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« Anger and Fiction | Main | Brookner on Brookner »

Ferrante and Woolf

In the second chapter of Virginia Woolf's A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN, the great Bloomsbury writer turns to a concern that proves quite pressing for Ferrante as well: anger. (If you'd like to read--or reread--the first discussion about Woolf and her collection of essays on our blog, click here.)

Home from her wanderings around the fictional Oxbridge, Woolf decides to investigate further her "swarm of questions"--that is, "[w]hy did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction?"

She heads off to the shelves of the British Museum to do some hard research, only to be confronted by an avalanche of titles. "Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of one year?" And all, as she points out, were written by men: "agreeable essayists, light-fingered novelists, young men who have taken the M. A. degree, men who have taken no degree, men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women."

It's important to remember the time--1929--but also important to note her rising anger, indeed her sarcasm. "Women do not write books about men--a fact that I could not help welcoming with relief."

Her anger, she claims, is caused necessarily not by the profusion of titles but the anger of these very writers, particularly their incessant tone, all about "the inferiority of women." Each writer "was laboring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote."

She then asks how anger can be the dominant tone of men when they discuss women. By all acounts, those men are on top of the social structure. What's to beef about? She first claims that anger is naturally "the attendant sprite on power." In other words, power uses anger as its means and its justification.

But then she presses further--and claims that women function largely as a mirror for men. Men need to see themselves when they look at women--and not only see themselves, but see themselves as bigger than they are. Women are a distorting mirror that allows men to maintain their power--and so women reap the anger that comes with the insecurity of the men's knowing those very women have helped create a world of illusion, a world that flatters these same men, a world that aggrandizes them for no other reason than that they gaze into that mirror. "Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size."

So we return to the question of women and the male gaze that we first noted in Brookner's HOTEL DU LAC--but in this case, the woman as the aid and abettor of male vanity with an ability to create a society-wide delusion that is in constant need of reinforcement through anger.

Which brings us to Ferrante's ferocious novel. How is Olga's anger a reflection of Mario's power? Does the anger only spring from him? Or from other places? Clearly, that anger is ridiculously destructive in the novel--but how is it finally "solved"? Because it is "solved"--you must admit: the novel ends up at a much better place than the darkness to which it descends at its middle.

And how does Virginia Woolf's fictionalized self escape this anger in A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN? At the end of the second essay, she discusses a bequest of 500 pounds a year from her dowager aunt, a bequest which allows her to live on her own, without the need of external support. With money in hand, she "need not hate any man; he cannot hurt [her]."

Hurt. We're back to anger--and violence. And thus we're back to Ferrante and her raw novel, so very full of hurt? But why? And to what end?

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