Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478
Arturo Gerace (ahr-TEWR-oh geh-RAH-chay), the narrator of the tale, who tells the story of his life up to the age of seventeen. He was born and reared on the island of Procida, in the Bay of Naples. His father, Wilhelm Gerace, was illegitimate, the product of an affair between an immigrant Italian and a German schoolteacher. Arturo seeks affection from this moody and distant man, who is often away. Arturo’s mother died shortly after his birth. When his father returns one day with a new wife, Nunziata, Arturo is dismayed. The new wife is young, barely older than Arturo. At first, the boy dislikes her, but he gradually falls in love with her. In the end, Arturo is disillusioned by his father, who turns out to be far from the romantic, heroic person Arturo has imagined him to be.
Wilhelm Gerace, Arturo’s father, who grew up hating women and disliking the fishing folk of Procida. He inherited a house from a blind eccentric who befriended him and took his first wife there. She gave birth to Arturo at the age of eighteen and died shortly thereafter. Wilhelm seldom is home, leaving Arturo in the hands of various persons. His second wife, the youthful Nunziata, represents an attempt to recapture the image of his first wife, also a young woman. Nunziata is afraid of him. Wilhelm is attracted to a convict, Stella, who is in the penitentiary on the island, and he brings her home, thereby losing forever the loyalty of his son.
Nunziata (newn-ZEEAH-tah), Wilhelm’s second wife, a poor girl from the slums of Naples. She arouses resentment, then affection, in Arturo. She becomes pregnant with Wilhelm’s child, but for most of her pregnancy, her husband is gone. Rather prim for her age, she looks on Arturo as a strange, emotional boy and repulses his signs of affection. When Arturo injures himself while staging a suicide attempt, she nurses him back to health, earning his devotion.
Assuntina (ah-sewn-TEE-nah), a widow of Procida who becomes Arturo’s mistress. She is a willing partner to his advances and sees in him a poor romantic boy who gives her true love. She is, in a way, a surrogate for Arturo’s real love, Nunziata. It is through making love to Assuntina that Arturo comes to understand that his true love is for his father’s second bride.
Silvestro, a youth not much older than Arturo who is engaged by Wilhelm to watch over the boy while Wilhelm is away on his many trips. He swims and plays with Arturo, and he tries to shepherd him responsibly, not always succeeding. Silvestro is conscripted into the army, however, leaving Arturo on his own. He introduces Arturo to the many beauties and recreations of Procida, helping him appreciate the uniqueness of the island.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 711
The novel focuses on Arturo, for it is the inner being of the male adolescent that interests Elsa Morante. Arturo is not a typical teenager. He is, in many ways, an adult: He is alone much of the time; he is fiercely independent, without friends and without guidance; and he does not go to school. Nature and his own imagination are his teachers. Arturo looks at the other Procidians with disdain, because in his estimation they are inferior beings whose sole characteristic is “their everlasting dependence on the practical necessities of life.” In his own “Code of Absolute Truth,” the fourth law is that “No one living on the island of Procida is worthy of Wilhelm Gerace and of his son Arturo Gerace. For a Gerace to become friendly with a Procidian would be degrading.” Women are even more unworthy of his attention; his father has already introduced him to misogyny. Thus, as he grows up, his solitude becomes more pronounced.
Despite his solitude, Arturo lives very happily in a magical world of his own creation, a world of pirates, knights, and conquerors. He is proud to have the name Arturo because it is the name of the great king who was lord of the knights of the Round Table. His second law states that “A man’s true greatness consists of courage in action, scorn of danger, and valor in combat.” For Arturo, his father is the embodiment of the true heroic figure, and when Wilhelm leaves the island for any period of time, Arturo imagines that his father is going forth on a glorious and heroic adventure. He imagines that sometimes his father is the scourge of pirates and bandits and that at other times he is a pirate or a bandit himself.
It seems that Arturo has everything, yet he lacks one essential ingredient for a happy life: affection. The affection for which he yearns is not to be found in his father. Wilhelm does not reciprocate Arturo’s affection; he virtually ignores his son. Eventually, Arturo finds the affection that he seeks in Nunziata, an affection that soon turns into love and that ultimately thrusts him into the realization that he has grown up and must leave his perfect island to live in an imperfect outside world.
Nunziata at first seems to be a very simple, uncomplicated girl. She is awkward, clumsy, and childlike, although her body is that of a fully matured woman. She is from a poor Neapolitan family and does not want to marry Wilhelm but is forced to do so because of her family’s economic problems. Nunziata is strongly religious and at the same time superstitious, but neither of these characteristics is all-consuming. Accustomed to living in a crowded and noisy house in Naples, and believing that human beings were created by God to live together in harmony, peace, and love, she is uncomfortable and unhappy living in the oppressive solitude of the Gerace house. Even though she often is mistreated by both Wilhelm and Arturo, she treats them with respect and affection. Without Wilhelm’s love, she falls in love with Arturo but refuses to be unfaithful to her husband. Arturo knows that he cannot live on the island with her and so must leave.
Morante has given Nunziata a simple quality, but at the same time she has endowed her with the traditional characteristics of Neapolitan women: an earthy sexuality, an inner warmth that exudes strength and firmness, and a natural coquettishness. Nunziata serves as the vehicle by which Arturo makes the transition from adolescence to manhood.
There is very little of a positive nature that can be said of Wilhelm. He is a restless soul who cannot stay in Procida for any length of time. He is bored with life on the island and with his new wife, whom he mistreats and insults constantly. He is ignorant of the needs of his son and treats him almost as if he were not alive. He is in love with a young man who is in jail and who makes Wilhelm wait on him like a slave. He certainly is not the heroic figure imagined by Arturo. In the end, Arturo’s idolization of his father turns to compassion for him.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 74
Caesar, Michael. “Elsa Morante,” in Writers and Society in Contemporary Italy: A Collection of Essays, 1984. Edited by Michael Caesar and Peter Hainsworth.
Evans, Annette. “The Fiction of Family: Ideology and Narrative in Elsa Morante,” in Theory and Practice of Feminist Literary Criticism, 1982. Edited by Gabriela Mora and Karen S. Van Hooft.
McCormick, E.A. “Utopia and Point of View,” in Symposium. XV (1961), pp. 114-130.
Mitchell, Julian. “Absolute Beginner,” in Italian Quarterly. III (1960), pp. 70-74.