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History: A Novel is Elsa Morante’s depiction of World War II from the point of view of ordinary Italians. Written in the sweeping tradition of nineteenth century realism, with aspects of Magical Realism, each of the nine chapters represents a year in the lives of one or more of the...

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History: A Novel is Elsa Morante’s depiction of World War II from the point of view of ordinary Italians. Written in the sweeping tradition of nineteenth century realism, with aspects of Magical Realism, each of the nine chapters represents a year in the lives of one or more of the major characters. Each is preceded by a list of the principal events of world history, including battles, workers’ strikes, and weapons development, lists created perhaps by the near-omniscient “I” who narrates the story. Throughout the novel, Morante shows the devastating effects of political events on the lives of common people, especially on Ida and her family.

The novel begins during Ida Ramundo’s Sicilian childhood, during which she suffers from epileptic seizures accompanied by unconsciousness. In the 1930’s after Italy’s Fascist alliance with Adolf Hitler, Ida marries Alfio Mancuso, becomes a schoolteacher in Rome, and bears a son, Nino. When Ida’s mother dies, Ida learns that her mother was Jewish. Terrified that someone will report her to the anti-Semitic fascist authorities, Ida keeps the secret, even as she begins to haunt Rome’s Jewish ghetto. Her husband dies, and while Ida has tried to hold on to a middle-class lifestyle, his death marks the beginning of her slide into poverty and isolation.

One day, drunk and lonely, Gunther, a nineteen-year-old German soldier, rapes Ida, which triggers in her an epileptic seizure and unconsciousness. Gunther is killed three days later when his plane is shot down on its way to the North African front. Ida hides the pregnancy that results for fear of losing her job. After the birth, she tells Nino, who spends more time on the streets than at home, that she found the child abandoned. A deep affection develops between Nino and the baby Guiseppe, whom they call Useppe.

As the war in Europe rages, Rome’s Jewish Ghetto becomes a ghost town, as trainloads of Jews are deported to “forced labor camps.” Nino leaves to join the Italians fighting on the side of the Germans. When Allied bombs hit German-occupied Rome, Ida’s apartment is destroyed, and she and Useppe move to a government shelter. There is little food, and Ida starves herself in order to feed Useppe. One of the inmates of the shelter is Marxist pacifist Davide Serge, a Jew. Detained by the Germans, he escaped and is hiding out at the shelter. A letter tells him that the members of his bourgeois family, whom he has rejected, have been killed in a concentration camp. When Nino shows up, having changed sides and formed a partisan band, Davide joins him. They carry out brutal attacks against Nazi soldiers.

After the war is over, Ida’s school reopens, and she rents a room in a nearby slum. Nino visits the family occasionally, espousing the ideology of the revolution against the new Italian government. A black marketeer, he is smuggling guns to the revolutionaries. Not yet twenty-one, he is killed while fleeing the police with a cache of weapons. Ida keeps Nino’s death a secret, but, uncannily, Useppe knows. The boy begins to have nightmares and epileptic “spells” similar to Ida’s but much more violent.

Davide is also in Rome. Shattered by the brutalities of the war, he has become a drug addict, and just after a visit with Useppe, he dies of a heroin overdose. A few days later, Useppe dies from an epileptic seizure. On finding her six-year-old son’s body, Ida’s reason for life is gone and she goes mad. The story finishes with another list of world events, which include assassinations, nuclear testing, and bombing in North Vietnam, ending with the words, “and History continues.”


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The 1960’s and 1970’s were a time of great social protest in Italy, and Morante’s Marxist polemics reflect a political position common at the time. As many feminists point out, however, Marxism finds the basis of women’s oppression in economics rather than in sexual politics. With its strong Marxist focus, this work, while it follows the struggles of a female main character, is not representative of Italian feminist writing. Rather than protesting the limitations of orthodox female roles, Morante depicts traditional motherhood as a heroic, if ultimately powerless, force in a world gone mad with war. Played out against World War II, which was directed by men who sent the sons of their countries to kill and to die, Ida’s self-sacrificing devotion to Useppe, her desperate focus on his survival, is a powerful force on the side of life. Despite near-starvation, air raids, deportations, and the deaths of countless others, Ida keeps her son alive, starving herself and even stealing in order to feed Useppe.

Unlike her mother, who had the outward appearance of womanly submission yet rebelled within the family, timid and simpleminded Ida grows up to accept her traditional role. During her short-lived marriage, Ida submits passively to her husband’s authority, and while she does work as a schoolteacher, it is her own children that are her reasons for living.

Yet the all-consuming selflessness finally drives Ida into insanity and death. Having no other meaningful identity and unable to protect Nino and Useppe from death, Ida’s mind snaps; the narrator notes that though she lives another nine years, she really died with Useppe. Ida’s death is reminiscent of her namesake, the operatic character Aida, a slave who joins her entombed lover rather than live without him. Useppe’s other protector, a female sheepdog, who is Ida’s double, also dies, shot while fiercely trying to keep the child’s body from being removed from the house.

Ida’s madness, like her earlier “spells,” does allow her to escape the patriarchal conditions, the dehumanizing effects of history, that have caused her so much hardship. Yet Morante’s depiction of Ida’s insanity does not seem a feminist protest against her character’s limited life. Ida’s madness seems more the natural consequence of both the emotional overload of her already simple mind and her selfless devotion, a devotion that Morante seems to applaud.


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Amoia, Alba della Fazia. Women on the Italian Literary Scene: A Panorama. Troy, N.Y.: Whitson, 1992. A survey of the works of nineteenth and twentieth century Italian women writers, including History, offering an overview of their place in that country’s literary history. Includes a chronology marking the years between 1846 and 1991 when various women writers were born and dates of significant publications, a selected bibliography of primary and secondary sources, and a comprehensive index.

Aricó, Santo L., ed. Contemporary Women Writers in Italy: A Modern Renaissance. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990. A collection of essays on twelve Italian women writers active since the 1940’s. The chapter on Morante looks at autobiographical elements, as well as traumatic central motifs, in her body of work. There is a bibliography of works in Italian and in English on Italian literary history, general works about women authors, and literary theory, as well as comprehensive bibliographies for individual women writers.

Caesar, Michael, and Peter Hainsworth, eds. Writers and Society in Contemporary Italy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Prefaced by a description of post-World War II Italy’s political and literary culture, this collection includes essays on ten influential Italian writers of the period. Each essay is followed by a bibliography of the author’s work and suggestions for further reading. The chapter on Morante examines the use of imagination, Magical Realism, and the themes of childhood and history in her works.

Mandrell, James. “The Prophetic Voice in Garro, Morante, and Allende.” Comparative Literature 42 (Summer, 1990): 227-245. A comparison of three female writers’ historical novels, including History, suggesting that the narrative structures in women’s historical novels differ from the male model.

Mora, Gabriela, and Karen S. Van Hooft, eds. Theory and Practice of Feminist Literary Criticism. Ypsilanti, Mich.: Bilingual Press, 1982. This collection of essays first describes diverse feminist approaches to literary criticism, then offers analyses of the works of fiction using these frameworks. The short article on Morante focuses on her condemnation of the bourgeois Italian family structure and values in three novels, including History.

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