In the wake of Risorgimento (Italian Unification), the aristocratic nobility was threatened with the possible decline of their feudal power. They had to contemplate a future where their power was ripped off and passed on to the commoners who have now acquired wealth and power almost equal to them. The change is inevitable yet is it easy to face it? Could the proud nobles mix themselves with the commoners thus depriving them of their elite status or was this necessary to preserve their wealth, their power, and authority in albeit an altered way? These are the questions Lampedusa tries to address in his semi-autobiographic work – The Leopard.
Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina whose power and authority are threatened comprehends that if they are to survive they must move with the flow. His dictum is “everything must change so that everything must stay the same”. However unwelcome and irksome the change is, it is necessary, and this the Prince understands. Yet it is not easy to suppress the years of noble pride, to reduce them to the equal status of the newly rich and powerful commoners. Don Fabriozi struggles to reconcile himself with these new realities a little consciously but more unconsciously. However, he doesn’t waver from his dictum and consents his penniless nephew Tancredi, the Prince of Falconeri, to marry the daughter of a common unsophisticated wealthy man who wealds power in the new regime. Don Fabriozi’s design is that his young and ambitious nephew should climb up the social and political ladder and help preserve some form of authority to the Selina family. To achieve this end, Tancredi needs money – a lot of it. Therefore this otherwise socially unthinkable and undesirable match has to be encouraged and made. But even so, though he admires the beautiful girl who would soon be his niece, he cannot help the utter loathing he feels for her commoner wealthy father. Don Fabrizio is the leopard (the official symbol of the House of Salina) – strong and powerful yet also graceful. How the proud leopard is to live equally with the “jackals and hyenas” who have usurped the leopard’s power and authority is Don Fabriozi’s dilemma. And his inner struggle to come to terms with this new predicament flows beautifully throughout the story. But Don Fabriozi’s struggle doesn’t end there. He has to fight against another more formidable change, and that is the change in himself as he slowly nears death.
Change and how to adapt to change is the key theme of the story. Don Fabrizio accommodates the change grudgingly because it is inevitable and also because it is necessary. But the young Tancredi, also of noble blood, yields more easily and voluntarily. He has no difficulty in joining hands with the revolutionaries and taking part in the revolution. The change comes more naturally to him. Lampedusa quite intelligently draws the contrast between the attitudes of the younger and older generation of the nobility.
The Leopard brings us some memorable characters. But the unique and dominating is Don Fabrizio, the sensual, the powerful, the graceful “leopard”. Lampedusa’s poetic writing, subtle symbology, and suitable satire narrate a heartfelt story of an end of an era. I didn’t know what to expect when I began the reading. There was a lot of history behind the story that I was compelled to read up. But it was quite worth it, for the book was very rewarding.