Pietro Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete
Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete illustrates the difficult circumstances that many working class Italian immigrants and their families found in America in the early twentieth century. And while the novel’s main character is Paul, a young boy forced into dangerous work environments after the death of his father, the women of the text also illuminate many of the class arguments that di Donato is making. Focusing on the women of the novel is fruitful in this regard because, while they are separated from the hazardous construction sites of the male workers, they still labor in ways that are physically and emotionally taxing. Moreover, the poor women of the tenements are dismissed by the system of American capitalism in which they find themselves, in ways that are similar to, and unique from, the disregard shown to the male workers of their relation. However, while the text clearly demonstrates that hardships that these women must contend with, it also shows how the women bear these hardships while performing vital roles within their communities. In this way, Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete uses the figure of Annunziata, as well as other working class female characters, in order to show the important role that women have in the maintenance of immigrant communities and how that role is devalued by the logics of American capitalism.
Throughout the novel, the Italian, immigrant women are shown to act as an important support system for one another and one another’s families. An important example of this function can be seen when Annunziata gives birth to Geremino and calls for other women, rather than a doctor. “Luigi returned with the dame Katarina and with them came Tomas’ widow big-titted Cola all in black, the Regina Govanni, Theresa the Meatball, and the peasant woman Grazia la Caffone” (34). Even though Cola is mourning she still shows up, diversity between “peasant” and “dame,” sheer number of women who come to help. Di Donato writes, “She rolled up her sleeves, sprinkled talcum on her dried-up hairy arms, lifted the blanket from Annunziata, and went to work” (35). Jennifer Scuro writes, “in Naples, family connections and networks of women sustained her family during the separation from her father. These information and familial networks, divided by gender, centered around the household” (47). And while this is a personal anecdote, it nevertheless resonates with the images of Italianness that di Donato deploys in his novel (47).
Our writers can help you with any type of essay. For any subjectGet your price
How it works
This moment of Geremino’s birth also demonstrate how the women’s authority is respected in their community. Cola tells Luigi “‘occupy yourself away from here. Have you no shame? Go purchase a paper bag of sweets for the children…And for us too’ (39). Di Donato writes, “Luigi excused himself and did as he was told” (39). Luigi listens to them, and in doing so (taking orders and caring for children) seems to reverse traditional gender roles.
Crucially, this network of poor women is shown to exist in the face of a callous system that refuses to grant them outside support. Di Donato writes of the women visiting Annunziata as she recovers from giving birth, “ungraceful young and yet more ungraceful old had been there consoling Annunziata in the dark consumptious bedroom in the dark rank flat in the cancerous dark tenement in the dark close street in a dark world. The poor alone had visited the poor” (41). “ungraceful” shows how they do not meet idealized standards of femininity, tied to class, as they get “more ungraceful” as they continue to work and age. Nevertheless their lack of grace does not prevent their “consoling” Annunziata, which calls into question how useful beauty and feminine standards are for these women. “consoling” as the only positive word in the repetitively “dark world” (41). Emphasis on “alone” (41).
The sense of resistance that the women of the novel impart is furthered in another important moment that shows the immigrant women supporting one another, which occurs when the women attempt to prepare Annunziata for her benefit’s hearing. First, the women offer the practical advise to ‘sign nothing!’ (107). The Regina tells Annunziata ‘your cross made on a thin paper will bring ruin to you and your children’ (107). “Grazia sighed: ‘Ah, but how can a widow without the American tongue tell her needs to men whose guts do not know which way first to burst forth” (107). Regina knows it will be “men,” shows how the women are going up against not only a capitalist system but a patriarchal one. Katarina counters, ‘Cart your eight hungry little children to this official post. You do not need to speak’ (107). Patricia Hill Collins and communities as political.
This scene closes with a communal images that tie class and gender consciousness. First, the uncertainty and indignation that the women express towards the government hearing is contrasted to the surety they have in organizing help within their own community. The women proclaim, ‘Head-of-Pig shall bring you and your children with his ice wagon’ (108). Confident language of “shall,” which also contains biblical resonances (108). Di Donato writes, “And the women sat in circle, full breast to breast, and settled for the evening—the worker’s women, the poor with the poor in conversation of this life” (108). “this” before “life” qualifies the situation, marks it as not a naturalized way of being, but something that has been enacted by constructed economic and social systems.
However, despite the women’s preparations, their fear of finding an unsympathetic ear in the bureaucracy is realized. Di Donato writes, “When he noticed the children behind her he said, ‘are these your children, lady?’ Paul stepped forward and asked: ‘Why?’ The attendant mumbled, ‘All them kids.’ Paul and Annina respectfully herded the children into the rear benches” (129-30). Rude way he appends “lady” to the sentence. Paul recognizes the disrespect and steps in. Annunziata shamed for her number of children and perceived as a burden “all them” (129). Because of the situation, the family has to accept that discrimination and respond by “respectfully” handling themselves (129). Assumptions about immigrant women being “prostitutes” and “public charges” reveals anxieties about their sexuality and value to society. These attitudes were inscribed into policies that allowed or denied women entry to the United States, but in this scene di Donato demonstrates that the sexist and xenophobic attitudes that underly them did not remain at the border, as they continued to influence the immigrant women’s interactions with the government that enacted those policies. This scene shows how they bleed in the functioning of the American courts (Moloney). This scene happens after Annunziata has lost her husband, she’s at the hearing with only her children. Shows the fear and mistrust of single, immigrant women.
The language barrier that Annunziata struggles with at the benefits hearing expands on her vulnerability as not only a working class woman but also as an immigrant. Di Donato writes, “But why couldn’t she answer? Why did her breast catch? What crime had she committed? A short swarthy round-cheeked interpreter with oil eyes and thick glasses hunched near Annunziata and asked her Referee Parker’s questions. Then he would turn and relay her answers” (131). The self possession that Annunziata, and other woman, show in the comfort of their homes and with their fellows disappears under the pressures of the situation.
The hostility that Annunziata receives at the hearing can be further understood by noting that the unpaid household labor of women has been historically classified as “unproductive” by American officials, which Folbre analyzes in her article. Di Donato writes, “Annunziata shook the grate of the coal stove and fired it. She heated water, mixed it with evaporated milk and filled the babies bottles” (50). Here, di Donato uses a period, comma, and multiple clauses in order to present Annunziata’s actions as a step by step process in a way that aligns it with the rigors and monotony of other forms of work. The physicality of this operation is demonstrated by the use of the verb “shook,” which suggests images of full, bodily engagement (50).
Crucially, just as Folbre notes how this assessment of women ignores the ways in which their work facilitates economic activity that governments do consider “productive” by obscur[ing] the benefits men enjoyed from women’s domestic labor,” Annunziata’s labor in this regard made Geremio’s labor outside the home possible in the first place, and that same labor later facilitates Paul’s work (Folbre 464). Di Donato writes, “Annunziata lifted him and carried him to the bed—he not even flickering a lid. She warmed him” (82). Here, Paul’s “not flickering a lid” shows how women’s domestic and familial labor is often rendered invisible (82). However, it is important to note that while Annunziata’s domestic functioning allows for Paul’s entrance into the construction site, she does not want him in that position. Rather, it is the capitalist system that does not value her labor forces that her child into dangerous circumstances.Annunziata tells Paul, ‘we can sit at home and cut embroidery, we can eat one piece of bread instead of two’ (105). Here, Annunziata’s desperation is shown by the repetition of “we can” (105). However, it also comes with the acknowledgement that the forms of labor that can be performed “at home” are insufficiently compensated to meet their needs, as it would literally give them less “bread” (105). As such, Annunziata is forced to engage in doomed pleas as, despite the hard work she performs, she is unable to protect her son within the capitalist power structure.
Accordingly, while the very title of Christ in Concrete aligns the character of Geremio with biblical martyrdom through an association with Jesus, Annunziata can also be seen as a sacrificial figure, as she hopes to “live only to raise her children” (50). Here, the use of the gendered pronoun “her,” which Annunziata employs instead of the first person “my,” shows that Annunziata’s situation is not unique and speaks to the difficult circumstances many poor women found themselves in (50). Moreover, like Geremio’s encasement in concrete, Annunziata’s self-sacrifice takes on a bodily component, as she deprives herself of nourishment in order to care for her children. Di Donato writes, “She fingered the food mechanically. She would not eat. And still that leaves eight. With three meals each, the day requires twenty-four portions…And the fuel? And the clothes? Andandand…? Geremino and Johnny yelled impatiently—enraged” (50). Matter of fact tone employed to describe an impossible expectation “she would not eat” (50). The children’s screams show how economic pressures do not excuse her from tending to domestic demands.
Finally, the importance of Annunziata’s role in the novel, and by extension that of the text’s women more broadly, is emphasized by the fact that Christ in Concrete closes on Annunziata’s words. Di Donato writes, “With numbing hand she beckoned. ‘Children wonderful…love…love love…love ever our Paul…Follow him” (236). While this moment positions Paul as a savior, Annunziata is the crucial voice that endorses him and guides others to him, as shown by the leading language of “beckoned” (236). In this way, Di Donato shows the importance of women in guiding responses to capitalist exploitation. “numbing hand” once again show how women of the community act as sources of comfort.