Be warned: Spoilers coming up. This post is written by Anshu Lal, a student in St. Xavier’s college.
“Michael: My Father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.
Kay Adams: Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed.
Michael: Oh. Who’s being naive, Lay?”
- The Godfather.
‘Try and try until you succeed.’ This is one of the most popular proverbs known to people when it comes to the topic of achievement of one’s goals, dreams, hopes and ambitions. The proverb implies that the ultimate result of perseverance is always success whereas the failures in between are just temporary setbacks or obstacles one has to overcome. I wish things were that simple.
The truth is that sometimes circumstances can conspire against dreams in such a way that the option of “trying” itself is eliminated. This fact cannot be explained through an example better than that of the life of the character Michael Corleone in the evergreen classic book, “The Godfather”, written by Mario Puzo.
The Godfather By Mario Puzo
Even though the book is a work of fiction, the character of Don Vito Corleone is inspired from a real person and the book contains innumerable values and situations which are prominently present in real life. Despite the fact that Vito Corleone is the main character throughout most of the book and the prominent and distinct presence of other characters that portray a different value each, the character of Michael Corleone is my personal favourite. The main reason behind this is the beautiful way in which the metamorphosis of Michael Corleone has been shown in the book.
Michael Corleone played by Al Pacino in the movie adaptation of the bestseller book The Godfather
In Part I and most of Part II of the book, Michael Corleone is a person who wants to lead an honest life. Despite the disappointment caused to his father, he joins the army in search for that honest life. He fights in the Second World War, maybe to escape the mafia environment and becomes a war hero who is honoured and respected by the society. He is also in love with Kay Adams and wants to marry her. Michael also despises the family business, but not, as the reader observes later on, his family. Vito Corleone allows his son to have his own lifestyle but obviously does not see “business” potential in him. In fact, the family, even though full of love and care for Michael, sees him as a weak and immature member of the family. He is the sort of innocent prey who needs to be protected by other mafia gangs and cannot be relied upon to protect the family. Apart from this, Michael is a happy man who is content with the fact that he is ignorant of the ways of the underworld and does not think and connive ruthlessly like his other family members, especially his father and his elder brother, Sonny.
Even the author cleverly and beautifully treats him with a hint of disdain by never letting him take centre stage. He is always like a character on the sidelines and the author convinces the reader that the character does not have and probably will never have anything to do with crime. In short, in the first parts of the book, it is quite unimaginable for anyone to predict that Michael Corleone would one day become the head of the Corleone crime family. But, if someone has read the entire book, the person will agree that Michael’s character in the later half of the book is perfect for a head of a criminal organization. This vast contrast between the two Michaels proves how beautiful and convincing the transformation of the character of Michael is.
This transformation does not begin when Michael hears the news of the assault on his father. Even after that shock, Michael returns to the family just as a concerned son and nothing else. He helps the family with small, harmless and clean jobs for the family to support his father.
Michael Corleone: A fiction or a fact?
The transformation begins when Michael goes to the hospital to see his father lying helplessly in bed, with not a single person present in the hospital. It does not take him much time to realize that, without his involvement at that time, his father would be assassinated. It is at that time when overwhelming circumstances force Michael Corleone to forget about his dreams and aspirations and give in to the feelings of a son towards his father that he decides to stay and stand up for his father. In doing so, he gets involved with the battle of the Corleone family with a rival gang as well as gets a taste of the harsh ruthlessness and brutality of crime when he gets almost knocked out by a punch from a corrupt police captain, the man supposed to be in charge of upholding the law.
This triggers the “Sicilian” in Michael Corleone. He soon starts planning his first murder and successfully executes it. He sacrifices his dream of marrying Kay in doing so when he escapes to Sicily for an indefinite amount of time. But this is just the beginning of the change in Michael. He tries to escape it in Sicily. But the fatal blows to the once honest and innocent Michael come when he hears the news of the cold and brutal assassination of his brother and witnesses the death of his wife, Apollonia.
And thus is born the Michael Corleone who, in the end, becomes the completely ruthless and undisputed crime lord in the country as well as a very dark and unhappy man. This is shown very well towards the end of the book when he blatantly lies to the person whom he loved and trusted fully and with complete honesty, his second wife Kay.
The most important message that the character of Michael Corleone portrays is how unpredictable life is and how sometimes, despite one’s best efforts, one is forced to give up one’s hopes, dreams and ambitions. It is not because the person stopped persevering or did not try hard enough but because the option of working hard for that dream itself simply disappears as one is forced to take such life-changing actions to face certain circumstances from which there is no going back. It is like firing a gun, which as Max Payne put it, is “a binary choice”. You either pull the trigger or do not. And sometimes, when you are forced to fire it for self-defense, the victim and the collaterals can never be brought back to life.
Many people might say that Michael Corleone still had a choice in the first place. He could have walked away from that hospital. After all, his father was a criminal and was getting what he deserved. He could have given his duties towards his dreams a higher priority. Well, maybe that is what Michael should have ideally done. In life, we always have choices. However, time is a huge factor. It makes one choice almost impossible to choose. After all, could Michael have walked away from the hospital and let his father get assassinated with a clean conscience? Could he have lived his life in peace knowing that his father died because he failed to protect him? It is easier to say there is always a choice than to observe how much of a choice there actually is.
So, what is the solution to this problem? How does one live peacefully after dreams have been murdered by circumstances? The answer, ironically, lies in the character of Michael Corleone. After Apollonia’s death, Michael was faced with another choice. The one he did not take was to get shattered and broken by the horror of it all. The he did take was to embrace the circumstances and live up to his duties in his new life. After all, it was Michael Corleone, the once weak, innocent and naïve person who struggled, despite his wishes, to protect his family and make it more powerful than before. In the end, Michael mentions that he plans to move the family to Nevada, where he will work to completely legitimize it.
The answer, therefore, as difficult and harsh as it seems, is acceptance. After all, a bullet once fired does not come back. Accepting the circumstances and working to improve them, even if it is not desired, is the hardest part and achieved by few people. It is no wonder then, that the character of Michael Corleone is completely fictional.