Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay

Those Who Leave and Those Who StayThe third book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay, follows Lina and Elena through what the novel wryly calls “Middle Time,” that period of adulthood marked, in the case of Elena, by marriage to her college sweetheart, the well-connected Pietro, and motherhood, and the challenges these domestic duties present to her ambitions as a writer; for Lina, whose marriage ended rather abruptly in the previous book, life has taken a turn for the worse: without her former husband’s money, she is forced to work long hours in a sausage factory to support herself and her son Gennaro. One of the series’ guiding principles comes from the second wave of feminism, that oft-repeated phrase: “The personal is political,” and the books can be seen as an embodiment of this expression, as every relationship – between husband and wife, parent and child, lovers and friends – takes on heightened significance in the changing cultural landscape of post-World War II Italy.

The central conflict in the novels is between the old and the new, the traditional and the revolutionary, and so parent-child relationships are especially fraught with tension. Elena’s mother, in particular, struggles to accept her life choices, giving her daughter the impression that she is resentful of her every achievement. So, for example, when Pietro and Elena desire to marry outside the church, preferring a civil ceremony instead, Elena’s mother is aghast; in her view, a marriage is only a marriage if it is before God:

She shouted that the marriage was worthless if the priest didn’t say that it was valid. She shouted that if I didn’t get married before God I would never be a wife but only a whore, and, despite her lame leg, she almost flew as she went to wake my father, my siblings, to let them know what she had always feared, that too much education had ruined my brain, that I had had all the luck and yet I was treated like a whore, that she would never be able to go out of the house because of the shame of having a godless daughter.

Furthermore, in her eyes, there is something unseemly about a woman pursuing an education and a career, having ambitions outside the home, and she never shies from voicing her opinions, opinions tainted by jealousy:

We are nothing to you, you tell us nothing until the last minute, the young lady thinks she’s somebody because she has an education, because she writes books, because she’s marrying a professor, but my dear, you came out of this belly and you are made of this substance, so don’t act superior and don’t ever forget that if you are intelligent, 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?

Even Elena’s novel, a surprise bestseller, divides opinions along political lines, with the revolutionary youth praising its brave and honest depictions of sex from the female perspective, and the elder literati criticizing its depravity and lack of moral instruction.

Even Elena’s twin love interests, the gifted academic Pietro Airota, son of a well-respected academic family, and Nino Sarratore, son of a train conductor, represent this conflict between old and new. Pietro comes from a good family, has excellent career prospects, and represents the antithesis of the violent, dictatorial men who dominated Elena’s childhood. “He marked a new land to me, a land of good reasons, governed by rules that originated in his family and endowed everything with meaning. Grand ideals flourished, the cult of the reputation, matters of principle.” He is also restrained, particularly in matters of sex, in a way that other men in the novel are not:

I didn’t think he’d had other girlfriends; it was hard to imagine him with a prostitute, I was sure he hadn’t spent even a minute of his life talking about women with other men. He hated salacious remarks. He hated gossip, raised voices, parties, every form of waste. Although his circumstances were comfortable, he tended – in this unlike his parents and sister – to a sort of asceticism amid the abundance. And he had a conspicuous sense of duty, he would never fail in his commitments to me, he would never betray me.

This is in contrast to Nino, who in the previous novel fathered a child with Elena’s lifelong friend Lina before abandoning both of them. In fact, we learn he has at least one other child for whom he has shown a similar lack of concern. In other words, he is the antithesis of a man who would “never fail in his commitments.” And yet Nino exercises a kind of magnetic attraction to women, and Elena in particular. Late in her relationship with Pietro, when they are betrothed, Nino shows up unexpectedly in her life, rekindling all her hold feelings for him, and we get this glimpse into Elena’s psyche, after Pietro has asked her if she wants to go on with the marriage:

I was about to say: No, I don’t want to, but I restrained myself in time, I knew that that wasn’t true, either. I said weakly, I’m sorry, I’m depressed, of course I want to marry you, and I took his hand, I interlaced my fingers in his. He was an intelligent man, extraordinarily cultured, and good. I loved him, I didn’t mean to make him suffer. And yet, even as I was holding his hand, I knew clearly that if he hadn’t appeared that night at the restaurant I would have tried to sleep with Nino.

Tradition involves respect not only for the sanctity of marriage, but for commitment, duty, fidelity, without exception for such “modern” concepts as romantic love, lust and passion. When she later begins to have casual affairs with her husband’s colleagues and friends, she defends the decision in thoroughly modern terms: “I couldn’t control my restlessness, an eagerness for violation was growing in me, I wanted to break the rules, as the entire world seemed to be breaking the rules.” Even her attempts to get a prescription for birth control follow this pattern, as the male doctor’s reticence and intrusive questioning contrasts with the female doctor’s unobtrusive willingness.

Lina’s life is marked by a more overt political tension, as her job in the factory becomes the battleground between the revolutionary young – who agitate for better working conditions for workers – and the hired fascists, who represent the business interests. The attraction of socialism to the young, particularly the students, is well outlined, and the fascists and business owners are an unattractive bunch – Lina’s boss, Bruno Soccavo, abuses his workers and sexually harasses his female employees – but Ferrante also hesitates to paint them in black and white terms. Nino, a committed revolutionary, has left a string of illegitimate children behind him, and the Airotas, a family of supposedly revolutionary academics, are happy to live their lives according to traditional ideals. And Pietro, despite his fair-minded desire to see social change, nonetheless sees through the emptiness of much of the revolutionary slogans and propaganda. He gets in trouble when he refuses to alter student grades to reflect their activism (a case of art mirroring life?), deplores the drop in educational standards among the so-called progressive professors, and reprimands his wife for “speaking always in cliches.”

The third book, no less than its predecessors, mirrors life in its vitality, its boundless energy, so much so that it might be easy to miss Ferrante’s art, her careful arrangement of plot and character to not only tell a story but like a barrister build an argument. The end result is seamless fiction.