Stumbling toward Selfhood: Tracking the Path of the Italian (American) Feminist in a Patriarchal World
Having discovered Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend two years after my own bildungsroman was published was more than just coincidence; it was validation. Three of my eight grandparents emigrated from Naples, Ferrante’s birthplace and the setting for My Brilliant Friend. The Neopolitans in my family were working class; they were a practical people whose sense of culture primarily consisted of the food they cooked and the crooners that hailed from that region of Italy. They favored business as a means of livelihood and were wary of education and making a living in the arts. Patriarchy was the predominant code by which they lived, from the church they worshipped in to how their families and businesses were structured. Some of these elements are apparent in my novel A Portal to Vibrancy and My Brilliant Friend. Throw a thinking, impressionable, precocious young girl into the mix, and you’ve got a story.
Both Lenu, from Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, and Jackie, from A Portal to Vibrancy, are thinking female protagonists who contend with patriarchal specters, crazy old women, and the influence of the tribe. They learn “how to be” not from their parents or pop culture, but by observing individuals within their own spheres, “model friends” who demonstrate not only talent, intelligence, and defiance, but a confidence they themselves strive to possess.
Lila is the brilliant friend Lenu is both intimidated and inspired by with respect to scholastic achievements, physical beauty, and reckless behavior. Jackie is awestruck by her counterpart Stephen, his unabashed disloyalty to his family, his fierce independence, his allegiance to his own creativity first and foremost. In the beginning chapters of both novels, both Lila and Stephen push the boundaries of what’s accepted, literally and figuratively. Lila made a teacher fall and hit her head; she threw rocks at boys and threatened one with a knife. Stephen listened to music that could be condemned as satanic; he contemplated slitting his sleeping father’s throat. Stephen lured Jackie to private property outside the neighborhood to swim in an abandoned pool, and Lila lured Lenu beyond the stradone, through the tunnel, and toward Vesuvius and the sea. Both had ulterior motives (according to the protagonists): Stephen to be sexual with Jackie and Lila to get Lenu in trouble with her parents so that they would forbid her to go to school. In these situations, there is not only the sudden rush of adventure and nonconformity, but also the question of trust. The fact that both Jackie and Lenu follow their model friends indicates their willingness to rebel from the conformity that they know despite whether they think their model friends are trustworthy or not.
Both novels feature “patriarchal specters,” male figures that loom big in the conscious minds of the protagonists, emphasizing the imperative of conformity. In My Brilliant Friend, the patriarchal specter is the well-respected Don Achille, a gangster and the unofficial patriarch of the neighborhood whom the girls were “forbidden to offend” and who “slithered,…shuffled among the indistinct shapes of things.” For Jackie, the patriarchal specter is her Great Uncle Alfonse, a psychiatrist to whom the family sends all of their troubled members; it is Great Uncle Alfonse who diagnoses Jackie’s grandmother as an agoraphobic. Both protagonists ultimately face their patriarchal specters. Lenu and Lila confront “the ogre of fairy tales” Don Achille for allegedly stealing their dolls, while Jackie goes to Great Uncle Alfonse when she is suffering from panic attacks. Both these specters serve to keep order in the tribe through fear and intimidation, be it intentional or just the interpretations of the protagonist. The fact that these protagonists face their specters is key, though. It shows courage and a willingness to find their own truths.
Male respect is a prominent value for both families. Jackie’s Uncle Joe, a recluse with a deformed foot, treats his niece like a peer when he needs a friend, but when Jackie goes against Uncle Joe’s wishes and asks for an application at the ice cream shop on his behalf, he chastises her for her embarrassing him, telling her she should have more “respect.” Lila and Rino collaborate on shoe designs for their father’s store, but despite Lila’s genius, it is Rino who ultimately becomes his father’s partner. At one point, Lila is demoted to the role of Rino’s housekeeper who should “serve him out of respect.”
Both Jackie’s and Lenu’s immediate families are basically unsupportive with respect to what these female protagonists pursue for themselves. Jackie has an interest in art, but her father steers her toward a more practical career in engineering. Lenu’s mother wants her daughter to leave school and help her with housework. In these instances there is a refusal on the part of the parent to acknowledge what the daughter intrinsically wants for herself. While it is true that Lenu’s situation is more dire due to her family’s poverty, there is still that patriarchal “I know what’s best for you philosophy.” There is not a modicum of insight on the part of either parent; the daughter’s natural indications, talents, and desires are not even acknowledged.
What Italian story would not be complete without the crazy woman character, the character who is always lingering in the back of the protagonist’s mind as a reminder of her own possible fate? The crazy woman in My Brilliant Friend is Melina, Lila’s distant relative who fights a neighbor for the love of her husband, eats soap, and is rumored to have killed the child she had with her lover. In a Portal to Vibrancy, Grandma Gracie is the hypochondriac agoraphobic who has x-rays while pregnant resulting in a son with a deformity. Jackie’s connection to Grandma Gracie is more pronounced: after experiencing severe anxiety, she believes she is inheriting “the fear disease” and sets out to cure her grandmother as a way of curing herself. It is Lila, however, who favors and defends Melina, and also suffers anxiety/existential angst in the form of “dissolving margins.” These anxious interludes can be attributed to not only a lack of confidence, given the patriarchal decrees of society, but also an indication of an intelligence/creativity that has not been fully realized.
Both protagonists have model artists they aspire to become: for Lenu, it is Donato Sarratore, the railroad poet/journalist who leaves the neighborhood and publishes a book. For Jackie, it is the painter Gustav Klimt. The creative and intellectual existences these model artists have/had in the minds of the protagonists are what they aspire for themselves and directly contradict what the tribe wants for them: a practical existence, marriage.
Both protagonists fall deeply in love with “irreverent intellectuals” in hopes that these young men will accompany them on their paths to selfhood, even show them the way. When Stephen re-enters Jackie’s life as a young man, he switches from model friend to irreverent intellectual; he informs Jackie of his philosophies regarding drugs, depression, and the cosmos, and Jackie falls deeper in love with him. Lenu falls in love with Nino, a disgruntled academic who dates a respected teacher’s daughter and edits a scholarly magazine. These irreverent intellectuals clearly have ideas contrary to those of the tribe: neither believes in commitment and respects his father. They see the tribe as ignorant, petty, and irrelevant. The protagonists who love them seek what they have—confidence, the impetus necessary to reach one’s dreams, yet both are aware of their dependencies and their beloved’s flaws. Ferrante writes:
So there he was, in the church square, the young Sarratore, completely out of place in his shabby old clothes, too tall, too thin, hair too long and uncombed, hands sunk too deep in the pockets of his trousers, wearing the expression of one who doesn’t know what to do with himself.
This can be easily compared to a description of Stephen in A Portal to Vibrancy:
I look at Stephen and he seems disheveled, as if he’s just been tussling with someone in a fight; his shirt is coming untucked from his pants, he’s got one sleeve in a cuff, the other one falling down, unbuttoned…Stephen looks at the program, starts tapping quietly at his knees, drumming to a song in his head. God forbid he listen to anything the priest says, about love, about how if you have no love, you have nothing,
Both protagonists become irreverent themselves and challenge the dogma of the Catholic Church. Lenu challenges her religion teacher directly by claiming that “the human condition was so obviously exposed to the blind fury of chance that to trust in a God, a Jesus, the Holy Spirit…was the same thing as collecting trading cards while the city burns in the fires of hell.” Jackie returns to the church in a state of depression and sarcastically deems it obsolete and brutal: “There’s a man up on a throne looking at this shoes, there’s a dangling god, there’s a dusty book with even dustier words. There’s a series of reliefs, the story of another man being pummeled into the ground by a cross, and the same man with his palms open so other men pound nails into his flesh. People call this a sanctuary.”
The final scenes of both books include weddings, the tribe’s desired outcome for their young women (this is especially evident with Lila who is absolutely not permitted to become a scholar and cornered into a marriage with Achille’s son). Although the weddings are not for the protagonists, they are places for them to observe the tribe and assess their connections to it, how they are bound to it. Both Lenu and Jackie seek out their respective irreverent intellectuals to escape, but their beloveds ultimately desert them. They are left behind, incomplete, and wondering what to do next.
They have the clues within themselves, however: to seek exile, or, “a room of her own.” Lenu seeks exile on the island of Ischia (and later Pisa when she attends university) where she studies, reads, and has a sense of autonomy; Ischia gives her a breathing space away from the tribe where she can process her life. Jackie seeks exile by moving out, finding her own apartment where she can exercise her creativity when and how she wants. This is the beginning of the true path, the path to selfhood.
The plot lines of both books do differ, however, on the grand scale. Jackie lives in a small suburb of Worcester and comes of age in the 1980s, a time when it is acceptable for a woman to educate herself, while Lenu is from Naples, Italy and comes of age in the 1950s, when it clearly is not. Lenu comes from abject poverty and Jackie does not. Jackie is encouraged to become educated by her father, but it is on his terms, whereas Lenu, and especially Lila, have to fight tooth and nail to better themselves with books. Lenu lives in a neighborhood with rampant crime and violence. Jackie does not face these outer obstacles; instead, the violence exists in her head when she debates her demons in regards to whether she should kill herself or not. Most importantly, the oppression in My Brilliant Friend –of women, men, girls, boys, anyone uneducated and poor—is palpable.
Whether the treacherous landscape be internal or external, both protagonists eventually navigate through them with the courage of survivors and achieve selfhoods more appropriate for who they intrinsically are.
Laurette Folk received a semifinalist nomination and “Noted Writer” award from the Boston Fiction Festival and has been published in upstreet, The Boston Globe Magazine, Literary Mama, Narrative Northeast, Italian Americana, and Talking Writing among others Ms. Folk is a graduate of the Vermont College MFA in Writing program and teaches at North Shore Community College.