How does Ferrante challenge conventional practices of historical fiction?
Elena Ferrante's novel can be considered historical fiction because it is set in a specific time and place, and contains references to actual historical events. She also uses description and narrative detail to vividly evoke the sounds, sights, and smells of Naples in the 1950s. However, Ferrante's novel also undermines some of the conventions of historical fiction. The time period of Elena and Lila's childhood is not only the past to the reader, but it is also presented as the past within the world of the novel. The novel opens in the present day, with the news of Lila's disappearance, and the events of their childhood are narrated retrospectively from Elena's point of view. This narrative structure draws attention to the past as a time period that is distinct from the present, a technique that produces something very different from the immersive experience offered by much historical fiction. Additionally, Ferrante's novel highlights the unreliability of our knowledge of the past. Because events are presented as Elena's memories, details are sometimes omitted or reconstructed. Events may also be told from a biased perspective, and are not always presented in a linear, chronological order. These techniques suggest that the past is not something that can ever be recreated with certainty.
Who is the heroine of the novel—Elena or Lila?
My Brilliant Friend is narrated in the first-person by Elena, and events are presented from her perspective. Elena makes it clear that she cannot know what other characters, especially Lila, were feeling or thinking at certain moments. However, despite this strong focus on Elena's experiences, it is difficult to determine to what extent she is truly the main character of the novel. It is not an action in her own life, bur rather the disappearance of Lila that propels the plot into action. The recounting of the events of Lila and Elena's past is presented as a narrative that Elena writes. Being positioned as an authorial figure gives her control, but can also serve to push her to the sidelines of the text, making Lila the central focus. Throughout the events described, Lila's charisma, intelligence, and fierce courage also most often make her the focus of attention from others; even Elena herself seems to feel uncertain about to what extent she is her own person, or simply a shadowy version of Lila. As Natalie Bakopoulos writes, "Elena reflects on the difficulty of telling her own story without Lila in it. There is Lila's story, and there is Elena's story, but Elena realizes the two are inextricable" (p. 397).
What is the role of education in the novel?
Education plays a number of roles in the novel. It is presented as a way to improve one's self and possibly even escape from the confined and restricted world of the neighborhood. Because Elena continues her studies, she is exposed to a wider range of people, thoughts, and perspectives. This can be seen most clearly when she is exposed to supporters of Communism, and challenges to traditional religious ideology. Even when she is not sure what stance to take on these questions, they force her to broaden her thinking. Education is also held out as a source of female empowerment. When Maestra Oliviero supports both Elena and Lila pursuing their education, it becomes clear that she wants them to value themselves for attributes beyond their physical attractiveness, and consider the possibility of achieving more than becoming wives and mothers. The teacher's harsh rejection of Lila after Lila stops attending school is rooted in her frustration that Lila's intellectual promise will not be pursued, and she will become valued only for her beauty. Despite these ways in which education is presented as a potential source of liberty and empowerment, it is also occasionally challenged for being out of step with the realities of modern and working-class life. Although Elena spends years studying Latin and Greek, these strictly theoretical pursuits do not necessarily help her navigate the complex power dynamics of the neighborhood in the way that the street-smart and shrewd Lila can easily do. This ambivalent attitude towards education is captured by Rachel Donadio when she writes that "Ferrante’s Naples books are essentially about knowledge—its possibilities and its limits. Intellectual knowledge, sexual knowledge, political knowledge. What kind of knowledge does it take to get by in this world? How do we attain that knowledge? How does our knowledge change us and wound us and empower us, often at the same time?"
Does Lila succeed by marrying Stefano?
In some ways, Lila's marriage seems to have given her exactly what she wants. She gets to marry the man of her choosing, and she seems to feel some physical and emotional attraction to Stefano. Because of his wealth, marriage to Stefano also ensures that she will have a very comfortable life and be able to support her family as well. Moreover, Stefano is even supportive of the plans for the Cerrullo shoe factory and provides financial support for the project. However, there are subtle hints that Lila may be overestimating how much agency she will have as a married woman and that her wedding day will mark the end of many of her freedoms. Lila seems hesitant and even afraid about the sexual aspects of marriage, and shortly before the wedding, she asks Elena what is going to happen to her. This question suggests that Lila knows she will be a new, unpredictable, and vulnerable position as a wife. Most explicitly, during the wedding reception, Marcello Solara arrives wearing the handmade shoes that Stefano previously owned. This suggests the possibility that Stefano and Marcello may be collaborating in some way, and also that Stefano may not protect Lila from Marcello in the way that she had hoped. It also ominously suggests that both men are similar to one another in the aggressive and controlling attitude they hold towards Lila, and that, rather than protecting her freedom, her marriage will limit it.
Why is the dream of shoe-making so important to Lila?
The dream of the Cerrullo shoe factory is important to Lila for both practical and ideological reasons. She values wealth and the accompanying stability, and as she observes the entrepreneurial expansion in the neighborhood, she realizes that her family's best chance of becoming well-off is through developing their own product to sell. Lila is the only one in her family intelligent enough to see this solution, and brave enough to consider implementing it. In addition to dreams of wealth, Lila also values the independence and creative freedom owning a business would bring. As Grace Bullaro writes, "Lila's new obsession with money is not only a fantasy of wealth for its own sake, she has understood the deeper function that wealth plays in society, that money is merely an instrument in the fulfillment of other more compelling ambitions" (p. 29). She has always show signs of imagination and creativity as a child, and designing shoes creates an outlet for these energies. It also invokes a kind of autonomy that the strong-willed Lila is unlikely to find in most occupations.