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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

La Madre

Grazia Deledda

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To purchase La Madre

Title: La Madre
Author: Grazia Deledda
Genre: Novel
Written: 1920 (Eng. 1922)
Length: 139 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: La Madre - US
La Madre - UK
La Madre - Canada
Dans l'ombre, la mère - France
La Madre - Italia
directly from: Dedalus
  • Italian title: La Madre
  • Translated by Mary G. Steegmann
  • This translation originally published as The Woman and the Priest and then also published as The Mother
  • With an Introduction by Eric Lane
  • With an Afterword by D. H. Lawrence

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effectively atmospheric and tense

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. A 2/12/1923 .
The Times . 4/5/1922 .
TLS . 20-27/8/2021 Vilma De Gasperin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Her simple yet powerfully written story, The Mother, in a workmanlike translation by Mary G. Steegmann (...) might profitably be used by the goodly swarm of analytical novelists as something in the line of a copy-book example. (...) The story stands out also as a study, but a study far and away removed from the necessity of including page after page of transcribed notes of a college extension course in psychology. (...) (A)ll this insight and interpretation have been worked so skillfully into the actual narrative that the unfolding of the little drama moves on with an unchecked precision. By exquisite workmanship and a fine charity of purpose Mme. Deledda has given to The Mother an almost epic air of inevitability." - The New York Times Book Review

  • "Miss Mary G. Steegman's translation of Grazia Deledda's novel La Madre is excellently done, as far as smoothness and accuracy go. She has hardly succeeded, however, in reproducing the effect which Signora Deledda's stories achieve in their original tongue, especially in the dialogue (.....) It is a moving tragedy, but neither in English nor in Protestant England can such a tragedy make its fullest appeal." - The Times

  • "The syntax of La Madre is uncomplicated, but its descriptions are vivid and moving. As with the reeds and the wind, Deledda draws on elements from everyday surroundings to conjure exquisitely lyrical metaphors (.....) The theme of a priest's forbidden love is rendered more complex by the towering figure of the mother, and the acute psychological strain provoked in each of the protagonists is superbly portrayed by means of analepses, reminiscences, inner questioning and dreams. This allows for the motives to be viewed from each character's perspective, shifting the reader's sympathy in the course of the novel. It can also lead to opposing evaluation on the reader's part." - Vilma De Gasperin, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       La Madre is a short, intense novel, set over just a weekend -- much of it in darkness, and with winds gusting throughout. Paul is the twenty-eight-year-old priest in the parish of Aar -- "the poorest in the kingdom". He has been in the position for seven years now, having succeeded a priest who, after years of good work, suddenly: "changed and became as evil as the devil". (This after Aar had gone nearly a hundred years without a priest at all, so that: "the inhabitants forgot God entirely".)
       Paul has restored the position of the church at the heart of the community to a reasonable extent, though he is still sorely disappointed by how few of the locals he can draw to Mass -- complaining to them that he feels: "like a shepherd who has lost his sheep". He does have an enthusiastic acolyte, a young boy named Antiochus who eagerly hopes to follow in Paul's footsteps. And there's his mother, who lives with him and who has sacrificed so much to see him follow this path in life.
       For seven years all has gone well enough, but now, the mother realizes: "the curse has fallen upon him. A woman has caught him in her net". Paul has been secretly visiting a young woman who lives in the village, Agnes -- and things are getting serious.
       The story of the priest tempted by love (and flesh) is hardly unfamiliar. In Deledda's variation, it's also not entirely new for Paul: he is, in fact experienced -- though he has been devoutly chaste since he decided to dedicate his life to religious service (and looks upon those early experiences as: "an illness from which he had recovered" ...). Deledda also sets it up in a way that the hurdles to choosing Agnes would not be that high: her independence and wealth would allow the lovers to simply leave Aar and begin a new life wherever they choose.
       If Agnes' family is conveniently far away, Paul has his mother to deal with, and the novel opens with her following him as he sneaks out in the night, leading to confirmation of what she already suspected. She then confronts Paul, and insists he must break it off.
       All the characters are torn. Paul can hardly keep himself away from Agnes, but feels he must end the relationship. His mother worries about him succumbing to this great temptation -- but can't help but repeatedly wonder: "But why are priests forbidden to marry ?" And a devastated Agnes, when she thinks Paul has abandoned her and their love, considers ruining him (and herself) with a public declaration of their relationship.
       The busy, wind-swept novel finds Paul in almost constant motion -- a back and forth that neatly mirrors his vacillation. He attends to a dying man -- another figure who, like the priest who preceded Paul, conducted himself in ways that overstepped societal norms -- and is constantly pulled to Agnes. Along the way he also performs what seems like a miracle on a young girl, yet another reason for the villagers to crowd around him, even as he seeks to escape this kind of spotlight.
       The story is simple enough, but its power lies in the atmosphere that Deledda so effectively presents. Wind, rain, and darkness dominate -- but beyond the natural are also the human elements, not least the villagers, who mill and crowd around Paul; unsurprisingly, the novel culminates in the celebration of Sunday morning mass -- though typically, too, Deledda's powerful conclusion is not in the Mass-scene itself, but in its aftermath, the crowd seemingly dispersed but then finding its way back again.
       Nice little touches include, for example, the mentions of mirrors, Paul's mother disappointed that he has one -- "Mirrors are forbidden in a priest's house, he must forget he has a body" --, and Paul gazing into his near the end, as time winds down.
       Paul tries to be decisive, but in practically all his actions -- and he's busy over this weekend -- he's dissatisfied with seemingly every motion and decision. Above all, the question of whether or not to flee with Agnes tears at him -- back and forth, back and forth. Agnes and Paul's mother are also deeply torn, uncertain of how to proceed, as they call their own certainties into question. Only young Antiochus beams, his legs buckling under him in: "the happiest moment of his life", as he looks ahead to becoming a priest: "How is it possible not to believe ?" he wonders with still childish certainty.
       If the story is a fairly familiar one, Deledda's handling of it -- and the characters -- makes for a novel that still holds up surprisingly well a hundred years later. Compressed into a fairly short space, the action covering only a few days' time, La Madre is a work of consistently heightened tension, always on an edge -- a fine little novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 September 2021

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La Madre: Reviews: Grazia Deledda: Other books by Grazia Deledda under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Grazia Deledda (1871-1936) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1926.

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© 2021 the complete review

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