The novel “Christ in Concrete” by Pietro di Donato shows the life, work and community of Italian immigrants living in the City of New York in the 1920s. Paul, who is the protagonist, acts as a bridge between two cultures; the Italian and American cultures, as he undergoes a transformation that forces him to think about and reconsider all of the main belief systems he has been relying in the past. His mother urges upon him the traditional Catholic response to the troubles in life just as he resists the oppression faced by workers in the American system of economics. While their religion might have provided spiritual guidance, the Italian immigrants transform to Capitalist ideas as they find their religion incapable of helping them.
The story begins with the depiction of the most horrible experiences faced by Italian immigrants in New York. Paul’s father, an immigrant worker, dies on his job, which serves as the context for the terrible experiences experienced by these factory workers. However, before the death of Geremio, Paul’s father, the author denotes the richness of the Italian culture, which is Catholic, in its language and vitality. Most importantly, the author brings out the clear picture in the relationship between the immigrant workers and their attitude towards their hard labor. Moreover, the grueling work ends the life of Geremio.
Paul tries very much to bring together traditional beliefs and customs with the failure of the Catholic faith so as to improve the lives of the immigrants. We are shown Paul’s experiences, through the Catholic institutions, lose influence as Capitalist’s ideas begin to manifest. While undergoing this transformation, Paul brings out numerous important aspects of Italian Catholicism and the pressures faced by the American environment, which is quite different from theirs.
Before Geremio’s death, we are shown his struggles to improve the living conditions of his family. However, despite the little progress he seems to have made, he still wonders how much further he has to endure. This forces him to ask God for guidance. Geremio speaks of the conflict between Boss and Job, and the way his spirit struggles (Pietro 14-6). Although the pressure he undergoes has not yet crushed his faith, they exert a lot of pressure on him. The building he is working on collapses on him and his fellow workers just as he was about to go home and celebrate with his family. As he tries to call for Christ’s help, Geremio’s faith seems to have failed to give him the comfort he sought for.
Despite Geremio’s death, his wife Annunziata does not lose faith despite having doubts on how her family would survive. With her eight children, she seems desperate, and it becomes apparent that Paul would be the bread winner of the family at the age of twelve (Pietro 25-0). Paul is only twelve years old and has to go through a lot of ordeals so as to provide for the large family. He first turns for material and spiritual help at his local church. After a struggle, he is allowed to see Father John for food and help. Despite finding the priest with a lot of food on the table, he does little to help. He tells Paul that there is nothing he can do as he does not personally give out charities (Pietro 34-7).
The fact that the priest has sent away Paul undisturbed shows how the Church has totally failed to assist the Italian immigrants in their poor conditions. Despite their strong belief in God and that they will be finally rewarded in Heaven, the Italian population was aware of the Church’s behavior and priests all along. The Italians become scornful of the priests as they see them being corrupt in and out. As a matter of fact, the priests are regarded to be as rough as gangsters. It seems that the traditional practice of their church was only to comply with the powerful and rich only. Despite their awareness of the situation, the peasants had to accept the facts and tolerate the priests due to the fact that the church was deeply rooted in their traditions. However, things were different in America. The Catholic Church as controlled by the Irish could not tolerate the paganism involved with the Italian parishes. Furthermore, there were more and more opportunities existing in America. However, the Italians could not grab these opportunities due to the new culture and language they had to conquer first.
Despite American Catholicism not tolerating their counterpart’s behaviors in Italy, they also did little to help the Italian immigrants in their material and spiritual needs. It seemed that religion forced these Italian immigrants to accept the fact that it was their fate, and should just wait for their rewards in the next world. Paul, after being rejected by the church, turns to Job for help. He starts work and continuously grows confident that he will be capable of providing for his family and himself (Pietro 60-2). As a matter of fact, Paul becomes proud of his progress. However, his faith is not shaken in any way.
However, the situation does not last long as Paul’s frail body quickly succumbs to the weight of Job. Furthermore, he earns a mere five dollars a week. This forces him to stop working, and hunger strikes again in his family. They become aware that God and Job are all equally powerful. Job can give food, life, and happiness, but can also take them back. The increasingly worse situation forces Annunziata to take action. She takes Paul to see the Cripple, a woman who is purported to have powers to communicate with the spirit world. She hopes that the Cripple would help her out where the Church has failed. Despite not being helped, both Paul and his mother are hopeful for better things.
Later on, Paul meets Louis, an immigrant from Russia who does not believe that God would revenge the killings of his brothers. They recommence work as Paul increases his believe in Job, as he is real, immediate and tangible. As a matter of fact, Job provides work and life to all Italian men in Paul’s community. Paul realizes he has lost faith in his faith, and Job is all he is left with. Despite the dangers present with Job, Job is inescapable and inevitable. Something important to note is that, Paul does not lose his religion after finding Job, he only does that after a series of incidences, and the failure of the Catholic Church to take care of him. This symbolizes a revolution.
Job has become central to Paul and the other immigrant Italian workers naturally. They wake up in the morning to go to Job everyday, and they dedicate themselves to Job. The Church seems to have failed them materially and spiritually as well. What the Church only does is to tell them to accept their current situation as fate. This worsening state only becomes a natural cause for Paul to lose his faith to God and the Church and being replaced by the Capitalist institution of Job. Despite the fact that Paul wants to break free from Job, he has no other alternatives, it is all he has.
In conclusion, the novel “Christ in Concrete” by Pietro di Donato shows the life, work and community of Italian immigrants living in the City of New York in the 1920s. Paul acts as a bridge between two cultures; the Italian and American cultures, as he undergoes a transformation that forces him to think about and reconsider all of the main belief systems he has been relying in the past. His mother urges upon him the traditional Catholic response to the troubles in life just as he resists the oppression faced by workers in the American system of economics. Paul plays the role that sees him representing the worker who has to look to him, as well as other workers, if they have to win justice for themselves.