She had a son in the mafia, a daughter who wanted to marry a non-Italian, seen death, and managed to keep a big family together. When a person hears this simple description, what comes to mind? The majority of people in America would most likely think of Mario Puzo and his most popular work, The Godfather. However, an important element is often forgotten, the word “she.” In The Godfather Puzo described the male dominance in the family; the men handle business, support the family and basically control the lives of those around them. However, in Mario Puzo’s earlier work, The Fortunate Pilgrim, we see a female with the strength and courage to take control over her family. Lucia Santa, an Italian immigrant, left her homeland to marry with hope for a better life, and finds herself years later with six kids from two marriages living in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City. Her life was filled with the hope and despair faced by all immigrants, yet she proved her strength by becoming a single mother when her second husband abandoned the family. Why did Puzo choose to show the female character in such a high position, when he originally wrote the novel with the idea that he himself would be the main character? Is it possible that The Fortunate Pilgrim helped pave the way for women to take charge and become accepted by society as a possible dominant force?
When it first came out in 1969, The Godfather appeared to be an accurate account of the life of an Italian American immigrant. However, if the general audience had read The Fortunate Pilgrim years before in 1964 they would have been introduced to a much more accurate portrayal of the life of an immigrant. Mario Puzo even stated that he felt The Godfather was “an American fairytale,” (Basbanes, A.37) rather than a fictional novel. Since Puzo believed this, I began to wonder, did Puzo, a self-proclaimed chauvinist (Paglia, C.1) find in his mother’s character Lucia Santa a more powerful character than The Godfather’s Don Corleone? After all, Puzo modeled his mother for Don Corleone, the Mafia leader of The Godfather. (Paglia, C.1) When Mario Puzo wrote The Fortunate Pilgrim it was his editor who felt he should write more about the character Larry. With instant success, The Godfather was published, portraying a male dominated society in which the women were minor characters. The most interesting aspect of the popularity of the novel The Godfather was that it was published during the feminist movement. Could the novel perhaps portray what society up until now has accepted as the ideal social order with men in power over women and society? Is it a final attempt at keeping the dominance of society to men? Puzo felt that “The Godfather was a romantic novel,” (Basbanes, A.37) and so being it would portray a non-realistic ideal of society, suggesting that the male dominated society in real life was losing its control and could only now be portrayed in fiction.
The Fortunate Pilgrim, though primarily written with Lorenzo as the main character, demonstrated how women are powerful leaders and can take on the roles that men have abandoned. After her second husband Frank left, Lucia Santa exhibited strength to retain respect in her family. She became the dominant force over all her children, even over Larry, her oldest son who traditionally would take on the role of head of the house. Mario Puzo personalized in the character of Lucia Santa his mother Maria. He described his mother as being, “a wonderful, handsome woman, but a fairly ruthless person.” (Paglia, C.1)With Lucia Santa as the cultural hero of the novel, feminist ideas are able to emerge. As seen in the novel, Puzo declared, “with age, the Italian women got stronger, and the men got weaker.” (Paglia, C.1) Lucia Santa’s husband, unable to cope with the living conditions, went mentally insane and Lucia had to keep the family in motion, strengthening her power. One can find this parallel to the feminist movement. As time goes on, women exhibit more power, while men must face how women are becoming equals. However, when Lucia Santa and her family move at the end of the novel to Long Island, Lucia may begin to lose her power. Even though her dominance weakens she passes that power on to the next generation, which in her case is male, yet for others could be female.
Emerging in an age where feminism dominated, how was it that The Fortunate Pilgrim did not match the success of The Godfather? It depicted a true autobiographical account of the life of one Italian American family, while The Godfather portrayed a fictional account. The stories had a dominating figure who acted as head of the household, namely Lucia Santa and Don Corleone. It also revealed an influence of the mafia and the harsh conditions placed on the immigrants. With all these comparative descriptions, how is it that The Godfather achieved more success than The Fortunate Pilgrim? After all, The Fortunate Pilgrim was met with high praise in reviews, yet Puzo found himself, “poorer than when he started out,” (Basbanes, A.37) after publishing the novel. Could the reason to the slump in sales revolve around the issue of feminism versus masculinity? The Godfather published at a time where feminism emerged, yet the novel itself was very macho, powerful and almost chauvinistic. The Godfather Film Trilogy, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, helped with this depiction of manliness. However, one important character in the film, Michael Corleone’s wife Kay, steps out of the man-oriented world and declares her self independent and unwilling to accept the traditions of Michael’s “family business.” In the novel The Godfather Puzo describes Kay to accept the life of an Italian wife, and in turn weakened the feminist movement. Yet by examining Coppola’s portrayal of Kay, we can see the existence of another female character in The Fortunate Pilgrim, Lucia Santa’s oldest child Octavia. As a young independent woman, Octavia wished to withdraw from the life of an Italian wife and become a teacher. Showing such courage for a young woman, women across the country should respect and praise her character, much like they accepted Kay in The Godfather films, who happened to be a teacher. However, The Godfather is filled with action, drama and violence, three key ingredients to a successful novel published in the United States. For some reason, this country chooses to read or watch this as opposed to a novel of class with realistic imagery.
If The Godfather is more popular today, then why bother reading The Fortunate Pilgrim? Surely one wants to keep up with pop culture as opposed to reading a powerful novel. I would suggest otherwise though. When reading works by Mario Puzo, one should read both The Godfather and his earlier work The Fortunate Pilgrim. A comparison of the two shows two distinctly different outlooks of the Italian American experience. The Fortunate Pilgrim displays the lives of a large Italian American immigrant family living in the slums of New York and the issues they face, as well as portraying women as strong characters and leaders of the family. The Godfather portrays an unrealistic account of a large extended family complete with its own “family business” and the role of male hierarchy.
By reading this new edition of The Fortunate Pilgrim this generation should recognize the role of women in the novel. The world today focuses greatly on accepting everyone in society and this novel serves as a key example of how women are able to demonstrate power in a man’s environment. When people read this novel today, they must realize this novel was written during a time of confusion in our country, with the feminist movement beginning to influence the work force and society in general. This novel serves as a landmark for women everywhere, in fact, without Lucia Santa The Godfather would never become a bestselling novel and a timeless Hollywood classic. Behind every Don Corleone there is a Lucia Santa, and recently the world is gradually coming to recognize this.
Basbanes, Nicholas A. “Author Mario Puzo Still A ‘Family Man’” Morning Call 3 August 1996,
3rd ed.: A37.
Paglia, Camille. “It All Comes Back To Family” New York Times 8 May 1997, late ed.: C1