Literature Study GuidesThe GodfatherBook 1 Chapter 1 Summary

The Godfather | Study Guide

Mario Puzo

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The Godfather | Book 1, Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Book 1 begins with an epigraph, which states: 'Behind every great fortune there is a crime' — Balzac.

Book 1, Chapter 1 of The Godfather opens with a demonstration of the power Don Corleone exercises. In New York, Amerigo Bonasera, an Italian-American undertaker, attends a court trial in which two young men are being charged for brutally beating Bonasera's daughter. The judge suspends their sentences, allowing them to go free. Infuriated and humiliated, Bonasera says, "For justice we must go on our knees to Don Corleone." In Los Angeles, Johnny Fontaine, a successful singer and movie star, is humiliated by his unfaithful wife. Fontaine feels only his Godfather, Don Corleone, can help him. In the New York area, an Italian-American baker named Nazorine wants his daughter to marry Enzo, an Italian who might be deported back to Italy. To prevent this, Nazorine decides to ask Don Corleone for help.

In August 1945, Don Vito Corleone gives a lavish wedding in the old Italian style for his only daughter, Connie Corleone. Many of the Don's friends attend; people who have pledged their friendship to him and, as a result, have received favors from him. Many of these friends refer to the Don as "the Godfather." The Don's three sons also attend the wedding: Sonny Corleone, a married man with a violent temper; Fredo Corleone, a dutiful but dull son; and Michael Corleone, an intelligent man who is a war hero. Michael seems to be independent of his father. Kay Adams, a young Protestant-American woman, accompanies Michael. She is engaged to him and is naïve about the Don's business. Connie is marrying Carlo Rizzi, whom the Corleones view as a half-breed because he is only half Sicilian. Many guests dance an Italian folk dance, including heavyset Peter Clemenza, a close friend of the Don. Several men wait to have an audience with the Don.

In an office in the Don's house, a lawyer named Tom Hagan reviews with the Don a list of people who want to see him. The first person called before the Don is Nazorine, who explains the situation between his daughter and Enzo. The Don says Nazorine has no need to worry; Enzo will remain in America. At the wedding party, Kay asks Michael about a huge, scary-looking man called Luca Brasi, who is waiting to see the Don. Michael explains that Luca is one of the most feared gangsters in the Eastern underworld and is extremely loyal to the Don. In the office, the Don expresses his wish for Sonny to be at the next meeting because he might learn something. Hagen tracks down Sonny, who is having sex with Lucy Mancini, one of Connie's bridesmaids. Sonny joins Hagen and the Don for the meeting with Bonasera. This meeting is awkward, because Bonasera has refused so far to pledge his friendship to the Don, instead relying on the police and the courts for protection and justice. Bonasera says he'll pay the Don to enforce justice by killing the two men who beat up his daughter. The Don is insulted by the offer of money and also claims that Bonasera is not asking for justice because his daughter is still alive. Eventually, Bonasera pledges his friendship to the Don and the Don says the two men will suffer as much as his daughter has suffered. In return, the Don may one day ask for a favor from Bonasera.

Johnny Fontaine comes to the wedding, where he is met by adoring fans including Connie. The Don is pleased that Johnny has come because he is the Don's godson. During Johnny's meeting with the Don, the singer expresses his grief about his marriage, his voice getting weaker, his declining popularity, and not getting an important part in a movie. The head of the movie studio, Jack Woltz, refuses to give the role to Johnny because the singer took away Woltz's girlfriend. The Don tells Johnny that he'll get the part in the movie. Johnny, though, has difficulty believing this because Woltz is so powerful. The Don says, "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse."

After the wedding guests leave, the Don, his three sons, and Johnny visit a close friend of the Don's, Genco Abbandando, who is in a hospital dying of cancer. Genco was the consigliori, or counselor, for the Don, a role now temporarily filled by Tom Hagen. The consigliori is the only person fully aware of the Don's criminal activities. Because of this, the consigliori could potentially destroy the Don and his underworld organization. He, therefore, must be a person of absolute loyalty.

Tom Hagen takes a plane to Los Angeles, where he will attempt to convince Woltz to give Johnny the part in the movie. Hagen reflects on how Sonny found him on the streets, an 11-year-old orphan. Sonny brought Hagen to his home, where he stayed. Acting as his guardian, the Don paid for Hagen's schooling as a lawyer. After getting his degree, Hagen told the Don that he wanted to join the family business. The Don agreed. In Los Angeles, Woltz invites Hagen to his mansion and treats him with respect. Woltz shows his horse stables to Hagen and presents his prize racing horse named Khartoum. However, during dinner, Woltz refuses to give Johnny the part in the movie and gets angry at Hagen for trying to muscle him into doing so. Clemenza gives Paulie Gatto the order to beat up the two men who attacked Bonasera's daughter. Paulie and two other thugs do the job thoroughly, pounding the two men's faces until they are unrecognizable.

Analysis

Family Structure

The epigraph is an abbreviated quotation by the French writer Honoré de Balzac. It provides a statement that Mario Puzo validates not only in Book 1, but throughout the entire novel. Certainly, Don Vito Corleone has achieved a fortune through crime. However, the author also shows that many other wealthy men who appear more legitimate, such as politicians, are also involved in criminal activities.

The main focus in Book 1, Chapter 1 is the theme of the patriarchal family as shown by the Corleone family. Through the wedding of Don Vito Corleone's only daughter Connie, Puzo shows the Don as an extreme traditionalist. For example, the Don insists that the wedding be done in the "old Italian style," even though Connie would probably have preferred a more modern wedding. Connie does not want to risk angering her father, because he is already displeased by her choice of husband, who is only half Sicilian. Again, the Don shows his strong traditionalism by being annoyed by this.

The Don has created a structure for his family that is also very traditional. As in most patriarchal families, he is the unquestioned head of his clan with his son, Sonny, appearing as a possible heir to his throne. It is important to note that all of the business transactions of his family, such as the granting of favors and the enforcement of these favors, are done by men. In the Don's realm, men act in the world and women stay home, doing domestic chores. The Don conveys the secondary role of women when he chastises Johnny Fontaine for letting women, specifically his wife, run his life. This traditional family structure seems to be set in stone with everyone performing their expected roles. The wedding, therefore, gives the impression of an elaborate ritual being performed by the guests and the Corleones. As expected, people listen to Italian music and perform Italian dances; guests give Connie money in envelopes; and several men have come to ask the Don for favors. All of this seems to follow a preordained plan that perhaps has been followed for centuries. For example, the men have come to ask for favors because according to Sicilian tradition a father cannot deny a request on the day of his daughter's wedding.

Criminal Structure

In addition to the traditional structure of his immediate family, the Don has set up an elaborate structure for his criminal activities, which involves a series of buffers that protect the Don from being directly implicated in any criminal act. For example, at the end of the chapter, the thugs who beat up the two men probably have no idea that the hit originated from the Don. The Don gave the order to Tom Hagan, who passed it on to Clemenza, who told Paulie Gatto, who told the thugs. Again, this structure is patriarchal and traditional in nature. All the business activities are being handled by men and the structure is a replica of the structure of criminal organizations in Sicily.

Other families in the criminal underworld most likely follow a similar traditional structure as the Don. In fact, the Don could be seen as a slight rebel in his world because he allowed a non-Sicilian, Tom Hagen, to be his temporary counselor.

The force that binds this patriarchal family and criminal structure together is friendship or loyalty. In the world of Don Corleone, though, appearances are never what they seem. The friendship that bonds the Corleone family and colleagues is not based on people freely giving their affection with no hint of an obligation. Such a friendship would be expected in everyday society. However, in the clandestine world of the Don, people are bound to a loyalty based on the threat of death. Because of this, Bonasera is terrified to give his friendship to the Don. He realizes that such a friendship comes with dreadful strings attached. If Bonasera becomes the Don's friend, the Don will do Bonasera a favor, but will expect a favor to be done by Bonasera in return. Bonasera knows when the time comes he must fulfill this favor, or he will be killed. For the Don, friendship is based on coercion, despite his appearance of offering true friendship. A person who becomes a friend of the Don places himself under the Don's thumb.

Deception, Justice, Power, and Greed

Puzo supports the idea of appearances being deceptive through the symbols of human beauty and human ugliness. In Chapter 1, the author shows beauty through Johnny's wife, Sonny, and Michael. All three of these people are very attractive. However, for Johnny's wife, her beauty disguises an ugliness, which she shows by being constantly unfaithful to her husband and mocking him. Despite being handsome, Sonny is also unfaithful to his spouse and has sex with Lucy Mancini. Michael seems to be the only exception to this. Puzo describes him as having skin that is "clear olive-brown that would have been called beautiful in a girl." However, Michael seems like an honest man who truly loves Kay Adams and wants no part in the family business. Also, the symbol of doors represents a separation or partition between two worlds. In the surface world, Sonny and his wife are a happy couple celebrating the marriage of Connie and Carlo. But behind closed doors, Sonny disregards his loyalty to his wife and has sex with Lucy.

The theme of justice and the theme of power and greed show the reasons why people get involved in the Don's criminal world. Bonasera has been denied justice by the courts and so seeks it by petitioning the Don. Also, in a way, Johnny seeks justice. He feels that Woltz's refusal to give him a plum role in a movie is petty and unfair. As a result, he asks the Don for help even though he doubts if the Don can change Woltz's mind. In addition, the injustice that Bonasera and Johnny face involves ethnic prejudice against Italian Americans. The judge let the two men who attacked Bonasera's daughter go free because they are members of established American families while Bonasera is just an Italian immigrant; Woltz belittles Johnny because he is an Italian American.

Also, people enter the Godfather's world because they know his power can get them various benefits. Johnny wants to be a popular movie star again, which will make him more affluent and influential. Anthony Coppola needs $500 to open a pizzeria. Puzo shows an extreme example with Genco Abbandando. On his deathbed, Genco is convinced the Don has the power to cheat death and save him from the fires of Hell. Genco, therefore, sees the Don as a type of god. Even the Don is offended by this, telling Genco that he blasphemes.

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