im studying Captain Corelli's Mandolin for english lit, does anyone have notes on it or revision websites for the book?
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need notes on the chapters, characters and theme of the book or information from websites
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AO4 requires you to Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received. There are a number of contexts within which Captain Corelli’s Mandolin may be viewed.
It is important to remember, however, that a novel is a work of fiction, not of history, and although many readers have criticised the book over the inaccuracy of historical details, this is not relevant to an assessment of the book as a work of literature. On the other hand, as a work set in an identifiable historical context, it is legitimate to examine the use the author has made of historical material to create his fictional world. The distinction is, of course, muddied by the author’s introduction of so many real historical figures, and it could be argued that this creates a greater expectation that the historical aspects will be reliable.
Historical and Political Context
There are a number of historical contexts in the novel, and they all play important roles in establishing the setting and mood of the action. The novel is set on the Greek island of Cephallonia, and covers a substantial slice of the island in the twentieth century, including war, occupation, civil war, earthquake and profound social change; it touches upon the wider history of Greece during the 53 years which it covers. It also deals extensively with the Greek role and experience during the Second World War, and particularly with the experience of occupation by the Italians and the Germans.
The novel gives a convincing depiction of traditional village life on an Ionian island between 1940 and 1993. It chronicles the resilience of this way of life in the face of war and natural disaster, and its undermining by the advent of mass tourism from the 1980s onwards, which has ironically been exacerbated by the publication of the novel and the filming of it in Cephallonia. De Bernieres’ depiction of the Greek Civil War is by far the most contentious aspect of the novel: he has been virulently criticised in Greece and Cephallonia over this aspect of the book, and he agreed to remove an offending paragraph of the book relating to the Communist andartes for the Greek-language edition. Although all of the behaviours he describes undoubtedly occured, his account is one-sided: there were members of ELAS who fought the occupying forces, and the other resistence armies were not blameless. Nevertheless, de Bernieres is right to emphasise that far more Greeks were killed by other Greeks during the Civil War than by Germans during the occupation, and atrocities were certainly commited – by both sides. Since de Bernieres only spent a fortnight on holiday in Cephallonia and wrote the novel subsequently in Britain, he had to rely on the accounts, inevitably partial, of Greeks living in London. Ironically, the political furore caused by the novel proves its main thesis, which is that it is impossible for everyone to reach agreement on historical events.
Mussolini and Italian Fascism
Benito Mussolini was the creator of the political philosophy fascism, named after the Roman fasces, a bundle of sticks which was a symbol or power and authority. Originally a socialist, his experiences during the First World War convinced him of the importance of nationalism, and in the years following the war, he created a movement based on violence and patriotism. Swept to power in 1922, fascism was a movement of slogans rather than substance and was characterised principally by corruption and incompetence; depsite popular belief, the trains did not run on time in fascist Italy! Two of the more famous slogans illustrate Mussolini’s ideas:
Mussolin is always right! Believe! Obey! Fight!
Although Mussolini represented war as the highest human activity (‘I love war!’ he once said), he did not manage to prepare properly for it. When the regime became unpopular in the mid-1930s, he turned to aggression to distract attention from domestic problems. The invasion of Abyssinia was achieved by aerial bombing and the use of poison gas; the subsequent invasion of Albania, an ally of Italy, was a fiasco which was only successful because Albania had no armed forces.
Adolf Hitler, the Nazi leader in Germany, initially modelled his movement in part on Italian fascism, and after some initial suspicion, the two formed an alliance (the Axis Pact) in 1936. It was always expected that Italy would participate in the coming war, although her armed forces were manifestly unprepared when it broke out in September 1939.
The Second World War
As resistance to the Nazi German blitzkrieg (lightning war) in Europe crumbled in the summer of 1940, Mussolini feared that Italy might miss the war. He therefore launched an ill-fated invasion of France in June, attacked the British in Libya in September and on 28 October, invaded Greece from Albania. In a bitter war fought in atrociously cold conditions in the Albanian mountains, the Greeks more or less defeated the Italians; the Germans intervened in April 1940 to save Mussolini from humiliation and conquered Greece within three weeks. The novel is accurate in its depiction of the war and the attitude of the Greeks to the arrival of the Italian occupation forces.
As far as the occupation is concerned, Greece was unusual, but not unique, in being occupied bothe by the Italians and by the Germans, and much of the interest in the book derives from the contrast between the attitudes and behaviours of the two occupying powers as depicted by de Bernieres. Some readers have criticised the portrayal of the Italians as unhistorical, pointing out that they could be cruel occupiers and that they engaged in reprisals much as the Germans did. Recent research, however, on the analagous occupation of Nice in France, another place subjected to occupation by the two axis powers, strongly reinforces the picture given in the novel of Italian occupiers friendly to the local people and treated with indulgent contempt by them. The two peoples have similar temperaments and cultures, and after the Italians changed sides, they shared a common enemy with the Greeks. Italians returning to Cephallonia are greeted fondly by elderly locals.
In the years immediately preceding the war, the young males of all combatant countries were conscripted for military service, although individuals could volunteer first, as Mandras definitely does. Corelli and Weber, as officers, may also have chosen to join rather than be conscripted later as enlisted men, and Carlo probably volunteered for the army as being a preferable all-male environment. The slaughter of the Italians by the German army in September 1943, the dramatic heart of the novel, is entirely historically accurate and was one of the most horrific events of the war. Here, however, considerable caution should be exercised in evaluating those passages in which de Bernieres fictionalises the thoughts and actions of historical personages in real historical events.
The Greek Civil War
The monarchy in Greece was already unpopular for having supported the semi-fascist dictatorship of Metaxas for some years prior to the outbreak of war; the Communists (ELAS) played a dominant role in the organisation of resistance to the occupation, but certainly spent more of their time and energy fighting against the rival monarchist force (EDES) than against the occupiers, despite the best efforts of British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents to make them work together. The only real achievement of SOE was the destruction of the Gorgopotamos railway viaduct by ELAS and EDES fighters, referred to in ch. 32.
At the end of the war, the king returned, with the direct support of Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, but probably against the wishes of the majority of the population. The second civil war broke out in 1947 and lasted until 1949, when the Communists were finally defeated; it was marked by extraordinary brutality on both sides. It remains a very bitter and divisive subject in Greece to this day, not least because, after a democratic interlude, a right-wing military dictatorship again ruled in Greec between 1967 and 1974, and a stable democracy was only achieved after itrs overthrow.
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AO4 requires you to Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received. There are a number of contexts within which Captain Corelli’s Mandolin may be viewed.
NOTE: While the reading of this page should not detract from your enjoyment of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, I would recommend reading it after you have finished reading the novel.
The novel paints an attractive picture of the traditional life of a Greek island village, especially just before the outbreak of war. On the whole, de Bernieres gives a reliable and fair impression of this society, although the authenticity of a number of details has been challenged. It is important to be aware of, and to evaluate, the ways in which the author has used this social structure to give a framework of values and expectations for the characters and the action. To enable the reader to get the full picture and flavour of the Mediterranean setting, and to appreciate some of the ironies and anomolies of the behaviour and beliefs of certain characters, below are some general points to bear in mind, some of which apply to Italian as well as to Greek society, and many of which still apply today in the Greek islands.
Mothers and Sons
This is regarded as the strongest bond in the Greek family, and has religious echoes of the Madonna and child. Mothers traditionally forgive their sons anything, and take their side against anyone. Drosoula, unusually, always wanted a daughter. Mandras commits suicide after his mother, not Pelagia, rejects him; her curse is unexpected, unbearable, and the equivalent of withdrawing his right to life. If a woman never has a son, like Pelagia, she has been deprived of her main function in life, which is to provide a male heir and give him the name of his father’s father.
Daughters and Dowries
Girls were not considered to be equal with boys and the father was offered commiserations instead of congratulations for the birth of a female child. For this reason the dowry system existed, whereby a daughter had to have something to offer her prospective husband as well as herself. If a sum of money was not forthcoming, then at least a plot of land or a herd of goats would be expected, as well as a set of hand-embroidered household linen. Dr Iannis refuses to provide Pelagia with a dowry, which causes consternation to Mandras and provokes his need to prove himself a hero. Women at that time could not expect to become self-supporting financially by training for a career or taking work outside the home. They did not travel beyond the domestic sphere of cooking, sewing and general house-keeping, even to the local coffee-shop, which was an exclusively male preserve – hence Pelagia’s frustration at ‘having been born into the wrong world’ with no possibility of being able to study medicine. Men, on the other hand, tended to be defined by their job, e.g. the priest, the shepherd, the soldier.
The Motherland and the Virgin Mary
In Greek, Greece is a feminine noun, and the Virgin Mary is a very important figure in the Greek Orthodox church, with a name day on 15th August, as in Catholic Italy. Pelagia, who retains her virginity throughout the book, represents the island of Cephallonia and Greece generally; her sufferings, losses and violations are theirs. Though unmarried, she becomes a mother and grandmother. Her name refers to a saint who was a virgin of Antioch and whose name day is 8th October. When Mandras goes off to fight against the Italians in Albania, he worships the conflated female images of Pelagia, the motherland and the Virgin. The three types of love – ******, patriotic, religious – have been a feature of Greek literature since Homer.
The Pastoral and the Olympian
The word ‘pastoral’ means ‘of shepherds’ and refers to the myth of idyllic rural life, typified by laughter, courtship and community spirit, which goes back to the golden age of classical Greece, when it was referred to as ‘Arcadia’ or ‘Arcady’. Village life on the beautiful hillside of Cephallonia revolves around a harmonious natural existence of living off the land and sea by fishing, growing herbs and olives, and keeping goats and poultry. The rythms of the seasons are celebrated and punctuated by ritual feasting and dancing, wine and song. This way of life, unchanged since Homeric times, is destroyed forst by the German occupation and then by the earthquake. Finally, the islanders become dependant on the gods of commerce and tourism.
Alekos, the shepherd on top of Mt Aenos, high above the world on an island ‘filled with gods’, has the detachment of the immortals, unconcerned and untouched by either domestic concerns or the earth-shattering events of politics, history and war. He is a quasi-mythological figure in the novel, agelessly enduring all seasons and all changes. With his remote and lofty viewpoint, he has the ‘grandeur and impartiality’ Dr Iannis is looking for as a historical voice for his Personal History.
Saints and Superstitions
Greeks take their many saints very seriously as a latter-day replacement for the ancient pantheon. Every church is dedicated to a particular saint and each village or island has a local saint whose relics or icon are believed to be capable of working miracles, as in the case of St Germasimos. All orthodox Greeks must be baptised and given the name of a saint. Dr Iannis, with his healing gift, is a saintly figure throughout the novel because of his wisdom, tolerance and martyrdom. Other miracle-performing or heroic characters also play saintly roles. Generally, the Greeks could be described as a superstitious people – for instance, they believe in the Evil Eye – who attempt to ward off misfortune or attract fortune by the performance of gestures, the utterance of set phrases, and the use of particular greetings for specific occasions.
Barbarians and Civil War
In 189 BC the Romans invaded Greece and conquered it for the first time. Thereafter, a seemingly endless succession of less civilised foreign armies claimed and robbed the cradle of democracy and learning. Cavafy, a famous Greek poet living in Alexandria, wrote a we—known poem called ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, naming a chronis national fear. However, because there is a theory that there are two aspects to the psyche of every Greek – the Hellene who respects reason and the Romaios who lets the heart rule the head – civil war could be viewed as an inevitable eventual consequence, and a horror even more destructive than an external threat. As Dr Iannis says: ‘In the past we had the barbarians. Now we have only ourselves to blame.’ Greeks today have not forgiven or forgotten the atrocities of the civil war or the allegiance of each area or even family, both sides accusing the other of barbarism.
Burial and Resurrection
Since ancient times, funeral ritual and a belief in the afterlife has been sacred to the Greeks. The most important event in the Greek religious and family calender is Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection, and the phoenix, a mythical, immortal bird which arises anew from its own ashes, is a potent literary and political symbol (adopted by the Greek dictatorship of 1967 – 1974). Various characters, alive and dead or presumed dead, come back from the grave or make a ghostly reappearance in the novel, thereby acquiring mythical status.
August and October
These two months, referred to many times in the novel, are significant for Greece generally and for Cephallonia in particular. The two feast days of St Gerasimos occur in August and October, and 28th October is the date on which Metaxas in effect declared war on Italy. The feast day of the Virgin Mary is on 15th August, and the earthquake occured in August 1953. These two months act as a framework for all the personal and historical anniversaries which lend structure to the novel and to the memories of the characters.
Honour and Shame
Philotimo, love of honour, is a revered and ancient heroic concept in the mind of Greeks, the other side of the same coin being shame. Fighting for your country, for instance, is honourable, but betraying your friends is shameful. Dr Iannis and Corelli follow a personal code of honour which prevents them from committing an unworthy act, whereas Mandras must die for bringing disgrace on his mother, and Weber is treated with contempt for his treachery. An honourable death is distinctly preferable to a shameful life in Mediterranean cultures. Corelli shows how he would have faced death honourably in his message to Appollonio and his demeanour in the face of the firing squad. Honour entails risk, however, and Corelli endangers his own and members of his battery’s lives by taking an honourable stand against the duplicitous Germans, having been let down by the incompetence of the Italian commander, General Gandin.
Sea and Mountain
These are the twin features of island and mainland coastal landscape in a country which has few rivers or forests but is famously beautiful. Homer had a lot to say about the ‘wine-dark sea’ and the ‘violet-crowned mountains’. The images of sea and mountain occur repeatedly in the Bible, in Greek Orthodox rites and in classical and modern Greek poetry, song and drama. Pelagia’s name means ‘ocean woman’. The mountains are the home of the Olympian gods, and the frontier for the defence of the homeland. Greeks have regarded themselves as a sea-going nation of adventurers and fishermen since before The Odyssey, and have respect for the mystical significance of the ocean. Both sea and mountain have their part to play in the novel, personally and politically, repelling or bringing invaders, and associated with life and death.
The mythological context of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a major theme (see themes) but in a broader sense Greek mythology pervades the book; Greek gods and heroes are alluded to, and de Bernieres often assumes that the reader will understand the reference. In this he does no mre than reflect the reality og life in Greece then and now: the stories and characters of Greek mythology are intimately familiar to the people and form a constant background and frame of reference for their daily life. Classical myths, until comparatively recently, formed a common body of knowledge for all educated Europeans, along with familiarity with latin and Ancient Greek language. there is a story, which de Bernieres doe not include, presumably because he does not know it (though he would approve of it if he did), about the German occupation of Crete at the time in which the novel is set: when a British SOE officer succeeded in capturing and abducting the German commander general on Crete, they woke one morning on Mount Ida and were both able to recite in Latin and ode about that mountain by the Roman poet Horace. This showed them how much they had in common despite the temporary divisions imposed by war, and they went on to become lifelong friends.
Dr Iannis makes extensive reference to Greek mythological characters throughout the novel. It is not necessary to know the myths referred to in any detail, though it is useful to know what each god represents (see list of mythological characters).
The end of the novel has a metaphorical depiction of the Three Fates of classical Greek mythology. This suggests that Fate has been presiding over the novel throughout, finally bringing the lovers together again. The three women wearing white, like Greek goddesses, can be said to represent the future, the present and the past. One is looking forward, one is looking in a mirror and the third is facing backwards immersed in a newspaper, i.e. an ephemeral record of history (and one threatened by the breeze). Modern and ancient, reality and imagination, are synthesised in the vision of the ‘liberty and beauty’ of the girls and of Greece on the ‘venerable grey moped’, travelling through time – an inspiration to Corelli for his next concerto, to celebrate the ‘eternal spirit of Greece’.
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Corelli and Odysseus
Although it is not a set book for reading, De Bernieres uses Homer’s Odyssey to form many parallels with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Some of these parallels are quite explicit, but others are implicit and will only be recognised by those who have read The Odyssey. In fact, CCM is almost entirely permeated by The Odyssey which provides the links between modern Cephallonia and ancient Greece.
One of the main talking points in CCM is that of ‘the hero’. A modern hero is difficult to define but Odysseus ticks all the boxes of the ‘epic hero’ as he struggles against the odds, and the gods, to return home to Ithaka following the Trojan War. No single character in CCM mirrors Odysseus but elements of his traits are shared by Mandras and Corelli.
There are eleven references to Homer or the Trojan War in CCM and the name of Odysseus is used seven times. To fully appreciate the character of Carlo, surely the most endearing and noble of De Bernieres’ characters, one must read the prequel to The Odyssey which is The Iliad. If you enjoyed the film Troy, with Brad Pitt as Achilles, you will certainly appreciate this tale of the Trojan War with its graphic descriptions of battle, stories of feuding gods, and tales of the Greek and Trojan heroes who follow codes of honour and exhibit noble behaviour to the very end.
Mandras volunteers to go and fight for the honour of his country, leaving behind Pelagia who he intends to marry. During his long and wayward return from the war, he is waylaid by a one-eyed witch named Circe, a conflation of Homer’s witch of that name and the Cyclops. When he finally makes it home, Pelagia, like Penelope, does not recognise him but he is recognised by his faithful pet just as Odysseus was recognised by his dog.
Corelli draws most parallels with Odysseus through his character: he is honourable, mad, sensitive, flamboyant, loyal and courageous. He returns ‘home’ long after it could be reasonably expected; he is loved by men and women, children, animals and gods. He is a wily trickster, a dreamer and a storyteller. Drawn into a war he has no heart for, and fighting in a foreign land, he nonetheless shows loyalty to his comrades and the cause. He is homesick for Greece, a nostalgia with clear emphasis in The Odyssey.
Pelagia, in Mandras’ absence, sews an article which never grows, just as penelope wove a shroud which she unravelled every evening. She hears no word of her husband/lovers’ survival or return and finds it difficult to believe when he reappears. She is also a Helen of Troy figure (Iliad) in that she is stolen by a foreigner form her Greek husband-to-be.
Carlo, a giant, is a reminder of the fictional giants of Cephallonia in Homer’s time; his body is buried in ‘the soil of Odysseus’ time’. His dedication to his beloved comrades in arms, first Francesco and then Corelli, is reminiscent of the noble behaviour of the Greek heroes of the Trojan War.
Father Arsenios is like the doomed prophet Cassandra, who is fated to foretell the catastrophic future, including the fall of Troy, but is not believed.
Drosoula plays a similar role to Anticlea, the down-to-earth, devoted and motherly servant of Penelope who supports her in her long wait.
Of course, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin can be studied without reading Homer but these really will enhance your understanding and give you the edge in both analysis and class discussion. Apart from that – they are a very good read!
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Given the title of the novel, Antonio Corelli must be treated as the main character, although he is not mentioned until ch.23. He arrives with his mandolin and is inseperable from it before it actually becomes a physical part of him. His love for Pelagia can be seen as an extension of his love for his instrument; when he finally returns he finds the mandolin first, which leads him to the woman. His character is revealed in his love of singing, which represents his love of life, his sensitivity and how unsuited he is to being a soldier. Another important aspect of his character, and manifestation of his humanity, is his love of children and animals. His enjoyment of Psipsina and playfulness with Lemoni, and the affection he earns from both of them, are early indications of his tolerance and good nature. His naivety about war and politics, his humour, exhuberance, impulsiveness and liking for jokes all give him an aura of childlike innocence. He is a Romeo with piles, and therefore a real human creation rather than a conventional romantic hero, despite the fact that the Italian soldier with a mandolin was a stereotype in the interwar period. His creativity as a composer and the pleasure he provides as a musician are in direct and ironic contrast to the destructiveness of the war and the cynicism and philistinism of the ‘great men’, the leaders and decision-makers. Corelli plays the role of the little man with a big heart and gigantic courage, those who make a different kind of history, the one which really counts: the history of humanity. He chooses to be a lion, not a sheep; he ‘remained a man of honour because he knew no other way to be’ (p.191). ‘Why not smile in the face of death’, he asks (p.396), quoting the epigraph poem by Humbert Wolfe. He acknowledges the debt to someone who has made the supreme sacrifice, as shown by his annual pilgrimage to Carlo’s grave. he can summon up ‘intimations of Eden’ (p.440).
A beautiful Greek maiden, virgin, fairytale motherless child and romantic heroine with rival suitors, Pelagia is a victim of the times. She represents Cephallonia and Greece; she always smells of rosemary, which symbolises remembrance and fidelity in love. She is Drosoula’s surrogate daughter and a reminder of his wife to Dr Iannis. She is a symbol of the ageing and suffering process, a repository of memories, an inspirer of music and a would-be Italian. She insists on putting the personal before the political and is ‘too clever to be a humble wife’. She takes on her father’s roles of writer and healer. Her sewing makes her an artist, and her art saves her lover’s life.
Dr Iannis is a saint, a saviour, a healer, a writer and a humanist (‘You shouldn’t trust to God for anything. These things are ours to ensure.’ (p.65)). Tolerant, with a sense of humour, he holds modern views on women and is a devoted father and grandfather. ‘he thinks that he is a Socrates who can fly in the face of the custom’ (p.129); he is a martyr to the liberal cause. He understands love and history, and is a wise village patriarch whilst also being unconventional. He enjoys an argument and the loss of his voice is a symbol of free speech stamped out by oppression. His memory is overburdened with the horror of the darkness of war and the barbarianism of his fellow countrymen, but he remains an altruist to the end, never sacrifices his principles and after his death is mythologised.
The novel presents Mandras as a Greek god, an Adonis/Poseidon figure, a fisherman and a disciple. He is a dolphin lover and an Odysseus-like traveller. He is illiterate and an unworthy suitor for Pelagia; he is by nature a soldier, not a lover. He becomes a communist by accident, and becomes the victim of indoctrination and ignorance, representing the damage done by extreme politics. He has an ‘adamantine’ soul but suffers terribly in the ice. Mandras is a rejected son, a naive youth who went astray and lost touch with personal values. A would-be ****** of Pelagia and Greece, and an actual murderer, he redeems his life by his death. He represents the two-sided nature of Greeks and is associated with the dictators Mussolini and Metaxas (ch.13). He is the reverse of a fairytale prince in that he turned into a ‘toad’; he ‘lost his soul’ to history and war. He became ‘a shabby caricature of the man who had replaced him’ (p.447) and a tarnished hero destined for the void (p.451). He is associated with symmetry, ‘a property of dead things’ (p.215). Though linked to Christ, he is a follower and not a leader, searching for an object of worship.