Mario Puzo’s The Godfather: a Book Report
Table of Contents
- Organization of the Book
- Plot and Theme
- Reflections on the Book
- Cited Works / Bibliography
Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather is one of the most successful novels that was released in its time and genre as the novel appealed to both critics and readers alike. Without a doubt, The Godfather has made its mark in the thriller and crime genre, especially as it has further enriched this category by putting the mob scene/organized crime in a more deepened context which includes Italian-American culture, familial ties and generally, the Italian Mafia. The success of the novel was such that it was adapted into a trilogy of Hollywood films of the same title, which was made by critically-acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola. The Godfather can be also described as significant to the development of the American culture during the 1960s and the 1970s, especially since both the novel and the film provided strong cultural references; as Messenger points out, The Godfather has also managed to make its way into the American vernacular in addition to a recognition about the Italian-American mob culture which The Godfather has managed to take this myth to greater heights (as cited in Mannino).
Organization of the Book
Mario Puzo wrote a novel that was strongly driven by plot. Although the story can be said to revolve around a central character, Don Vito Corleone, The Godfather contains a number of subplots which helps to put together the power the Don or the Godfather has over those he help and over those he wants to get rid of. For example, the novel opens in a New York criminal courthouse where Amerigo Bonasera was waiting to hear the verdict with regards to his daughter’s rape. The judge rules that the guilty young men was only given with minimal punishment to Bonasera’s anger and dismay. This small section of the story, which paints Bonasera as a law-abiding Italian immigrant who has subject himself and trusted the American justice system, ends with his realization, “For justice we must go on out knees to Don Corleone” (Puzo, 11).
Puzo initially builds up the novel in order to establish Don Corleone’s influence and how, despite his crimes, that he is a man that one can count on, especially to those who need help. The series of “help” that these different people need — help in their careers, help in their businesses, help in justice — somehow builds up that Don Corleone, outside the eyes of justice, is a kind man. In a way, the importance of organizing this book, which can be seen to be evident throughout the novel, somehow presents a dichotomy: the dark side of the crimes committed under the Godfather’s gang and the side in which the whole organized crime functions like a tightly-knit family. Hence, after these series of anecdotes on people who need Don Corleone’s help, the novel then picks up with a huge wedding celebration for the Don’s only daughter.
This organization of the book, which can be said to shift perspectives and narratives, is a means for the author to convey to the reader how it is important to have The Godfather become more than a story about a group of gangsters. Basically, this organization which is filled contrasts and contradicting values can be seen as a means to provoke emotions towards the story and its characters, more particularly the Don and the next generation Corleone who will soon take over the group. Hence, sympathy is a very important factor that the audience must feel towards the characters and the story in order to make the book, despite the crimes, identifiable and in a way, universal. Such is what Mannino describes in Chris Messenger’s analysis on The Godfather (218):
… this attraction towards authority, family images, and business acumen encoded there must be accompanied in the reader’s psyche by an adjustment in attitude toward the family business, murder, which most people find repugnant. By creating murderers who love their families and conceive of their occupations as ways to provide for those family members, Messenger suggests that Puzo forces the reader of his novel into several ambivalent positions.
Hence, the book is organized not only as a means to tell the story but to also get the reader’s attention and sympathy. The emotions that the organization of the book brings can be also attributed to its success. Indeed, the combination of crime and personal code of honor creates an interesting conflict.
The Godfather, or Don Vito Corleone, is the patriarch of the Corleone family, probably the most powerful Mafia family in New York. He is also the main character of the novel. Based on the novel, Don Vito Corleone is an ambitious immigrant who wants to become successful; his initial successes, albeit his small beginnings as an adopted immigrant who does not speak English, also came from petty crimes although even as a young man, he used his loyalty in exchange for his personal gains.
The novel mentions of the Don’s beginnings in Sicily in which he was sent to America to escape the threat of the Sicilian mob boss (who killed his father); this already establishes an interesting sketch of the Don’s psychology. Not entirely a man of very strong stature, Vito Corleone demonstrates loyalty and honor as based on his relations with other people, such as his adoptive family in New York, the Abbandandos, and the relationships he keeps despite his eventual rise to power. Another interesting aspect is that the Don’s original name is not Vito Corleone, and he only embraced his name when he was listed as Vito Corleone, based on the tag that is found in his clothes; such change of name can be seen as a means for the Don to start anew, and although he initially lived an honest life in America, his need to prosper would somehow lead him to the life similar to those who changed his life back in Sicily.
The Don can be seen to represent the immigrants who come to America who wants to escape the threats in their native land and finds the redemption in the prospect of the American dream. However, the Don also represents a figure which realizes that surviving in America also means competition, which is why he creates a strong loyalty base, a strong representation of his Italian roots; hence, this also represents a potential shift in cultures for the Don in which his strengths come from his Italian sensibilities and the weaknesses from his need to succeed in the United States as an Italian immigrant.
There are a string of other characters in the novel, including his wife, Carmella, his daughter Connie, his sons Sonny, Freddo and Michael; in addition to this he also has an adopted son, Tom Hagen. Among the Don’s immediate family and strings of relations, friends and neighbors, Michael Corleone also gains an important role in the novel as he emerges to be the one to take the place of the Don despite his position as the youngest son. Michael’s ability to earn the favor of his father can be also seen in his loyalty to the family, in addition to his character which is more fitting for the position unlike his two older brothers. Michael does not want to get involved with the business which explains why after serving in the war he enrolled in college. However, Michael seems to be fated for the position as the future Don as despite his willingness to become “Americanized”; this also shows in his long term relationship with Kay who is not an Italian. Throughout the novel, as Michael gets further and naturally primed for the position of the future Don, Michael wants to legitimize the family business by avoiding any criminal ties. However, despite these attempts Michael also develops somewhat like his father as he keeps getting involved with the crime world.
The novel mainly takes place in different parts of New York after the Second World War, from 1945 to the mid 1950s, although it also covers the Don’s early childhood in Italy in the early 20th century. The novel also includes other places such as Sicily, where Don Vito comes from and where Michael will also go back for a visit.
This setting makes The Godfather believable. For one, Italians are among the largest immigrant groups in the United States, and New York was the prime destination for immigrants that were coming to America, especially those coming from Europe. The novel also takes place in which it represents the differences and similarities in mob life in the United States and in Sicily. This setting also makes the novel more real based on Puzo’s experiences when he worked as a reporter which included the existence of gangsters in the United States, particularly those that are identified according to national origins. Post-war America is also a critical time for the novel to take place because this is the period where the nation goes through the transition as it recovers from the war and starts embracing more changes in its society.
Plot and Theme
As an epic and saga, The Godfather mainly tells the story of the Corleone family and it sketches the life of Don Vito Corleone from his childhood in Sicily to his adult life as an important Mafia boss. The novel’s main plot, basically, is to establish how the family manages to survive the various challenges they face, specifically when it comes to determining the future of the family business and how the business will survive in the midst of change and the idealisms of the only Corleone son that can manage to have the enterprise survive. Hence, the main problem and conflict of the novel is how it is possible for the Corleones, especially the Don, to deal with the changes that are taking place, and at the same time, establish a sense of redemption for their business.
Identifying the “moral” of the story can be challenging in this novel because of the dichotomy of the novel. However, it can be said that the main element that works throughout the novel, whether within the aspect of crime and family, is the thing called loyalty. Hence, loyalty can take one as far and can even save someone’s life.
The novel can be simply summarized as a story about crime and family, loyalty and betrayal, the role of men in the family, and reaching the American Dream. Although the “dream” is mainly already attained, what is interesting is that this implied American Dream can be mainly translated into success despite the means; hence, the workings of contradicting intentions in people also represents a more complex relationship between what is good and what is evil.
Reflections on the Book
My impression of the book is that Puzo has successfully managed to provoke those different emotions in me whilst reading the novel. Apparently, I am against the enterprise of the family but I find myself rooting for the Don on the basis that on the other side of his criminal business he is a man of honor and a hero, and at the same time, I also feel for Michael because throughout the novel he wants to correct his family’s enterprise. Since I have also seen the film, neither of them disappointed me, and I thought that The Godfather, despite in my opinion is not necessarily a literary masterpiece, is a very effective crime novel.
For me, what makes the book realistic is that its main elements, crime and family/relations, are very real for me. In a way, this made me think that even criminals also have families, especially those who are members of organized gangsters. Hence, the book is very provocative and thrilling because of the moments of betrayal in the book and surprising decisions made by the Don; Michael is also another surprising character, but I believe that he is sketched very well since his idealisms contradict very well with his fate as the next Don.
I think that people are able to easily identify with Michael because of his situation in which family and self-interests contradict with each other. What is also sympathetic is Kay, Michael’s wife, because in the beginning her character is the least likely to become the wife of a future Mafia boss. In a way, both Kay and Michael demonstrate embracing their fates and accepting the situation where they find themselves in. Last but not the least, Don Vito is also another identifiable character because he shows a very human situation in which he balances his ambitions with his honor as a husband, father and the Godfather whom a lot of people run to in times of trouble, whether criminal or not.
Cited Works / Bibliography
Gardaphe, Fred. Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.
Mannino, Mary Ann. “The Godfather and American Culture: How the Corleones Became “Our Gang.”” MELUS. 28 (2003): 218+.
Puzo, Mario. The Godfather. New York: New American Library (Penguin Books), 1978.