Thirty years ago, Elena Ferrante made her literary debut with Troubling Love, presenting a vision of female subjectivity based upon a renegotiation of women’s relationships to one another, their bodies, and the patriarchal space of the city. In the intervening years, Ferrante has published several more acclaimed novels and has also revealed herself as an accomplished essayist and correspondent: as a thinker and a chronicler of contemporary life, in other words, as much as a writer of literary fiction.
The new volume, In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing (2022), is the culmination of some of this thought and of decades of narrative enterprise. It is comprised of four essays dedicated to Ferrante’s formation as a reader and a writer, three of which are the texts of her Umberto Eco Lectures (Bologna, November 17–19 2021) where Manuela Mandracchia appeared in the role of Elena Ferrante. The last essay was composed as a keynote speech for the 2021 Convegno Dante e altri classici and was originally delivered by Ferrante scholar Tiziana de Rogatis. The short collection has been rendered into English by Ann Goldstein, whose formidable translations of—to name but a few—Ferrante, Primo Levi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Elsa Morante have earned her global recognition.
In the first essay, “Pain and Pen,” Ferrante describes the coexistence within her of two kinds of writing, one “compliant” and the other “impetuous.” The first kind contains itself firmly within the margins of the page, respects grammar and the consensus on good literary form, and guarantees the praise of authority figures: it complies, bending itself to the will of others and to the standards of a male canon which often marginalizes or sensationalizes the woman writer. The other kind of writing is wild, overspilling the lines and refusing to abide by any standards of form: this is a “writing beyond the margins” which rages like an irrepressible bodily force, “strong only in its own vehemence” (29). This latter writing contains within it a tantalizing possibility: that of uniting the pen with the pain of women’s historic marginalization.
This marriage of pain and pen is possible only in the briefest of moments: the impetuous kind of writing (like the frantumaglia which manifests, destabilizes, and then departs) vanishes as quickly as it appears, leaving the writer empty, disappointed. Nevertheless, the short-lived presence of the “writing outside the margin” makes an indelible mark on the work. Compliant writing, though in one sense an enemy of true narrative representation, is nourished by its impetuous counterpart, but is also capable of turning illegible disorder and flux into the work of “a prudent, perhaps timid… producer of pages” (33). Though this is an uneasy relationship, containing an imbalance of power and failing to blow open the “cage” of ruled margins, it is a relationship which allows the female writer, to borrow the words of Bathsheba Everdene in Far From the Madding Crowd, to “define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” Or, perhaps, as Irigaray (1981) wrote of mothers and daughters, we might say of compliant and impetuous pens that “the one doesn’t stir without the other.”
After this initial emphasis on Ferrante’s at times compliant and at times impetuous literary endeavors, the genesis of the Neapolitan Quartet is traced back to literary works authored by women. Throughout the essays, Ferrante inscribes herself in a female genealogy that spans different continents, genres, and epochs: we learn that a poem by Emily Dickinson inspired the figure of Elena Greco, that Gertude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas illuminated the relationship between Lila and Lenù, and that the theories of “intersubjective narration” and entrustment set forth respectively by Adriana Cavarero and the Libreria delle Donne Collective in Milan inspired the concept of the “reciprocal and necessary other” (77) that is at the heart of My Brilliant Friend. In the Margins is a paean to those women of letters who defied literary and social conventions, emboldening Ferrante to wield her pen with fearlessness.
Prominent among them are the poets Gaspara Stampa and Emily Dickinson. A self-proclaimed “low and abject woman,” Stampa’s reputation was threatened by affairs with married men, which she then immortalized in her sophisticated amorous verses, collected in the Rime of 1554. Although Stampa was not an isolated prodigy but rather part of a forgotten tradition of female writing in sixteenth-century Italy, for Ferrante the Renaissance poet is the symbol of women’s solitary struggle to inscribe themselves within the canon. In Stampa, Ferrante identifies a fellow traveler along the road to a female language: as Stampa discovers and Ferrante confirms, the female pen, obliged to work within a masculine domain, must engage in a supremely bold undertaking to bypass that same tradition. Stampa’s voice bursts forth searching for a new kind of writing, not produced by or for men, that will become “a means of having her say” (33) in a narrative outpouring which binds up a woman’s sometimes incommunicable pain with the representational function of her pen.
In contrast, Emily Dickinson stands for the feminist potential of invisibility, absence, and refusal. Like Ferrante, who adopted a pseudonym to resist the cult of personality generated by the publishing industry, Dickinson shunned the society of spectacle, writing that “Publication – is the Auction/Of the Mind” and developing her own form of circulation through correspondence. Her lyrics, written on fragments of paper, violated all boundaries and rhythmic constraints: her words unfolded in unpredictable directions, her punctuation was unorthodox. In the different approaches to literature exemplified by Stampa and Dickinson we find echoes of the ambivalence that characterizes Ferrante’s own work. As she avoids the limelight like Dickinson, Ferrante breaks the rules, daring to write an epic saga that follows the tempestuous friendship between two women from the aftermath of World War II to the new millennium. At the same time, following Gaspara Stampa’s example, Ferrante has repeatedly urged women to challenge the male-dominated literary establishment, asserting that “the female story, told with increasing skill, increasingly widespread and unapologetic, is what must now assume power” (“A Power of Our Own,” New York Times).
Part of what makes Ferrante’s work daring is her pursuit of a “female language,” nourished and emboldened by a female literary tradition and capable of describing women’s experiences with truth and authenticity. In particular, the essays “Acquamarine” and “History, I” join in a long debate initiated by Virginia Woolf, who observed in Women and Fiction (1929) that the very form of the sentence does not fit the female writer. Women, Ferrante suggests, following Hélène Cixous (1976), must write their own language to unearth their own truth. Like the Neapolitan Quartet’s narrator, who struggles to feel at home in a tongue that remains the preserve of men, Ferrante perceives “an excess leaking out, for which a special container is needed” (78) as soon as she puts pen to paper. Hence, the author’s desire to weave a liberating, bewitched, and bewitching tongue that will lift women out of their well of subalternity. In her pursuit of an escape out of silencing, Ferrante turns to the magical figure of the witch, who becomes the emblem of a feminist poetics.
As Silvia Federici notes in Caliban and the Witch, historically “the witch was the rebel woman who talked back, argued, swore, and did not cry under torture” (184). Witches dwell in the margins of society and of language—these cracks are marred by violence and oppression, but they can also be, for Ferrante as for bell hooks, a profound space of radical openness where reality can be transformed. According to Federici, the witch has become a symbol of anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, and anti-patriarchal resistance, “wicked” because she struggles against hegemonic control in all of its forms.
In the Neapolitan Quartet, Lila Cerullo embodies this rebellious, wild force: she is the trickster and the shapeshifter, the “witch friend” (66) who is accused of infernal misdeeds. Lila possesses the mischievous vitality, prodigious genius, and incendiary, bewitched tongue that Elena Ferrante, as much as Elena Greco, seeks throughout her life. This bewitched and bewitching tongue, Ferrante suggests, is a spell against patriarchal oppression. As Ferrante confesses in In the Margins, in her “longing to write” (21) she summons this wayward impulse, seizing the witch’s unruliness: she conjures coherent worlds through acquiescent words, only to frantically rip them apart. The riotous magic of the witch electrifies her texts with a “convulsive, disintegrating type of writing, which produces oxymorons, ugly-beautiful, beautiful-ugly, and spreads inconsistencies and contradictions,” which dissolves the margins between past and present, mothers and daughters, and “transforms the poison of female suffering into a real poison” (51).
Continuing the theme of women’s conceptualization and entrapment within male frameworks, in the final essay, “Dante’s Rib,” Ferrante dwells on her relationship to one of the pillars of Italian literary history: Dante Alighieri and his Commedia. This is significant because it confirms Ferrante’s rich and sometimes underplayed engagement with the predominantly male Italian canon, alongside the oft-noted debt to literary mothers such as Elsa Morante (Lucamante 2008). In addition to Dante, In the Margins displays manifold intertextual engagement with male writers, including Svevo and Beckett.
Here, Ferrante reprises another theme parsed in the Neapolitan novels: her discomfort with the account in Genesis 2 of woman’s creation from man’s rib. “Dante’s Rib,” though it departs from this premise, is not a study of doctrine; rather, Ferrante uses the woman’s secondary position in the order of created beings to discuss the construction of “woman” by the male poet as a pervasive trend in literary history. At stake is the woman’s dependence on man to author her subjectivity, against which Ferrante has written since the 1990s.
In keeping with Ferrante’s notion that women should not only engage with the canon but revise and re-present it, the main focus of her essay is not Dante himself, but the figure of Beatrice, the pilgrim’s guide and beloved. Beatrice is the object of the subject Dante’s admiration and devotion. As the Lord God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, so Beatrice receives the breath of life from the pen of the poet. Nevertheless, though Beatrice is the creation of Dante and in some sense subordinated to his will (compliant), Ferrante believes that she is a more complete literary creation than many others—a beautiful and reverent monument, modeled after the female mystics and the tradition of women’s theological excellence, after “what is possible for women” (110). As of that other creation: “Indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). The reading of Dante which Ferrante provides is therefore an ambiguous one, blending the poet’s blindness with his insight.
In that Elena Ferrante is both a realist and a consummate writer of the human condition, we might note that she always makes space, within her thought and its narrative outworking, for the collapse of ideals and for the acknowledgment of persistent obstacles to feminine collaboration and creativity. In this new collection, Ferrante is careful to qualify that though Elena and Lila are an embodiment of the Italian feminist practice of entrustment, their dynamic also demonstrates the persistence of patriarchy. The Neapolitan novels are an entwinement of one woman’s subjectivity with another which is, in its proximity to the unstable shape which real lived relationships often take, “less edifying” (57) than the example of Amalia and Emilia provided by Cavarero.
Male writers and characters fail too, of course, in the quest for authentic self-expression and for a narrative which will contain and represent the world. As Ferrante concludes of Dante: “It seemed to me that even when Dante emphasized his successes, he couldn’t avoid the idea that encasing human experience in the alphabet is an art susceptible to searing disappointments” (93). Thus Dante and Elena Ferrante’s predicament is in a broad sense the same: namely, the limits of representation. The pain, we often find, resists the pen, as Ferrante has elsewhere insisted (Frantumaglia, 350). Nevertheless, what she offers us in In the Margins, and in all her work, are not fatalities but openings, not outright failures but latent possibilities, not unbridgeable gaps but as-yet-unrealized connections. She invites us, as ever, to reflect on the frameworks within which we live and work. “But we’ll talk about this and other things next time” (38).
Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Translated by Paula and Keith Cohen. Signs 1, no.4 (1976): 875–93.
Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. New York: Autonomedia, 2014.
Ferrante, Elena. “A Power of Our Own.” New York Times (May 17, 2019) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/17/opinion/elena-ferrante-on-women-power.html.
Ferrante, Elena. Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. Translated by Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa Editions, 2016.
Ferrante, Elena. In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing. Translated by Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa Editions, 2022.
Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd. Project Gutenberg, 1994. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/107/107-h/107-h.htm. First published Cornhill Magazine 29 (1874).
hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 36 (1989):15-23
Irigaray, Luce. “And the One Doesn’t Stir Without the Other.” Translated by Hélène Vivienne Wenzel. Signs 7, no.1 (1981): 60-7.
Lucamante, Stefania. A Multitude of Women: The Challenges of the Contemporary Italian Novel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin, 2004.