The Godfather | Study Guide

Mario Puzo

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The Godfather | Themes


Patriarchal Families

The theme of patriarchal families in The Godfather is the basis for the establishment of the Mafia in Sicily and its replica in the United States. Also, the patriarchal family is the primary cause for Don Vito Corleone's and Michael Corleone's involvement in the crime organization. For centuries, most families in Sicily followed a strict patriarchal structure, in which the father is the supreme head of the family; men deal with the affairs of the world, and women are relegated to bearing children and doing domestic chores. This system is so ingrained that some patriarchs value their honor and their position of power more than anything else. For example, the Don sees murdering a man, such as Fanucci, as being preferable to allowing this man to cheat and disgrace him. As a result, the Don ends up getting involved in crime. Indeed, the influence of the patriarchal family is powerful enough to draw Michael into the family business.

In addition, because of this patriarchal system, women in the Corleone family and other Mafia families are treated in a sexist manner. They are seen as being weaker than men—people who have no power and shouldn't have power. Because of the rigid structure of this system, the Don develops a confining view of life. He feels each man, including himself, must follow his destiny. A man should act in a way that he is meant to act, similar to how a man should uphold his role in the patriarchal system. In a way, such a view absolves the Don of any responsibility for his criminal actions. Finally, in The Godfather, the patriarchal family is supported by the Catholic Church. For the Don, the Church performs its role like everyone else performs their roles in the system. The Church sanctions the patriarchal system, seeing it as preordained by God, and takes care of matters after death. So, the Don and other Mafiosos see the Church as a safeguard that prevents them from going to Hell, no matter how they acted on Earth.

Business versus Personal Matters

In The Godfather when Sonny Corleone wants to kill a bunch of people after his father is shot, Tom Hagen tells him, "It's business. Even the shooting of your father was business, not personal." Members of the Mafia are known for keeping business concerns separate from personal matters. Supposedly, when they murder other gangsters, they are doing this action for business reasons and nothing else. However, Puzo shows that the opposite is actually true. In matters of the Mafia, business and personal concerns are always entwined. The difference really involves a matter of approach. For example, Sonny allows personal feelings to get the best of him and, as a result, he goes on murderous rampages. Hagen is just the opposite. He always values rational decisions above the desire for personal vengeance and might actually believe the two can be kept separate. The Don and Michael have a perfect balance of the two. They both can put aside their anger, turning it into a cold hatred, and use it to motivate calculating, ruthless, and at times brilliant business decisions.

The Don and Michael, therefore, can be seen as developing a split in their personalities. One side appears fairly normal. They seem like responsible family men, who make rational business decisions for the benefit of their family. But, their dark side reveals them to be cold-blooded murderers. Puzo represents this split with Michael's half normal and half deformed face. The personal desire for vengeance forms the primary emotional motive for a gangster's acts of murder. This anger connects with the code of honor men feel they must uphold in the patriarchal family. Any threat to this honor, whether from an individual like Fanucci or from society is seen as a personal affront.

Power and Greed

Although hatred is the main emotional motivation for many Mafia members in The Godfather, the desire for power and greed for wealth comes a close second. For the Don, power and greed are closely linked to the patriarchal family. The father of a patriarchal family must hold a position of supreme power within this family. As a result, having power for a patriarch is his right and a matter of pride. The more power he can get, the better he fulfills his role. With such an attitude, heads of patriarchies will eventually clash as each of them strive for more power. The Godfather shows such a dynamic with the Mafia heads and their constant struggle to outmaneuver each other for more strength. Greed for money helps them achieve more power. The Don uses money to manipulate people for his own ends.

However, power and greed causes the Mafia system to turn against itself. Originally, the Mafia in Sicily and the United States saw itself as providing justice to people oppressed by the established system. However, as the Mafia Dons competed against each other for more and more power, the attainment of power replaced the call for justice. To be sure, after the Don has established the Corleones as the dominant Mafia family, he still performs favors to people seeking justice in return for favors. However, this dispensing of justice becomes a secondary matter. For the Don, the most important business by far is jostling for power against the other Mafia families in New York. Such a business is a matter of life and death, as can be seen with the attempted killing of the Don and the murders of Virgil Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey.

Loyalty versus Treachery

Life in the Mafia involves a constant balancing act between loyalty and treachery. A man must always be on the lookout for treachery, especially within his own group. The Don's and Michael's effectiveness as Mafia heads can be attributed to their astuteness. They are aware of possible treachery and detect it before others detect their treachery. For example, the Don and Michael always planned to break the peace established at the Mafia conference. However, for this treachery to be successful, they have to determine who will betray them before other Mafia families realize their plan to break the peace. Michael's realization of Salvatore Tessio being a traitor gives him the upper hand. He can strike against the unsuspecting Barzini and Tattaglia families before they kill him. The Godfather is riddled with traitors, including Paulie Gatto, McCluskey, Carlo Rizzi, Fabrizzio, and Tessio. Fully aware of the epidemic of treachery in the Mafia, Michael becomes somewhat paranoid. He immediately squelches any hint of treachery, even in his own family. For instance, when Fredo voices support of Moe Greene and criticizes the Corleone family, Michael tells him, "You're my older brother ... but don't ever take sides with anybody against the family again."


The theme of justice shows how the Mafia developed from humane concerns. Many years ago in Sicily, common people searched for a way to achieve justice when faced with oppressive regimes. For a while, the Mafia seemed to provide the answer. So the development of the Mafia could be seen in direct correlation to the failure of society and its legal system. However, in an attempt to provide justice, the Mafia becomes corrupt, which adds to the general corruption in society. In contrast, reform movements, like the Civil Rights Movement, try to alleviate injustice while making society better. An important difference between the Mafia and the Civil Rights Movement is that the latter worked within the established system, while the Mafia created a different world separate from the establishment. The Mafia has its own laws and codes of conduct, which the members see as being superior to society. So for the Don and other gangsters, being a criminal is more just than being an upstanding member of society. Because of this, the Don tells Amerigo Bonasera, "You never armed yourself with true friends. After all ... there were courts of law." The Don, therefore, sees his friendship as being superior to the legal system.

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