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Virginia Woolf, Elena Ferrante, and the Angry Modern/ist Woman


Fig. 1. Still from HBO’s series, My Brilliant Friend.

In A Room of One’s Own (1929) Virginia Woolf famously writes, “Chloe liked Olivia,” a line that anticipates, and even directs, feminist literary scholarship through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.[1] Woolf’s modernist feminism, in A Room and a range of other literary essays, calls for a female literary lineage as well as histories of the anonymous women whose stories have never been told. How then, after almost a century, has Woolf’s vision fulfilled itself?  In what ways has her work reached global and contemporary audiences, and how have these audiences used modernist feminism to talk about their current political and cultural circumstances? How do we begin to construct a female literary canon that is based on the affective responses of one writer to another? The overwhelming international popularity of Elena Ferrante’s metamodern Neapolitan quartet, which includes My Brilliant Friend (2011), The Story of a New Name (2012), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013), and The Lost Child (2014), illustrates the affective impact of Woolf’s feminist ideas.[2]  Ferrante does in fiction what Woolf calls for in theory as she amplifies the implications of female friendship, matrilineal lineage, women’s anger, and anonymity. Through an appropriation of modernist feminist tendancies, both in content and form, Ferrante explores the psychological and subterranean currents of female consciousness and gives voice to Shakespeare’s sister, the female writer who comes into existence through the work of anonymous women. Ferrante, herself one of those anonymous women, continues the female lineage Woolf argues for. The inner worlds of the women in Ferrante’s realist prose remind us of Woolf’s call to remember the interior lives of women; yet Ferrante’s novels are very much products of post-fascist Italy and 1970s Italian feminism.

In her 2014 interview with the Financial Times, Ferrante states that Woolf is one of the two women writers who most influenced her (the other is the Jewish Elsa Morante) and that she put both aside out of frustration.[3] When asked which literary character she most identifies with, she names Mrs. Ramsay from To the Lighthouse (1927).  Like Mrs. Ramsay, she says she feels most herself when alone.  Ferrante’s fiction explores the implications of a female consciousness through realism and history.  Her style, in many ways antithetical to Woolf’s, adapts Woolf’s use of first person to investigate the interior lives of women.

Not to be misunderstood as traditional literary influence, where one writer imitates another in form, style, or content, or directly acknowledges another writer’s impact on her work, affective influence is much more difficult to identify. Affect, a term generally associated with emotion, is in psychology something that mediates the subject’s interaction with stimuli and displays itself in the physical body through facial, vocal, or gestural behavior. The physical display of affect can be seen as a somatic response and understood in literary terms as metonomy, a part (the smile, the tear) of the whole emotion it represents. The unconscious and subliminal nature of this kind of affective influence in literature forces the critic to search for signs and symbols that erupt in the author’s text in unexpected places. To appreciate the affective connection between Woolf and Ferrante we must cull the entirety of Ferrante’s work for the allusions and references that are often implied, inferential, latent, or undeclared. This brief piece does not allow for such a broad reading, but we can identify a portion of this dynamic when we consider Woolf’s and Ferrante’s shared concern with women and female relationships. Of course Ferrante’s feminism is the product of multifarious influences, but my goal is to isolate Ferrante’s affective response to Woolf’s feminist modernism—specifically through daughters, mothers, and friends, as well as anonymity and interiority—as an example of how to read for affect in female literary traditions.

Daughters, Mothers, and Friends

Both Ferrante and Woolf privilege female relationships—daughters, mothers, and friends. In Ferrante’s work mother figures are always lurking in the background, along with daughters in rebellion and precarious friendships. It is not so much lesbianism that concerns Ferrante, though this too is implied; rather, her focus is the love, empathy, identification, competition, and cruelty that a lifetime of female friendship yields. It is the violent, patriarchal, and misogynistic environment of the Neapolitan neighborhood that bonds two female friends for life. The friendships portrayed in Ferrante’s work, unlike Woolf’s impressionistic and intangible representations (think of Lily Brisco and Mrs. Ramsay, or of Clarissa Dalloway, whose female friendships exist only in memory), turn female friendship into a sustained aesthetic. Historical time, nation, and personality distinguish Woolf and Ferrante, but feminist ideological constructs evolve and develop as they are shared or passed from one generation of woman writer to the next through affect.

The first novel in Ferrante’s series, My Brilliant Friend, is a female bildungsroman about Elena Greco, the narrator, who struggles to write herself out of an environment filled with violence and misogyny. Elena’s two most formative relationships are with her mother, who she dislikes, avoids, and fears, and her friend Raffaella Cerullo, or Lila, with whom she maintains a relationship for six decades. Though Elena narrates the entire series of novels, the real heroine is Lila. Through Lila, Ferrante investigates in what ways the affects of anger and rage can threaten female identity, which risks dissolving and fragmenting under the pressure of patriarchy. In this novel and others subtle allusions to Woolf resonate.

A Room of One’s Own urges us to consider the impact of institutional patriarchy on women writers. Woolf’s detailed story of Judith Shakespeare’s demise urges her female readers to befriend Judith and empathize with her circumstances. Woolf furthers this idea of a female genealogy through her famous formulation, “we think back through our mothers if we are women” (A Room of One’s Own, 79). Beyond this, Woolf calls for friendship between women working in anonymity. Shakespeare’s sister will be born from “the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners” and “to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while” (118). If Chloe likes Olivia, and the fictional author Mary Carmichael knows how to express it, “she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been” (88). And this chamber is where Ferrante takes us, through the long and complicated friendship between Elena and Lila.

Female friendship is often viewed as the ideal to which the mother/daughter relationship is held. For Ferrante the mother/daughter relationship is fraught with difficulties. We know from My Brilliant Friend that Elena will do anything to avoid being like her mother, who is crippled and limited in what she can offer her daughter. Other mothers in this novel are equally, if metaphorically, paralyzed. Ferrante’s preoccupation, however, is the sense of confinement created by a misogynistic culture in 1950s Naples; the affective responses of the female characters to these conditions, whether friends or mothers, centers on Elena’s consciousness, a consciousness similar to the one Woolf models for her.

However, Ferrante’s representation of consciousness is distinct from Woolf’s modernist narratives, where interiority is expressed through the multiperspectivism and fluid transitions between points of view.  Ferrante’s first-person narration allows the interiority of all the characters to filter through Elena’s subjectivity. This first-person narrative reinforces the realist style that represents consciousness as constructed by economic and social contexts. It also allows Ferrante to better represent the unwavering, though sometimes troubling, bonds between women. For example, when on Lila’s wedding day she asks Elena to help her bathe, Elena’s internal monologue is surprisingly candid: 

I had never seen her naked, I was embarrassed. Today I can say that it was the embarrassment of gazing with pleasure at her body, of being a not impartial witness of her sixteen-year-old’s beauty a few hours before Stefano touched her, penetrated her, disfigured her, perhaps, by making her pregnant. (Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, 312)

Elena is embarrassed by her sexual attraction to and pleasure of Lila’s beautiful, pure body. Her visceral and physical response (which she calls “tumultuous”) is linked to her thoughts of the destructiveness of a man’s touch (312). This candid moment of interiority is rare for the narrator, whose consciousness is most often projected onto her descriptions of Lila; readers are usually left to decipher how Elena’s words apply to her own subjective position. Elena’s affective response to Lila in this passage embodies the complicated relationship of women to one another and reveals how much of what they feel for each other is inflected by masculine influence.

Feminism, Anger, and Affect

Ferrante’s affective relationship with Woolf illustrates the continuity of Woolf’s modernist feminism as it makes its way through second-wave American feminism, represented by writers like the late Jane Marcus, to the Italian feminist movement in the 1980s. The Casa Virginia Woolf in Rome is considered by many to be the preferred point of reference when discussing the Italian feminist movement since the mid-1980s. To more fully understand Ferrante’s debt to Woolf and her representation of women in modern Italy, we might look to the history of the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, which met between 1966 and 1986 and stated its goal “to make sense of, exalt, and represent in words and images the relationship of one woman to another.”[4] The group published its treatise, Sexual Difference, in 1987 under collective and anonymous authorship, a deliberate allusion to anonymous women writers Woolf discusses.

In this treatise, the Collective refers to A Room of One’s Own, arguing that “the room of one’s own must be understood differently, then, as a symbolic placement, a space-time furnished with female gendered references, where one goes for meaningful preparation before work, and confirmation after” (Sexual Difference, 26). Though, to my knowledge, Ferrante never explicitly comments on her participation in the Italian feminist movement, there are strong signs that she was influenced by it. There is her insistence on her own anonymity (much as the Collective had insisted on its own anonymity), and she borrows Woolf’s allusions to rooms and libraries. For example, volume two of the series, The Story of a New Name, describes Elena’s first experience publicly reading from her novel in a bookstore in Milan. Bookstores, like libraries in A Room of One’s Own, become pivotal places of change and self-awareness for the narrator throughout the quartet. It is this “symbolic placement” of “female gendered references” that Ferrante’s narratives aim for. Finally, Ferrante not only inherits and revises the figure of a “room of one’s own” in her descriptions of bookstores, but she develops Woolf’s trope of the angry modern woman by placing her within late-twentieth-century Naples, where historically rooted patriarchal structures determine and limit creative, intelligent, and even brilliant women .

Though the image of the angry woman goes back at least as far as Euripides’ Medea, Woolf’s modernist meditation on anger and writing is self-conscious and explicit. Jane Marcus explains that her concern with Woolf’s anger “grew out of [her] own anger and the anger of [her] generation of feminist critics, who were trying to change the subject without having developed a sophisticated methodology.”[5] Marcus brings her own subjectivity to Woolf’s project and criticizes her for turning away from anger: “Anger is not anathema in art; it is a primary source of creative energy” (Art & Anger, 153). It is “[r]age and savage indignation” that “sear the hearts of female poets and critics” (153). Once the “fires of our rage have burnt out, think how clear the air will be for our daughters” (154).  Marcus sees anger as an emotion that needs to be utilized and moved through in order to leave it behind. Sources of creative energy, anger and rage cannot be ignored or repressed, but should be experienced and then transcended. Using Marcus’s own logic, I would argue that Woolf does not turn away from her anger but turns it into a rhetorical strategy that empowers her writing.

Anger first appears in Woolf’s A Room with the presentation of Professor von X. We learn how anger underpins the topic of women and fiction as the narrator researches the subject of women in the British Library. Here Woolf’s language reveals how her anger toward men is inextricably linked to men’s anger and feelings of insignificance. As the narrator reads the works of male authors who write about women, her “own notebook riot[s] with the wildest scribble of contradictory jottings,” which she finds “distressing,” “bewildering,” and “humiliating” (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 30). She barely understands her own response to what she finds in her research about women. Only her written words and sketches can reveal that feelings of wild revolt and chaos she feels. The psychological emphasis on affect’s expression in behavioral gestures (laughter, tears, the unconscious movements of the hand as it sketches) explains the “contradictory jottings” she makes. In this crucial passage, Woolf names anger and explains its power—had she sought to ignore it she would not have employed the trope of anger at all.

The narrator’s anger is revealed in the drawing of Professor von X, whose “expression suggested that he was labouring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect” (31). The Professor is made to look “very angry and very ugly.” She realizes that “the sketch of the angry professor had been made in anger” (32). She is surprised by her own anger, resents it, and wonders how it found its place in her writing. Again, she displaces the anger onto the Professor’s text, “to the one phrase, which had roused the demon; it was the professor’s statement about the mental, moral and physical inferiority of women” (32). Finally, anger inhabits her physical body, and she is self-conscious of her physiological responses; her “heart had leapt. . . . cheeks had burnt,” and she “flushed with anger” (32). But she quickly understands her response, “[s]oon my own anger was explained,” and she claims she is left only with a curiosity about the nature of anger in a theoretical sense. It was anger, she acknowledges, “that had gone underground and mixed itself with all kinds of other emotions. . . . it was anger disguised and complex, not anger simple and open” (32). Critics like Marcus have argued that Woolf’s anger is not overtly articulate or strong enough; however, it is an anger that seeps out without the narrator’s awareness, so powerful that it becomes mixed up with the object of anger itself, Professor von X. Woolf’s clear articulation and expression of her emotional affect implies that this is not an emotion that controls her.

Woolf finds unfiltered anger destructive for the female artist, and she takes the remainder of A Room to explain how women writers must transcend this emotion if they wish to write with a pure and androgynous mind. Anger as raw affect creates bad art; anger used as a trope is a powerful rhetorical strategy. This argument begins with her discussion of Judith Shakespeare and continues as Woolf outlines previous women writers and their ability to transcend their anger. Anger, rage, and violence become forces that unite women, and Woolf calls on women to recognize their common condition.  Woolf’s essay also articulates, for the first time in the twentieth century, how anger, often considered a destructive emotion, becomes a powerful and persuasive strategy to argue women’s cultural position.[6]

The Angry Modern/ist Woman

The trope of the “angry feminist,” as rhetorician Barbara Tomlinson argues, is one that has been most often used against women, painting feminists as overly emotional and impassioned discontents. Tomlinson argues that “transforming the terms of reading can reframe the problem” of how feminism is read and understood.[7]  Ferrante transforms the reading of modernist feminism through a reemployment of such figures of speech initiated by Woolf. Where Woolf claims that anger may impede the “incandescent” mind necessary for a female Shakespeare if not used correctly, Ferrante allows anger and rage to animate her realist fiction (A Room of One’s Own, 59).

Ferrante expresses anger and makes it not only the subject of her work but the force that propels her narratives and the female relationships found in them. Her novels, even before the quartet, are filled with anger and rage, not only against women, but by women. The Days of Abandonment (2005), Ferrante’s second novel, is preoccupied with anger and violence as the female protagonist gives herself permission to strike out at everything she encounters—men, children, pets. These earlier representations of anger are developed in complicated ways throughout the quartet.

Elena’s narration in My Brilliant Friend is the calm voice of reason under which anger seethes but is never acted upon.  She has a constant sense of inadequacy, needs to compare herself to male students and writers, and is utterly dedicated to her friend Lila who she wishes could find her own way out of the neighborhood. Though trapped, Lila is more independent, more self-sufficient, more likely to express her dangerous emotions. She is also an autodidact, like Woolf herself, very private, and less communicative then Elena. We get to know Lila, the angry feminist in the novel, through Elena’s point of view. Lila is the object of male violence throughout and is denied her creative impulse. Rather than submissively accepting her position, she fights back through acts of anger and rage.  As Elena tells the story of their friendship, she remains painfully unaware of her own emotions and responses, while Lila, who is very much Elena’s alter ego, remains the epitome of the angry modern woman.  Caught in the social networks she is born to, Lila is, like Shakespeare’s sister, ignored by her father, disrespected by her brother, harassed by the boys in the neighborhood. Under her confident surface, beneath the language needed to express it, simmers a rage that emerges in shocking acts of violence described by the articulate narrator. As with Woolf’s unconscious drawing of Professor von X, Lila’s affect rises to the surface through Elena’s description of them.

The prologue of My Brilliant Friend begins with the sixty-year-old Elena’s discovery that Lila has left her home without a trace (she has taken all of her things and cut herself out of all photographs). Elena is “very angry” and in her anger decides “to write—all the details of [their] story, everything that still remained in [her] memory” (Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, 23).  The novel then goes back to their adolescence, and the memories that remain of Lila during that time are of an angry child. Lila impresses Elena in the first grade because “she was very bad” (31). It is as though Lila is born an angry young woman, a rebel in a patriarchal and misogynistic culture. Her anger is expressed through her defiance and oppositional behavior. We are told she “didn’t obey and didn’t even seem frightened” of her teachers (32). She acts aggressively toward the neighborhood boys and even the young Elena. In these earliest years, Elena allows herself to be led by Lila and her bravery, and she decides that she “had to model [herself] on that girl” and “never let her out of [her] sight” (46).

We see Lila’s first act of aggression during a children’s fight, boys against girls, where a gang of boys throw rocks at Elena and Lila as they walk home from school. Elena writes, “They were angry because we were smarter than them” (33). The other girls around them begin to run away, “except Lila, who kept walking at her regular pace and sometimes even stopped” (33). Elena stays with her to hand her rocks, but “without conviction”; she admits that she felt “detached” from her own actions, unlike Lila, who did everything with “absolute determination” (34). Lila’s instinct is to fight back, and she throws a stone that hits one of the boys in the calf “like a razor, leaving a red stain that immediately gushed blood” (34). Lila’s quickness of mind and body was “like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite” (48). Her anger resides in a region where it has no access to language, and so we see her participate in traditionally unfeminine aggressive behavior.

Ferrante’s work not only employs Woolf’s rhetoric of anger, but responds to Woolf’s call to and for women writers. This is expressed in Ferrante’s adaptation of Woolf’s narrative style in A Room of One’s Own. Most striking about A Room is the insistence on shifting narrative persona. She proposes to use the “liberties and licences of a novelist” by using the “I” as a “convenient term for somebody who has no real being” (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 4). It is not until later in Woolf’s essay that we discover how much she detests the use of first person and why. She picks up a contemporary novel written by Mr. A, “But after reading a chapter or two a shape seemed to lie across the page. It was a straight dark bar, shadow shaped something like the letter ‘I’” (103). Woolf finds herself bored and can only attribute it to the dominance of the “letter ‘I’ and the aridity . . . it casts within its shade” (104).  The subjective and egotistical “I” blinds the reader to anything else happening in the text, and so instead Woolf uses a fictional technique to avoid the pitfalls she finds in Mr. A’s work.

Ferrante follows Woolf’s modernist lead and uses a fictional first-person narrator who is not herself. Where Woolf’s essay approaches fiction with its experimental first-person narration, Ferrante’s fiction attempts to imitate reality through its first-person point of view. The popular preoccupation with Ferrante’s identity misses the point. Ferrante is not necessarily a meek, unsociable, or eccentric writer who refuses to be made public; rather, she takes the stance of anonymity as a feminist imperative—she too avoids the first-person “I” and associates herself with the “poverty and obscurity” of women who work anonymously.[8]

Woolf’s notion of anonymity is thus another affective technique that Ferrante inherits. Not only does Ferrante herself insist on remaining anonymous, but Lila’s erased identity at the beginning of My Brilliant Friend and the recurring sense of fragmentation that Lila feels throughout the series signal the collective female identity that both Woolf and Ferrante desire. Ferrante thinks back through her literary mother, Virginia Woolf, and she prioritizes both anonymity and female interiority in her psychologically accurate portrayal of female relationships. By writing her story of friendship with Lila, the narrator Elena articulates her emotional responses to misogyny. Ferrante, through Elena, can write with an “incandescent” mind that is freed “from hate and fear and not heaped . . . with bitterness and resentment” (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 63). Ferrante, Elena, and Lila remain among the obscure and anonymous women who work to create the female Shakespeare Woolf calls for.


Notes

[1] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt, 1929), 86.

[2] The Neapolitan quartet is composed of the following novels: My Brilliant Friend (2011; New York: Europa Editions, 2012), The Story of a New Name (2012; New York: Europa Editions, 2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013; New York: Europa Editions, 2014), The Story of the Lost Child (2014; New York: Europa Editions, 2015), all translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

[3] See “Q&A with author Elena Ferrante,” Financial Times, September 26, 2014.

[4] Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, Sexual Difference: A Theory of Social-Symbolic Practice (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 25.

[5] Jane Marcus, Art & Anger: Reading Like a Woman (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988), xxi.

[6] Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018) has captured the attention of contemporary feminists as she argues that “anger” is a motivational force for institutional change. Unlike Woolf and Ferrante, she focuses less on the social institutions that women suffer under and more on the ways women’s anger has produced political activism.

[7] Barbara Tomlinson, Feminism and Affect at the Scene of Argument: Beyond the Trope of the Angry Feminist (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2010), 2. Emphasis in original.

[8] Claudio Gatti, an investigative journalist for Il Sole 24 Ore, an Italian business daily, reported that records show a dramatic uptick in payments from Ferrante’s publishing house in Rome, Edizioni E/O, to Anita Raja, a translator of German literature, since 2014, when Ferrante’s novels took off around the world. Gatti’s article also implies that the quartet may be a collaboration between Raja and her husband, Domenico Starnone. Whether true or not, it is clear that Ferrante chose her anonymity deliberately to move the focus from her biography to the novels themselves. Woolf too knew the power of separating the biography of the author from the creative work itself. It is in many ways a political act of resistance. See Claudio Gatti, “Elena Ferrante: An Answer?,” NYR Daily, New York Review of Books, October, 10, 2016.

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