Course: The Betrothed
A classic Italian historical-fiction novel
“The Betrothed” is an edifying Catholic historical novel written by the Italian Alessandro Manzoni in the early 1800s. It has been called the most famous and widely read novel in the Italian language, and contains themes of the conversion of hardened sinners, the strength of true love, the effects of sin, the simplicity of poverty, endurance, and persistence under hardship.
The story begins with the good, young, Catholic peasant couple – Lorenzo and Lucia – are deeply in love and are to be married shortly on a day already appointed by the parish priest. Unbeknownst to them, however, Don Rodrigo, the evil local noble who governs and controls the territory around their village, desires Lucia for himself, and has since intimidated the cowardly parish priest (Father Abbondio) not to perform the marriage as planned. The bridegroom goes to the priest on the day planned, only to be shocked when told they cannot be married. After much finagling, Lorenzo gets the priest to let slip the name Don Rodrigo. Lorenzo figures things out immediately, and becomes enraged that someone would try to take his beloved and to interfere with his marriage. But Lorenzo and Lucia are mere peasants against a powerful noble protected and supported by a small army of evil cutthroats called “bravi.” What can the poor young couple do?
The two plan and think of alternatives, but the bride’s mother (who amusingly thinks herself wise and experienced) has them try various things, and finally encourages them to trick the local priest by a certain ruse which would probably be valid but not licit marriage. Lucia, a very god-fearing virgin, is against such trickery but Lorenzo insists and gets upset with her. (One can see the character difference between the two fiancées.) This is when Father Christopher, a Capuchin monk enters the story. A former wealthy noble who became a monk after having killed a fellow noble in self-defense, Father Christopher represents prudence, patience, forgiveness, and many other virtues. Father urges Lorenzo to control his anger and desire for revenge, and to patiently let God resolve the matter. The priest bravely goes to see Don Rodrigo himself but fails to persuade him to give up his evil plans, leaving by giving a tongue-lashing to the evil villain.
Don Rodrigo afterwards is enraged that he let himself be humiliated by a Capuchin monk. He orders his thugs to kidnap Lucia and bring her to his castle. The kidnap attempt fails, as does Lucia’s mother’s attempt at forcing the priest to marry the young couple. The couple are finally forced to flee their village and go to Milan, which is experiencing extreme famine with its people revolting. After many adventures and mishaps, Lorenzo gets into legal trouble and Lucia is put in a convent for safety. Lucy gets misinformation about Lorenzo, and in despair takes a vow not to marry him! Eventually the villain Don Rodrigo asks a fellow mysterious and dark villain noble whose name we are not given (and thus he is the “Unnamed”) to kidnap Lucia from the convent. The plan succeeds, Lucia is brought to Don Rodrigo’s castle and locked in a room.
But this is where the novel takes an unexpected turn, and one for the better. The Unnamed has great remorse at seeing Lucia locked in the room and spends a sleepless night. Next day, he sees a crowd going to hear the great preacher, the famous Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Federigo Borromeo (a real historical figure who was really cousin to the great St. Charles Borromeo). The Unnamed feels compelled to listen to the preacher. He does, and is converted by the great saint, and has a change of heart. He then secretly rescues Lucia and restores her to her village, while Lorenzo remains away.
Lorenzo is enraged, having received a letter that Lucia has taken a vow not to marry him. Politically, the situation in Italy has become extremely unstable and foreign armies invade (which really happened). The armies destroy Lucia’s village, but the family had taken refuge under the strongly-armed Unnamed, now a good Catholic. The plague is also raging, and the author devotes four of the book’s 38 chapters to describing the plague’s intense physical and moral devastation on the people. Lorenzo eventually returns to his village in search of his Lucia. He is told she is in Milan, and after many more mishaps and dangers, finally finds her there in an infirmary, recovering from the plague. The villain Don Rodrigo, who has always made fun of the plague and even wished it to continue, himself catches it and is dying. Lorenzo visits him on his deathbed and forgives him. Rodrigo, the book’s seemingly incorrigible villain, has a change of heart and converts before dying!
Finally, the young couple return to their village, find it destroyed, but they find the original priest appointed to marry them. The happy young couple are finally married, and Lorenzo pursues the trade he was meant for – silk weaving.
With themes of persistence against difficulties, the shortness and seriousness of life (from reading about the plague), courage vs. cowardice, this book is a wonderful classic.
Carefully annotated with maps, vocabulary, notes, and other study helps, we highly recommend this book for high school juniors or seniors.
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