Breaking the Cycle: In search of progressive representations of masculinity in Elena Ferrante's L'amica geniale



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A great part of the scholarship surrounding the novels of the mysterious Italian author Elena Ferrante, including her best-selling quadrilogy My Brilliant Friend (originally published in Italian as L’amica geniale between 2011 and 2014), focuses on her unique writing of the feminine experience, her ability to reveal less-considered aspects of maternity, female friendship, and love. Ferrante’s prioritization of the feminine experience is particularly significant considering that most of her writing is set in the traditional and patriarchal society of Naples. Thus, it is fitting that most literary criticism of her work analyzes the masculine experience and the actions of male characters almost exclusively in terms of how they impact the female protagonists. The aim of my thesis is to extend the field of Ferrante Studies by instead considering masculinity as its focal point in a comprehensive study of the masculine experience in L’amica geniale. I argue that even the dominating class in the patriarchal society of Naples, the men, are restricted to a certain model of behavior or self-identity and thus struggle equally or in some cases even more to liberate themselves from societal pressures. After noting an almost uniformly negative fate of the male characters in My Brilliant Friend this research aimed to discover whether male characters who broke this mold existed in the tetralogy, and, upon identifying them, to understand what made them different and how exactly they broke that cycle. Incorporating primary textual evidence from Ferrante’s quadrilogy as well as the research of numerous scholars from Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States, this thesis demonstrates that, despite the relative uniformity of toxic masculinity in the books’ primary setting, and despite the many environmental and hereditary factors which trap the male characters in a seemingly unending cycle of violence, Ferrante has in fact created two male characters who succeed in liberating themselves from the weight of their cultural burdens. By identifying and analyzing these two male anomalies, this thesis identifies the small beacon of hope, the “blind spot” in Ferrante’s bleak portrayal of the male experience in southern Italy. Ferrante demonstrates that even in such a violent environment as the rione, a place generally resistant to change or individuality, there is always a way, and in fact more than one, to liberate oneself from one’s seemingly fixed destiny.



Elena Ferrante, contemporary Italian literature, gender studies, Naples