From her first short stories and novellas published in the 1930’s and 1940’s to her epistolary novels of the 1970’s and 1980’s, Natalia Ginzburg provides a female perspective on the Italian bourgeoisie during a period of widespread social change. Viewed in its entirety, her career shows a progression from the short story toward the more sustained form of the novel, with a developing interest in the theater. Her dominant themes, which can be related in part to her affinity to Cesare Pavese, revolve around the inevitability of human suffering and isolation, the impossibility of communication, the failure of love, the asymmetries in modern Italy between urban and rural existence, and the influence of the family on the individual human person.
Ginzburg’s early novels, The Road to the City and The Dry Heart, both present first-person female narrators whose interior monologues focus on human emotions rather than external events. Relatively little happens in these early works, which are generally low-key in tone, straightforward in plot structure, and uncomplicated in lexicon and syntax. The elemental character of Ginzburg’s prose makes her work accessible to students whose knowledge of Italian may still be rudimentary. In fact, her clear and direct approach to writing has won for her high praise as a stylist. Her later novels depend more on dialogue than on description, and her talent for reproducing realistic speech patterns expresses itself with equal felicity in her writings for the theater.
With Family Sayings, which is generally considered to be her best novel, Ginzburg introduced a more openly autobiographical element into her work. A chronicle of the author’s family life during fascism, the Resistance, and the immediate postwar period, Family Sayings testifies to the author’s statement that memory provides the most important stimulus for her writing. Her interest in the family as a social unit is also manifest in her other works of the 1970’s and 1980’s and underlies such epistolary novels as No Way and The City and the House, as well as works as diverse as the novel Family and the scholarly biography The Manzoni Family.
The Road to the City recounts the experience of a sixteen-year-old-girl, Delia, whose boredom with her squalid peasant environment leads her into the trap for which she seems destined. Blinded by the glitter of city life (as personified in her older, more sophisticated sister), she allows herself to be seduced by a young law student named Giulio, for whom she feels only a superficial attraction. She becomes pregnant and marries Giulio while her cousin and true friend, Nino, dies from abuse of alcohol and frustration at being unable to establish a meaningful relationship with her. During the wedding ceremony, Delia realizes that she is marrying a man she does not love, but she fails to realize the underlying circumstances that have caused her to enter into a loveless marriage. This study in disillusionment contains the typical elements of Ginzburg’s early work: Her narrator-protagonists are naïve and simple young women who find themselves attracted to the charms of city life but are ultimately disappointed by the role that society offers them.
The Dry Heart
Relying on similarly uncomplicated stylistic devices, The Dry Heart recounts a murder story from the perspective of a first-person female narrator, a young schoolteacher from the country whose life in the city is full of disappointments. Like Delia, she enters into a loveless marriage. Unable to draw her husband away from his mistress, the unnamed narrator-protagonist kills him, seemingly against her own will. The murder is related in the novel’s opening paragraphs, and the bulk of the novel is made up almost entirely of a monologue in which the protagonist seeks to justify and to understand her own actions. The detached, isolated “I” that appears throughout the narrative mirrors the...
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