Reading Mario Puzo’s biography on Goodreads, I was struck by what motivated him to create his most famous work, The Godfather:
Puzo’s most famous work, The Godfather, was first published in 1969 after he had heard anecdotes about Mafia organizations during his time in pulp journalism. He later said in an interview with Larry King that his principal motivation was to make money. He had already, after all, written two books that had received great reviews, yet had not amounted to much. As a government clerk with five children, he was looking to write something that would appeal to the masses.
It was initially difficult for me to swallow, the idealistic writer in me still raising her nose up at the thought of producing work meant solely to please the masses. But here I am, finished with the novel, with nothing but gratification and admiration for the man’s work.
The novel’s success isn’t because of any poor simplification of craft or language, but how it explored themes that the masses care very much about: defying society; breaking free of imposed rules to carve one’s own destiny; family and one’s unwavering loyalty to the people who’ve shown kindness to us. These are what essentially made The Godfather trilogy much different from other mafia films of that time period, Scarface being a stark contrast to it. As Puzo and Larry King pointed out in the interview, “The Godfather was really…a family novel, more than a crime novel. Crime just happened to be their occupation.”
Out of the many themes, values, and principles tackled in this novel, I’ll focus on two main points that stand out and that I’d love to have open discussions about: friendship and what it means in the world of The Godfather, and the women of this world, how they are portrayed from the beginning to the end of the novel.
You’ll find links and page references to the novel throughout this review. Also, if you haven’t read the novel, be warned as the following contain massive spoilers. 😉
What does friendship mean in the world of The Godfather? 🤝
Vito Corleone and his role in the novel are first introduced via three accounts: the undertaker Amerigo Bonasera, Nazorine the baker, and singer and actor Johnny Fontane. In the middle of their personal troubles, each individual decides to approach “the Don” for help.
Of the three, it is the undertaker Amerigo Bonasera that showed sheer reluctance and fear in approaching Don Corleone. The words he used imply how the Don’s help is of a desperate, last resort: “For justice, we must go on our knees to Don Corleone” (Puzo 12). It’s nothing like the confidence and loyalty Nazorine and Corleone shared in their meeting, nor of the affection Corleone has for Fonate, his godson.
When they finally do meet, Corleone confronts Bonasera about his “refusal” of his friendship, chastising him for not coming to him for help first, and instead sought the help of the police, of lawyers, of a society that didn’t care for the man at all. Bonasera didn’t respond directly at these accusations, but instead asks him to “name his price.”
It’s very interesting to see how Bonasera was wiling to pay for the service requested, no matter the cost, if it will allow him to get what he wants without declaring his friendship with Don Corleone. This proves that friendship in this context has a price—due service for those who pledge their allegiance to Corleone, a consequence for those like Bonasera who don’t want to be involved.
“We have known each other many years, you and I,” he said to the undertaker, “but until this day you never came to me for counsel or help. I can’t remember the last time you invited me to your house for coffee though my wife is godmother to your only child. Let us be frank. You spurned my friendship. You feared to be in my debt.”
Bonasera murmured, “I didn’t want to get in trouble.” (31)
In the Filipino tradition, utang na loob or “debt of gratitude” is a cultural trait in which one was indebted to anyone that offers or shows kindness, be it financial support or a roof over one’s head. The idea of “friendship” in the novel is similar to utang na loob where a man must declare and show his loyalty to the Don through services rendered should the need arise, even if it means putting your life and security on the line.
In such a harsh society as 1940s New York where money is tight, anyone can get shot, and the police force can easily be bribed, the Italian immigrant families look to Don Corleone as a savior, their own version of Robin Hood.
For his help, they are willing to proclaim their friendship, which when stripped of its euphemism means promising their loyalty and service to him, no matter what.
Don Vito Corleone was a man whom everybody came for help, and never were they disappointed. He made no empty promises, nor the craven excuse that his hands were tied by more powerful forces in the world than himself. It was not necessary that he be your friend, it was not even important that you had no means with which to repay him. Only one thing was required. That you, you yourself, proclaim your friendship…It was understood, it was mere good manners, to proclaim that you were in his debt and that he had the right to call upon you at any time to redeem your debt by some small service (15-16).
It is with this strategy that Don Corleone had built his empire. You can also say it’s the bottom card that, when flicked away, the whole tower can collapse. Without these loyalties, Corleone wouldn’t have power or money. Yet it’s brilliant because it’s rooted one of humanity’s core components: relationships.
Because he built relationships based on trust and honor, people return to bend and kiss his hand with willingness and respect, without any reluctance or hesitation. And because we are human beings, we don’t forget such acts of kindness.
Regardless of how long they’ve known the Don, they offer gifts and services when called upon, and these come in various forms: freshly baked clotted-cheese, homemade wine, legal protection, financial opportunity, destruction, murder, and funeral services, to which Bonasera offered to the Don to the best of his abilities at the very end.
Bonasera clearly didn’t want to be in the Don’s debt. He didn’t want to have to put his vision of a beautiful American life at risk for a possibly dangerous request that he may not be able to deliver, and one that he can never refuse. Even the Don’s own son, Michael, saw through the mask behind the word “friendship” and described it beautifully:
Michael sighed. “I guess that’s the way it sounds, but let me tell you this. You know those Arctic explorers who leave caches of food scattered on the route to the North Pole? Just in case they may need them someday? That’s my father’s favors. Someday he’ll be at each one of those people’s houses, and they better come across (43).
I find this concept of friendship clever and ironic. The word “friendship” refers to a relationship between two people who share mutual affection for one another. Yet friendship in the world of The Godfather is nothing like your teenage BFFs with friendship bracelets signifying your selfless loyalty to one another.
In this world, friendship is a tool of power. It’s a necessity to increase your fortune and rise above your enemies. It’s what tyrants use to exert their dominion over others, and what has placed the Corleone family on top as the most powerful of all the New York Italian families.
The woman in the world of The Godfather 👩👧👦
The first time we get a sense of the time period of the novel is during Connie Corleone’s wedding—the last Saturday in August 1945.
Having finished the novel, 95% of what I read were of women being treated as property, as things an honorable man shouldn’t covet from another man, as sexual objects a man either prizes or abuses. Puzo used words like “broads” and “kids,” as well as phrases like “womanly foolishness” or “to do the job on her” (meaning to seduce a woman) that it was difficult to keep my blood from boiling while reading the first few chapters.
The tone and language could be due to the hand that penned this novel. Puzo wrote for men’s magazines and “pulp titles like Male, True Action, and Swank” that the audience he had in mind may have been predominantly male.
Yet we also see strength and, to such an extent, power in the women of this society. In the Sicilian tradition, for example, a man cannot refuse a favor or request on the day of his daughter’s wedding (27). In this sense, Don Corleone has no power to refuse others since they come for help because of his daughter, Connie.
Mama Corleone, the Don’s wife, is brave and impeccably resilient in such hard times. As Michael points out, “she bore him four children in times when it was not that safe to bear children. She nursed and guarded him when people shot him. She believed in him. She was always his first loyalty for forty years” (365). We can expect more or less the same from the hundreds of women who must protect and nurse their husbands should a bullet take them down.
This got me wondering what women’s lives were like during the 1940s. After checking out several articles and blog posts, it’s interesting that they discuss the rise of women’s position and value, especially during World War II where a huge shortage in the workforce compelled the government to hire and train women to fill those jobs. This brought the famous “Rosie the Riveter” to life. Moreover, female Italian immigrants were just as determined and capable of taking on roles in politics, religion, medicine, and commerce within society.
All this being considered, the lines between women as strong or weak figures in novel are very much blurry.
Kay Adams, Michael’s wife, is a good example of this.
She seemingly has a more active role, showing more awareness and bravery than the other women in the novel despite the circumstances. She saw through Michael’s lie about Connie’s husband’s murder, and responded by leaving him and the life he now leads.
When Hagen visits her in New Hampshire to convince her to return, he reassures her that she and the children are the only people Michael can never harm.
Puzo ends the novel with Kay returning to Michael, converting to Catholicism and taking communion at church with Mama Corleone. It’s interesting because these characters didn’t have that much presence throughout the novel, only to be given this final conclusion to the Corleone family’s story.
It however reads as a final act of submission to their “destinies,” which brings to mind young Vito Corleone’s belief that “every man has but one destiny” (202).
Kay accepts the destiny her husband now assumes, and the “forbidden territory” that they in their marriage and love can never tread together. Her conversion is ultimately her submission to the Corleone family and its power, but she asserts herself by going to church, beating her heart in repentance, and praying for Michael’s soul. She comes off as a strong female character, but powerless against the destiny she’s presented with.
Other Mario Puzo novels, anyone?
The Godfather offers plenty of topics and themes up for discussion. You feel compelled to learn more about the history of the mafioso, the customs and traditions of both Sicilian and Italian-American society, and women’s roles (or the lack of).
Most important of all is how it challenges you to look deeper into why people commit what we deem as crimes. It asks the reader to think about what family truly means for them, what constitutes true friendship and loyalty, and if we have the courage and strength to forge our own paths in life, even if it means putting that very life on the line.
I look forward to hearing other people’s thoughts about the novel. And if I ever get a hold of another Puzo novel, it’ll be one I’d be eager to sit down with. ⭐
Puzo, Mario. The Godfather: A Novel. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1969.
Jack Doyle, “Rosie The Riveter,1942-1945,” PopHistoryDig.com, February 28, 2009. http://www.pophistorydig.com/topics/tag/american-women-1940s/.
Albright, Carol Bonomo, and Christine Palamidessi Moore, editors. American Woman, Italian Style: Italian Americana’s Best Writings on Women. Fordham University, 2011. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13wzxj1.