The Mother's Rage

Elena Ferrante and the torment of maternal love

Josh Cohen

Olivia Coleman as Leda in the film adaptation of Elena Ferrante's The Lost Daughter. Courtesy Netflix

For many years, it seemed as though every colleague, student, or friend was urging me to read Elena Ferrante. No writer was as brave, as wrenching, as startlingly honest about the terrible feelings, including anger, aroused by love, they told me. As I am a psychoanalyst working on a book on anger, their zeal was bound to make me curious. But there is always too much to read, always another author to turn to. I figured I’d get to her at some point.

As it happened, she came to me instead. One night in late November, I was in bed reading, when my wife returned home from a screening of the new film version of Ferrante’s third novel, The Lost Daughter. For a moment she sat silently on the other side of the bed, her back to me. “I need to read that book,” she said abruptly.

Two days later, she was pressing a copy of it into my hands. “You need to read this,” she said. “You’re writing about anger, so . . . look, just read it.”

The Lost Daughter was slim and inviting. Still, as I turned to the first page, I was aware of a slight disturbance at the periphery, a sense of being not sure what it was I’d been given. You need to read this. What was in the book, I wondered, that my wife so urgently wanted me to know?

Does the palpable fury on the page tell us something about why so many readers seem not only to love, but to need these books?

The question only became more real as the novel sucked me into its vortex of female and maternal anger. The book is narrated by Leda, a mother of two grown daughters, who is holidaying alone on the coast of southern Italy. At one point, Leda, thinking of a time when she lost her daughter Bianca at the beach, remembers “screaming with rage, like my mother, because of the crushing weight of responsibility, the bond that strangles.” You need to read this began to feel like an inextricable element of the book itself, another front in its violent ambush on my nerves.

As I closed the book, anxious questions rose to the surface of my mind. Did my wife need me to read this fearless anatomy of female discontent because it would nourish the book I was writing on anger? Or did she want me, finally, after she had spent two decades raising three boys, to understand something about her rage: her rage at them, at the world, but mostly at me, her husband: “Do you get it? Do you get it now, motherfucker?”

The novels that matter most are those that intrude themselves into the most private and vulnerable spaces of your interior. Novels of this kind—novels like Ferrante’s—trouble the border between fiction and reality. They turn fiction into a medium for truths too violent and disturbing for most of us to bear, and say something about our experience that cannot be said in the medium of ordinary conversation, even of the most intimate kind. They remind us that we need the detours and displacements of fiction to help make our inner lives audible to ourselves and to one another.

Ferrante achieves this audibility by writing potboilers, dizzyingly paced sagas rich in conflict, crisis, scandal, and in the narrative pleasures of “low” culture—teen photo-romances, women’s magazines, soap operas—she draws on. Her first three novels are tinderboxes of marital strife, deception, abandonment and, above all, the ambivalence of maternal love. The Neapolitan Quartet, which followed, stretch these motifs across a much more expansive and socially detailed canvas: in four books (later turned into an HBO series), the narrator Lenu narrates her intimate and volatile lifelong friendship with the enigmatic Lila. Ferrante’s most recent novel, The Lying Life of Adults (2019), now a new Netflix miniseries, is a kind of high literary iteration of the young adult novel, in which an adolescent girl unearths a family history of emotional and sexual duplicity. But for all their differences, in each of these books the protagonist is afflicted at the outset by some wound—a humiliation, say, or a betrayal—to which she will not reconcile herself, instead insisting on protesting, resisting, lamenting, in the process consigning herself to an anger ever deeper and more irremediable. And when I think about Ferrante’s sustained popularity, not just in her native Italy but also abroad, I find myself returning to her capacity not only to portray but to arouse rage. Does the palpable fury on the page tell us something about why so many readers seem not only to love, but to need these books?

For if Ferrante borrows from low-culture genres, she divines in those forms concealed dangers and horrors they themselves can never disclose, and stretches them to excess, threatening their structure and coherence. The moment of breakdown is typically not only the motor of her novels’ plots, but the experience that induces their narrators to write them. They are stories of events, in other words, whose force and meaning can’t be contained in the minds of those to whom they happen. This is where the novels exceed soap opera: the disaster they dramatize is less the objective experience of loss, betrayal, abandonment, or violence than the shattering of any means of representing it, the unraveling of any story that could tell it.

In The Lost Daughter, for instance, Leda, the narrator, somewhat inexplicably steals a doll, Nani, from a little girl whose family she has come to know. Toward the end of the novel, she connects the doll to the experience of her second pregnancy. In Leda’s memory, her first pregnancy was a period of intense pleasure, a transcendent experience of carrying a being “purified of humors and blood, humanized, intellectualized, with nothing that could evoke the blind cruelty of live matter as it expands.” Her second pregnancy, though, was very different, and the doll returns her to it. As she pours out from its mouth a viscous stream of grainy brown liquid, she recalls carrying the fetus that would become her daughter Marta:

She attacked my body, forcing it to turn on itself, out of control. She immediately manifested herself not as Marta but as a piece of living iron in my stomach. My body became a bloody liquid; suspended in it was a mushy sediment inside which grew a violent polyp, so far from anything human that it reduced me, even though it fed and grew, to rotting matter without life. Nani, with her black spittle, resembles me when I was pregnant for the second time.

Living iron, bloody liquid, mushy sediment, violent polyp, rotting matter, black spittle—the pile-up of imagery is a delirious mimesis of the body’s, and the novel’s, “out of control” attack on itself. The controlled beauty of the “humanized, intellectualized” novel sinks sickeningly into a formless, overlapping mass of bodily symptoms and redundant synonyms. “The real breakdown for me,” Leda comments, “was that: the giving up of any sublimation of my pregnancy.” Not the pregnancy itself, but her inability to give it intellectual or creative form—this is the misfortune that has afflicted Leda.

This “real breakdown” is the region of what Ferrante has famously called frantumaglia, a Neapolitan dialect word that means “jumble of fragments.” For Ferrante, frantumaglia is the sudden and incomprehensible revelation of the self to itself as “an infinite serial or aquatic mass of debris,” a pure disorder or incoherence lurking just under the surface of the discrete, integral I we present to the world. It is also the state of psychic and linguistic deformation that is lurking just under, and forever threatening to break through, the precise and efficient surface of Ferrante’s prose.

My wife gave me The Lost Daughter as a husband and father, as a writer, but also, and ambiguously, as a psychoanalyst. Ambiguously because she was fully aware that she was passing on a book that seems to affirm some of the most basic psychoanalytic insights about maternal ambivalence, but also one that ought to make a man, even and especially a male psychoanalyst, wary of understanding what it’s saying too quickly.

You, husband and father and analyst, need to read this because your life at home and your training and your daily work may lead you to think you know something about what motherhood does to a woman, and it may even be that in some way you do, but ultimately you don’t. Ultimately, you are wrong, wrong in a way that this book makes fully apparent.

Her narrators, and the stories they tell, are driven by dissatisfaction, a dissatisfaction that is only exacerbated by their restless and ultimately vain attempts to resolve it.

This, as it happens, is what Ferrante herself distrusts about psychoanalysis, namely its tendency to “organize into universal representations what in the individual, beyond any system, beyond any analysis, remains pure specific inner disorder, irreducible flashes of ectoplasm, a jumble of fragments without any chronology.”

Put more simply, what troubles Ferrante is psychoanalysis’s orientation toward understanding, which often enough tends also to be the orientation of husbands and fathers and analysts toward mothers. Ferrante loves Freud, she says, but she loves him because he, unlike the analysts who follow him, perceived “that psychoanalysis is the lexicon of the precipice”—its concepts are too dangerous, too resistant to our efforts to know and understand, to be assimilated to “expert” knowledge. It is not surprising, then, that, from the beginning, as Ferrante put it in a 2015 interview with The Paris Review, she has “produced a writing that is dissatisfied with itself.” Her narrators, and the stories they tell, are driven by dissatisfaction, a dissatisfaction that is only exacerbated by their restless and ultimately vain attempts to resolve it.

If dissatisfaction is the motor of her writing, then its expressive medium is rage. The Neapolitan Quartet begins with the narrator Lenu’s rage at her best friend Lila’s decision, at the age of 66, to withdraw herself wholesale from the world and “eliminate the entire life she had left behind.” In The Lying Life of Adults, the narrator’s aunt, Vittoria, is a teeming volcano, forever enraged at her brother for having broken up her affair with a married man. And in The Days of Abandonment, Olga, the protagonist and narrator, becomes increasingly angry about the explanations and trite rationalizations offered her when her husband Mario leaves her for another, much younger woman.

Mario’s colleague Farraco tells her, “It’s that age. Mario is forty—it happens.” Olga finds it particularly unbearable to be told Mario is simply conforming to expected behavioral patterns, as though merely knowing this should salve the gaping wound of her abandonment and humiliation. But the expectation of resigned equanimity is all around her, not least in herself: “The reasonableness of others and my own desire for tranquility got on my nerves.”

Despite her anger, Olga imposes a code of good behavior on herself—she will not intrude on Mario’s friends, she will not be hateful—a code that derives from the longstanding and deeply internalized imperative to conceal the “clamorous life” within. Over the years, she has taught herself to speak in gentle tones, to subordinate all instinctual reactions to thoughtful delay, “to wait patiently until every emotion imploded and could come out in a tone of calm, my voice held back in my throat so that I would not make a spectacle of myself.”

Described thus, this struggle between impulses to express and to withhold emotion starts to look more complicated than a straightforward conflict between instinctual violence and civilized self-control. Freud, after all, reminds us that repression draws its energy from the very forces of lust and rage it wants to repress, employing their violence against them. To tell someone, yourself or another, in the grip of rage to stay calm, that these things happen, that you’ll get over it, is as likely to be felt more as an attack than as a reassurance, a denial of what you’re feeling and a demand to feel otherwise.

Read in this light, Ferrante’s entire corpus starts to reverberate with the conflict between two kinds of anger. The first is the rage of the afflicted, the neglected, the betrayed, of the pent-up accumulations of dissatisfaction and demand we hear in the voices of Leda, Olga, Lenu, Lila, and Vittoria, and, in the Neapolitan Quartet, the protests of exploited factory workers and factional-left terrorist cells that menace the edges of everyday life.

The second kind of anger is rooted in fear of this first kind. It is the rage of men against women, rich against poor, fascists and Camorrists against ordinary citizens, of mothers against daughters. And it’s the rage of individuals, especially women, against themselves.

In writing out of (rather than merely “about”) anger, Ferrante inserts herself into a specific literary lineage whose forebears might include Emily Brontë, D. H. Lawrence, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Thomas Bernhard, James Baldwin, and Audre Lorde.

For all their self-evident differences, these writers’ works have in common a receptivity to the creative and destructive force of anger, its capacity to “‘unform” (to borrow a happy phrase from Sarah Chihaya’s essay on Ferrante) the structure and texture of their writing.

Most of Ferrante’s narrator-protagonists are both mothers and daughters, caught in a pincer movement of the generations above and below.

In Celine and Bernhard, the writers at the extreme end of this lineage, anger dominates the authorial voice to the exclusion of almost every other emotional tone. Impelled by the force of rage, their sentences seem to roll down a hill gathering inexorable velocity and momentum, coercing readers into running breathlessly alongside them without hope of a pause.

Ferrante’s narrators, by contrast, are less inclined to the catharsis of the rant. Like Brontë’s or Baldwin’s protagonists, they are in a complex dialectical relationship to their anger, alternately removed from and possessed by it.

What distinguishes Ferrante’s writerly rage from that of these other writers, though, is its source in the maternal relationship. Most of Ferrante’s narrator-protagonists are both mothers and daughters, caught in a pincer movement of the generations above and below. The emotional demands of their children, exhilarating and suffocating by turns, arouse memories of the strange violence with which their own mothers loved them. Leda recalls her mother dragging her from the sea trembling with cold:

When she saw that my teeth were chattering she became even more furious, yanked me, covered me from head to toe in a towel, rubbed me with such an energy, such violence that I didn’t really know if it was worry for my health or a long-fostered rage, a ferocity, that chafed my skin.

Maternal love, Leda seems to say, is conditioned by a rage which can at times render love and hate unsettlingly difficult to distinguish. The unbearable burden of love that stirs Leda’s mother to such alarm is felt as a ferocious resentment and a wish, rubbed violently into her daughter’s skin, to be free of its overbearing demands. And when Leda becomes a mother in her own right, she finds herself in the same trap.

For Ferrante, the love of a child calls a mother to a terrifyingly limitless responsibility. No living writer has worked through this disturbing conundrum more vividly or precisely than she has. Recalling that day when her daughter Bianca got lost on the beach, Leda inhabits a frightened child’s perspective with uncanny precision: “A child who gets lost on the beach sees everything unchanged and yet no longer recognizes anything.” Yet when Leda finally finds Bianca, she ends up screaming at her “with rage, like my mother, because of the crushing weight of responsibility, the bond that strangles, and with my free arm I dragged my firstborn, yelling, you’ll pay for this Bianca, you’ll see when we get home.”

In recounting these events, Leda is at once still the little girl reeling under the blows of her mother’s raging love, and the mother, dispossessed by the incomprehensible intensity of her own rage. What is insupportable to her about the moment when she finds her daughter is the sense of loss and abandonment conveyed by Bianca’s tears, inducing in Leda a pain so excruciatingly close to her own childhood experience that she can only drown it out in furious threats.

In Ferrante, to be a mother is to transmit to your child the state of unconscious self-division inherited from your own mother, and from a culture that projects onto mothers violently contradictory expectations. The mother’s wish to redeem the privations and cruelties of her own childhood comes into tension with a resentment toward the daughter who enjoys freedoms and possibilities she lacked. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Lenu’s mother Immacolata, deprived from childhood of any educational or commercial exit paths out of poverty, menaces her daughter, now a published novelist and fiancée to a distinguished young professor, with the injunction not to forget that “I who carried you in here am just as intelligent, if not more, and if I had had the chance I would have done the same as you, understand?”

Immacolata fights her own desire to realize through her child the future denied herself, the wish, described by Freud in his essay on narcissism, to “fulfil those wishful dreams of the parents which they never carried out.” In The Story of the Lost Child, the last of the Quartet, Immacolata speaks to Lenu of her life as an unending series of dissatisfactions: marriage to a man she can’t recall ever having given her pleasure, a lack of feeling for the children she bore after Lenu (“a sin for which she would go to Hell”), and finally her disappointment in Lenu herself, now the scandalous woman who has left her husband for a pathological philanderer.

In Ferrante, rage frequently manifests in conflagrations between rebellion and reaction, leaving behind only a patch of scorched earth.

For Immacolata, Lenu is her eldest and “only true child,” the moment of her birth “the only good thing in my life.” But that makes Lenu’s break from Immacolata’s narcissistic projections all the more unforgivable. Lenu, for her part, is caught in a peculiar bind; without the self-assertive anger that has enabled her to escape the confines of the neighborhood, she could not have fulfilled her mother’s deepest wish, namely that she live a different and better life. But the same anger has effected an irremediable separation that her mother has felt as violently hostile. Immacolata carries an anger that threatens to disrupt the existing order, but which for most of her life has instead been diverted into shoring it up.

This internal rift in the mother, Ferrante has suggested, is the very source of the frantumaglia experience. The word, she has said, was transmitted to her by her own mother, for whom it connoted “how she felt when she was racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart.”

In Ferrante, rage frequently manifests in conflagrations between rebellion and reaction, leaving behind only a patch of scorched earth. But there are also sporadic hints of a different destiny for anger. Lenu, narrator of the Quartet, writes her own and Lila’s story out of rage at Lila’s decision to disappear, and erase from the world all traces of herself. Instead of cancelling itself out, then, Lenu’s rage finds a home in writing.

One of the Quartet’s most memorable episodes, from The Story of a New Name, allegorizes this expression, and reclamation, of anger through a story of visual form. Lila embarks on a transformative image-making project: she takes an old advertisement featuring her photo, radiant in her wedding dress and shoes, and subjects it to artful deformation.

With “glue, scissors, paper, paint,” a child’s art materials, Lila’s destructive rage channels itself through play. Using pinned strips of black paper, she erases herself from the image, leaving only bodily traces: an eye, a mouth, a strip of bust, a line of leg, the shoes. The effect is conveyed through the impression of a dramatic change in Lila’s mood:

Lila was happy, and she was drawing me deeper and deeper into her fierce happiness, because she had suddenly found, perhaps without even realizing it, an opportunity that allowed her to portray the fury she directed against herself, the insurgence, perhaps for the first time in her life, of the need . . . to erase herself.

In this moment, we find opposing impulses set up not in a mutually destructive fight to the death, but in paradoxical and productive collusion. Lila erases herself, but this erasure becomes a portrait, a way of giving body to her self-annihilating rage.

The story of the defaced photograph, like the Quartet, like all of Ferrante’s work, reminds us why anger needs art. In art, anger's fire can find a home for itself, a mutual accommodation in which the house isn’t burnt down and the fire isn’t extinguished.

Perhaps this gives me a way of understanding my wife’s gift of the book. Instead of unleashing a fury, she found an artwork that portrayed it, that made it a little more audible and intelligible to a man—a father and husband, a psychoanalyst—who finds it too easy to think he knows something about motherhood. Pressed into my hands, the book transmitted a palpably ferocious heat that somehow, miraculously, didn’t burn.

Josh Cohen is a psychoanalyst, literature professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, and the author of seven books, including Not Working and Losers.
Josh Cohen
Originally published:
February 28, 2023


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