In 1965, after publishing two unprofitable novels, Mario Puzo set out to write a book which would make him wealthy. The result was The Godfather, the story of Mafia patriarch Vito Corleone and his family, one of the six "Families" in New York City. The book went to the top of the New York Times' best seller list and stayed there for twenty-two weeks in a row, and went on to become "the best-selling novel of the 1970s" (Contemporary Authors, 367). There are many possible reasons which could explain the book's success. One of the reasons that The Godfather became so popular with readers is that Puzo took the stereotypical mobster, previously portrayed in books and movies as a cold-blooded killer who was only out to make money for himself, and gave him more dimensions, including a family he loves.
Although there were many books and movies about the Mafia and the lives of gangsters before the publication of The Godfather, they were not nearly as successful as it was. Many of the books about the Mafia published before 1969 were non-fiction, such as The Valachi Papers by Peter Maas. The Valachi Papers was a well-known book and was mentioned in many reviews of The Godfather, but it was not a best-seller. As stated in Publishers' Weekly on January 6, 1969: "The story [of The Godfather] is that of the Mafia or Cosa Nostra, already familiar through the newspapers and such nonfiction books as 'The Valachi Papers'; here it is transcribed into absorbing fiction, concentrating on one of the 'Families'" (PW, 1/6/69). The existence of many books, movies and newspaper stories about the Mafia before the publication of The Godfather is evidence of existing popular interest in the subject; the fact that it was the first book about an already-popular subject to become a phenomenal success shows that it had a characteristic which no other possessed. I contend that this characteristic is the depth of character given to the "bad guys," enabling readers to identify with and care about them.
Before The Godfather, many of the Mafia stories, whether books or movies, were non-fiction accounts of true criminals apprehended by the police or FBI, or were fictional accounts which appealed to audiences who enjoyed shoot-outs and fantastic crimes. The Godfather, however, appealed to an audience which wanted to care about the characters. Roger Jellinek, a reviewer for the New York Times, stated in his review of the book, "If you want vividly unsentimental information about the Mafia, read Peter Maas' "The Valachi Papers" (Jellinek). This is precisely what readers in 1969 no longer wanted. The sentimental quality of this book is what the readers responded to. In The Godfather, the exciting criminal scenes are played out by characters who are presented as people who a reader can not only care about, but respect and admire. The motives for crimes are explained, justifying the crimes, and the families and backgrounds and feelings of the characters are so vividly described that those members of an audience who desire more than just exhilarating scenes of violence are satisfied. This book appealed to readers in 1969, and still continues to appeal to readers today, because it changes the flat stereotype of members of the Mafia and shows the family aspect of "The Family" and makes a reader able to identify with the "bad guys."
Although The Godfather did receive praise from some reviewers for being exciting, entertaining, believable and even realistic, it also received much criticism. John G. Cawalti, reviewer for Critical Inquiry, criticizes the fact that "'the Corleone Family is presented to us in a morally sympathetic light, as basically good and decent people who have had to turn to crime in order to survive and prosper in a corrupt and unjust society'" (Contemporary Authors, 368). Puzo responded to this criticism in an interview in Publishers' Weekly by saying: "'I think it is a novelist's job not to be a moralist but to make you care about the people in the book'" (Contemporary Authors, 368). This is exactly what Puzo does: his book makes a reader care about the Corleones, to understand and support the things they do, and even, in extreme cases, to desire to be a part of their world.
In creating this book, Puzo capitalized on the formula used in the stories of men such as Zorro and Robin Hood, characters who robbed from the rich to help the poor. In those stories, as in this one, the protagonists do things which are usually considered to be wrong, yet their actions are justified by the characterization of the people from whom they steal. Although their actions are clearly more extreme, the actions of the Corleones and their extended family are likewise justified by the motivations behind their actions and the characterization of their victims, causing readers to both like and identify with the characters. As Barton Midwood, reviewer for Esquire magazine, said, "the author has chosen to portray all Godfather's victims as vermin and his henchmen as fairly sympathetic" (Contemporary Authors, 368). This comment was meant as a criticism, yet I argue that Puzo's portrayal of his characters is exactly what makes so many readers love the book, and is therefore a positive characteristic of the work.
From the beginning of the novel, the Godfather (Vito Corleone) is not a hard person to like. "Don Vito Corleone was a man to 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. And then, no matter how poor or powerless the supplicant, Don Corleone would take that man's troubles to his heart. And he would let nothing stand in the way of a solution of that man's woe" (Puzo, 14). At his daughter's wedding, "Don Corleone received everyone-rich and poor, powerful and humble-with an equal show of love. He slighted no one. This was his character" (Puzo, 14). This characterization, given at the beginning of the novel, makes it easy to like and respect Vito Corleone right away. The Don's words of wisdom and his philosophies on life make it easy to like and respect him as well. The fact that this head of a highly organized criminal Family thinks about life and relationships and shares his thoughts and ideas with members of his extended family speaks highly of him. The Don tells his godson Johnny Fontane, "'A man who is not a father to his children can never be a real man'" (Puzo 35). The Don clearly views family as the strongest, most important bond in life. Being a father, the patriarch of his family, is extremely important to Vito Corleone, and he makes this clear in the advice he gives to others. He also tells Johnny, "'Friendship is everything. Friendship is more than talent. It is more than government. It is almost the equal of family. Never forget that'" (Puzo 36). The Don is willing to do anything for those he loves, whether they be family members or true friends, and it is not hard for readers to respect this aspect of the Don's personality.
The people who come to the Godfather for help are easily pitied, and their requests even seem reasonable, making them easy to like and respect as well. Nazorine, a baker, comes to the Don to ask for help in gaining permission for his employee, Enzio, a native Italian, to remain in the country because he and the baker's daughter are in love. Anthony Coppola, the son of a friend of Corleone's, asks for a loan to open a pizzeria. Johnny comes to ask the Don to convince a Hollywood studio owner to give him a part in a movie. The only request which seems immoral, especially when examined out of context, comes from Amerigo Bonasera, an undertaker. Bonasera asks the Godfather to punish two men who attacked his daughter. Although the request for violent justice seems immoral out of context, the circumstances make it seem justifiable. Bonasera's daughter went on a date with a boy she trusted, and he and his friend forced her to drink and then tried to take advantage of her. When they were unsuccessful, they beat her so badly she had to be hospitalized. Yet when Bonasera took the proper measures and went to the police and the men are brought to trial, they received a suspended sentence of three years in jail. Before his daughter was even released from the hospital, the men who attacked her were free. Bonasera feels he has no choice but to go to the Godfather and seek justice, and a reader can't help but sympathize.
The Godfather meets all of his friends' requests: Enzio is permitted to remain in the country, Vito hands Coppola $500 in cash, Johnny gets the part after Hagan (the Don's Consigliori, or right-hand man) kills the producer's six hundred thousand dollar horse, and the men whom hurt Bonasera's daughter are beaten badly enough to keep them in the hospital for at least a month.
The ways in which the Godfather instructs his people to meet his friends' request may seem reprehensible, yet because the favors seem so reasonable and so important to those who request them, the horror is somewhat lessened. Kay Adams, the fiancée of Michael, Vito's youngest son, expresses her impression of the Godfather to Michael after he tells her some stories about his family and about things the Godfather has done to help people he loves. Her impression is much like that of many readers: "'everything you've told me about him shows him doing something for other people. He must be good-hearted?Of course his methods are not exactly constitutional'" (Puzo 41). Although she recognizes the wrong in the ways the Godfather does the things he does for others, she still admires him and respects him for taking care of his friends and family, as do readers of the book.
There are numerous incidents and scenes throughout the book which cause readers to identify with the characters and their family relationships; there are too many to mention them in all in an essay such as this one. For instance, many times the Vito and his sons have conversations or disagreements which may differ from the average reader's in subject, yet the tone of the father-son relationship is something which many readers can undoubtedly relate to. The sons both worship and resent their father, desiring to be just like him, desiring to be nothing like him, and desiring to be better than he is, all at the same time.
One specific example of an incident which makes the average reader identify with these characters is the family's reaction when Vito is shot and is in the hospital- the family's world falls apart, and the members have to pull together. Michael, the son who wants nothing to do with the "family business," drops everything when he finds out what has happened, and immediately rushes to the family home. Like any family, the disagreements and differences of family members are put aside when a tragedy must be faced, and this is a situation which many readers relate to easily.
The hypothesis that the popularity of the book is due to the ability of readers to identify with and care about the members of the Mafia is clearly only one of many possible explanations for the popularity of the book. One thing which is certain, however, is the lasting impact the book has had on American culture. The book was not only a hit in 1969, but it has continues to influence books and movies today. The book spawned three movies, all of which Mario Puzo had a hand in writing and many books about the making of the movies and the writing of the book. The number of fictional books about the Mafia has risen significantly since the publication of The Godfather, as evidenced by a search on Amazon.com, and the number of "gangster movies" nominated for Academy Awards has risen since the release of the first Godfather movie in 1972. That movie, which is based closely on the book (many scenes and much dialogue came directly from the book) has also been mentioned, referred to, and/or parodied in countless subsequent and contemporary movies, such as "You've Got Mail," "Analyze This" and "Mafia!"
Regardless of the reason, there can be no doubt that both the subject and the style of Puzo's novel appealed to American audiences when it was published, and continues to appeal to millions today.
Contemporary Authors - New Revision Series Vol. 42. Editor Susan M. Trosky. Gale Research Inc. Detroit, Michigan: 1994. 366-371
Jellinek, Roger. "Just Business, Not Personal." New York Times. March 4, 1969.
Publishers' Weekly. January 6, 1969. 52
Puzo, Mario. The Godfather. G. P. Putnam's Sons. New York: 1969.