Sunday, October 04, 2015

A Look at Ferrante's The Story of the Lost Child

SPOILER ALERT! This post discusses the final novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Saga and deals with plot points without warning or discretion. If you haven’t read the series up to the end and do not want plot spoilers, stop reading here.


So much happens in The Story of the Lost Child and there are so many surprises that a good way to make sense of it is to begin at the end and consider what we know by the final stages of the book. Before I do so, however, a few preliminaries are in order.

Firstly, Elena analyses her own behaviour, and this layer of analysis illuminates her and others’ behaviour. I will try not to repeat the obvious. Secondly, the final novel veers off into territory I had not anticipated in my analysis of the first three. I am glad. As a reader I tend to prefer the Lila-centric parts of the novels over the Elena-centric parts of the novels, probably because they are the extraordinary ones. It also means that some of my observations were not conclusive. I will comment on a couple of these, but I won’t harp on about it.

The Lost Child

Until Tina’s disappearance, we are led to think of Imma as the lost child, because of her inability to adjust. She is an emotionally lost child. This turns out to be a clever ploy by the author to keep us ensconced in the joy of those Halcyon days before the cruel blow is delivered. Whether intended or not, the care with which Tina was made the focal point of the photoshoot signalled to me a symbolic exchange of destinies and, indeed, I feared for the worst. I had a sleepless night after Michele punched Lila in the face and sensed a terrible tragedy in the lives of the Lila and Enzo.

Yet by the end of the novel Tina’s fate is magnified in other characters and perhaps in almost all the familiar characters of the neightbourhood. Lila and Gennaro are both lost children. Gennaro, like Imma, is emotionally lost and weak willed. He never really grows up. Elena treats him like a stupid boy at the very start of book one. Lila herself is a lost child. Her precocious talents as a child have all stilted and repressed by adult responsibilities, an adult world, through work, through hardship, and now through tragedy. Yet the child inside never gave up, always held fast in some hidden corner. This child held fast to hope, and this hope is for the longest time connected to Elena, whose life was meant to justify Lila’s suffering. Once Elena’s activist efforts in the neighbourhood fail, and especially after Tina disappears, even this hope fades. Lila is disappointed in Elena.

The truth about Elena’s doll Tina, like a voodoo doll representating Elena, remains hidden inside Lila until the novel’s resolution. At the same time Lila herself remains tucked inside Elena’s soul. This hidden knot binds the two friends for a lifetime, and is the edifice on which the novel is built. Like those Neapolitan churches that come to fascinate Lila, and that commemorate forgotten atrocities, Elena’s story is a literary monument that exists because of the horrible events that caused suffering in their lives.

To clarify this point, let’s ask a question. Would there have been a story or indeed the need for one, if Lila’s life had proceeded according to her childhood promise? Yes! There would almost certainly have been a need for it, but chances are that she would have written it herself, even if that life unfolded side by side with Elena’s.

The lost child from Elena’s point of view, therefore, is Lila, and if Lila once admonished Elena for writing “ugly things” (in that second novel that only belatedly gets published, and then to great fanfare) it can be understood from this viewpoint: that Lila’s hidden child wanted beautiful things, and that Lila’s hidden, lost child wanted Elena to transform the world into beautiful things. Instead, Elena merely reflected the ugliness of their world. It is a world from which Lila never tried to escape, trusting Elena would help her to transform it, even if only in literature. Yet in old age, after even Elena disappointed her, she finally shifted out of Elena’s range. Lila’s hidden child is lost first because she is left behind, and second because Elena disappoints her, doesn't help her escape the ugliness. Tina’s disappearance is the symbolic reinforcement, or realisation, of this “lostness” - of being lost.

Elena suffers in the absence of Lila. It is a type of mourning that refuses acceptance. It is an angry suffering. Acceptance comes only at the very end. Elena’s suffering in the absence of Lila mirrors the suffering Lila felt in the absence of Tina. It is a suffering that results from not knowing whether she is dead or alive. This suffering finds further fertile ground in the imagination of the reader, who knows about Lila’s disappearance from the start, and learns about her tragic life only through the eyes of Elena. As readers we are outraged at Lila’s fate, but also at the fate of all the downtrodden characters.

The significance of the dolls have a direct connection to the lost child(ren), but I discuss them more fully in the next section. For now, let’s complete the round-up of “lost children” by acknowledging with Elena that, although the Solaras have been almost universally hated, they also did their bit for the neighbourhood, to make it what it is - even its good aspects. Alfonso, Rino, Gigliola, Gino, Bruno are all children who got lost somewhere on the way. They stand for the loss of innocence, of hope, of childhood in general. In their place Elena writes her literary monument that remembers all their lives - not just her and Lila’s.

More specifically, through the loss of little Tina, Lila’s suffering is the suffering of the whole neighbourhood. By disowning Lila and forgetting, the people in the neighbourhood disown themselves, and thus their redemption becomes truly futile. Lila realises that the neighbourhood cannot be truly changed - not even by her and Elena.

It is not an optimistic vision, but it is rooted in a reality that has an emotional authenticity that is difficult to dispute.

The Dolls

Now that we have considered the Lost Child of the title, what should we make of the dolls and their return at the end? Elena receives the two little dolls from their childhood, Tina and Nu, in an unmarked newspaper package together with her post. No addressee, no return address.

The first conclusion we can draw is that Lila is alive and well somewhere, which indeed is the possibility that Elena herself entertains:

“Maybe those two dolls that had crossed more than half a century and had come all the way to Turin meant only that she was well and loved me” - p. 473.

We see here Elena’s need for validation and approval on clear display (“she … loved me”), but it is the strong possibility that Lila is alive that is of primary interest to us. Lila could have committed suicide and planned it that way, but it would not be consistent with the lost child who has finally found a new life for herself. That child was too curious and irrepressible. That child, now lost to Elena, has been recovered by Lila unto herself. 

Secondly, it is an admission by Lila of the role - unspoken up to now - Elena has played in providing courage to her in the face of overwhelming fears, such as those she confessed to in the aftermath of the earthquake. When they went up to Don Achille to confront him - one of the scariest moments of their childhood - and Lila looked so brave she was partly brave because Elena was there beside her.

This fear-courage duality is part of the secret knot of their friendship alluded to in the previous section. It is not just that “Lila has let herself be seen so plainly” (p. 473), but the very knot of their relationship has been made plain. By being made plain it now also loses its power, because Lila has relinquished it. Lila no longer needs Elena to give her courage - she has made a leap, on her own, that we know nothing of.

Thirdly, by relinquishing it, Lila also releases herself. The suppressed confines of her life finally lifts and she is free. We don’t know anything about it, but we can perhaps imagine her: a cantankerous old woman no one would pay any attention to, yet whose intelligence is still sharp and inquisitive at nearly 70 years of age, and who still has a few years left to live and enjoy life without the neighbourhood, without children, without men, without Elena, without the expectations of her childhood - without even the expectation and intrusion of us as readers (here we are reminded of the contrast between the real author, Elena Ferrante, who prefers to live anonymously rather than riding the wave of fame the way Elena of the novel did for the sake of her career; in other words, Ferrante is more like Lila in this respect).

The returned dolls means Lila has gone beyond the pale, and beyond even the bounds of Elena’s tale.

Fourthly, since dolls are often stand-ins for babies in the cultural environment in which several generations of girls have grown up in, the return of the dolls also reflect on the motherhoods of Elena and Lila. Although Lila lost Tina, and Gennaro was a disappointment, she was nevertheless a responsible, dedicated mother - even to Elena’s children until adolescence. Elena was a far better mother than Nino was a father, but she still suffers from her own children’s admonishment that she was too absorbed in her own work. Lila filled this gap.

By returning the dolls, Lila relinquishes her own role as surrogate mother completely, as well as being mother to Gennaro. Their roles have reversed, and on Elena's side of the fence the story hasn't quite ended. She has three children, plus Lila had made Elena promise all those years ago. Elena is  now responsible for Gennaro.

Fifthly, the loss of those dolls were the stuff of childhood emotions. They chucked each other’s dolls into the cellar in a jealous rivalry, a dynamic pattern that repeated itself over many years. The return of those dolls means the end of that dynamic. No more jealousy, no more rivalry. Elena, however, thrived on that competition, and her career was ignited by it.

Finally, the timing of the dolls’ return suggests a simultaneous discovery and loss of Lila’s inner child. Elena wanted Lila to hack* into her computer and read the novel. It is not inconceivable that this actually happened, and that Elena’s conclusion to the contrary is simply more evidence of her inability to see coincidences and the connections between events. The novel is finished, and soon after the dolls arrive. Perhaps Lila, herself finally free, read eagerly and realised that what Elena wrote is actually good, even if not exactly beautiful. Lila no longer needs it to be beautiful. She sees something of herself, and perhaps above all she sees Elena. She takes mercy, and frees Elena.

* Readers may have noticed more than a passing resemblance between Lila’s character and that of Lisbeth Salander. I know that I have.

Elena and Lila

Where does this leave Elena? There are many things we don’t know about Elena’s day-to-day life, but she has told us about most of the truly important events. We know that for significant periods she thrived on the competition and inspiration Lila provided. That force has now faded from Elena’s life, and she can enjoy what’s left - children and relative fame - without that pressure, without that interference. Perhaps she can mend her relationships with her children, perhaps Gennaro will take up some of her time. Either way, it is without a doubt the end of an era.

As for herself, Lila has finally freed herself of the burdens and responsibilities that had taken up her whole life. She gives up Gennaro, she gives up Elena, the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood had given up on her over the years, but she had always been a fixture, an anchor. In the final instance, her energy and inspiration had also gone into the novel we've just read. In this way she served Elena's career, albeit frequently in her own interest. Now, finally, she was free. She who had always been afraid had finally done what she could never do before: be completely independent - even independent of Elena, of the novel. True to her nature, there is no tying her down, and no knowing who she really is.


The Neapolitan saga is full of characters struggling to escape the influence of their parents, only to find themselves emulating them in one way or another. Nino epitomises this theme. He hated and rejected his father throughout his adolescence, yet ended up taking womanising to a whole new level. We saw the first part coming, even if Elena did not. Yet when she finally processes his legacy, she judges him “disappointing”. Of course, Lila got there first and understands the nature of his character all too well. She judges him worse than herself because, she says, he is superficial. Guido Airota makes a separate observation about him, namely that he is “intelligence without tradition”. A talented man without roots, who has nothing to lose, and is all too eager to be someone. At the end of the saga Nino sings his own praises, but those who loved him from close up have all realised that he is an unreliable, lightweight human being.

What, therefore, should we make of Elena’s longstanding crush on him? She herself realises that she had created a fantasy, and that the person who showed up at her book reading in Milan had nothing to do with that fantasy. They were separate entities. However, fantasy and reality corresponded sometimes. For instance, his behaviour as an adolescent was real. She saw him as cool and untouchable, unaffected by the opinions of those around him. His head was somewhere else. That trait turned out to be a flaw, a disregard for everyone around him, even those who adored him and whom he sporadically loved in return when it suited him.

He had intelligence, charisma, and good looks. He seemed untouchable, smooth in all situations. When he showed up at the book reading he was a knight in shining armour, rescuing her from the attacks of a stuffy intellectual. What Ferrante is doing, as Nino’s character unfolds in all its mirage-like glory, is turn the literary convention of the hero - reminiscent of, say, Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch - on its head. She is taking a longer view. Book 3 could have ended with Nino willing to reform for the sake of his “true” love for Elena. We could have been told that “they lived happily ever after”. Instead, we got the bombshell that is book 4. Nino is a warning that many of the classics are perhaps guilty of building fantasies and gender stereotypes rather than looking at the genuine commitments to gender role realities that are implied by marriage and long term partnerships. It is a stunning critique.

If I had expected Nino’s general infidelity, his ongoing marriage to Eleonora was more of a surprise. It is a cleverly disguised plot device that all but defines his character. It anchors his tendency to put every relationship in service of his career ambitions. It provides him with monetary stability and a conservative societal esteem, namely of keeping a family. It also characterises his inability to finish off any relationship. In his personal life he is a politician: not a conviction politician, but one who goes where the grass is green.

Another surprise was the amount of time it took for Elena to get rid of him. In her case, also, we see what she is willing to sacrifice for her career - in her case her human dignity. For a while she lives the life of a concubine. Yet it’s not just a career, it’s also the children and the roof over their heads. She’d created a complex set of responsibilities for herself, and she was keeping herself entangled out of necessity.

It takes her even longer still to realise that his interest in her was due to the prestige she reflected back on him. This tendency in a man is so unusual that she couldn’t see it for what it is.

Only Lila put Nino’s life at risk by being of no use to his career. Lila is therefore in a league of her own.

“She stood out among so many because she, naturally, did not submit to any training, to any use, or to any purpose. All of us had submitted and that submission had - through trials, failures, successes - reduced us.” - p. 403

If Lila’s capacity for suffering is bottomless, Nino’s suffering is like a sulking child’s when it cannot gets its way. When he gets the upper hand once more, it is water off a duck’s back. By the end of the novel Nino is nothing but an annoying stranger whom Elena finds “large, bloated, a big ruddy man with thinning hair who was constantly celebrating himself” (p. 470).

By the end of the saga, Elena herself is leaning more towards traditional values again. She recognises that Pasquale is “much better preserved than Nino”, and speaks fondly about the values he took over from his father and that he upheld at great personal cost. Indeed, even the passing of the Solaras are met with a balanced sense of loss. Elena may share something of Nino’s flightiness and ambitious disregard for those close to her, but she recognises the love she had for her old friends, for the neighbourhood, for all the families that lived there - even for her own mother. We don’t truly know Nino anymore by the end of the saga, but his lack of interest in his own children speaks volumes.

I return to Nino a little later for a final look at his character.


Pietro, who resembles MiddleMarch’s Casaubon and Wuthering Heights’ Edgar Linton in the during the earlier novels, in book 4 emerges as a far better partner and father than Nino. He never shirks his responsibilities, he is tender and observant (as when he advises Elena sensitively about Lila), and despite his general physical deficiencies, Elena judges him worthy of her bed one last time before he leaves for America. Elena recognises his selfish need to spend his personal time with his work, yet accepts it more readily later in life, since she recognises the similarity to her own character. In short, she endorses him as a good former husband, even if she has no desire to start something new. In all these respects Pietro also turns the classic literary stereotype somewhat on its head.

With both these male characters Ferrante is taking our common literary canon to task.


One of the great satisfactions of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan saga is the way in which the story lends itself to analysis. There is enough substance for a thesis, and a blog post can really only hope to probe a few angles. We have not even taken a look at the Solaras, and we should.

One perspective from which to tackle the changing fortunes of the Solaras in book 4 is via the prism of Alfonso. Alfonso is a gender bender who mediates between the destructive masculine energy represented by the Solaras, and Lila’s near-indestructible counterpoint of female energy. He is both a gay man and a cross-dresser, and his muse is Lila. Not only that, he wants to become Lila. The result is that he begins to resemble Lila even more than Lila herself.

Michele Solara, always the more dangerous of the two brothers, has lost the upper hand in his dealings with Lila since she established Basic Sight with Enzo. She and Enzo have become self-sufficient. Michele’s deep respect and yearning for Lila means that this energy now spills out over a cliff and he needs a surrogate for his obsession, which the shape shifting Alfonso provides. They become a type of couple, albeit covertly. (Marcello is furious, although there is nothing he can do.)

The Solaras epitomise a type of macho male energy that simply cannot co-exist with a true female energy. Michele is obsessed by his opposite, but it is also his downfall. Their violence is not compatible with equal distribution of male and female energy. They require submission. Lila and Enzo, on the other hand, embody the only example in the neighbourhood of a different, balanced model of male and female partnership.

As Michele and Alfonso get closer to each other, the Solaras are weakened. At the same time Lila and Enzo become stronger, especially after the return of Elena, and the birth of both their daughters. Masculine and feminine energies find a kind of equilibrium in Lila’s family life perhaps for the first time, and the result is a temporary happiness and harmony (which, after the loss of Tina, never returns). During this period Michele is reduced to a tentative, nervous man who can no longer act with vigour. Whereas Alfonso now embraces his own newfound identity of a woman in a man’s body, modeled on and inspired by Lila, Michele is completely at odds with himself.

We don’t really know what happens between Michele and Alfonso, but it seems that Alfonso overshoots his privileges and Michele kicks him out. The entire balance of masculine and feminine forces in the niehgbourhood are once again in jeopardy, stacked in favour of the destructive masculine element once more. Alfonso loses his feminine appearance, he becomes unreliable, and the whole sorry saga ends with his death at the hands of unknown assailants. It is the beginning of the end.

Tina’s disappearance is the visible culmination of this multi-generational journey. Whereas we are never sure who took Tina, the flow of energies suggests the Solaras were behind it, except that they thought it was Elena’s child - not Lila’s.

Everything from then on - even the death of the Solaras - suggests to Lila that nothing will ever really change in the old neighbourhood.

Nino and Elena

While we are on the topic of contrasting energies we should take a last look at Nino and Elena.

Nino exhibits a strong blend of the feminine and the masculine. His willingnes to sleep with influential women in order to get to the top is a strategy more commonly associated - rightly or wrongly - with ambitious women in society. Combined with his intelligence, charisma, and good looks, this is a killer strategy. He appears to have disguised his stereotypically Southern tendencies behind an alluring, more acceptable Northern veneer. His masculine aggression, paired with a keen feminine sensibility, which is to say an ability to tune into women’s emotions, makes him an effective and well rounded talent. Unfortunately it is almost completely erased by his lack of commitment to his roots, or indeed to any place where he puts down new roots - except where there is power. He sows the wild oats and moves on.

Elena comes across as conservatively feminine during most of her adolescence, but her ambition passes through masculine territory via her academic learning of the classics. She breaks out of academia and attempts, with Lila as inspiration, to marry her feminine and masculine sides to great subversive effect.

If the masculine and feminine are played off against each other, so are the Northern and Southern cultures. In this case Nino and Elena are the clearest examples of this co-habiting duality, since both rise high above their origins. Indeed, at times they mirror each other. However, unlike Nino, Elena increasingly recognises her roots and turns to the neighbourhood of her and Lila’s youth for inspiration. Even so, she moves to Turin in the North for her retirement.


As epitomised by Lila’s life throughout most of the saga, any equilibrium of opposing forces is extremely hard to maintain. Each character in his or her own way tries to find such an equilibrium, and success tends to come at the cost of others, or at the cost of social cohesion.

The Story of the Lost Child resolves the main plot points in often startling ways, but it is the openended implications of the ending that ensures the reader will continue to reflect on the rich material provided.