Elena Ferrante: Italian Tradition And Modern Womanhood

Aerial shot of Naples and Mount Vesuvius|© loome/pixabay
Aerial shot of Naples and Mount Vesuvius|© loome/pixabay
Photo of Erin Clancy
16 December 2016

The anonymous writer known as Elena Ferrante has been celebrated in Italy for years but internationally for only the past few. Her novels confront the anguish of the female state from postwar Italy to the present day, resulting in some of the most brutal yet alluring female protagonists in literature. Ferrante’s images of violence, love, heartbreak, confusion, determination, and alienation enrapture readers through every ruthless, well-constructed sentence.

Aerial shot of Naples and Mount Vesuvius | © loome/pixabay

Ferrante has published, among other various short stories and articles, seven novels. She is particularly known for The Days of Abandonment (2002) and her Neapolitan tetralogy, which includes My Brilliant Friend, Story of A New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child. From her debut, Troubling Love (1992) through her latest, her novels fluctuate between intense, troubled female relationships and near total female alienation. There is a constant desire in many of her characters to escape: either from their old neighborhoods (usually Naples, where Ferrante is from), the violence of men, or the fates of their mothers. And this desire to escape is what ultimately complicates these female relationships. The urge to detach in order to survive both physically and mentally conflicts with the push to protect or stand in solidarity with the women that each character loves — a mother, friend, daughter — and thus leaves these characters in despair.

Ferrante conveys this idea with such intensity and depth that its honesty is unquestionable; its daring like a quick, sharp cut across your cheek. Central to this sense and to the formation of these women is their relation to everyday violence. Whether rape, fatherly beatings, Camorrist activity, or even the violence of the dialect used, Ferrante’s characters have been exposed to it all from youth. It is a violence that works towards oppressing the women, keeping them submissive at home. This cultural violence, of course, is a result of the fortified patriarchal traditions, which psychologically affect both the abusers and the abused. These traditions seem particularly concentrated in the impoverished neighborhood in Naples that Ferrante so vividly depicts.

© Europa Editions

But the worlds she creates are not divisively male versus female; such as it is not in real life. However, there is the recognition that while the traditional patriarchal societies in which these women are raised continue to exist, the men and older women will always perceive a woman’s labor as something innate in the female; thus is it made invisible. Consequently, in many of Ferrante’s novels the younger generation of women, those who were raised as in the post WWII era and in the face of modernity, are caught in constant tension between the pressure of the past ways and the prospect of gaining more, being more, loving in a truer form.

Throughout Ferrante’s works women fluctuate between succeeding and failing in resolving this conflict. Elena Greco in the Neapolitan tetralogy seems to escape the old ways of her neighborhood via ceaseless studying, university, and marriage to a respected Florentine. However, she finds that even the more progressive regions of Italy do not make as much room for women as she expects. She becomes the victim of a neglectful husband, of male scrutiny for her ‘vulgar’ debut novel, and of an unfaithful lover who refuses to choose between her and his multitude of other lovers. She and her best friend Lila have a tumultuous relationship that usually functions off of competition, possessiveness, and insecurity. Elena is more reserved, while Lila is more ferocious. While the two girls are not necessarily foils for one another, the conflict and tension in their relationship and their characteristics becomes emblematic of the struggle of the female identity at a historical moment when the nation is trying to progress while simultaneously being held back by old systems of power.

In Troubling Love, Delia returns to Naples for her mother’s funeral; her mother supposedly drowned herself. Like Elena, Delia tried to leave that city of her past behind her, to forget the beatings from her father and the sexual harassment from men on the tram. In Delia’s description of her past perception of her mom, there is an overwhelming desire to protect her attractive mother from all men while simultaneously being repulsed by some of her feminine or sexual characteristics, often exaggerated or imagined.

Film Still from the adaptation of Ferrante’s L’amore Molesto | © Lucky Red (1995)

In her other two novels, the alienation of Ferrante’s protagonists is palpable. Leda of The Lost Daughter is a woman who abandoned her marriage, temporarily abandoned her daughters, took flight from a passionate academic affair, and spends her holiday in a small coastal Italian town. She was never meant to be a mother, defying the notion of a natural female maternal instinct. Like Elena in the Neapolitan books, she had tried to escape Naples and the angry, silent women that were her mother and neighbors. And yet she cannot help but become obsessed with a young Neapolitan woman on the beach who has subjected herself to the fate of complicit, lonely wife and mother. Olga from Days of Abandonment, a writer who gave it up to play the good wife, withers and yet becomes poisonous when that familial structure is suddenly taken away from her when her husband leaves.

What is so captivating about the protagonists in Ferrante’s books are their desires to be autonomous, successful women and yet their apparently uncontrollable, unexplainable choices ultimately pull them into unhealthy, deprived situations they’d wished to avoid. This struggle between escaping and re-entrapment is brutal to read not only as a heartbreaking story but also because it captures the modern woman’s often contradictory path to self-fulfillment.

Can a woman be an academic and a passionate lover, a radical feminist and a man’s lover, fulfilled when completely detached from her mother and her mother’s world? These are the questions that Ferrante forces her readers to grapple with. Will these women come out all right, and what does it mean if by the end the answer is not clear? It is this pointed unease that makes Ferrante’s work so brilliant and addictive.

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