Prince as he climbed out of his carriage” to be greeted by the mayor, the local monsignor, assorted civic leaders and dignitaries, and the rustic masses. All of them watch in respectful silence while “according to ancient usage” the Prince and his party process into the cathedral for a Te Deum. Pro-Garibaldi slogans are painted on nearby walls: they’re fading, but they’re there, and the Prince can’t help but notice them. Following prayers in the cathedral, he returns to the town square and warmly invites everyone there to visit the family in its palace after dinner that night. “For a long time Donnafugata commented on these last words,” Lampedusa writes, “And the Prince, who had found Donnafugata unchanged, was found very much changed himself, for never before would he have issued so cordial an invitation; and from that moment, invisibly, began the decline of his prestige.”

Beyond the romantic story of when and how it was published, the novel’s appeal could be attributed to its beautiful prose (obvious even in translation), to its languid pacing, and to how it unfolds the many layers of intrigue and fidelity within a family and between a family and the people around them. But it’s this moment—the beginning of the Prince’s decline, and its rationales and causes—that makes The Leopard more than just another underappreciated classic. It’s this moment that makes it speak to the kinds of concerns we each have to deal with these days in our personal, professional, and faith lives.


There is far more at play in the Prince’s Donnafugata dilemma than obvious irony and poetic social justice. Taken in the context of the whole novel, it is a superb evocation of what it means to be a serious person out of step with one’s time: it means being a person with responsibilities that conflict with one another because the longstanding arrangements of a larger world—one in which those responsibilities did not conflict—have been fractured, and won’t be repaired or replaced anytime soon. In the version of this situation Lampedusa offers us in The Leopard, the results of the Prince’s response are a slow and decorous self-destruction amid greater familial and institutional decline.

Reading this novel today, we can sympathize with the Prince and even identify with some of his dilemmas—whether in family or work or faith life—because these are ours as well, even if we’re not downward aristocrats. In fact, we each face countless Donnafugata dilemmas in our daily lives. These dilemmas happen at home: cultivate in your children a respect for authority and obedience to their teachers, and then you have to decide either to affirm or to undermine that respect and obedience when your children come home seized with ideas that run counter to your family beliefs. These dilemmas happen at work: interrupt a late-day meeting presentation that’s going on for too long because you know the others in the room also want it to end, whether to go home to their families or just get on to other things, and be accused of workplace incivility (by the people you were trying to help!). These dilemmas happen at church: become an active lay contributor to parish life because you’re not happy with what you’re seeing, and then risk sowing division when you propose alternatives to routine practices or, worse still, never show up for the meetings because you’re always stuck at work (see above). These days, such dilemmas are only intensified and exacerbated by the ongoing impacts of COVID-19: accept limitations on daily life and liberty, yes, but also preserve a willingness and capacity to discriminate between those situations in which we must adjust to a “new normal” for the greater good and those situations in which we should resist the normalization of temporary arrangements in view of the resumption of personal and public life beyond the pandemic.

What matters in each of these situations is accepting that you need to act for the greater good while also accepting the permanent possibility of a Pyrrhic victory. The temptation, as with Lampedusa’s Prince, is to retreat and give in to passive egoism, but that can only contribute to the erosion of the very thing you seek to conserve, defend, and renew. After the Prince dies, late in Lampedusa’s novel, what’s left of a once-grand family and public institution are aging, eccentric, and ineffectual descendants shuffling around the decrepit husk of a big house, clinging to outmoded symbols of authority, and barely humored by occasional guests.

Most contemporary readers won’t agree with the Prince’s general approach to life and will rightly reject the embittered passivity that wins out over his better qualities. He is an example of someone at work and play in the modern world who gets a few things right and many things wrong. But his struggle can help us think about our own daily decisions a little more, and a little differently. It can help us reflect on how we relate to the institutions that matter most to us—how we enact our loyalty to them. This matters as much for the health and well-being of the institutions as for ourselves and those we care about. Making small, sincere contributions in difficult situations creates the conditions for others to join us and do likewise. This is often the most we can do; sometimes it is even enough—even if it’s just reading a novel and telling someone else the story.

Randy Boyagoda is a novelist and a professor of English at the University of Toronto. 

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the July / August 2020 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.