Elena Ferrante is an Italian author who grew up in Naples. She now lives in Turin and is noted for a quartet of novels about Naples and the people who lived there. The novels are My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child. They are consecutive and focus on a relationship between two women, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, spanning six decades of their lives. This is their story, a story told so poignantly, honestly and intensely that Ferrante took the world by surprise.
Ferrante describes the love-hate relationship between the two women in great detail. It is a story of love, power, class and gender. The stories are told always in the first person. Elena, who, despite her academic and social success, is portrayed as passive, envious and submissive to Lila. Lila, on the other hand, is a blaming, projecting person, submissive to no one. Naples itself is portrayed as another character in the novels. Through them, Ferrante brings together, in an extreme, condensed and volatile form, all the fault lines in modern Italy. The novels themselves sound autobiographical, but which (or both) of the two characters represent Ferrante is a mystery.
The two women seem like opposites, like Jung’s shadow archetypes – the Queen (Empress) and the Shadow Queen. The Queen ‘represents power and authority in women who symbolically rule over anything from a corporation to the home’ and is also ‘associated with positive arrogance and a need to protect one’s personal and emotional power’. Contrary to this, the Shadow Queen ‘can slip into aggressive and destructive patterns of behaviour, particularly when authority or control is challenged’. (Myss, 2003:84). In this way her two main characters can be two parts of the same, sliding seamlessly from one of power to one who is powerless and back again.
It is the ways that these two women lived their lives that struck me as congruent with Maslow’s theory of self-actualisation. Maslow’s theory states that most people are motivated to seek improvements in their lives. This, he suggested, is to feel more fulfilled. He decided that it could only be achieved by passing through stages, each stage feeding into the next. The triangle below illustrates this.
It is based on a reward system, where the ultimate reward cannot be achieved without the achievement of all others below it. However, Maslow believed that only 1% of people ever self-actualised.
How this theory is represented in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels is that both women strive to improve their circumstances. Out of the many that lived in the slum dwellings in Naples between 1950 and 2010, very few managed to escape the poverty and corruption of the neighbourhood in which both these women lived and were brought up. Only Elena managed to escape the city completely.
Another way of looking at this is through the prevailing Italian culture. Women of previous generations were supervised by other members of the family (sorvegliate). Being independent in spirit, both Lila and Elena broke away from this tradition, considered their self-assessments (sorveglianza) and consciously made decisions to bring about changes in their circumstances. These two concepts are the fruit of a new and ancient sorveglianza that has to do with the need to expand their life. There is a relatively new meaning to the word and it exhibits wakefulness, being vigilant, not appealing to the gaze but rather to a relish for life. This is evidenced in both characters and their conscious striving for betterment. Of this Ferrante said:
‘I like very much effective (vigilente) (as in the sense of current) in force, women who keep watch (sorvegliano) and attend to themselves in the sense I am trying to express. I like writing about them. I feel they are heroines of our time.’
Ferrante, Interview in La Frantumaglia, 2007
Lila and Elena were at the same school and neighbourhood in Naples. They came from very poor backgrounds and lived in high-rise tenement buildings, which were built around a central courtyard. The apartment rooms were small, claustrophobic and poorly furnished. Children played in the courtyard and the mothers could intermittently watch them from their apartment windows. Neighbours leant out of their windows and talked to each other in their local dialect.
This is the backdrop of the circumstances and their quest for self-improvement, money and power, for improved lives. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs points to physiological satisfaction. As already mentioned, this was absent for both Lila and Elena. Elena was able, luckily, to supplement her family’s income by babysitting during the holidays and giving all her wages to her mother. From the age of thirteen, to address the issue of poverty, Lila was put under pressure from her parents to leave school to work in her father’s shop. She designed an exquisite pair of shoes which she and her brother made.
At school, one teacher, Maestro Olivero, tries to help the two girls, to encourage them by buying them schoolbooks, knowing that their parents could not afford them. Lila, in particular, seemed aware from a young age of the need to make academic progress. She excelled at school tests and although Elena did well too, she could never come first as Lila always did.
Maslow’s second need, safety, seemed elusive in the women’s lives. Safety was not guaranteed at home and both women were beaten and their mothers suffered domestic violence. Lila was once thrown out of the window of the family apartment during one of her father’s terrible moods, breaking her arm. Domestic violence was commonplace in the neighbourhood and, indeed, the world they were born into was one of violence saturated with meaning: erotic, familial, local, clan, economic, political, criminal and even national.
Since they lived in dangerous surroundings, the need to defend themselves was strong in both women. Lila carried a knife. She was protective both of herself and Elena. There was a particularly violent family, the Solaras, who lived in the neighbourhood. Marcello and Michele Solara went to school with Elena and Lila. It is supposed that they were the local Camorrists. Lila, it seemed, was the only person who did not fear them. She fascinated Michele, who, in his infatuation with her, ensured Lila’s safety at all times. On one occasion, during their teens, Lila and Elena experienced the misogyny of the Solara brothers. Marcello grabbed Elena’s wrist trying to pull her into his car. He broke the bracelet she was wearing. Lila retaliated.
‘Lila, half the size of him, pushed him against the car and whipped the shoemaker’s knife under his throat. She said calmly, in dialect, touch her again and I’ll show you what happens.
My Brilliant Friend, 2012:135
Being married did not change things for Lila. She was raped on her wedding night and regularly experienced a beating from her husband. Despite this, it did not deter her from bettering herself and she sought other methods to pursue her ambitions. When she could she took her son and lived with another, gentler friend, Enzo, and together they worked to understand and penetrate the business of computer science. Elena, on the other hand, sought refuge in books and academia. But ultimately, for Elena to feel safe, she felt she had to leave the violence and insecurity of Naples.
The neighbourhood comprised a large crowd of young people who both supported and offended each other constantly, providing a rich range of experiences for all of them. There was a strong sense of belonging. Moreover, they represented the powerful bonds of Italian families; but what was missing from this large group of people was a wider range of social classes. Despite this both Lila and Elena knew that there was more to life than what they had been brought up with.
When Elena attained the qualifications to attend university in Pisa, she mixed with people from much wealthier backgrounds, learned to speak an acceptable Italian and dropped her Naples dialect. Through this milieu, she watched and listened to her contemporaries, learned how to be middle class in her demeanour and outlook on life as well as taking advantage of any opportunities that arose. Eventually, Elena met and married a well-known academic, moved to Milan, had two children and wrote successful autobiographical novels based on her own experiences in Naples.
Believing that she could achieve a high level of success by escaping the poverty of the neighbourhood, Lila, at sixteen, married a wealthy local man but as outlined earlier, the marriage was disastrous and abusive. Over time, she did manage to overcome the dreadful situation she was in before engaging in the IT business world.
From these points of view, both had succeeded in meeting their social needs by furthering their ambitions, Elena, through her success as a writer and Lila, through her endeavour to work at the then little known subject of computer science. The differences in their lives were huge. Elena was able to travel and meet many different kinds of people in the academic and publishing arena. Lila, who foresaw the future in computers, never left her environment, but ensured that she kept up-to-date with all innovations linked to that world. With her partner she set up a business and became rich and powerful, albeit locally and not in a global sense.
The notion of esteem seemed unquestionable in Lila. She is not portrayed as having doubts or vulnerabilities others would have. In this way she seems otherworldly, not from this planet. Her overall demeanour is that she always knows best and does not depend on others for her opinions. She has confidence in her ability to do well in all issues and does not need others to tell her when she had done a good job.
Nevertheless she does seek attention that she feels it is owed to her. On one occasion she steals the limelight from Elena at a birthday party. Elena’s sister welcomed Elena to her home, a home she shared with one of the Solara brothers, Marcello. Elena and her husband had to be persuaded to attend as they did not choose to mix with Camorrists. Lila and her then husband Enzo arrived last at the party and received a big welcome. During the proceedings a speech was made for the mother of the Solaras, Manuela. This was a woman of great standing. A second tribute was made – this time for the presence of Lila. Elena was less than pleased about this.
‘I sought her gaze and she looked back for a fraction of a second, a look that said: Now do you understand the game? You remember how it works?’ [Michele, the man who had been infatuated with Lila turned to Elena and said] ‘You mustn’t be offended Lenu (Elena), you’re smart, you’ve gone so far, you’ve been in the newspapers, you’re the pride of us all who have known you since you were a child. But – and I’m sure you’ll agree, and you’ll be pleased if I say it now, because you love her – Lina (Lila) has something alive in her mind that no one else has, something strong that jumps here and there and nothing can stop it…’
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay 2104:333
Lila was able to deny others the chance to criticise her with any credibility, but this was not the case for Elena. Elena suffered with the thought that she was superfluous in her mother’s life. She was dependent on other people’s opinions of her and felt a constant comparison and inferiority to Lila. This sensitivity restricted her approach to complete success in her life and a nagging feeling of failure. Lila, however, reigned like a queen until the day her daughter disappeared. The pain of losing her and of failing to keep her safe was devastating and humiliating to Lila.
Humiliation – an obstacle to self-actualisation
Both women were humiliated by the same man – a character called Nino Sarratore – who, like his father, was a womaniser and unfaithful. Lila had a boy who was unintelligent. She felt he was like his father and it disappointed her that she could not reproduce herself. Her missing daughter had been very clever. Losing her brought about an overwhelming isolation and anger from others around her; this time she could not shed the comments and when she heard that she had been branded as a bad mother, it chilled her to the core. This kind of humiliation was never overcome properly and the experience of losing her daughter left Lila feeling like she was dissolving at the margins and by the end of the quartet, she, too, disappears forever.
Lila tried to overcome her pain by filling her time with meticulous research about Naples.
‘… I’m reading an old article in San Giovanni a Carbonara, where it explains what the carbonara or carboneto was. I thought that there was coal there once, and coal miners. But no, it was a place for the garbage, all cities have them. It was called Fosso Carbonario, dirty water ran in it, animal carcasses were tossed into it. And since ancient times the Fosso Carbonario of Naples was where the church of San Giovanni a Carbonara stands today.’
The Story of the Lost Child, 2015:446
Once Lila disappeared, Elena realised that to be free she had to leave Naples. In one written interview Ferrante says that she thinks there is no hope for the city, that it is finished, hopelessly corrupted and suffocated by a deeply embodied criminal-political-business system. This is akin to the thoughts of Elena in the novel, and Elena has to leave like the author had to leave Naples before her.
It is questionable whether or not Ferrante meant for this quartet of novels to be compared with Maslow, but it cannot be denied that the theme of betterment runs through this saga. It is in motion throughout and what is plain is that the women, friends for so long, seem also to be in competition with each other for it. Maybe it is the competition that keeps the bildungsrom alive?
As for her anonymity, we have a clue. In 2003, Ferrante was asked by Francesco Erbani why she, like Elena, left Naples. She replied:
‘I needed work and found it away from Naples. It was a great chance to get away; the city in which I was born seemed to me to have no possibility of redemption …over time this idea was reinforced. However, it’s not easy to free oneself from Naples. It remains in one’s gestures, words, and voice, even when one puts an ocean between oneself and the city.’
Ferrante, Interview in La Frantumaglia, 2007
In another interview Ferrante talked a little about how she started writing:
‘The most difficult achievement is the capacity to see oneself, to name oneself, to imagine oneself. If in daily life we use ideologies, common sense, religion and even literature to disguise our experiences and make them presentable, in fiction it’s possible to sweep away all the veils, in fact perhaps it’s an advantage.’
Ferrante, Interview in American Vogue, 2014
This is exactly what the author has done. She has written novels of searing honesty, raw, totally brutal, and reflected back to us our lives in a whole new way. She has written extraordinary tales of class, gender and politics in a modern world.
Sheila Mitchell is now retired. She was a college lecturer for 17 years, then a senior manager in local government working in equalities and training. For the last ten years of her working life she was a training consultant working predominantly in the public sector. She has teaching, counselling, coaching and HR qualifications, has been a feminist for 40 years and a lifelong reader of novels from all over the world.