Literature has always reflected humans’ fascination with criminality. In the classical world Homer wrote the rape of Helen into The Iliad, in the twentieth century mafia fiction took centre stage with The Godfather. Published in 1969, Mario Puzo’s epic novel of mid-century mafia wars has sold tens of millions of copies since its release and spawned Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful film adaptations. Framed around a period of transition for the Corleones – the most revered mafia family in America – the novel opens at the wedding of Don Vito Corleone’s daughter, Connie. Don Corleone – the godfather – is a man of tradition, of family values. He is also head of the Corleones and a man whose life has been built on the blood of others. Don Corleone is at the end of his career, however, and in need of a successor to whom the family business can be passed. There are his three sons: bullish Sonny who is quick to violence, weak-willed Fredo who shows poor judgement, and the youngest, Michael, who takes no interest in his father’s business. There is also Tom Hagen, a German-Irish orphan who the family took in when he was a child and raised as a Corleone by proxy. Of course, he will never have Sicilian blood running through his veins.
And so The Godfather is the story of succession, of one generation passing on the baton to the next (admittedly, the baton smeared in blood in this case). An immigrant to America, Vito Corleone made his way to the top of the criminal underworld through having a sense of honour and repaying all favours done him. The younger generation have fewer scruples and are eager to get into the narcotics business, which will ensure their continued prominence in the American mafia scene. With Vito’s power waning and no obvious successor on the horizon, the other families of New York wage a campaign against the Corleones in the hope of hoovering up some of their gambling business and political contacts. The Corleones need a new don – the question is, who will step up and take control of the family?
Puzo’s great trick is to romanticise the mafia world and, to an extent, domesticate it. Don Corleone is a man capable of savage violence but forefront in the novel is his emphasis on family, on maintaining general decency even if this comes at the cost of a little unpleasantness. By creating a story that revolves around power and brutality while also welcoming the reader into a world where belonging is important and a self-governing community runs rule, Puzo manages to appeal simultaneously to the violent nature of humanity and the sentimentality in us that values heritage and standards.
Published in the late-1960s when American family life was changing significantly and people were losing faith in their government, due in no small part to the Vietnam War, The Godfather offers in Vito Corleone a decisive man who, with omnipotent good sense, adjudicates on moral issues and metes out punishment as he sees fit. This sense of justice was appealing in a world where existentialism had ruled absolute truth impossible, and public bodies had proved incapable of straight-forward morality. More than a decade before Don Corleone’s first appearance, Camus had determined in The Fall that no man had the right to judge another man and thus Don Corleone, whose exists on the basis of his judgements of others, was a stark contrast to the morally indifferent world some philosophic novelists had painted. Though the reader only ever sees Don Corleone ruling over characters who are morally reprehensible, it is clear that the law of the streets is more just than that of the courtroom. At one point it is even suggested that the Don’s justice would have seen Hitler stopped in his tracks before 1939 and the outbreak of war.
Don Corleone takes an interest in the lives of all those around him. His old world morals and the patriarchal authority that he exerts over his family makes for an interesting juxtaposition in a world where family values were dying, or at least shifting. Indeed, the Don might seem to be a reflection of his law-abiding capitalists but his personal interest and moral code leaves him a long way from corporate America. What is clear, however, is that he is not simply a bloodthirsty gangster: he is, in his own words, a “reasonable man”.
One has to be very careful when reading The Godfather as any form of social critique, however. Though the ideas may be appealing – comforting in a peculiar way – it is important to remember that the Don’s potency exists only in the world of the novel. This is a world where no significant alternative is offered to Don Corleone’s worldview and thus one must understand that the novel is intended not as social commentary but as fantasy. Though the events of the novel are, perhaps, no great leap from events of history any attempt to read the novel through the lens of historicism or as a roman a clef is largely futile: The Godfather exists in its own world and by its own internal code of ethics. Would Don Corleone have had it any other way?
There are more interesting issues involved in the novel than the politics and morality of justice. The world of Vito Corleone is one formed around patriarchal authority and this, inevitably, proves interesting for psychoanalytical and religious readings of the text. The Godfather represents an authority to which his followers must submit. Freud could certainly have made a lot of a father figure who allows individuals to exercise their “thirst for obedience” by becoming part of a group and subordinating their own minds to a kind of group-think. With Don Corleone’s near omnipotent power, submission to him becomes as submission to a deity. His word, living under his dominion, allows the individual to transcend normal society. The religious parallels are obvious.
Tying into this discussion is the interesting dynamic around the individualist-collectivist dialectic. In Don Corleone’s world the individual must give up some of their own identity in order to be part of the family unit. In the same breath, of course, members of the family has a freedom not afforded most men: they live by their own laws, not those of the land. As the Don puts it, the Corleones “manage our world for ourselves because it is our world, cosa nostra." In the same speech, he claims that the family "are all men who have refused to be fools, who have refused to be puppets dancing on a string pulled by the men on high."
The novel also explores ideas about ethnicity – somewhat paradoxically given that mafia culture would become so heavily linked with stereotypes of Italian-Americans. The only one of the Corleones who attempts to assimilate into the culture of his adopted homeland is Michael, who joins the army and studies at Dartmouth University. However, by the end of the novel he too has fallen back into the heritage of his family and demonstrated that to get on an immigrant need not shed their own culture, for better or worse.
All that said, Puzo’s novel is by no means a masterpiece in terms of its literary qualities. To be absolutely clear: The Godfather is pulp fiction. Good pulp fiction but notably the kind of novel where the writing is subordinated in favour of a thrilling and unrealistic plot. This is not to say Puzo does not have talent as a writer – he himself is quoted as saying "If I'd known so many people were going to read it, I'd have written it better". As a writer, he has strengths and weaknesses. Approaching The Godfather as pulp fiction, though, does help set expectations.
The first niggling issue with the storytelling is the amount of information which one is simply told rather than being shown. This is particularly apparent in the early sections and does become a little tiring (a consequence of an omniscient narrator who intrudes upon the narrative like a neighbourhood gossip, eager to share every last snippet of information they have about an individual before it is otherwise discovered and their thunder stolen). The frequent use of rather clichéd phrases does little to ease the narrative along either, nor do the sloppy or contradictory sentences that crop up occasionally. But all this can be borne – one does not read The Godfather for literary flair but for sheer good storytelling. Puzo has this in abundance. Though his style might be far from literary, his talent for creating a compelling narrative is exceptional. If the aim of pulp fiction is to create a narrative that forces the reader to turn one page after another, then The Godfather is a roaring success; the epitome of compulsive reading. To achieve this, Puzo sets up small intrigues throughout that drive the reader on, seeking the resolution before another teasing situation is set up by the author.
It is often commented that some of the storylines are tangential. This is certainly true, but they are all part of the tapestry of stories that make up the community of characters that populate the book. All tied together by the Godfather, these characters’ stories may not be necessary for the central plot but there is something in the looseness that fits with Puzo’s approach to the telling of the Corleones’s story. One of the fairly common, if minor, themes of mafia stories is how the close-knit communities that make up business or personal families are tied together by stories. The retelling of episodes from the clan’s past, recent or ancient, helps to tie them together as part of a group who shares more than blood. Puzo’s decision to share the stories of minor characters reflects this mode of storytelling.
It is impossible to read Puzo’s novel without thinking of Coppola’s films and comparing the two. That is a tricky thing as the films are so strong that the novel must seem the lesser artistic achievement of the two. That is not to say it is not without value. The Godfather is a compulsive read and the set of characters sit together to create a truly engaging ensemble – in the same way that Dickens’s characters are largely fairly flat stereotypes when taken individually, but when considered together the dynamic is quite different. The novel’s finest character is, undoubtedly, the Corleone family.
Such was the popularity of The Godfather that it inevitably spawned a huge number of mafia novels hoping to cash in on the new popularity of the genre. This fascination remains part of popular culture today with biographies and biopics of famous underworld figures doing great business and television series like The Sopranos updating the format for a modern audience. Without The Godfather there would doubtless be far less money in the commodifying and selling of the mafia. Truly, Puzo’s epic is the don of the genre.