La Poverella, A Strategy in Secondary Characterization

In The Days of Abandonment, the use of a first person point of view is a successful strategy because Elena Ferrante’s narrator pulls us deep into her turbulent emotions after her husband of fifteen years leaves her for another woman.  While the intensity of the emotion and the closeness to the character is effective in creating for the reader a vicarious way to live in Olga’s shoes, it limits our perception of her.  The complexity of her character and her descent could easily be lost in the emotion and become the cliché image of a woman scorned.  And unlike what Wayne Booth states in his essay, “Types of Narration,” that “the deeper our plunge, the more unreliability we will accept without loss of sympathy” (164), the deeper we travel the depths of Olga’s temporary madness, it becomes increasingly difficult to relate to the narrator’s rather extreme thoughts and actions. 

To remedy this issue, Ferrante uses a memory from the narrator’s childhood as a secondary characterization.  The story of an abandoned woman, the poverella, provides us with a concrete image to hold onto, and by doing so, Ferrante can use this secondary characterization to do quite a bit of work for the story.  One of the advantages of this strategy is that it pulls the narrative out of the limitations of a first person point of view.  It takes us out of the present action and into the past to give us a larger perspective of Olga, the narrator.  Another striking aspect is how the story is revealed in a dramatic point of view.  The narrator could have easily slipped into a first person omniscient, after all, it is her memory and she could project whatever assumptions or thoughts of the woman.  But she doesn’t need to, because of how language and tone in the narrator’s storytelling shifts.   She describes how this woman, happy in her marriage, appearing “like a woman content with her labors, and she had a good smell, as of new fabric” (Ferrante 15) becomes a woman “suffering, torn to pieces by the absence of the sweaty red-haired, and his perfidious green eyes” (16).  More importantly, by revealing the story objectively, the narrator gains credibility, especially later in the book when she dives even deeper into her emotional hysteria.

It is only at the end of telling the tale, that the narrative comes in close and provides us with interiority, but the interiority is from the narrator not the abandoned woman of her past.  She reveals how deeply the memory affects her. The poverella displays “a grief so gaudy began to repel me…I was ashamed for her” (15).  This statement not only establishes the inner conflict of the narrator in the present action, it also provides foreshadowing of the changes to come for our heroine.  

Throughout the story, she is haunted by this memory.  She fights against it internally, but once she realizes the deception of her husband, she finds herself falling into the same pattern, the same rabbit hole as the poverella once had.  The poverella had “told everyone her husband abandoned her” (16).  Although Olga “had imposed on [herself] a code of behavior” (23), including “not to telephone friends ..in common”, she admits she “couldn’t resist and telephoned just the same” (23).  The poverella, “[curses] the man who had fled from her like a gluttonous animal up over the hill of the Vomero” (16). Mirroring the poverella, Olga, “in spite of [her] resistance” (26) “went from using a refined language” (26) and “gave in to obscenity” (26).  After her relationship ends, the poverella “lost the fullness “of her bosom, of her hips, of her thighs, she lost her broad jovial face, her bright smile” (16).  The narrator too “began to change” (26), and “in the course of a month…lost the habit of putting on makeup carefully” (26).  Her fear of turning into the poverella, the pitiful middle-aged neighbor who responded to her husband’s abandonment by killing herself, slowly and painfully becomes a reality.

The story of the poverella not only provides a template for Olga’s inevitable future, Ferrante uses the poverella as a touchtone to the narrator’s character arc.  Just before we read of Olga’s shocking and extreme overreaction of her dog, Otto’s disobedience, she remembers the moment when she heard the news of the poverella’s suicide, how she, “unable to die by poison, had drowned herself near Capo Miseno” (52).  Her mother suddenly treats Olga differently.  Olga wonders if her mother “recognized in me something of herself that she hated, a secret evil of her own” (52).  We soon see the shift of Olga’s emotional state to fury.  

Olga then imagines the poverella on the stairs, remembering the woman’s words “I am clean I am true I play with my cards on the table” (87), as she feels the shame and humiliation of throwing herself at Carrano, the musician that often clashed with her husband. The poverella’s words haunt her while she tries to wash away the shame.  She clings to her denial when she tells herself, “I love my husband and so all this has meaning” (88). 

As Olga’s inner battle between control and catharsis intensify, the specter of the dead, abandoned woman surface again while trapped in her apartment and dealing with her son’s illness.  She remembers her mother agreeing to the poverella’s assertion that her children “had left the odor of motherhood on her, and this had ruined her, it their fault that her husband had left” (91).  The narrator’s reflection of her current situation echoes the poverella’s words: “…stunned by the odor of Gianni’s vomit, I was the mother to be violated, not a lover” (92).

Later, as Otto, the family dog, lies dying in her husband’s study, the poverella’s apparition sits at his desk.  It scares her, but she realizes that if she were to succumb to fears of her eight year old self to overwhelm her, “to remove the ground beneath [her] feet and replace it with her own” (113), she would open the door to a deeper, more permanent psychosis.  This realization marks a major shift in her character arc.  She summons the inner strength to overcome her demons, and the reappearance of the poverella, this time as a helpful spirit, symbolizing the beginning of Olga’s climb out of her madness.

 The next time the poverella appears, she is as part of Olga’s realization that her battle to avoid becoming the poverella had already been lost years before her husband left her.  She realizes she had never lost herself because she never gave her husband her true self.  She faces her reflection in the mirror and sees the poverella, this time without fear (124).  The last time the narrator remembers the poverella, her character arc is fully realized.  She tells us the “poverella had become again an old photograph, the petrified past, without blood” (184).

Ferrante’s successful strategy with secondary characterization is due to its multiple functions in the story.  It helps the narrative to escape the confines of a first person point of view, lends authenticity and complexity to what would be an unsympathetic and over the top character.  The use of this secondary characterization also works as a concrete projection of what is at stake for the character and provides foreshadowing and signposts of the character’s transformation.

Copyright© 2010 Lisa Abellera

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