Under His Watchful Eye: Family and Power in “The Lying Life of Adults”

By Barbara Halla

Things are always breaking in the lives of Ferrante’s characters: pots spontaneously combust, shards of glass find their way into innocuous-looking bowls of pasta, and families––well, Ferrante’s nuclear families are among the most fragile man-made objects of them all. Fathers leave their wives for younger lovers, mothers abandon their children (if only temporarily), and throughout Ferrante’s oeuvre single motherhood is often the norm. The Lying Life of Adults is no exception to this pattern. In the very first lines of this novel the narrator, Giovanna, tells us that a breakup is forthcoming: “[t]wo years before leaving home my father said to my mother I was very ugly.”

For all the recognizable permutations of the nuclear family that we come across in The Lying Life of Adults, there is one family that escapes easy categorization: the family that Giovanna’s paternal aunt, Vittoria, has built for herself. Vittoria makes her appearance in the novel early, she is the reason for the existence of this tale in the first place. Haunted by her father’s words, Giovanna seeks desperately to meet this mythical, monstrous figure whom she apparently resembles.

Vittoria is exactly what her parents had warned Giovanna she should would be—violent, uncouth, and un-censorable. During their second meeting, Vittoria drags a thirteen-year-old Giovanna to the cemetery where she introduces the girl to the love of her life, Enzo, before proceeding to describe in detail the sexual relationship she had with him. She had embarked on an affair with Enzo, a married policeman with three children, an affair that had almost ended once Giovanna’s father told the truth to Enzo’s wife, Margherita.

But here’s where Ferrante subverts our expectations. Often, in Ferrante’s works, when an affair is brought to light (or ended) the wife or the lover tends to fall apart, it doesn’t matter if she’s some poverella that swept the stairs of some squalid Neapolitan neighborhood or a highly respected feminist writer. In The Lying Life of Adults, however, Vittoria and Margherita use their love for Enzo as the foundation upon which to build an unusually stable relationship, with Vittoria de facto adopting Enzo’s family as her own. She has a key to their house, which she visits at will, and her opinion is not only sought but seemingly final when it comes to resolving any sort of conflict. Throughout the novel, we also see Vittoria refer to Giuliana, Tonino, and Corrado as “[her] children.”

The way Ferrante describes and dissects motherhood, families, and female relationships is informed by the practice of mid-20th-century Italian feminism, which we see more directly referenced in the third volume of the Neapolitan Quartet: Elena attends feminist consciousness raising meetings in Milan and reads Carla Lonzi’s pioneering Let’s Spit on Hegel. Influenced by its American counterpart, a branch of Italian feminism of those years advocated for separatism, for lives build apart from the world of men, with children raised communally and housework separated equitably.

While Ferrante’s writing is inspired by the ideas of Italian feminists, she does not espouse them uncritically. She resists the notion that separatism represent some sort of idyllic haven, or that matriarchal families constructed in a patriarchal society can ever be devoid of its influence and pressure. For example, despite its unusual roots, Vittoria’s found family is not lacking in toxicity, mostly because of Vittoria’s tempestuous and oppressive nature. Giovanna quickly observes how “Margherita was dominated by [her aunt], she’d say something and then glance at her to see if she agreed, and if she didn’t Margherita took back what she’d said.”

What is even more disturbing about their dynamic is the role that a deceased Enzo continues to play in it. In Margherita’s home, a photo of Enzo in his police uniform hangs in the kitchen wall. As they talk, both Margherita and Vittoria glance at it, talk about him, ask for his opinion as if he were alive. The power that Enzo still holds over these two women hasn’t escaped Giovanna’s notice:

I thought of the photo of Enzo in the kitchen, the one in the policeman’s uniform. He watched over the two women even in death, armed with his pistol. He kept them together in the cult of his image, wife and lover. What power men have, even the most small-minded, even over courageous and violent women like my aunt.

The Lying Life of Adults is about the often-subtle ways men wield their power over women: how Giovanna’s father managed to have her question her self-worth with just a few careless words about her outer appearance. The pressure Giovanna and her highly educated friends feel to enter into heterosexual relationships that mimic their parents’ own, despite being repulsed by the idea of sex with men. Or more specifically to my argument, how Margherita and Vittoria are living shrines to the memory of one mediocre man. Even in death, the patriarch(y) is always watching.

Barbara Halla is an Assistant Editor for Asymptote. She works as a translator and independent researcher, focusing in particular on discovering and promoting the works of contemporary and classic Albanian women writers. Barbara holds a BA in History from Harvard and has lived in Cambridge, Paris, and Tirana.

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