My Brilliant Friend

by Elena Ferrante

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The symbol that Ferrante develops most throughout My Brilliant Friend is the shoes. For Lila, Rino, Fernando, and now Stefano, the shoes have different and significant meanings. What do the shoes represent symbolically to each character, and why?

While Lila initially designs the shoes in My Brilliant Friend to express her creativity, they gradually come to symbolize the failure of her dreams for herself, her family, and the neighborhood.

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After Lila’s father decides that Lila will not attend middle school along with Elena, Lila gradually redirects her creative energy to the one thing that she feels she can actively influence: shoemaking. She throws herself completely into designing the perfect shoe, even alienating Elena. As Elena explains,

she preferred the...

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After Lila’s father decides that Lila will not attend middle school along with Elena, Lila gradually redirects her creative energy to the one thing that she feels she can actively influence: shoemaking. She throws herself completely into designing the perfect shoe, even alienating Elena. As Elena explains,

she preferred the adventure of the shoes to our conversation, because she knew how to be autonomous whereas I needed her, because she had things that I couldn’t be part of. (132)

Lila convinces Rino to undertake the labor of making the shoes, based on the unique design that she develops. Working together secretly, Rino and Lila construct and test the shoes in the hope that their father, Fernando, will agree to produce models for sale. Disguising the shoes as a gift from the Befana, Rino eventually decides to give the shoes to Fernando, despite Lila’s opposition. She believes that the shoes are not yet ready.

When Fernando discovers the shoes, he sarcastically praises them, pretending to be pleased with his children’s ingenuity. Rino, blinded by his belief in his own importance, misinterprets his father’s reaction, seeing Fernando’s animated response as excitement rather than anger. Fernando, who has supported his family for years with traditional, reliable work, sees the new shoes as an insult to his role as provider and paterfamilias. He remains skeptical of the shoes, even after Stefano decides to invest in the new venture.

For Rino, on the other hand, the shoes become symbolic of success. As Elena tells us,

he shouted that he wouldn’t stay forever in that wretched place to be his father’s servant and watch others get rich. (165)

As the novel progresses, Rino’s obsession with “getting rich” from the production of the shoes transforms him, making him unrecognizable to Lila. This culminates in Lila’s experience of “dissolving margins” (176).

From the very beginning, Stefano’s interest in the shoes is connected to his interest in Lila. For him, the shoes represent his attainment of Lila. When they become engaged, Stefano decides to finance the shoe venture to help Lila’s family, but also to cement his importance in the neighborhood, over and above the Solaras. He purchases the original shoe models to signal to Lila that he is serious about their relationship and committed to leaving the past of the neighborhood—a past dominated by the Solaras—behind.

It is only at the very close of the novel that we, along with Lila, learn the truth about the Solaras’ involvement in the production of the shoes. When Marcello arrives at Lila’s wedding wearing the original shoes—the very pair that Stefano bought—Lila realizes that Stefano has betrayed her. As a result, the shoes become a symbol for the total collapse of Lila’s hopes for her marriage and for the future of the neighborhood.

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