Understanding does not always entail approval. A doctor may understand a disease very well without approving of it, without believing that it ought to be the condition that should obtain with his patient.
Puzo writes THE GODFATHER as a loving doctor would write about his honored patient. Puzo writes to remind us that out of confused and very injurious human traditions men can arise who are the best in their particular circumstances.
The heroes of THE GODFATHER are incredibly easy to judge in terms of the Objectivist ethics. For these heroes are the most rational, most nearly just, honest productive, integrated, and proud people in the fictional Cosa Nostra which is presented within Puzo's work.
It is very important to understand the context of a person in order to be able to judge that person morally. The law of the criminal court recognizes this to some extent—that is why we have the principle "innocent until proven guilty." The same approach must be used within morality: someone is morally innocent until proven guilty of moral evil, not in a court of law but in terms of the most rational moral code available to one, in this case the ethics of Objectivism.
THE GODFATHER is the "don" or family head of an organization whose members are virtually all of Sicilian origin. This organization is by U.S. legal standards criminal. By a standard of objective criminal law it would also be a criminal organization because it violates laws which are designed to protect and retaliate against the commission of unjust use of force, i.e., to protect against the violation of human rights.
The family, however, is the most humane of all the "families" in existence. The Don is the most rational of all the Dons. He has long ago learned that the use of force is irrational ninety-nine% of the time. The only time within his context that he approves of the use of force is when the continuance of life for members of his family, including of course himself, is at stake. He is entirely aware of the virtues and vices of the U.S. legal system and, as much as he can overcome his traditional distrust of political authority, he is willing to acknowledge that the U.S. legal system is more just than all others.
The Don's youngest son, who stays away from the family for years before he decides that his tradition has reached into his life irrevocably so he must work with the family, becomes Don a little after the Godfather dies. He moves the family closer and closer to becoming legitimate, sees the virtue in that, marries an American woman, educates his sons entirely within the U.S. tradition. He knows wherein the salvation of the family, i.e., himself and those like him, lies; since he is a good leader, a most rational person whose mind accomplishes the most difficult of human tasks: good communication, he moves into his father's position. It is his "destiny"—though interestingly enough, while the old Don still made reference to that, the new Don does not think in terms of that concept because he knows more about what his life means than did the old Don.
It is impossible to tell the whole story in a review. The flavor or atmosphere must do. And the flavor of this work, its attitude, is unbelievably pro-life. In the words of the old Don on his death bed: "Life is so beautiful!"
The characters knew how to feel; they were really in touch—especially the best ones. They felt deeply and they felt just as it had to be. Puzo's ability to associate feeling with living in all sorts of ways is superior to most modern authors, though frankly by now I have stopped reading most contemporary literature precisely because I could not find writers who lived up even closely to my standards after THE FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED.
And love—well love is projected with a beauty and an understanding I have not encountered about the subject in contemporary authors, excluding the obvious exceptions and a few others, perhaps. (Not reading novels does not mean that I never begin to read them.)
It is interesting, incidentally, that Nathaniel Branden, a practicing psychologist now, should enjoy THE GODFATHER. I believe that his ability to understand the relationship between a person's childhood, the tradition within which he was raised, the psychological environment—for that is ultimately the only really important environmental factor in a child's life—he had, and his present emotional health, sheds a light upon his appreciation of Puzo's work.
THE GODFATHER is not in any sense a philosophical novel and cannot be fully appreciated if it is read for purposes of learning good philosophy integrated with the experience of good art. The philosophy that obtains is implicit, the sort that Miss Rand has said is implicit in all great artists who are not, however, self-consciously philosophical either in their work or, perhaps, aside from it.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Godfather".