Women of the Shadows

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Ann Cornelisen brilliantly portrays the frustrated, dehumanizing struggle of poor families whose lives take on the desolation and alienation of their surroundings. They suit each other—the bleak land and the dour people who have no joy in life, only an eternal struggle which they cannot quite win. The cruel world defeats them as they have been defeated for centuries, young and old alike, driven, plodding slowly, heavily, stopping occasionally to shift their load. Cornelisen captures the wretched isolation of these people with her lifelike descriptions and penetrating insight into their actions and motivations. Having lived for twenty years among them, she writes with unquestionable authority and profound respect for a subject to which she has devoted, in large part, her career.

Cornelisen is a magnificent stylist. She writes clearly and, as a scientist, she is very mindful of the objective truth. At the same time, she cannot help reflecting more subjective, personal observations in her study. As she examines the slow repetition of day after day, year after year that she spent in the southern villages, she evokes the villagers’ sense of inner isolation, one which she believes she has never entirely lost. She has adopted a part of their feelings and attitudes in her involvement with them, but she must forcibly distance herself from their emotions in order to become an effective observer and reporter.

The “women of the shadows” are the painfully human women of tremendous strength around whom life in the southern Italian villages is centered. The social structure of most poor, relatively isolated Western communities, where the Catholic Church either dominates or is an outright state religion, is matriarchal. It is a system felt by everyone that functions every day, but it is not codified and does not have to be recognized. Men make no large decisions, and day-to-day existence is left to the women, who unconsciously take over all the practical aspects of life. Although men boast with aggressive pride about their power over women, it is really the women who consolidate their hold over husbands and sons with tremendous control.

The lives of the women and men described by Cornelisen are peculiarly separate. Even when they work together in the fields, they share little. What they do share is a wordless, clinging grief at the illnesses and deaths that strike their families. They never seem more helpless or closer to each other than when they stand looking down at a mute, feverish child in a hospital bed. As their lives have been arranged for centuries, peasants have only one responsibility—the family. And it is the women who earn the most dependable source of cash. They work in the fields, teach the children, manage expenses, and most of all, create security. In terms of religious teaching, women can identify immediately with Mary, the all-suffering Mother, and perhaps take consolation in her importance to all men. Much as the Vatican may condemn it, in the South, Christ is on the altar, but the people pray to and worship the Virgin Mary.

The women Cornelisen discusses are not lovable or even objects of our admiration. Instead, they are blunt, often crude, and at times unable to control their savage tempers. They have a certain wit and resourcefulness and a ferocious courage. Sometimes they are compassionate with one another, but always with a warning not to trust entirely the outsider who may betray them later.

When Cornelisen examines the lives of individual women, she is splendidly candid and provides fascinating, intimate detail. She uses detail to enhance her pictures of real people, who seem so lifelike that the reader would immediately recognize any of her characters on the street. Peppina, for example, is a short, lumpy woman dressed in hand-me-downs, who lived in the apartment across from the author. She was preoccupied with callers,...

(The entire section is 1594 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Contemporary Review. CCXXIX, October, 1976, p. 213.

Human Behavior. V, July, 1976, p. 75.

National Observer. XV, April 17, 1976, p. 19.

New Statesman. XCII, August 20, 1976, p. 244.

New Yorker. LII, April 12, 1976, p. 139.

Saturday Review. III, March 20, 1976, p. 25.