Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591
The saying goes that, “History is written by the victors.” In this novel, however, Morante offers a history that focuses on the powerless, whose lives are tangled in the web of world events. The main characters have no hand in shaping the destructive political agendas of their country, but each...
(The entire section contains 591 words.)
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- Critical Essays
The saying goes that, “History is written by the victors.” In this novel, however, Morante offers a history that focuses on the powerless, whose lives are tangled in the web of world events. The main characters have no hand in shaping the destructive political agendas of their country, but each deals with their terrifying consequences. Roman Jews whom Ida knows by name are killed because of the Fascists’ alliance with Hitler. Once the Allies have won the war, Ida and Useppe no longer starve. Gunther’s rape of Ida is also shown as another example of history’s effect on the individual; it was only because of larger world events that the young German was in Italy at all.
Morante’s use of historical circumstances and layers of documentary detail give this work a verisimilitude. By juxtaposing the words “A Novel” and “History,” however, she calls into question any narrative, including hers, that stamps itself as truth. Moreover, she adds a nearly omniscient narrator and touches of Magical Realism to the narration of gritty everyday events.
The book is also Morante’s platform from which to offer her mix of Christian and Marxist ideologies. Useppe’s birth by a father of unknown origin, his supernatural powers, his blanket ability to love and generate happiness, and his several falls before his early death show him as a Christ figure. His otherworldly abilities—his ability to communicate with animals and understand the language of the trees, as well as his psychic connection to other people—also illustrate Morante’s humanistic ideal: that all life is connected. Useppe’s bright spirit offers the world a chance of redemption, but his frail power is not enough to change humanity. Traumatized by the catastrophes perpetuated by history, he dies after six years of life.
Useppe’s mother is also a Madonna-like figure. Though a widow with a son, Ida’s relatively scant sexual experience give her the qualities of a virgin. In addition, the rape, which produces the magical Useppe, takes on a supernatural air because of Ida’s seizure. Ida’s redemptive power is in her maternal devotion and self-sacrifice, the antithesis of the political forces around her. When her mothering role is destroyed by forces she cannot control—she blames history for her sons’ deaths—she retreats into madness, silence, and eventually death.
The possibility of redemption is also the undercurrent in the ideology of Davide Serge. Through him, Morante airs her own Marxist analysis of world events. Davide sees the powerful economic forces shaping devastating political choices, and he articulates the idealistic vision of a humanistic workers’ paradise. Davide’s war experiences, however, leave him tormented, questioning his faith in humanity and his ideology. He turns to drugs in order to alleviate his psychic pain and dies another victim of the war and history. His redemptive potential, like Ida’s and Useppe’s, dies with him.
The story’s ending is a pessimistic one, suggesting that the never-ending cycle of history, despite the tragic lessons of the past, will continue to crush goodness and humankind’s attempts at personal happiness. Yet, Morante cannot finally sustain such hopelessness. On the last, otherwise blank, page, she offers these words of hope written by a political prisoner: “All the seeds failed, except one. I don’t know what it is, but it is probably a flower and not a weed.” It is Morante’s hope that the book is a seed that does not fail to act on her readers as both warning and object lesson.