Elena Ferrante and ‘writing against’ a male literary tradition

Women’s self-discovery process cannot be adapted to a man’s model.” [1]

Written by Stefania Frustagli

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Illustrated by Maia Abayomi 

In the early stages of her writing life, Elena Ferrante considered her female nature a hindrance to her creative expression. “For a woman who has something to say,” she asked herself, “does it really take a miracle to dissolve the margins within which nature has enclosed her and show herself in her own words to the world?” [2]. In her lecture, Ferrante discusses how much the male literary tradition has shaped, restrained women’s writing, and how she tries to overcome this. Ferrante also mentions this theme in an interview where she states, “Nobody (…) is the true name, perhaps, of any woman who writes, since she writes from within an essentially male tradition.” [3]. 

My Brilliant Friend‘s narrator, Elena Greco (Lenù to her friends), echoes Ferrante’s perception and its consequences: “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; I had done it, I was doing it.” [4]. It is the 1970s in a tumultuous Italy: a time of terrorism, student protests, and feminist movements. Elena is a young woman, a novice writer, married with two children, when a new perspective dawns on her. The realisation comes in a raging eruption: “Spit on Hegel. Spit on the culture of men, spit on Marx, on Engels, on Lenin. (…) And on marriage, on family. (…) And on all the manifestations of patriarchal culture. And on all its institutional forms. Resist the waste of female intelligence. (…) Restore women to themselves. (…)” [5]. The character is referring to Italian writer Carla Lonzi’s feminist essay, Let’s spit on Hegel. This rupture leads to an understanding: “I worked so hard on books, but I endured them, I never actually used them, I never turned them against themselves. This is thinking against.” [5]

When reading Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the most historical and political book among Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, I was hit by the same realization. I began to see the literature I studied at university, all the classics I read for pleasure, in a new light. All those books were written by men and the female characters I admired were their creations. Was their representation authentic? They portrayed women based on their own desires and understandings, but what did they really know? Although I do not believe a writer’s insight is limited to what they experience, I asked myself: how could men give justice to a woman’s truth? What is a woman’s truth? What does it mean for a woman to find her own authentic voice?

As a female literature student at the University of Milan, I never considered freeing myself from the male literary burden or spitting on the intellectuals I studied. I was shaped by male literary traditions without even realising it. I have only recently begun to realise how much I have endured and internalised what I would now name sexism; it not only shaped me, but also social dynamics I was unaware of. Over the last few years, in Italy, many women (I am particularly grateful to writer Michela Murgia [6]) have been raising awareness around such themes. Professor Daniela Brogi has recently published an essay exploring how women have been marginalised, forgotten, and ignored throughout history: “The gamble for women’s space was and remains this: to rethink and rebuild the experience and history of women by starting with their literature.” [7] In “Lo spazio delle donne”, Brogi observes that female writers tend to draw attention not just to themselves individually, but to the collective for the sake of “love of the world”, as Hannah Arendt would say. [9] A similar pattern is recognised by Hélène Cixous: “[woman’s] libido is cosmic, just as her unconsciousness is worldwide: her writing also can only go on and on, without even inscribing or distinguishing contours.” [9]

Brogi further notes how our female “ancestors” share a common trait: a sense of belonging and solidarity, aimed at their emancipation. However, this is not enough. As writers reinvent the world, female writers must also reinvent themselves. In Ferrante’s tetralogy, Lenù’s novel, featuring a sex scene between a young girl and an adult man, creates scandal. A character’s acquaintance approaches her: “I read your book (…), how brave you were to write (…) the things you do on the beach.” Lenù replies that it’s not her but the character. “Yes, but you wrote them really well, Lenù, just the way it happens, with the same filthiness. They are secrets that you know only if you are a woman.” [10] While it was an individual episode, it also seemed a common experience to all women. In the “filthiness” of the story, the interlocutor recognises her own experience of filthiness. [11] A similar comment comes from the other brilliant friend. “Dirty stuff ended up in there,” Lila says, “stuff that men don’t want to hear and women know but are afraid to say.” [12] The feeling of filthiness appears like a shared destiny: a resigned acceptance of a passive role; a sense of shame; an acknowledgement of something inevitable; the acceptance of sexual interaction driven by men’s pleasure – violence. These are intimate aspects that a man cannot access and, perhaps, does not want to.

This may answer my question about whether a man can give a woman an authentic voice. However, how can women find a voice that is authentic to them, free from literary conventions? Women must first acknowledge that they write within a male tradition. Only by understanding and facing this implication, women can find a way of writing that is truly their own. [3] Authenticity may necessitate breaking through the boundaries imposed by others – what men expect women to be, and what women believe they should be. Brogi discusses how women have been subjected to systematic annihilation throughout history. As a result, they despise themselves and strive to look like men: these dynamics are present today and they unconsciously and consciously continue to shape women’s thoughts and language. [13]

The impact of the standard literary canon on women writers (and not only women) is hugely underestimated. The male narrative must be questioned to “dismantle a chauvinist symbolic system.”[14] Ferrante’s words sounds like a necessity: “I wish that all women who want to write had a common practice of disruptive writing, which tries to impact a tremor to all forms, and describes that tremor, the chaos it causes, the compositions it decomposes, and the effort of totally redrawing the meanings of history and of all stories.” [15] As Brogi explains, this means dismantling patriarchy and engaging in dialogue with the culture that colonised women. Established layouts and styles must be rethought from a new perspective. [16] It does not take a miracle, only effort and audacity to challenge limitations. This is one direction academic studies should take when discussing genres. Women must analyse the context and the language, comprehend, and reclaim it: deconstructing or getting rid of this cultural baggage, while taking into account its immense impact.

Notes and works cited

[1] Carla Lonzi. Sputiamo su Hegel; La Donna Clitoridea e la Donna Vaginale. Gammalibri. 1982. (p.14) (My translation)

[2] Ferrante, Elena. In the Margins. On the Pleasure of Reading and Writing. Europa editions, 2022.

[3] The concept is explained as follows: “We try to use the specificity of writing as best we can. We dip into the resources stored in the age-old warehouse of literature. (…) But they hardly belong to us. Thus, if we’re honest, we’ll go painfully beyond the margins to collide with the other, and beyond the margins search, with outsize ambition, time and again, for our names. But we’re not interested in having a name, in making a name for ourselves” Ferrante concludes, “we’re interested in giving a name, in having our writing become truly ours.” This comes from an interview with writer Elizabeth Strout: ‘I felt different as a child. I was nearly mute’: Elena Ferrante in conversation with Elizabeth Strout. The Guardian. 5 Mar 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/mar/05/i-felt-different-as-a-child-i-was-nearly-mute-elena-ferrante-in-conversation-with-elizabeth-strout
Unfortunately, Strout’s thoughts on this specific topic are not discussed in the interview. 

[4] Ferrante, Elena. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. First publications 2014 by Europa Editions.

[5] —.  Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Europa Editions, 2014. (p.280-281)

[6] Michela Murgia will not be discussed here since it does not fit into my article’s scope. Nevertheless, I want to mention her because she has been a major influence on me as well as the recent feminist surge in Italy. I would not be discussing these topics if I had not listened to her podcast Morgana during lockdown, and read her book Stai Zitta e Altre Nove Frasi Che Non Vogliamo Sentire Più” (“Shut up and Other Nine Sentences We Do not Want to Hear Anymore”).

[7] Brogi, Daniela. Lo Spazio delle Donne. (p.155). All translations in the article are my own.

[8] —. Lo Spazio delle Donne. Giulio Einaudi Editore. 2022. (p.28)

[9] Cixous, Hélèn; Clément, Catherine. The Newly Born Woman. University of Minnesota Press. 1986. Translation by Betsy Wing.

[10] Ferrante, Elena. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. First publications 2014 by Europa editions. (p. 90)

[11] —. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. First publications 2014 by Europa editions. (p.91)

[12] —. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. First publications 2014 by Europa editions. (p.175)

[13] An in-depth analysis of these concepts is provided by Daniela Brogi in her essay.

[14] Brogi, Daniela. Lo Spazio delle Donne. . Giulio Einaudi Editore, 2022  (p.159)

[15] Ferrante, Elena. In the Margins. On the Pleasure of Reading and Writing. Europa editions, 2022

[17] Brogi, Daniela. Lo Spazio delle Donne. Giulio Einaudi Editore, 2022, (p.136)

Stefania Frustagli graduated in Italian literature from the University of Milan with a dissertation on Italian poet Giorgio Caproni’s use of language ambiguity. She is fascinated by how powerful yet fallacious words can be. In recent years, she has gained interest in women’s issues and sexism. She pursued a diploma from the London School of Journalism to combine her passion for writing with her commitment to social justice, as she sees journalism as a way to raise social awareness. Follow her on Twitter @stefaniafru.

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