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The Tragic Decline of Michael Corleone

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Mario Puzo’s novel first published in 1969, The Godfather,  has gained an enormous enduring popularity, highly increased by Francis Coppola’s Trilogy, and has become one of the top best-selling books in the American fiction history. The mystery of its unbelievable success cannot be explained by unexpected plot twists and varied distinctive characters. There must be much more to offer so that a reader could not refuse. Introducing the Corleone’s family in the novel, Puzo was so persuasive that he established the image of all Italian-Americans and played a significant role in creating a powerful stereotype towards these people as they are still frequently associated with organized crime. Nevertheless, generating this unpleasant reputation is just a side effect of being trustworthy when portraying Italian family. Thus, the incredible popularity of The Godfather is mostly the result of implementing into the plot the “la famiglia” concept, reflected in the interpersonal relationships of characters. Although this novel is often considered being the chronicle of “La Cosa Nostra”, it is much more the history of personality, its development and kinship. Whereas many associate the Godfather with Vito Corleone, the title appeals to both him and his son Michael. The novel highlights Michael Corleone’s climbing to the top of the criminal world, being at the same time his tragic decline. His path from being a model of high moral standards to becoming the Don and heading the family business is controversial and intriguing. Was it all the result of circumstances or was Michael destined to become a criminal? Dealing with these questions, one should examine his character, concentrating attention on Michael’s perception of his family and mafia, the evolution of his views, and his personal relationships with other family members. In order to understand the nature of this transformation, it is also crucial to consider a murder as the form of initiation.

Michael is introduced in the novel as the veteran of the US Marine Corps and Dartmouth College student, who is not involved into the family business. His position is clear; he has fully separated himself from his family. This isolation should be interpreted much deeper than disobedience to his father’s will. Choosing to serve for another country, marry an American and, moreover, rejecting the family business, Michael literally chooses to belong to a different culture: “He performs those miracles for strangers” (Puzo 9). His motivation is similar to the thoughts of Bonasera: “America has been good to me. I wanted to be a good citizen” (Puzo 24). It is not something that might be accepted in Sicilian culture as it has its own institution to provide safety and execute justice, which is mafia. Mario Puzo describes its structure and mission when portraying Michael’s life in Italy:

Justice had never been forthcoming from the authorities and so the people had always gone to the Robin Hood Mafia. And to some extent the Mafia still fulfilled this role. People turned to their local capo-mafioso for help in every emergency. He was their social worker, their district captain ready with a basket of food and a job, their protector. (434)

The phenomenon of mafia has a Sicilian origin and comprises hierarchical organizations involved into different illegal activities (Pumprla 25). “La Cosa Nostra” (meaning “my thing”) has become the peculiar feature of Sicilians. Being engaged in criminal activity is the question of national identity and kinship, whereas rejecting this lifestyle means destroying these ties. Therefore, Michael’s refusal to run a family business immediately separates him from the family itself.

Michael’s position had changed rapidly, when his father was shot. Different researchers have various thoughts on the reason why it has happened. On the one hand, the desire of revenge is natural when dealing with enemies of the father. On the other hand, this was a business issue, so Michael din not have a right to participate in its resolving, unless he decides to join the family affair. The problem is that even though characters consistently divide personal issues and business in the novel, they are, in fact, inseparable. As stated above, it is impossible to be related to someone, who does not accept the social institutions this kinship implies. Partially, Michael realized that and he was even “glad that he was not truly part of all this” (Puzo 92). However, it soon became obvious that he wanted to be not only a civilian, but a warrior in this war: “With sudden clarity he realized that he was annoyed with the role assigned to him, that of the privileged noncombatant, the excused conscientious objector”(Puzo 116).

T. O’Leary claims that the process of joining his family in this battle has a lot to do with becoming a man (45). In order to understand this statement one should examine the way all family members treat Michael. There is a strict division by gender and age in mafia hierarchy system; women and children are not participating in any business affairs or family wars. They are the only members separated from dealing with these issues; therefore Michael Corleone is not taken seriously either. His brother refers to him as a “kid brother Mike” (Puzo 83) and talks to him accordingly: “Just sit tight and don’t panic. OK, kid?” (Puzo 119). Sonny laughs at him, when Michael suggests killing Solozzo and his guard as he does not consider him an equal. It is significant to distinguish differences existing between the social mode of American society and the world of Cosa Nostra. Michael’s war medals and awards are not recognized in the world of Corleone’s family; thus his initiation as a warrior should be held according to mafia’s laws:

Hey, kid, they won’t give you medals, they put you in the electric chair. You know that? This is no hero business, kid, you don’t shoot people from a mile away. You shoot when you see the whites of their eyes like we got taught in school, remember? You gotta stand right next to them and blow their heads off and their brains get all over your nice Ivy League suit. How about that, kid, you wanta do that just because some dumb cop slapped you around? (Puzo 130)

As Michael decided to join his family in terms of business affairs, he had to undergo some personal transformation, which was solidified by the double murder he committed.  Even though he had been in the War, he finds it difficult as if it were for the first time: “That’s the hard part, making up your mind” (Puzo 139). This murder was a crucial point in Michael’s transformation, the test he successfully passed. It was literally what made him a Sicilian and a Corleone as his family accepted him as its lawful member and placed in his historical homeland. It was a favorable environment for completing his metamorphosis. It is significant to track the changes he was undergoing. In order to complete this task, one should compare women he loved.

Kay Adams and Apollonia are opposite in terms of how they look and what they represent. Kay is a stranger for the Corleone’s family, “she was too thin, she was too fair, her face was too sharply intelligent for a woman, her manner too free for a maiden”(Puzo 8).  Whereas Apollonia’s “skin was an exquisite dark creaminess and her eyes, enormous, dark violet or brown but dark with long heavy lashes shadowed her lovely face. Her mouth was rich without being gross, sweet without being weak and dyed dark red with the juice of the grapes” (Puzo 324). His affection to Kay was the result of his own strategic decision to set apart two words he was trying to live in, as marrying to an American might have gotten him a little further in his separation. The love to the girl from a Sicilian village was part of a new person Michael has become. When Apollonia dies from the bomb destined to her husband, he finishes the transformation in a cold and violent man, becoming, in fact, his father. This change becomes obvious when Michael Corleone meet Kay after his coming home. At the beginning of the novel, he tried to stay honest with the women he was going to marry. However, being unfaithful to his wife complies with inner transformation of his beliefs and moral standards. Michael Corleone has become part of the family; therefore he has to estrange women from his affairs. Moreover, as time passes, Kay herself becomes a Corleone, turning into Catholicism and saying “the necessary prayers for the soul of Michael Corleone”  (Puzo 618).

As Michael has passed the initiation, his transition was rapid and impetuous. He has become the cool-headed businessman, willing to kill those who are disobedient or disrespectful. Keen, McCoy and Powell claim “although most of Michael’s orchestrated murders are in retaliation to the attempted murders of himself or his family; some murders are for business reasons and/or petty revenge” (142). They argued that the audience may perceive this character as a “victim of circumstances” (Keen et al. 142), as initially Michael has positively decided not to get involved in this business. It was not until his father was in danger of death that the youngest Corleone has committed a murder. Thus, it is easy to refer his criminal behavior to the pressure of circumstances. Nevertheless, the critical analysis of his features shows that this explanation has no grounds. Natural abilities of the youngest Corleone are obvious from the beginning of the novel as Puzo directly indicates Michael as the possible successor of the empire. He was “obviously the chosen heir to run the family business when the proper moment came. He had all the quiet force and intelligence of his great father, the born instinct to act in such a way that men had no recourse but to respect him” (Puzo 8).

In fact, after the death of Sonny, which was the result of his wild temper, Michael had no choice, but to accept his heritage. However, a decision to become the Don was made much earlier, when the son was visiting Vito Corleone in the hospital. This episode is rather significant in the story of Michael’s decline. Deciding to defense his father, he discovered something unusual in his own character. While waiting for another attempt of the assassination he noticed “to his surprise his own hands were steady” (Puzo 121), so he understands, “he can perform better than any of his brothers” (O’Leary 48). This discovery is what started the process of embodying the Godfather. O’Leary explains this by Freud’s theory of rescue-phantasies in father-son relationships (48). This statement suggests a new approach to Michael’s mission as he is not only the one defending and rescuing his father, but also the one taking his position. By becoming the new Don, M.Corleone finishes the circle of transformation and embodies his father completely.

The symbolic implication of him becoming the godfather for his nephew is significant in terms of his metamorphosis. The title of godfather expands its meaning in the text of the novel and gains a certain duality.  Thus, it refers to family ties constituting the entire mafia hierarchy and points out the omnipotence of the one having a title. Michael Corleone, despite his thorough decision to stay away from the family business, was born Sicilian; therefore he was destined to become one of them and, eventually, he became the Godfather.

Mario Puzo’s novel reveals the history of human transformation and appeals to the problems of safe-identity. It is a story of a tragic decline of Michael Corleone, which can be as well read as the story of his incredible success. Facing the critical circumstances, he was the one who could save the family from a total failure, so he had to gain the right to be engaged with its business. The double murder of the Turk and Captain McCluskey is what Michael had to commit in order to be initiated. This murder was the result of his adjoining the family. It started his metamorphosis into a Corleone, but it was his own nature what caused him to make this decision. While exploring the development of this character, it is crucial to consider the duality of the world he lived in. “La Cosa Nostra” as the highest legislative and executive power of Sicilians, has its own laws and requirements, which are opposite to the rules of American society. Michael’s path embodies this duality. When he had the recognition of the government and was honored as the war hero, he was not taking seriously in his own family. On the contrary, whereas he achieved the highest title in the criminal world, he fell down in terms of moral principles. The tragedy of his moral decline is that Michael Corleone finds his own ethics superior to the one of the American society:

My father is a businessman trying to provide for his wife and children and those friends he might need someday in a time of trouble. He doesn’t accept the rules of the society we live in because those rules would have condemned him to a life not suitable to a man like himself, a man of extraordinary force and character. What you have to understand is that he considers himself the equal of all those great men like Presidents and Prime Ministers and Supreme Court Justices and Governors of the States. He refuses to live by rules set up by others, rules which condemn him to a defeated life. But his ultimate aim is to enter that society with a certain power since society doesn’t really protect its members who do not have their own individual power. In the meantime he operates on a code of ethics he considers far superior to the legal structures of society (Puzo 535).

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