For Elena Ferrante, What Distinguishes Conventional Male and Female Friendships?

The Liberating Messiness of the Neapolitan Quartet Friendship

Female friendship has until now been significantly underrepresented. In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf remarks on how female friends in Racine and the Greek tragedies were “confidantes,” and then mothers and daughters, while up through Jane Austen’s day “all the great women of fiction were . . . not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex.” In the 19th-century Victorian novel the bond between two women friends becomes more visible, thus more frequently dramatized, yet their stories still revolve around a male character.

Though a recurring element in the plot, the friendship between two women remains secondary to the romantic triangle, to a competition for the same love interest—crucial, sure, but still part of the marriage plot. In many storylines, for example, both friends love the same man, but one of the two withdraws from the competition. If on the one hand their bond is considered “a relationship that generates plot,” on the other it is never “its 

primary agent, subject, or object.” 

This explains Woolf’s excitement when, in a novel by Mary Carmichael, she reads that “Chloe liked Olivia.” “And then it struck me,” writes Woolf, “how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature.” Alas, Woolf’s excitement is, like the novel in question, fictitious: Mary Carmichael is an author Woolf invents, evidently just as unreal and as unrealized, in 1929, the year A Room of One’s Own was released, as the possibility that a relationship between two women could be the main storyline and most engrossing element of suspense in a narrative.

We have to wait for Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, to see how a female friendship—in this case, between Anna and Molly, “free women,” as they are christened by the title of the sub-novel—constitutes “an immense force for dismantling patriarchal structures.” Another book from the 1960s that occupies an important place is Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T., the first-person account of a female friend who reconstructs the brief and intense life of a young woman in search of existential authenticity in the increasingly rigid cultural climate of East Germany.

Just how powerful the theme of female friendship is was clear from the release of the first volume of The Neapolitan Novels. The quartet marks a breakthrough in the representation of something many women experience but still don’t single out as key to their development: friendship with members of their own sex. Indeed, the story’s main characters are two women friends, Lila and Elena; its main focus their lives and bond, from their childhood on the humble outskirts of Naples to their adulthood, from 1950 to 2010, or from the ages of six to sixty-six.

Yet also crucial is the way the content of the quartet determines its form. The main narration becomes polyphonic, dual, accommodating within Elena’s voice the voice of the other—of the missing friend whom Elena conjures. One of the most pervasive stereotypes about women is that they don’t know how to be friends, which is to say they don’t know how to establish a loyal, transparent relationship free of murky feelings like jealousy and envy. The Neapolitan Novels breaks this stereotype by placing the two women’s intense yet fiery friendship at the heart of the story. 

Elena and Lila’s friendship develops in an unsettling manner, as a practice of difference. Theirs is not the classic ethos of the reciprocal, loyal bond between two equals: this kind of self-determination is a male privilege, one historically predicated on, and inevitably a complement of, male dominance. As subaltern women, placed on the lowest rung of society from their adolescence, the two friends personify the gender and social disparity on which their pact is forged. That she isn’t interested in bringing together two individuals who represent disembodied and self-governing entities is a fact Ferrante alerts us to: “Exploring the disorderliness of female friendship meant learning to set aside every literary idealization and every temptation to instruct.”

Because for centuries a woman could not inhabit the public space reserved for man as a political and social animal, female friendships are more vulnerable, more lawless. . .

The noun the writer uses, “disorderliness,” is highly significant: it suggests the contrast between male friendship and female—order versus chaos, rules versus entropy. There appears to be a radical split between the classical ethics of friendship, ruled, according to Aristotle, by a dialectic of disinterested affinity and political opportunism, and Derrida’s postmodern ethics, which deconstructs the idea of friendship as the recognition of a likeminded individual and calls for a new “politics of friendship” inspired by the pursuit of otherness.

Yet in reality, beyond the content of their arguments, the classical philosopher and contemporary deconstructionist convey, by way of Cicero, Seneca, and all the epic and modern narratives of this emotional connection, a shared vision: a stable syntax, grammar, and set of rules aimed at defining what friendship is and how it is practiced and preserved. The male pact has held in check the inevitable ambivalences—rivalry, betrayal, ordinary disappointment—that a bond so complex, a cross between public alliance and private confession, can generate. For centuries these unavoidable dynamics have been policed by a code of behavior that extends beyond national borders.

If that is how friendship has played out in the West, then we can easily understand how this pseudo-universalism masks an underlying male aspiration to govern. It is an ethos that, in theory at least, frees those men who recognize and practice it, making them social extroverts and brotherly allies. Because for centuries a woman could not inhabit the public space reserved for man as a political and social animal, female friendships are more vulnerable, more lawless, more exposed to the destablizing effects of structural ambivalences that the centuries-old male code of behavior seeks to contain and revise.

Therefore, the elective affinity between women is “disorderly,” a profoundly intense experience unmediated by tradition, geneaology, or clearly-drawn boundaries between public and private life. Female friendship is the “rudimentary map” for a spiritual landscape yet to be explored, delineated, and defined. In this case, gender difference leaves invisible traces (invisible due to a lack of clear semantic footprints) as soon as it silently deviates from the norm: this difference has been generated and continues to be generated by centuries of domination.

Such a difference means that female bonds still rest on a dearth of pacts and rituals: “Friendship between women has been left without rules. Male rules haven’t been imposed on it, and it’s still a territory with fragile codes where love (in [Italian] the word ‘friendship’—amicizia—is related to love, amare), by its nature, carries with it everything, 

lofty sentiments and base impulses.”

In The Neapolitan Novels Ferrante dramatizes the terrible mix of envy and elective recognition that inevitably characterizes any friendship between two women, between two dominated subjects attempting to achieve emancipation. The success of the quartet is also due to its acceptance of that bit of truth lurking underneath the stereotype of imperfect female friendship, as well as in its portrayal of imperfection as a component—and not the defining feature—of such foundational bonds, which, while rocky, can hardly be called insignificant. 

In many interviews Ferrante has underscored the need to catalog the forces at work in the “inevitable cohort of bad feelings” produced by the bond of female friendship. What counts is the basic tone: “Competition between women is good only if it does not prevail; that is to say if it coexists with affinity, affection, with a real sense of being mutually indispensable, with sudden peaks of solidarity in spite of envy, jealousy, and the whole inevitable cohort of bad feelings.”

In fact, while arrogating to themselves the same rights that male friends enjoy, Elena and Lila experience their friendship as a blend of transcendence and immanence. Love and resentment, fits of passion and self-centeredness, confessions and secrets, cohabitation and separation: all intertwine over the course of their tempestuous relationship. 

One example of their torturous coexistence is the scene in which Elena helps Lila prepare for her wedding. Sixteen yet already deeply marked by the destinies determined by their class and gender, both girls sense Lila’s marriage will have a traumatic effect on their relationship. Pain, solidarity, hope, fear, jealousy—Elena is beset by a morass of conflicting feelings about their imminent separation: 

I had a confusion of feelings and thoughts: embrace her, weep with her, kiss her, pull her hair, laugh, pretend to sexual experience and instruct her in a learned voice, distancing her with words just at the moment of greatest closeness. But in the end there was only the hostile thought that I was washing her, from her hair to the soles of her feet, early in the morning, just so that Stefano could sully her in the course of the night.  

The bond between Elena and Lila is unstable because its dynamic is, by design and necessity, unchecked by proper or exemplary behavior. “It’s a shortcut,” remarks Ferrante, “to set aside what is formidable about women, to imagine us merely as organisms with good feelings, skilled masters of gentility.” Depicting the ambivalence of their bond as historically and psychologically determined, The Neapolitan Novels refuse to reduce the experience of female friendship to the conventional, and instead invest it with profound symbolic meaning. For, as the writer emphasizes, “We have to learn . . . to speak with pride of our complexity, of how in itself it informs our citizenship, whether in joy or in rage.”  

*

“We held each other by the hand and entered”: the impactful first-person plural launches the two girls out to the seaside, far from the rione. Even before this, heading out to face the “ogre” Don Achille, they consecrate their adventure with the same physical act: “[W]hen I reached her she gave me her hand. This gesture changed everything between us forever.”

Clasping hands is the initiation rite that defines Elena and Lila’s friendship as, primarily, a pact of solidarity, an oath to transform their lives and to “[break] the long chain of illiterates.” There are several watershed moments in their public and social pact: their search for the dolls, their trip to the sea, their purchase of Little Women, the writing of The Blue Fairy, the designing of the shoes, Lila’s relationship with Stefano, the acquisition of schoolbooks for Elena, the collage-work done to the enlarged photograph of Lila, Elena’s articles condemning the Soccavo factory and the Solara brothers.

Creativity also penetrates the traditional sphere of motherhood and is renewed as a result of their expecting daughters (Tina and Imma) at the same time, and the new alliance that shared experience produces. At the gynecologist they “liked sitting next to each other . . . separate from the other pregnant women, whom [they] observed ironically.” Their ventures into the world and genealogy—into the domain of the past and present—overlap when they collaborate on the article against the Solaras, their writing mirroring their daughters’ games:  

We sat down at the kitchen table, while Tina and Imma chattered softly, moving dolls, horses, and carriages . . . It was a long time since we had undertaken something together . . . Our heads collided—for the last time, now that I think of it—one against the other, and merged until they were one.

This scene, in which motherhood, writing, and play converge, is particularly significant. Far more than in the male ritual, friendship is, in this case, the projection of an intimate bond onto the screen of the world. The very structure of the story thereby breaks another stereotype about female friendship, which our collective imagination often relegates to the suffocating realm of “societies of consolation,” and reinfuses their bond with creative energy. 

In The Neapolitan Novels Ferrante dramatizes the terrible mix of envy and elective recognition that inevitably characterizes any friendship between two women.

The epic and domestic quality of the quartet in fact depends on its construction of the friendship plot, which—like a flotation device—immediately returns the intimate story to the neat surface of reality and makes the women “generators of meaning, language, children, history.” The two friends’ connection creates a porousness between the interior sphere and the social, which then permeate one another in an endless series of refractions.

Whether one friend is interrogating the other—now anguished, now euphoric, now simply syntonic—or interfering in or making a speculative or actual judgment about the other’s life, “each manages to enter the form of the other, which continues to act, as an form of autonomous life, beyond the bounds of the physical presence that produced it.” The dolls, Little Women, The Blue Fairy, the shoes: all are symbols of the transformative power of friendship, thanks to which the violence of the rione morphs into a game that in turn produces an object-talisman, a means of exorcising the ferocious logic of adults and the violence of men. 

In addition to being a talisman, the object is like Osip Mandelstam’s description of amber: a thick resin trapping a potentially living fossil. In fact, each of these creations contains a violent nucleus, neutralized and rendered aesthetic by their friendship, yet which could spring to life again at any moment. It is no coincidence that two of these objects, the dolls Tina and Nu, bookend the long narrative, first disappearing and then, 56 years later, mysteriously reappearing.

The dolls evoke the beginning and end of magical time (the plunge into and reemergence from the morass of Naples) as well as the summation of an entirely female narrative in which a doll symbolizes the cycle of womanhood, encompassing friend, daughter, and mother, a sort of “composite body of all Ferrante’s Neapolitan mothers and daughters.” Tina and Nu are synchronous objects that stand out as a dysphoric and painful variant of the female twin archetype identified by Jung when he stated that “every mother contains her daughter in herself and every daughter her mother.”

Hence, the dolls can also be considered reversible hybrids, part of a magic spell of transformations and equivalencies that appears throughout Ferrante’s work (indeed, both The Lost Daughter and the story “The Beach at Night” place these symbolic dolls at the center of their stories). 

At the same time, the dolls function as creative objects that (before and after they disappear) usher in a new stage of the girls’ lives, enabling them to deal with traumatic violence in a mediated and autonomous way, to work through the experience they have repressed, and, gradually, to come to terms with it. “The mind’s dreams have ended up at their feet”: such are Lila’s words when she puts on her wedding shoes, the shoes that she dreamed up when still a little girl and that, the first time she sees them “made real,” stir up “a violent emotion, as if a fairy had appeared and made a wish.”

The whole arc of the quartet can be read as the story of the progressive disintegration of the friends’ magical childhood pact. The treasure chest becomes the cash register at Stefano’s grocery (“Money for her was that drawer, the treasure chest of childhood that opened and offered its wealth”). The blue fairy rematerializes as the kind, anonymous female professor with blue hair who opens the door to the Pisa Normale for Elena. The clamor of sociopolitical awareness inspired by the article attacking the Solaras is what remains of the great war that Lila wanted to wage against them. And so, in a relentless countermelody, the “cheap and ugly” dolls reappear at the end of the quartet in their true form. 

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From Elena Ferrante’s Key Words. Used with permission of Europa Editions. Copyright © 2018 by Edizioni e/o. Translated from the Italian by Will Schutt. Translation copyright © 2019 by Europa Editions. 
Tiziana de Rogatis
Tiziana de Rogatis
Born in Naples, Tiziana de Rogatis is currently an associate professor of Comparative Literature at the University for Foreigners of Siena. Her recent work analyzes modern constructions of the feminine interpreted in an anthropological manner via the reemergence of classical myths. She has written and lectured widely on Elena Ferrante in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, Asia and the United States. She lives in Rome.





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