Morality in The Godfather - Sonny Corleone v. Carlo Rizzi

Discussion in 'NON PRATCHETT BOOK DISCUSSIONS' started by Buzzfloyd, Jul 27, 2006.

  1. Buzzfloyd Spelling Bee

    This is pretty long, but I really hope some of you will read it and respond.

    [quote:b6137fffc3]Since his [Carlo's] beating at the hands of Sonny he had not dared to hit his wife again but he had not slept with her..... He had sneered at her, "Go call your brother and tell him I won't screw you, maybe he'll beat me up until I get a hard on."

    But he was in deadly fear of Sonny though they treated each other with cold politeness. Carlo had the sense to realize that Sonny would kill him, that Sonny was a man who could, with the naturalness of an animal, kill another man, while he himself would have to call up all his courage, all his will, to commit murder. It never occurred to Carlo that because of this he was a better man than Sonny Corleone, if such terms could be used; he envied Sonny his awesome savagery, a savagery which was now becoming a legend.[/quote:b6137fffc3]

    [quote:b6137fffc3]The paradox in Sonny's violent nature was that he could not hit a woman and had never done so. That he could not harm a child or anything helpless. When Carlo had refused to fight back against him that day, it had kept Sonny from killing him; complete submission disarmed his violence. As a boy, he had been truly tenderhearted. That he had become a murderer as a man was simply his destiny.[/quote:b6137fffc3]

    [quote:b6137fffc3]Connie came into the bedroom. She stood in the doorway as if she could not come close to the bed without being invited. "The food is on the table, " she said.

    "I'm not hungry yet," he said, still reading the racing form.

    "It's on the table," Connie said stubbornly.

    "Stick it up your ass," Carlo said. He drank off the rest of the whiskey in the water glass, tilted the bottle to fill it again. He paid no more attention to her.

    Connie went into the kitchen, picked up the plates filled with food and smashed them against the sink. The loud crashes brought Carlo in from the bedroom. He looked at the greasy veal and peppers splattered all over the kitchen walls and his finicky neatness was outraged. "You filthy guinea spoiled brat," he said venomously. "Clean that up right now or I'll kick the shit out of you."

    "Like hell I will," Connie said. She held her hands like claws ready to scratch his bare chest to ribbons.

    Carlo went back into the bedroom and when he came out he was holding his belt doubled in his hand. "Clean it up," he said and there was no mistaking the menace in his voice. She stood there not moving and he swung the belt against her heavily padded hips, the leather stinging her but not really hurting. Connie retreated to the kitchen cabinets and her hand went into one of the drawers to haul out the long bread knife. She held it ready.

    Carlo laughed. "Even the female Corleones are murderers," he said. He put the belt down on the kitchen table and advanced towards her. She tried a sudden lunge but her pregnant heavy body made her slow and he eluded the thrust she aimed at his groin in such deadly earnest. He disarmed her easily and then he started to slap her face with a slow medium-heavy stroke so as not to break the skin. He hit her again and again as she retreated around the kitchen table trying to escape him and he pursued her into the bedroom. She tried to bite his hand and he grabbed her by the hair to lift her head up. He slapped her face until she began to weep like a little girl, with pain and humiliation. Then he threw her contemptuously onto the bed. He drank from the bottle of whiskey still on the night table. He seemed very drunk now, his light blue eyes had a crazy glint in them and finally Connie was truly afraid.

    Carlo straddled his legs apart and drank from the bottle. He reached down and grabbed a chunk of her pregnant heavy thigh in his hand. He squeezed very hard, hurting her and making her beg for mercy. "You're fat as a pig," he said with disgust and walked out of the bedroom.[/quote:b6137fffc3]

    [quote:b6137fffc3]There was no question that the violence in Sonny Corleone's nature rose from some deep mysterious physical well. As they watched they could actually see the blood rushing to his heavily corded neck, could see the eyes film with hatred, the separate features of his face tightening, growing pinched, then his face took on the grayish hue of a sick man fighting off some sort of death, except that the adrenalin pumping through his body made his hands tremble. But his voice was controlled, pitched low, as he told his sister, "You wait there. You just wait there." He hung up the phone.

    He stood there for a moment quite stunned with his own rage, then he said, "The fucking sonofabitch, the fucking sonofabitch." He ran out of the house.[/quote:b6137fffc3]

    Four passages from Chapter 19, Book IV of Mario Puzo's [i:b6137fffc3]The Godfather[/i:b6137fffc3], published in 1969. Garner and I read this chapter a couple of nights ago.

    Puzo occasionally throws in narratorial comments that are deliberately ironic, which the reader is supposed to pick up and debate with themselves. For example, after a passage about how Mrs Corleone Sr. deals with the difficulties of being married to the Don and the dangers that her husband and sons enter by separating herself from their 'business' and simply taking on the role of wife, mother, housekeeper and matriarch, Puzo says that, after all, she was only a 'primitive' sort. It seems to me that the author is asking us whether Mrs Corleone is truly primitive and simple, or whether she is actually very wise and sensible in the way she chooses to live.

    He also throws in narratorial comments that can be taken at face value, simply commentary on the nature and behaviour of the characters. And I wonder which of these two types of comment he is making when he says, "..because of this [Carlo] was a better man than Sonny Corleone".

    Sonny is described as being a kindly, generous man, who is yet passionate and quick-tempered. In this, he is contrasted with the Don and Michael. Puzo demonstrates how Sonny's rashness is his major flaw as a mafioso; how, despite his excellence in detail, he fails to see the bigger picture and acts on gut instinct instead of with the cool patience and foresight necessary to come out on top in the long term. His violence is also in contrast with the Don's apparent pacifism, politeness and calm.

    We see plenty of evidence of Sonny's bloodthirstiness and willingess to kill in the warfare he instigates with the five families over his father's shooting. However, the only evidence of brute violence we are shown is when he beats up Carlo Rizzi for hitting Connie. Puzo talks of Sonny's savagery, but seems to take it as read that his orders to have people killed are clear evidence of that.

    We see Sonny behaving impulsively and speaking, as well as acting, out of turn quite often. But the only other particular vice of his that is demonstrated is his adultery. He is known to have taken mistresses, notably Lucy Mancini, but this is, apparently, expected in the Sicilian world Puzo portrays. What is looked down upon is when a married man sleeps around with prostitutes and 'chorus girls', as Carlo Rizzi takes to doing when he stops sleeping with his wife.

    Carlo Rizzi is a liability on the hands of the Corleone family. He fails to adequately manage the fairly simple business he is given to run, through his own resentful nature and lack of interest or business acumen. He is a spendthrift, who took from Connie all the wedding money that was supposed to be hers, giving her a black eye to get it, and lost it on gambling and prostitutes. He is also a drunk (as distinct from an alcoholic).

    Rizzi is shown bullying Connie in every scene we see them in, tormenting, insulting and belittling her ("It made him feel powerful that one of the Corleones was his doormat."). He beats her regularly, even when she's pregnant - of which he boasts to his colleagues - and is not only unconcerned about her welfare but appears to enjoy the fact that he has hurt her. He feels hard done by because her family have not given him important jobs and made him flush with cash, and he takes out his bitterness on her. He turns the 'fresh and snotty', 'impudent', indepent-minded Connie into a frightened and cowed woman who tells her brother it was her fault that Rizzi beat her.

    However, in the world Puzo portrays, although domestic abuse is not approved of, it is condoned; it is seen as a wife's duty to mollify her husband's bad temper, to learn how to behave so that he will not beat her. This is said outright by the Don and Mrs Corleone when they first learn of Connie's woes. And let's bear in mind that the Don is portrayed as intelligent, wise and sympathetic, with excellent judgement of both circumstance and character.

    I don't believe Rizzi is described as violent at any point, despite the way he treats Connie. Yet Sonny is repeatedly called violent, although the only evidence we are given is the occasion when he gives in to impulsive rage and beats up Rizzi. The many murders he commits or gives orders to commit are seen as the proof.

    Puzo suggests, as is the conventional philosophy of our society, that murder is worse than beating; and, therefore, that Sonny's willingness to murder makes him a worse man than Rizzi, who would not yet stoop that low. But he gives us reason to question this conventional wisdom, and, I think, is asking us to. He portrays the mafia men in a very sympathetic light, making Don Corleone a kind of hero, despite his criminality. He is careful to acknowledge that their behaviour is both illegal and wrong, but he makes the reader understand why the murders they commit seem necessary to establish justice in a society where the rule of law is so corrupt and fails to look after the little guy.

    The notion that the Corleones commit murder as a necessity for the protection of the weak is reinforced in one of the above passages by Rizzi's laughing suggestion that, "Even the female Corleones are murderers", when Connie uses the knife to try to defend herself from him. The implication is that a murderer is only someone who has no choice in preventing wrongdoing against themselves (and, by extension, those important to them). That Connie is described as becoming afraid only later, along with the comparison between Carlo and Sonny, also suggests that a murderer is a brave person - this carries a certain moral judgement, I feel. It says that a murderer is not simply uncaring or malevolent, but doing what they feel they must.

    Murder is importantly distinct from killing. If a soldier kills another soldier in an open war - or, indeed a civilian - he has not commited murder. A doctor who carries out an abortion in a country where it is legal to do so has not commited murder. A cardriver who accidentally knocks down and kills a child has not commited murder. In most countries, killing an animal would not be considered murder. Murder is a killing that is illegal and deliberate.

    Yet Puzo suggests that the mafia is like a second government that exists because the proper government is inept, corrupt and unjust. He suggests that the mafia dispense justice, and, importantly, mercy to those who rightly (he hints) distrust American society. If the mafia were indeed the government, then there modus operandi would be legalised, which would make their killings legal. So characters such as Sonny Corleone would be justified in making legitimate killings as an act of state.

    Of course, the mafia is not a legitimate government, so these points are moot. However, members of the mafia family do consider themselves soldiers; those who choose to opt out of the family 'business' are referred to as civilians and left untouched. Mafia men are seen as fair game to each other, since they all enter into the business on the understanding that they are soldiers who could get killed in the line of fire.

    All of this serves to suggest that Puzo is trying to make us question whether Sonny is really the bad man we would traditionally assume he must be given his willingness to commit murder.

    Sonny Corleone will not harm women and children, or anyone helpless and vulnerable. He will willingly murder other mafia men for tactical advantage in the war with the five families, but they are considered soldiers. Also, of course, less forgiveably, he will murder those who do not go along with his family's wishes in doing deals.

    This is set against Carlo Rizzi's character; a violent bully who actively enjoys hurting a helpless person - the thing Sonny would never do - and draining his wife of her independence and personal strength. A coward when it comes to those more powerful than him, who feels he might not have the bravery to kill someone. He is not a murderer, unlike Sonny, but he [i:b6137fffc3]envies Sonny his ability to kill[/i:b6137fffc3].

    Puzo goes out of his way on several occasions to state that the mafia are [i:b6137fffc3]bad people[/i:b6137fffc3] who do [i:b6137fffc3]bad things[/i:b6137fffc3]. He points out how the admired men in the Sicilian community commit acts of extreme violence and corruption. He makes clear that, although the Don's 'business' is of great benefit to those it serves, it comes at a dear price to everyone else and American society as a whole.

    Yet he also portrays the mafia men sympathetically, making them into figures to be liked and admired. Don Corleone has become iconic; this is in no small part due to Francis Ford Coppola's film adaptations, but the paperback of [i:b6137fffc3]The Godfather[/i:b6137fffc3] was the fastest-selling book in history on its release.

    He also repeatedly brings up the idea of destiny. It is a theme of the book. The Don believes in people in having a destiny, and Puzo repeatedly shows us characters fulfilling their 'destinies', sometimes against their wishes. The prime example is, of course, Michael Corleone, becoming his father's heir despite his stance at the beginning of the book. We are also shown the young Vitto Corleone entering into his destiny to become the great Don. And, in one of the passages quoted above, Puzo states that to be a murderer was Sonny Corleone's destiny; that it was inevitable, that there was nothing he could do to help it. It's as though he's throwing in yet another factor to suggest that Sonny is really a good man, despite his immoral acts, as though he's trying to dismiss what Sonny does in the face of what he is.

    Overall, from his direct statements, it seems that Puzo expects us to see the mafia as terrible - and, by implication, therefore, its members as bad men. They are black hats, if you like. A quotation from the [i:b6137fffc3]Chicago Sun-Times Book Week[/i:b6137fffc3] on the back cover of Garner's copy of the book says, "The Godfather is alive. Hate him, fear him, despise him, he is King Cobra, commanding, all-knowing, supreme in his power, awesome in his wrath..."

    And yet the alternative reading is possible. More often than not, Puzo seems to contradict his narratorial statements through the evidence of what he shows in the text.

    From my reading of these passages, it seems clear to me that, although Sonny commits immoral acts, Carlo Rizzi could never be seen as a better man than Sonny. What is unclear to me is whether that is what Puzo is trying to get us to understand, or whether he believes that murder always makes someone a worse person, regardless of their other actions.

    What do you think? Which is the worse man? What is Puzo trying to make us believe?
  2. Katcal I Aten't French !

    Oh dear... I really must see/read the godfather one day... :( **feeling deeply ashamed**
  3. Buzzfloyd Spelling Bee

    Well, hopefully I've given you enough information there that you can comment and join in the discussion even if you've never seen the film or read the book. That's what I was trying to do. I've only seen the first film and read half of the book.
  4. Garner Great God and Founding Father

    i'd emailed my reply to buzzfloyd, but she'd already left the house before she got it so she'll have to post it when she gets home.
  5. Katcal I Aten't French !

    Hmmm, yes, there was plenty of information, after all, I just didn't want to read it all if it was about something I wasn't going to be able to follow...

    And actually I'm not going to be all that constructive, because I rather agree with you analysis of it Grace, I mean, from the excerpts quoted here I probably can't fathom the whole of either character, but it does seem rather vague what the author wants us to think, I'm even wondering if he knew what he wanted us to think or if he was unsure too... I mean cruelty vs. murder, it's a big question, maybe his whole point was to get people thinking for themselves, and debating about it ?

    From the little I have read here, I agree that Rizzi is clearly at least equally "bad" as Sonny, if not worse, from a purely "moral" point of view, although they are both bad men... But as I said, I have neither seen the film or read the whole book, so I may be missing information to reall tell the difference.
  6. Buzzfloyd Spelling Bee

    Here is Garner's response, as emailed to me:

    [quote:a315ef0843]In paragraph three, your partial quote might change the meaning slightly. when you add in "It never occured to Carlo that", then it could just be carlo's view being exhibited, not Puzo's. Carlo's not a product of Little Italy in new york city, he grew up out in nevada. if i remember right, he might be from italy rather than sicily. these set him apart a bit from the Corleones, but he still shares much the same world view. He knows how the mafia works. Sonny is a primal man. His strength is admired by the other men, who wish they were as tall, as hung, as rich, and as fearsome. What carlo dearly wants is to be someone like Sonny.

    Carlo, prior to his beating by sonny, thinks to himself that, man to man, he could take sonny out in a fight. Carlo, to be fair, is a big guy himself. however, carlo was in fear of sonny from the very first moment. his sense of superiority over connie and his speculative superiority over sonny likely stem from an inferiority complex he has about the corleones. ambitious people often transmogrify a sense of inferiority into one of superiority, because the mind cannot hold self loating, and they would loath to be inferior.

    After sonny beats carlo to a pulp, Carlo resents sonny for having established/proven the dominance chain. he fears sonny, especially sonny's ability to murder, and specificly sonny's ability to murder HIM. carlo can't escape the inferiority-through-fear-of feeling he has towards sonny, now, and because of the world he lives in and the values it upholds, i think puzo's saying that carlo simply didn't consider a different world view. he didn't say "well, at least i'm not a savage lawless beast", he said "well, i'm not as big a mafia bastard as sonny".

    To look at Carlo's possible destiny as contrasted to Sonny's... Sonny was a kind and gentle kid who grew up to be a murderer. he has an amazing tallent for street warfare, and in the previous mafia war that established the hegemony of the Five Families, Sonny earned his reputation as a military genius at the age of only 16. his approach to killing other people is very much the same as a military strategist. he's got a job to do, but he has few compunctions to stall his plans, and none of those compunctions deal with legal sanctioning of his actions. He was a savage man who did bad things, but as you point out, he wasn't exactly a 'bad' man, and he had a good soul, at least in the begining.

    Carlo's destiny... what we know of his youth is that he grew up in nevada, working construction. everything we've seen of him directly suggests he's money hungry, and his marriage to connie was probably motivated more by his own hopes for personal advancement than by anything else. there's never really anything said to make carlo a likable character. Connie fell for him because of his looks. not his personality.

    I think its carlo's destiny, unadulterated from the onset, to be a man whos ambitions far outstripped his potential. he makes bad choices routinely, and we only see his behavior worsen as it goes on. the best he does for connie is to 'screw her every night' without beating her when he's terrified of her family.

    neither of these men are moral in the eyes of society, but, and you argue this fantasticly, within the eyes of the smaller world, the world of the Godfather Corleone, Sonny is the good son, and carlo is the bad egg.[/quote:a315ef0843]
  7. Buzzfloyd Spelling Bee

    Requoting from the book:
    [quote:18108fc8e1]Sonny was a man who could, with the naturalness of an animal, kill another man, while he himself would have to call up all his courage, all his will, to commit murder. It never occurred to Carlo that because of this he was a better man than Sonny Corleone, if such terms could be used; he envied Sonny his awesome savagery, a savagery which was now becoming a legend.[/quote:18108fc8e1]
    I don't see the ambiguity in this passage. What constitutes being a better person is not something Carlo thinks about, so it [i:18108fc8e1]cannot[/i:18108fc8e1] be his point of view. Otherwise it would occur to him. Essentially, Puzo is saying, "It never occurred to Carlo [i:18108fc8e1]as it would to someone else[/i:18108fc8e1] that because of this he was a better man etc".

    I think there is a strong implication that it would occur to someone with clear judgement that Carlo was a better man because he could not kill. In other words, that the opinion of the moral right (morally righteous?) would always be that Carlo was better as he was not a murderer, and did not have it in his nature to be a murderer.
  8. roisindubh211 New Member

    It makes me think that Puzo [u:90830f3ef3]does[/u:90830f3ef3] mean that Carlo is a better man-but ONLY in this particular sense. Sonny is compared to the animal world- not the sophistication and civilisation that is considered synonymous with humanity. However, the fact that Carlo is described as [i:90830f3ef3]incapable[/i:90830f3ef3] of committing murder- not that he is more self-disciplined, or more ruled by his conscience, but that he is [i:90830f3ef3]fundamentally lacking[/i:90830f3ef3] in this capability which Sonny has, reminds me of the supposed* moral of the Harry Potter books- "it is our choices which matter". And, in a strict definition of the word, Carlo is demonstrated as being 'better' at being human than Sonny is, because Sonny acts on instinct.

    *(ie, the fact that Harry himself is depicted as being unable to cast an 'unforgivable' spell, but does this make him better than other characters or simply weaker?)
  9. Buzzfloyd Spelling Bee

    That's a very interesting take on it, Roisin. I hadn't looked at it that way.

    Do you think that Puzo is saying that Sonny should not be regarded as a bad man at all, or perhaps as a lesser man somehow?
  10. roisindubh211 New Member

    I'm really not sure, but Puzo seems to write about Sonny as if he himself admires the character- he is in a sense an ideal of manhood.

    I wonder if Puzo is also using this statement to vindicate Carlo a little- with all of his faults, he at least is not self-righteously thinking "Well, I'm a better man than he is, my sins are less serious." Because even if Sonny is a murderer, Carlo beats his own wife, when he really is honor-bound to protect her.

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