Despite being recognized on an international scale, she has kept her identity secret since the publication of her first novel in 1992. Speculation as to her true identity has been rife, and numerous theories have been put forth, based on information Ferrante has given in interviews as well as analysis drawn from the content of her novels.
In 2003, Ferrante published La Frantumaglia (The Act of Falling Apart), a volume of her correspondence with editors, which shed some light on her identity. The volume was published in Italian, and was not available in English until 2016. Nonetheless, in a 2013 article for The New Yorker, critic James Wood summarized what is generally accepted about Ferrante, based in part upon these collected letters:
...a number of her letters have been collected and published. From them, we learn that she grew up in Naples, and has lived for periods outside Italy. She has a classics degree; she has referred to being a mother. One could also infer from her fiction and from her interviews that she is not now married...In addition to writing, “I study, I translate, I teach.”
In 2016, Marco Santagata, an Italian novelist who is also a trained philologist, a scholar of Petrarch and Dante, and a professor at the University of Pisa, published a paper detailing his theory of Ferrante's identity. Santagata's paper drew on philological analysis of Ferrante's writing, close study of the details about the cityscape of Pisa described in the novel, and the fact that the author reveals an expert knowledge of modern Italian politics. Based on this information, he concluded that the author had lived in Pisa but left by 1966, and therefore identified the probable author as Neapolitan professor Marcella Marmo, who studied in Pisa from 1964 to 1966. Both Marmo and the publisher deny Santagata's identification.
In October 2016, investigative reporter Claudio Gatti published an article that relied on financial records related to real estate transactions and royalties payments, to draw the conclusion that Anita Raja, a Rome-based translator, is the real author behind the Ferrante pseudonym. Gatti's article was criticized by many in the literary world as a violation of privacy. British novelist Matt Haig tweeted, "Think the pursuit to discover the ‘real’ Elena Ferrante is a disgrace and also pointless. A writer’s truest self is the books they write." Others, however, have suggested that knowledge of Ferrante's biography is indeed relevant.