Rewriting the Aeneid in the Neapolitan Novels
The acclaimed series of novels known as the Neapolitan Quartet traces the long, complex friendship between two women, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, as they come of age against the backdrop of Naples, Italy. Elena Ferrante, their pseudonymous — though controversially unmasked — creator, studied Classics and admits to the presence of its “traces” in her work.
One ancient text that has left a deep imprint in these novels is the Aeneid, especially Dido, the Carthaginian queen who has an affair with the titular hero, Aeneas. Elena, the narrator, recalls how the teenage Lila quickly devoured the epic:
She talked in great detail about Dido, a figure I knew nothing about, I heard that name for the first time not at school but from her. And one afternoon she made an observation that impressed me deeply. She said, “When there is no love, not only the life of the people becomes sterile but the life of cities.”
When Elena then states that “people will fall in love” with Lila and “suffer like that Dido,” Lila counters, “No, they’ll go and find someone else, just like Aeneas, who eventually settled down with the daughter of a king.”
This conversation so affects Elena that she later writes a high school paper and university thesis on the Dido episode. But it also speaks volumes about how Ferrante has written Vergil’s epic into her feminist tale and suggests valuable ways of reading the Aeneid.
Ferrante upends the long tradition of male-focused epic by populating the center of her magnum opus with women and courting them as readers. Even the book covers of the U.S. editions present unapologetic images of femininity that recall books marketed to women. Some have regarded these covers as incompatible with Ferrante’s literary (i.e. “masculine”) aspirations, but her fiction defiantly refuses to dress itself up for the reading male eye. Lila’s reading of the Aeneid illuminates and affirms Ferrante’s marked orientation toward women, and in this Lila differs strikingly from Elena, who readily transforms herself to appeal to men.
A repeated proposition in the Aeneid is that amor (“love”), both feminine and feminizing, impairs the male sphere of labor (“work”). As Dido succumbs to erotic desire her urban project halts: “the towers, begun, cease to rise (non coeptae adsurgunt turres, 4.86).” Lila inverts this idea, making amor the enlivening force without which the masculine space of the city is sterile.
It is unsurprising that an impoverished girl would read the Aeneid differently from Vergil’s original elite male audience. Lila, like Dido, inhabits a world designed to exclude her, but to her it is women’s domain where men occupy the periphery. For her, Dido is not an obstacle blocking the male hero but the epic’s vibrant center, and Aeneas matters only insofar as he affects her. Assessing one of many love triangles between a man and two women (which Aeneas, Dido, and Lavinia foreshadow), Elena rightly observes, “The boy had had scant importance in that story.”
Despite the masculine violence of its streets, the Neapolitan neighborhood Lila and Elena inhabit, seen through their eyes, is a markedly feminine, apolitical space focused on the domestic upheavals of private life. Its women, from the heartbroken widow Melina to the trans woman Alfonso, teem with dynamic energy. Lila in particular becomes the neighborhood’s vital, female center and blooms within its borders.
Elena, who becomes a successful author, finds the neighborhood and her gender confining. She instead studies subjects that unlock male spaces, mimics the masculine language of politics, and imitates the dress of women who marry elite men. She thus manufactures herself using “tools perfected by men” to elicit their admiring gaze: “No one knew better than I did what it meant to make your own head masculine so that it would be accepted by the culture of men.” The result is a contrived identity devoid of the innate creativity that Lila locates in women.
Elena only gradually repudiates her privileging of the masculine. The character that initially elicits Elena’s strongest disgust is her mother, whose marked limp suggests fixity within her private, female domain. Pregnancy-induced sciatica leaves Elena herself with a telling limp, which she first loathes but later describes as a “pleasingly distinctive gait.” In the end, social distinction comes only through reincorporating the feminine into herself, and it will be granted to her not by men, but by the women who constitute the majority of her readers.
Like Elena, Vergil’s Aeneas rejects the feminine as he remakes himself as a hero of pietas (“duty”) toward the public interests of Rome. As he proceeds from Troy to Italy, he divests himself of his personal desires, especially when they elicit in him the “feminine” qualities of love and rage. These are forces instead to be kept in check through masculine imperium, “command” or “power.”
Elena too conceives of rage, which is fundamentally a response to powerlessness, as feminine. Angrily confronting a lover’s infidelity, she ponders, “Am I always this furious other … I, who if I could would kill this man, plunge a knife into his heart with all my strength? Should I restrain this shadow — my mother, all our female ancestors?”
Neither Elena nor Aeneas ultimately restrains the shadow of the feminine. Aeneas submits to fury as war embroils him in the epic’s second half, and he perpetrates death with gruesome impiety. Lila’s reading in fact prioritizes this furious Aeneas, whose moral ambiguity disquiets readers and undermines the easy simplicity of a pious hero. “Dutiful Aeneas,” barren of feminine energy, is to Lila something of a sterile figure, easily overlooked in favor of the enraged Dido, the victim of Aeneas’s pietas.
Class is another theme of the novels articulated in Lila and Elena’s exchange about the Aeneid. Here Aeneas replaces Dido with the more marriageable Lavinia, a king’s daughter. Elena undertakes a project of self-fashioning to become an elite Lavinia-figure suitable for the ambitious Nino, for whose love Lila is her chief rival. But Elena is also Aeneas, who forges new social identity through marriage. The Aeneid is thus recast as a journey up the social ladder.
An education centered on Classical languages, historically the province of the elite, provides the first step up. Though initially Lila also studies Latin and goes on to teach herself some Greek, her formal education is abruptly halted at the end of the fifth grade. Elena, however, achieves a university education, graduating with a degree in Classics and marrying a Classics professor, Pietro, whom she likens to a “boundary stone” into elite society.
Elena’s ascent out of the social underworld of the neighborhood parallels Aeneas’s trip back from the land of the dead, which likewise occurred in the Neapolitan outskirts. The neighborhood is accessed through a tunnel on the stradone that runs through it, which evokes the tunnels around the Bay of Naples thought to be entrances to hell.
It is not until fifth grade — after which their paths fork most decisively — that Lila and Elena first sneak through the tunnel. Whereas Elena longs to walk all the way to the sea, fear strikes Lila, turning them back. She later confesses to Elena, “The better and truer you feel, the farther away you go. If I merely pass through the tunnel of the stradone, I’m scared.” Lila, unlike Elena, is at home among the shades of the neighborhood, within the confines of her class.
For Elena the neighborhood is increasingly inhabited by the phantoms of her youth, “the ghosts of [her] girlhood,” with the tunnel opening a door into a past world. To proceed, Elena must reckon with this past. In the final novel, she returns to live in the neighborhood in order to draw on it for inspiration, making it subject matter for her writing: “What before was dragging me down was now the material for climbing higher.” Elena imagines that by claiming authorial control over her past she can surpass it and use it as a springboard into greater success.
For Aeneas too the underworld presents an opportunity to transcend his history: Troy, his father, and Dido. The Aeneas that emerges is in some ways a man reborn, shed in particular of the Greek epic past, his Odyssean wanderings and Achillean wrath. To quote R.D. Williams, “Here in Book 6 …he takes his final leave of the Trojan and Homeric past and turns towards the Roman future.” This Aeneas is ready to found an empire.
The epic’s second half, however, reveals a more complex story. The final image is of Aeneas in full Achillean rage, reclaiming the fury he reluctantly gave up as Troy fell. His story ends with him embodying the Greek literary past, which itself may be lurking behind Elena’s surname of “Greco.” The past will never stop exerting itself on the stories of Elena and Aeneas. It haunts them, especially the ghosts of Lila and Dido, whom they can never fully abandon.
The strongest thematic contact between the Aeneid and the Neapolitan Novels is abandonment. Aeneas’s most significant act to Lila and Elena is his desertion of Dido for another. Mutual romantic devotion is likewise excluded from Ferrante’s novels: Elena leaves Antonio; Lila leaves Stefano; Nino leaves Lila; Elena leaves Pietro; Elena leaves Nino.
These are not ultimately the desertions that give Ferrante’s story emotional weight. The more poignant moments come when women — mothers, daughters, friends — abandon each other, and these grow ever more grueling as we proceed. The permanent estrangement between Lila and Elena unfolds slowly as a long series of fissures places increasingly greater distance between them. As the years pass, Elena simply knows less and less about Lila.
Lila’s reading of the Aeneid explicitly invites comparison of herself and Dido. She, like Dido, holds enormous promise, and Elena assigns her an almost mythical presence. Like Dido’s Carthage, the neighborhood prospers under Lila’s care — every enterprise in which she involves herself flourishes, from Stefano’s grocery to her computer business with Enzo. But Lila’s promise, also like Dido’s, is stifled until she becomes a figure of tragic loss. Whereas Dido’s tragedy springs from erotic abandonment, Lila’s comes when Tina, her beloved four-year-old daughter, simply disappears.
This loss produces indescribable grief in Lila. Her mind becomes an “inferno,” and she transforms into a wraith haunting the streets of the neighborhood. Lila’s grief turns the neighborhood into Fields of Mourning, the realm of the underworld Dido inhabits in Aeneid 6. When Elena unforgivably uses Tina’s disappearance as literary subject matter, Lila herself vanishes.
Elena’s only recourse after Lila’s disappearance is to write the story of her friend in an attempt to un-silence her. When one reaches the final page, it is clear that Elena will never stop narrating Lila, fleshing out someone she likens to a disembodied voice or an empty sleeve. Lila’s silence, which parallels Ferrante’s own desire to be unknown, constitutes a refusal to be living material subject to another’s authorial control. It is her way of taking over her own narration.
Dido similarly refuses to be subjected to the narrative control of others. After being used so terribly by fate, the gods, even Vergil, Dido chooses suicide in order to regain agency over herself — her death is nec fato (“unfated,” 4.696) and ante diem (“premature,” 4.697). The silent disregard she directs towards Aeneas in the underworld makes her inscrutable, not subject to clear narration. Her silence puts her beyond even Vergil’s reckoning.
Whose imitation of the Aeneid is this? Most obviously it is Ferrante’s, who has disclosed her prodigious reworking of earlier literature. But within the novels Lila first makes this contact with the Aeneid, whereupon Elena as narrator expands it and maps it onto their lives. After being praised for her high school paper on Dido, Elena asks herself, “That idea of the city without love … hadn’t it come to me from Lila, even if I had developed it, with my own ability?”
Elena similarly takes up Lila’s narrative cue when she reworks as her first novel Lila’s own childhood story, The Blue Fairy. Its plot is not described, but the title alludes to the magical fairy of Pinocchio, a classic Pygmalion-themed story about art’s power to invent identity. This is a formative story for Elena, who incorporates this theme into her writing and makes self-fashioning a central feature of her life. Elena in fact finds it so impossible to create without Lila’s influence that she sees herself as Lila’s invention. Elena’s panic over Lila’s disappearance is that of an artist deprived of inspiration.
What would this story look like as told by Lila? Certainly nothing like the Aeneid with its forward momentum toward a defined goal. To Lila life is incompatible with narratives that move along a linear path. For her, the boundaries of people, time, and place are subject to unpredictable dissolution, a phenomenon she calls “dissolving boundaries.” “Everything moves,” she says. Whereas Elena constructs a narrative of progress for herself, Lila’s recreations are Protean: “Lila the shoemaker, Lila who imitated Kennedy’s wife, Lila the artist and designer, Lila the worker, Lila the programmer, Lila always in the same place and always out of place.”
After Tina’s disappearance Lila becomes obsessed with the origins of Naples:
In the Neapolitan facts as she recounted them there was always something terrible, disorderly, at the origin, which later took the form of a beautiful building, a street, a monument, only to be forgotten, to lose meaning, to decline, improve, decline, according to an ebb and flow that was by its nature unpredictable.
In her focus on origins, change, and dissolution, Lila is Ovidian. Lila’s narrative tendencies are so different from Elena’s that, when she rereads her long narrative to see if Lila has tampered with it, she confesses that “these pages are mine alone” and “Lila is not in these words.”
Elena’s stated purpose in writing is to give Lila “a form whose boundaries won’t dissolve,” i.e. to impose authorial control on her friend. But Lila keeps a final narrative trick up her sleeve that affixes an unresolved, open ending to Elena’s grand text. She sends her a package containing their childhood dolls, the story of whose loss opened the first book. The end of Elena’s story thus merges with the beginning, and the tale of their friendship now plays on a repeating loop that undermines its linear structure. Lila effectively dissolves the boundaries of Elena’s text.
Dido too upends the forward momentum of the Aeneid by reverberating across its second half. Allecto infuriates Turnus and Amata, replaying Cupid’s shooting of Dido; Camilla is dressed as a new Dido; Turnus is like a wounded Carthaginian lion, recalling Dido’s erotic wound; Pallas’s corpse is wrapped in a tunic woven by Dido. Vergil cannot desert her, and the narrative loops us constantly back to her. Turnus’s death reiterates, like Camilla’s before him, Dido’s demise, and we follow him in the last line sub umbras, “to the shades below,” where Dido resides. This famously ambiguous ending refuses the closure Vergil’s linear narrative invites us to expect.
The Aeneid and the Neapolitan novels question whether anyone can forge a new identity that transcends one’s birth, origins, or past. Art instead captures the process of becoming, how we fold our past selves into our present moment, and how this repeats across a lifetime. Both works have an open ending because life affords no moments of illuminating closure, no promise of authorial control. Having come so far, Elena and Aeneas end up largely where they began, though no less transformed because of this.
Stephanie McCarter is an Associate Professor of Classics at Sewanee: The University of the South. She is the author of Horace between Freedom and Slavery: The First Book of Epistles (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015) and has an article forthcoming in Classical Philology on humor in Vergil’s Georgics.