Ferrante Breaks the Frame

A defaced family photograph—with an ancestor cut out—reveals to Ferrante’s new protagonist how women are erased by the words and deeds of men.

A 12-year-old girl, Giovanna, discovers a family photograph in which a woman’s face (a face that she is hoping to see) has been inked out. This defacement is also her own, because Giovanna has been told she is identical to the erased woman. When Giovanna is 16, a sleazy sexual predator at her school demonstrates another mode of erasing women’s identities: through rape. This boy, Silvestro, commits an imagined rape by commenting on Giovanna’s voluptuous body. If he covers her face with a pillow, he says, he would have a good “fuck” (“basta metterle un cuscino in faccia e ti fai una ricca chiavata”). Women’s faces, women’s identities, are doubly erased by the words and deeds of men.

Both scenes capture not only the situation of the narrator but also the larger questions and concerns of Elena Ferrante’s new novel, The Lying Life of Adults: on the one hand, erasure; on the other, the efforts of women to uncover and rewrite the past, expropriating the tools that have subjugated them—the literal phallus and its symbolic equivalent, the pen.

Giovanna’s father—a prominent intellectual named Andrea—is responsible for blacking out his sister Vittoria in the photograph, so as to conceal his own plebeian origins. (Hence the novel’s title.1) With a black marker, Andrea has enclosed Vittoria within a black frame—reminiscent of obituaries—and then filled it in. Since Giovanna believes her face is identical to Vittoria’s, the black frame deletes the daughter’s identity as well. Giovanna tries to scrape off the black rectangle with a knife, but the white paper underneath shows through, the image of her aunt destroyed. The question of Giovanna’s identity can only be resolved by undoing the damage inflicted by her father and recovering her visibility.

Andrea’s defacement of the photograph anticipates the erasure performed by Silvestro through the language of sexual assault. In a scene that metaphorizes Giovanna’s reclaiming of the pen (the symbolic phallus), she stabs Silvestro’s arm with her pencil, the tip of which penetrates his skin, breaks off, and remains inside. The pencil recalls the knife with which Giovanna had tried to scrape the black rectangle off Vittoria’s face.2 In using a pencil to defend herself, she asserts writing as a practice of resistance. Giovanna’s pencil erases both Silvestro’s words and the traces of Andrea’s black marker. The photograph and the pencil are transformed from instruments of oppression into productive means of feminine expression.

In Ferrante’s other novels, photographs depict the erasure of women’s identities within a restrictive and violent patriarchal order. This erasure is literalized in The Lying Life of Adults through the family photograph Giovanna uncovers. She looks like her paternal aunt Vittoria—an aunt she barely remembers—but the aunt’s face has been removed.

This visual erasure incites Giovanna’s desire to meet her aunt and sets into motion her quest for self-discovery. Will she become like Vittoria, an uncouth and semi-illiterate but seductively vital woman, or will she cobble together a new identity for herself despite the web of family secrets and lies?

In the novel’s first chapter Giovanna is already entangled in that web. The opening paragraph inserts her within a distinct narrative frame:

Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly. The sentence was uttered under his breath, in the apartment that my parents, newly married, had bought at the top of Via San Giacomo dei Capri, in Rione Alto. Everything—the spaces of Naples, the blue light of a frigid February, those words—remained fixed. But I slipped away, and am still slipping away, within these lines that are intended to give me a story, while in fact I am nothing, nothing of my own, nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion: only a tangled knot, and nobody, not even the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption.

If the voice of The Lying Life of Adults sounds familiar in English, perhaps it is because it reaches us through the work of Ann Goldstein, who has translated all of Ferrante’s novels. Goldstein’s translation style is unadorned and syntactically close to the Italian, resisting the traps of linguistic domestication and consistently captivating across Ferrante’s body of work.

This first paragraph also employs many of Ferrante’s recognizable narrative strategies—a first-person narrator charting the crises of a female subject who negotiates existential and corporeal thresholds against the background of a spatially and socially stratified Naples. Giovanna reflects on her adolescence from an indefinite point in the future, using writing as a thread or scaffolding to hold together the slippery past and confer on the present a concrete shape and order.

Any reader acquainted with Ferrante’s first two novels will notice that this first paragraph revisits their openings, articulating its own familial genealogy. Like The Days of Abandonment (2002), Ferrante’s new novel begins with the dissolution of a family; this time, that experience is reoriented through the daughter’s perspective. Like Troubling Love, whose first line identifies the date and place of the mother’s death, The Lying Life of Adults immediately notes the exact location of the conversation Giovanna overhears, grounding the origins of both her identity crisis and the novel in the spatial and social hierarchy of Neapolitan topography.3

And then, in a metanarrative gesture, she references the lines she is writing, which fail to give her a definite form. Giovanna is a tangle of family words, stories, and identities. Like all of Ferrante’s narrators, she writes to conjure up her past self, using narration as a tool for self-analysis, as a textual frame to fix the borders of a splintered self. Like all of Ferrante’s narrators, Giovanna suffers from frantumaglia­, a sense of psychical or corporeal fragmentation; and smarginatura, an experience of dissolving physical boundaries.

The photograph and the pencil are transformed from instruments of oppression into productive means of feminine expression.

The borders of Giovanna’s adolescent self emerge in the family photograph, which she employs as a mirror to confirm her ugliness. Aunt Vittoria becomes Giovanna’s alter ego, a feared and desired incarnation of her paternal inheritance—a manifestation of familial belonging and social, spatial, and linguistic difference.

The Lying Life of Adults, unlike Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, does not trace the emancipation and social mobility of her characters through education and the adoption of standard Italian. Instead, it charts a reverse journey through social and spatial identities, by tracking Giovanna’s return to her paternal origins, embrace of her father’s old Pascone neighborhood, adoption of Vittoria as a role model, and aspiration to speak in dialect.

Giovanna lives in the literally and symbolically elevated Rione Alto, in an educated family. Speaking in Neapolitan dialect is prohibited by her cultured parents, both high school teachers. She occupies, topographically and socially, the space above the peripheral zones where Vittoria lives and where Andrea was raised.

The narrative moves vertically between the Pascone, which lies in the industrial zone, and Giovanna’s apartment, up in the Neapolitan hills. Likewise, Giovanna’s identity migrates between these two opposite poles, with their sociocultural and linguistic characteristics. She calls her maternal grandparents “the Museo grandparents,” because they live in a “precise place with an evocative name,” while in her imagination her father’s family comes from a dark and menacing place, to which she must descend to track down her roots and come to terms with her paternal legacy.

The question of Giovanna’s identity is first one of mobility: to reach her aunt, she must learn to navigate through Naples, memorizing routes, streets, and neighborhoods. Her newly acquired knowledge of Neapolitan topography coincides with the end of her childhood and the beginning of her troubled adolescence.

The disintegration of her identity takes the shape of frantumaglia and smarginatura, discernible in Goldstein’s translation and familiar to the reader cognizant of Ferrante’s vocabulary. The cultured Italian that Giovanna learns from her parents is described as “splintered,” mirroring her fractured self. Her changing, adolescent body is as if leaking, losing its stable borders. And, of course, there is the photograph, which symbolizes so much of this distance and mobility, the erasure and recreation of self and boundaries.


Ferrante’s Storytelling in a Global Age

By Tiziana de Rogatis

Despite the importance of the photograph, the most visible object in the novel is, in fact, a bracelet—one that Vittoria had given to her brother as a present for Giovanna on her baptism. It symbolizes the nascent bond between aunt and niece, while linking Giovanna to two generations of women chained to the patriarchal order. And, just like the photograph, the bracelet conceals a problematic and mysterious past. Its excursions between the Rione Alto and the Pascone and its entanglements in the family’s history structure both the novel’s plot and Giovanna’s rites of passage.

The bracelet and the photograph function as objects of family memory. In a crucial scene midway through the novel, Giovanna’s mother shows her daughter an undamaged copy of the inked-out photograph, in which the bracelet is clearly visible. The mother has kept the photograph inside her old Italian dictionary, metaphorically linking books and photographs.

This linkage allows Ferrante to hint at the role of photography in creating and exposing family narratives, and at the mother’s role in recovering and passing on these narratives. The inked-out photograph and its undamaged copy emerge as sites of what Marianne Hirsch defines as postmemory, “a powerful and very particular form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation.”4

Hirsch developed the notion of postmemory in relation to the children of Holocaust survivors, but it is useful in describing other second-generation memories of traumatic experiences as well. The photograph and the bracelet can be read as the objects or sources of Giovanna’s postmemory and the novel as her imaginative recreation of her family’s traumas.

The Lying Life of Adults is an exploration of the effects of paternal and patriarchal legacies on the formation of Giovanna’s identity. At the end of the novel, the 16-year-old rejects both and articulates her own autonomous feminine genealogy. She sides neither with her aunt nor with her mother, but with her girlfriend Ida, who is writing—and who reads aloud, in a metanarrative mise en abyme of the novel—the story of Giovanna and her best friends, Ida and Angela.

The narrative frame introduced in the opening chapter of The Lying Life of Adults does not close at the novel’s end, leaving the reader stranded inside Giovanna’s story. This structural choice could be explained by Ferrante’s initial conception of this novel as the first installment in a multivolume project.5 But by not closing the narrative frame, the text avoids any finalized or totalizing representation of feminine identity—it unframes Giovanna.


This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

  1. Ferrante’s title references Elsa Morante’s novel Menzogna e sortilegio (1948), translated into English as House of Liars, another novel about family history and identity formation.
  2. Giovanna wonders what she would have done had she had a knife instead of a pencil.
  3. The characters of these novels are also linked by a specific time marker. In The Days of Abandonment, May 23 is the date of Amalia’s death. In Troubling Love, the same date is Delia’s birthday. May 23 is also an important date in Giovanna and Vittoria’s friendship in The Lying Life of Adults—intertwining, again, the rituals of birth and death.
  4. Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 22.
  5. Elena Ferrante, “Devo mentire per dire la verità,” La Repubblica, 30 November, 2019.
Featured-image photograph by Jisun Han / Unsplash