The centerpiece of Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete thus far is the death of Geremio on the worksite; the subsequent void left in the familial structure haunts his wife and children and drives namely Paul to try and fill this role. Because of the financial, emotional, and material struggle that the family endures in the wake of Geremio’s death, it is evident that so much hinges upon the “man of the house.” But it would be wrong to say that di Donato’s surroundings suggest a patriarchal system, one where the man is dominant. The key reason for this is the strength that the women characters in the novel display from early on, whether manifested in the scene where Annunziata gives birth or when the Dame Katarina overpowers the clergyman who is refusing Paul at the rectory door. The nuclear family and even the extended Italian-American working-class community depend on these women, the well-being of both determined by the attitudes and actions of their maternal figures.
The most animated example of the empowered females takes place when Annunziata is giving birth. Luigi, Annunziata’s brother, becomes something of a servant to the crew of women who come rushing in when she goes into labor. He goes and fetches the Dame Katarina, arranges chairs and prepares food and drink for the others. Eventually, he is sent away by Katarina, who shouts “To hell out of here, old woman!” as he exits. The humorous role reversal evidenced here depicts the man as being in the way and without authority in this situation. That the situation is the birth of a child amplifies the importance of the women’s know-how, cementing their status as the givers of physical life and thus the ultimate facilitators of their little Italian Catholic, working-class world.
Another vivid scene in which this power is put on display is when the Dame Katarina shouts at the priest. Paul, who is determined not to let his family suffer the woes of poverty, goes to the church to plead for assistance. He is greeted rather harshly and dismissively by an old man, who says he is too young and tries to close the door on him. When Katarina shouts at him and overwhelms the old man, he finally gets what he came for. Age itself is not why she perseveres where Paul cannot; the man at the door is described as “old-old”, thus making it unlikely he is intimidated by Katarina on account of her being similarly elderly. It is the shame she bestows on him, driven by the violent finger she points, that calls to mind a mother-to-son admonishment. For all we know, the old man may not be Italian or a member of their tight-knit community. The strength of the Dame’s character, though, is a direct consequence of that community’s values, and would thus make such a detail irrelevant anyway.
The respect for women goes even deeper than these rather explicit, on-the-surface happenings. In Annunziata’s heartbreak, for example, we can see the love and honor Geremio gave her during his life, and how that, even more than the economic consequences of his death, feeds her intense grief. Perhaps it is the omnipresent Catholic devotion, a religion that so highly venerates the Virgin Mary, that breeds the sanctity with which women are regarded. Whether or not that’s the case, there is something strikingly different about their union, something far more romantic and emotional, than we might expect from an early 20th Century marriage or from the traditional “Man as the bread giver” power balance.