The Role of the Peasant in Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine

One of the contradictions of radical movements is the way in which the movements both extol and denigrate the virtues of the working class. Orwell made this trope explicit in both Animal Farm with the fate of the horse brought to the glue factory at the behest of the corrupt pig officials and 1984 in which George Winston frequently remarks that the proles have not benefited from the revolution. Even as that protagonist wants to believe that the Big Brother regime will be overthrown by the proles, they disappoint him by fighting over trivialities. Ignazio Silone presents us with a similar tension between romanticism and denigration when he depicts the working class and peasant characters in Bread and Wine. This paper will explore the ways in which the hero Spina/Spada both romanticizes and denigrates peasants throughout the novel and how the narrative supports and subverts the protagonist’s viewpoint.

The novel begins in an extremely picturesque viewpoint of the countryside. “A young peasant woman with a baby in her arms, riding a small donkey, came down the provincial road, which was as stony and winding as the bed of a dried up stream. In a small field behind the cemetery a bare-headed old peasant was tracing brown lines with a small wooden plough drawn by two donkeys. Life seen from the priest’s garden was like an ancient, monotonous pantomime.” (2)

One must note the Christ imagery, particularly in the way that the peasant woman is both a Madonna with the baby in her arms and a Jesus on the way to Jerusalem riding a donkey. There’s a winding road that that could become dangerous at any moment. The mixture of life and death works itself into this paragraph as the bare-headed old peasant is continuing to work on the fields, tracing brown lines in order to plant seeds in preparation of a season of growth.

Upon further examination, this very scene feels false. It looks like the kind of painting that will signify a rustic innocence without truly understanding the lives of the people being depicted. The first false note is the young woman with the baby in her arms. Note that the author says that the baby is in her arms. She is not holding the baby in a makeshift cradle over her shoulder. There is no baby carrier involved in the holding of the baby. She does not have a hand free in order to drive that donkey that she’s riding. Instead she is holding the baby in both arms while riding a donkey. Apparently the donkey is one of those magical donkeys that does not need to be led or driven in any way and intuitively knows where to go. The provincial road is both stony and winding, meaning that it’s not a safe road for travel. If one was to ride a donkey over such a road, one would make sure to have both hands free in order to guide the donkey away from dangerous stone arrangements which could trip up the donkey.

The bare-headed peasant may very well be planting seeds but the use of the donkeys seems to be better for the imagery than the actual planting of seeds. It’s a small field so it’s unclear whether this is a farm or a garden. This series of impossible images culminates in the description of the priest’s garden being compared to an ancient, monotonous pantomime. It’s ancient and monotonous because this is the way that peasants supposedly lived for centuries riding on donkeys and planting seeds. The pantomime portion is particularly interesting since this means that peasants are silent. They do not talk. They do not complain about their lot in life. They ride precariously on their donkeys and use their donkeys for creating images. They do not have voices. Other people will impose voices upon them. In both Communism and Fascism, the consent of the working class and peasant population is assumed without question and this description depicts the lack of voice that the movements attribute to the peasants and working classes.

The peasants remain voiceless throughout the opening sequences. The peasants remain props in the party put forth by the priest as his sister frets about the arrangements. When they appear again in the narrative, they are again depicted with donkeys. “Some peasants were loading their donkeys outside their front doors before going to work in the country.” (23) The reader must be careful not to ascribe too much metaphorical significance to the donkey peasant relationship. After all, donkeys are important components in peasant labor. If this book took place in another time period, the peasants could be driving pickup trucks or using oxen. However, the donkey is a particularly stubborn and intransigent animal. The fact that peasants are seen with donkeys in all of their depictions does preconfigure the ways that they will disappoint the hero as he attempts to enlist these people in his crusades. They can be led but they cannot be won over.

As the doctor of chapter two is being led to the hero Spina/Spada, the character of Cardile is unable to stop talking about how the church was once on the side of the peasants but how it changed. When Cardile self-identifies as a peasant, it comes out in a very strange way: “We peasants get to know people through the land they own and through testimonials. But is that a way of getting to know people? You work, buy, sell, rent, and you have to have papers and testimonials. If you go abroad to work you have to apply to many offices, and you need recommendations. Is that a way of getting to know people?” (24) Even though Cardile is purposefully leading Dr. Nunzio on a particular argument that will allow Dr. Nunzio to treat his old friend Spina without turning him into the Fascist authorities, the very tone of the speech depicts the peasants as noble savages who simply know people through the land they own and testimonials. There’s even a hint of a magical realism in that the meaning of knowing someone through the land sounds very strange to the reader since it implies that people somehow intuitively understand their neighbors because the dirt is speaking to them. The peasant may now have a voice, but the voice is in the service of teaching the fascist doctor a lesson about how his lifestyle may be civilized and complicated but not necessarily better. Cardile even establishes that he was born a peasant and will remain a peasant, living according to custom.

As Cardile speaks about how he is a peasant and how he has customs, he can barely state his intended purpose which is to bring the doctor to his radical friend. As Cardile is continuing the discourse and establishing himself as the simple peasant created for a plot contrivance, more peasants pass by as decoration. “A peasant passed with a donkey with a load of wood and eyed them suspiciously. A little later an old woman passed with a goat.” (27) At this point in the narrative, one can be forgiven for wondering if Italian peasants have a monopoly on donkeys. The fact that the old woman has a goat seems like a welcome relief from the donkey show that has been prevalent throughout the novel.

In Spina’s career as a priest, alternately known as Spada or Don Paolo, he is placed into a role as a holy saint. Matalena checks his hands for signs of piercing in order to make sure that he is not Jesus Christ. Others find him to be a saint. This particular depiction of the role of the church in the life of peasants comes closest to providing a theme to the book since socialists and clergy have had a traditional oppositional relationship. Socialism is not Communism but it is associated with Communism enough be sympathetic to the Marxist notion that religion is the opiate of the masses. In opposition to Marxism, the Church tends to align itself with the forces of Fascism such as Franco’s Spanish government. As a socialist agitator disguised as a priest, Spina goes through an educational experience in which he can be associated with the peasants.

At this point, the book seems to find a tension between Spina’s intentions and his ability to communicate radical ideas to them. When he tries to speak of politics, the peasants do not understand his analogy of kings of coins. When a teacher tells him that his efforts are in vain, she is first described as having a fascist insignia on her breast. “She sighed deeply between one sentence and the next, and the tricolor emblem tossed about like a small boat on a stormy sea.” (124)

This passage is an unusual one since it is primarily concerned with her fascist devotion; however, her sighs render her breasts as jiggling so much that they create a “stormy sea.” Presumably the reader is supposed to understand that the hero is noting that he talking to a woman who is truthfully in opposition to everything that he believes in, yet he is staring at her chest and describing the badge itself. Her breasts being a stormy sea may suggest a certain amount of repressed sexual longing on the part of the hero; however, the metaphor is so far away from a description of breasts that it might very well just be in place to call attention to the badge itself.

“These peasants are very ignorant,” she said, “and when they listen to educated people such as ourselves they nearly always understand the opposite of what is meant.” (124) The teacher is then rendered as a foolish woman as she attempts to indoctrinate the peasants in the ways of the Fascist government. When the peasants ask her questions that she cannot answer, she acts as if she is teaching ignorant children. When Sciatap asks if the rural revolution is the revolution that they made, she congratulates him on his intelligence. Yet when he asks for details, she cannot provide an answer. Instead she says something vague about a moral revolution which makes absolutely no sense but sounds intelligent. In this passage, she is every “expert” who uses obfuscation as a method of hiding the fact that she does not know what she is talking about.

In this scene, the peasant donkey metaphor comes to fruition. Like the donkey, the peasant may be led to a certain place, but cannot be fully convinced heart and soul in the propriety of the action. The teacher could spend years trying to indoctrinate the peasants with the Fascist party line and yet by the end of it, she will still feel frustrated at the inability of the peasant to believe everything that she says. The reputation of the book as an anti-fascist and anti-Communist book may very well come from scenes like this in which the equating of stupidity with an inability to fully believe in a certain indoctrination depicts the teacher as a dismal character.

Toward the end of the book, another scene takes place between Murica and Spada in which Murica tells his story of his time as both a revolutionary and a police informant. He also comes from peasant stock, but instead of being merely decoration complete with donkey, his story is a harrowing tale of politics and an attempt to escape the police. At one point he delivers a speech that might as well be the theme of the book. “I must confess,” the young man went on, “that my religious faith has never been very strong…That was why I put up no resistance in Rome to accepting the so-called scientific theories that were propagated in the cells. These theories began to strike me as too comfortable. The idea that everything was matter, that the idea of right was inseparable from that of utility (even if it were social utility) and was backed only by the idea of punishment, became intolerable to me. Punishment by whom? The state, the party and public opinion? But supposing the state, the party and public opinion were immoral?” (236)

In conclusion, the peasant is often used as a tool of the characters who assume that they are the better people. The peasant is often ignored or minimized as a method of creating a setting. The image of the peasant and the donkey is implied to be eternal and unchanging even as the societal leaders attempt to play their politics. The Spina/Spada character is frequently frustrated with the inability of the peasants to join his anti-Fascist crusade. Yet, the peasant becomes a voice for healthy skepticism in the narrative. Whether the peasants are finding problems in the lectures of a pro-Fascist teacher or dealing with the police as an informant, there is an element of stubbornness in the peasant depiction that is admirable, even as it frustrates the political agenda of the main characters.