This extract from Carlo Levi’s book Christ stopped at Eboli is a memoir of his time exiled in the South of Italy because of political activism against the fascist government in Italy at the time (1935-1936). He is deposited in one of the poorest regions of Italy, rife with poverty and sickness, especially malaria, where people have no love nor loyalty for the fascist regime and dream of a better life.
The main theme present in the extract is class. Levi constantly refers to people as either “the gentry” or “peasants” although he himself seems to have a kinder of view of most peasants than his peers. Levi suggests that the idea of class as “a remnant of feudalism”. His patients are constantly making entreaties to him, as if he is above them, bowing and trying to kiss his hand.
We get a close look at a prominent member of the upper class, the mayor Luigi Magalone, “the youngest and most fascist mayor in the province of Matera”. The mayor seeks to treat the author differently to other political prisoners due to his class. He seems completely detached from the abject poverty and illness of the village saying “the village was healthful and prosperous”.
Levi shows how little difference there is between the classes, the doctors and pharmacists have as little an idea about medicine as the superstitious peasants. Indeed the superstitions are shared by both classes, Dr. Milillo warning the author to beware of love potions in drinks offered to him by peasant women.
The author’s sister’s visit gives us a great insight into the lives of the peasants in the region. We see how much malaria is a part of life in the region through the words of the policeman she talks with. On page 87 the sister describes the abject poverty of the people who live there.
“They had trachoma. I knew that it existed in the south, but to see it against this background of poverty and dirt was something else again.” This view contrasts directly with the view the mayor of the town gives when first talking with the doctor. The author presents a bleak view of life in the Italian countryside, the population filled with apathy, with no hope.
A strong contrast is made between altruism of the author and other doctors. “How was I to resist their pleas?” This is at odds with the bitter resentment of the other doctors towards the patients, they are outraged by the patients’ lack of money to pay for services rendered. The prescription of quinine to remedy problems not satisfying their every need. “There’s no cure for their mulishness.” It’s no wonder that the patients flock to the new doctor in town.
There is also a heavy emphasis on family in the piece. Both the townsfolk and the author place a huge importance on family. The author suggests it is due to their lack of religion or faith in their government “they had little attachment to either religion or the state”. The only time we see any happiness in the townsfolk is when they see the author and his sister. Kinship and family is of the upmost importance to the people of the village.
The role of women is questioned in the piece. We see how women in the region must be in mourning when family dies, contrast with sister’s freedom. Looked upon with respect and interest.
The permeating presence of malaria in the region raises questions about how much power a doctor can actually have to help their patient. In an environment such as this there seems to be little that the doctors or the inhabitants of the region can do to counteract this.
In conclusion Levi’s work is a fascinating insight into the life of common people in rural, Southern Italy at the time, in particular their relationships with medics and disease. The author puts a cross an image of him being benign and friendly with all inhabitants of the region, regardless of class. It seems unlikely that he took a much more equal view of the people in the village than the rest of the gentry in the village.