The Lying Life of Adults is a story about what it means to come of age as a woman in a patriarchal society. The meditation on how to form and protect an authentic female subjectivity within a misogynistic world underpins much of Elena Ferrante’s work. Central to the Neapolitan Quartet is Elena Greco’s composition of an essay on female characters in literature, where she argues that women have been silenced in male prose, deprived of agency and desire in patriarchal poetics. Starting with the Bible, she finds that “Eve can’t, doesn’t know how […] to be Eve outside of Adam. […] The divine work was so successful that she has pliable features, she doesn’t possess her own language, she doesn’t have a spirit or a logic of her own.” This reflection is the core of The Lying Life of Adults: as Giovanna, the novel’s narrator, is suspended on the verge of adolescence, her condition is one of subordination and metaphorical blindness. Like her Biblical ancestor, Giovanna is the unquestioning recipient of her father’s version of the past, of his values, of his Italian language and of his gaze. The text opens as the narrator overhears a terrible judgement uttered by her father, Andrea: Giovanna is very ugly, she is “getting the face” of his impoverished and estranged sister Vittoria, “in whom […] ugliness and wickedness were found in perfect combination.” The paternal remark befalls on Giovanna with the devastating might of the Word of God, becoming both the genesis of the plot and of her painful metamorphosis from child to woman. In contrast to her godlike father, Giovanna perceives herself as “a tangled knot, […] a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption.” The question of Giovanna’s redemption is presented through dense Biblical parallels: will she yield to Andrea’s “dazzling authority,” or will she develop an authority of her own? Will she become a subject able to define and assert herself, or will she accept the definitions of ugliness and beauty, evil and goodness that have been bestowed on her?
The yearning to verify Andrea’s words prompts Giovanna to leave her seemingly Edenic neighbourhood, propelling her vertiginous fall “down, into the depths of the depths of Naples,” the descent into the abyss of her psyche and the discovery of her female genealogy. The “aunt-witch” Vittoria, who rules over this underworld, emboldens Giovanna to shed her bourgeois niceties and to unearth her independent capacity to see, commanding the niece to look at her parents carefully. With this vigilant vision, the narrator brings to light the intricate tangle of lies within which her family is enmeshed, eventually inducing her father Andrea to abandon the marital home for that of his lover. Wrestling with Andrea’s absence, Giovanna focuses her new gaze on his copy of the Gospels, a text that he has repeatedly urged her to study. In the course of this intense reading experience, Giovanna draws an explicit parallelism between “the Father in Heaven” and Andrea. Reading the Gospels, Giovanna grows furious as she learns that God does not spare any torments to his children – servile beings, mired in mud and blood, continuously exposed to surveillance and suffering. Giovanna points to the misogynistic drives embedded in the text, noting with rage that even Jesus disrespects his own mother. She proclaims her allegiance to all creatures of God, even the worst – she is on their side, “on [her] mother’s side.” In Giovanna’s interpretation, the stories of the Gospels disguise a heart of violence, their language replicates the same structures of oppression within which the lives of women, instead of unfurling freely, end up stunted. It is in Giovanna’s experience of reading the Gospels that we might find an answer to the question: what does it mean to grow up female according to Elena Ferrante? Attaining autonomy implies morphing from object to bearer of the gaze; growing up coincides with the effort to interrogate with radical questions the culture, language, and values of the father.
The conclusion of this tale is suffused with a sense of anguish and disappointment. The people, ideas and spaces that appeared to Giovanna authentic and full of promise evince deceit and disenchantment. As Giovanna becomes entangled within a web of lies, she discovers that “bodies loaded with knowledge” are reduced to “the most untrustworthy animals” and that good sentiments are always at risk of bad faith. Perhaps, it is precisely in this powerful depiction of Giovanna’s Fall that lies the hope for redemption. In an interview, Ferrante explained the message she hopes to convey with her novels: “even if we’re continually tempted to lower our guard – for love or weariness, for sympathy or kindness – we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we’ve achieved.” By refusing to sanitize our most ferocious wounds with the lexicon of orthodoxy, by narrating the formation of female subjectivity without eschewing its ugliness, savagery and incoherence, Ferrante is luring us readers down into the murky waters where our lies and truths coexist, where our good intentions hide malevolent motivations, where we face our demons in the absence of a compassionate God. In The Lying Life of Adults, Ferrante acts as the serpent who tempts us with the forbidden fruit, as the brilliant friend who impels us to raise radical questions, as the aunt-witch who grants us the luminous vision of a seer. In doing so, Ferrante is leading us closer, albeit painfully, to our liberation.
Carlotta Moro is a PhD student in the Department of Italian at the University of St Andrews, where she is working on Renaissance feminism and early modern women writers. She holds an MLitt in Women, Writing and Gender and her research interests include the history of Italian feminist thought, gender theory, Italian women writers, and Elena Ferrante.