On the following Sunday, he dresses in stiff black clothes that make him look less healthy and handsome than he does while wearing his everyday ragged shirt and trousers. He goes to high mass at the local church and sits in a place that gives him a good vantage of Assunta. He returns home and tells his mother that he is willing to marry her.
After marrying, Salvatore and Assunta settle down in a tiny white-washed house in the middle of a pleasant vineyard. Salvatore is now a big husky fellow, tall and broad. He still has the innocent smile and trusting, kind eyes he had as a boy. The narrator comments that Salvatore has “the most beautiful manners I have ever seen in my life.”
Assunta has a grim expression on her face and pronounced features; she looks older than she is. But she has a good heart and is clever. The narrator comments that he used to find it amusing when she would give her husband a little smile of devotion whenever Salvatore was behaving especially masculine, and she was always touched by his gentle sweetness. However, Assunta did not care for the girl who rejected Salvatore. Even though Salvatore smiled at her in disagreement and disapproval, Assunta would go on saying cruel things about the girl. Assunta and Salvatore soon had children.
Salvatore’s life requires hard labor. During fishing season, he goes out every evening with one of his brothers to the fishing grounds six or seven miles offshore. All night they catch valuable cuttlefish. The row back to shore is long, and they have to get back in time to sell their catch to someone who brings it by boat to Naples. He works in the vineyard from dawn until it becomes too hot and he needs to rest. He works again when it cools later in the day, working until dusk.
Often Salvatore’s rheumatism prevents him from working. At those times he lies on the beach, smokes cigarettes, and chats amiably with people despite the terrible pain in his limbs. The foreigners who come to the beach to swim see Salvatore lying there and comment that Italian fishermen are lazy devils.
Sometimes Salvatore brings his sons to the beach to bathe them. The narrator sees Salvatore dipping the stark naked boys in the water. The three-year-old bears the cold water with stoicism but the baby screams vigorously. Even though Salvatore’s enormous hands are coarse and hard from labor, he holds his children delicately. The narrator says his hands become like flowers. Salvatore holds his naked baby in his palm and holds him up, laughing at his smallness; his laughter is like that of an angel and his eyes are as innocent as his children’s.
The story concludes with the narrator reminding the reader that he began with the narrator wondering if he “could do it.” The narrator reveals that he wanted to know if he could hold the reader’s attention for a few pages while he drew the portrait of “an ordinary fisherman who possessed nothing in the world except a quality which is the rarest, the most precious and the loveliest that anyone can have.”
The narrator doesn’t know why Salvatore was blessed with the quality; all he knows is that the quality shone in Salvatore with an unconscious and humble radiance. He says the quality would have been unbearable to most men if Salvatore hadn’t been so humble. The narrator ends the story by revealing that the quality Salvatore possesses is “goodness, just goodness.”
After observing Assunta in church, Salvatore agrees to marry the widow. The narrator neglects to explain what might have been going through the young man’s head as he watched her among the congregation. Presumably, Salvatore overcomes his superficial judgment of Assunta's looks and senses that she, like him, has a “good heart.”
The narrator jumps forward in time to comment on how Salvatore and his wife settle down to a comfortable life as a married couple. Living in a vineyard like his parents, Salvatore continues to radiate goodness as he grows big and husky. Although it may appear that he married Assunta out of desperation, perhaps believing no one else would want him because of his rheumatism, Salvatore reveals no bitterness. He and Assunta are observed by the narrator to have a loving dynamic. Even when Assunta speaks cruelly of the girl who rejected Salvatore, Salvatore merely smiles in gentle disagreement, unwilling either to censure his wife or join her in malicious gossip.
The themes of work and disability arise again as the narrator describes Salvatore’s routine. The working day as a cuttlefish fisherman lasts all night so that Salvatore can sell his fresh catch to the morning boat, which goes to Naples to bring the fish to market. He also tends to his vineyard during the hours of the day when the heat doesn’t make work unbearable.
Despite his robustness, Salvatore often cannot work because his rheumatic pain becomes too intense. In an image that harkens back to when Salvatore was fifteen, the narrator describes the adult Salvatore sunbathing and chatting with locals, only now he is hiding excruciating pain. In an instance of dramatic irony, the narrator comments on how prejudiced foreigners, ignorant of Salvatore’s disability, believe he is merely a lazy Italian fisherman. In another image that reminds readers of the beginning, Salvatore bathes his sons in the ocean, just as he used to look after his younger brothers. Salvatore’s characteristic virtuousness shines through as he lovingly holds his sons, treating them with a delicacy one wouldn’t expect his muscular arms and hands of possessing.
The narrator ends the story by reminding the reader of the question that opens the piece: “I wonder if I can do it.” The narrator reveals that he wondered if he could entertain the reader for several pages with a simple character sketch of a man who possesses the ineffable quality of “goodness, just goodness.” In this way, the narrator justifies telling the story of an ordinary fisherman whose virtuousness radiates from his spirit no matter the adversity or misfortune he faces. Never complaining or seeming to want more than what is available to him, Salvatore has an unconscious and consistent sense of humility that mesmerizes the narrator.