The most recent volume of the Harvard Classics is the only modern fiction novel included in the set of 50 volumes. While there is a whole set of 20 volumes dubbed the “Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction”, I Promessi Sposi’s inclusion in the original set points to its significance and quality. Alessandro Mazoni’s 1827 work comes in second to Dante as the most important work in the Italian canon, and for good reason. I Promessi Sposi is a masterful historical fiction novel that blends the personal conflicts of lower class Milanese with the backdrop of war, pestilence and famine.
I Promessi Sposi starts with a simple personal conflict. Late at night, a local clergyman is accosted by ruffians, warning him of the dire consequences should he perform the wedding of the two protagonists. This conflict, however, eventually leads to a pageant of personal struggle for both protagonists as they separate and find themselves in a series of ever-escalating predicaments.
The story itself does not help abolish any stereotypes about Italians. Idealized romantic love, redemption through God, devotion to the Madonna, passion, and love for one’s mother run through the plot of I Promessi Sposi over and over again. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, the novel is something that could only have been written and set in Italy.
Of particular literary merit in I Promessi Sposi is the expository portions describing the various calamities afflicting Milan as the story progresses. Hints of food shortages and high prices accompany the opening act of the story, but as the action moves forward in time, a second failed harvest creates real crisis. Starting with bread riots targeting bakers and government officials, this crisis turns into famine in just a few short months. The famine continues over the course of the spring, with skeletal figures desperately searching for food the only traffic in the streets or on the roads. A succession crisis sparks an invasion of German-led mercenaries, who in addition to pillaging, bring bubonic plague with them. The plague makes the horror of extended famine seem minor as people find themselves stricken with fever and buboes and are quarantined in a plaza outside the city gates. Men go around looking for people suffering from plague to bring them to the plaza. They are reminiscent of the death wagons from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, only they take away those who are ill in addition to those who have already succumbed to plague.
All told, I Promessi Sposi is an underappreciated great work of 19th century fiction that deserves a place alongside the many great authors of that era. The next volume of the Harvard Classics certainly cannot be said to be underappreciated. The Odyssey was the Homeric epic chosen by the editors for this set of works. Following The Odyssey is the final volume in our long run of narrative works, Two Years Before the Mast, an account of life as a mariner. Following these are two volumes covering works from Edmund Burke, Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill.