A View Through Literature

Mothers and Family in Fascist Italy

        Fascist Italy marked a difficult time and place for women writers. It was a time when the traditional roles of women were reinstated. Women were driven back into the home after World War I and urged by government to take their place as mothers and housewives. Jobs for women were scarce and their role in society was limited to raising children primarily for the nation’s benefit. Consequently, women’s voices were suppressed, so they found a way to express themselves through literature. This is why, when examining stories written by Italian women from 1922 to 1945, characters and themes are essential to figuring out what life was really like for these women; everyday struggles and obstacles faced by various women were repeatedly recognized in the authors’ works.  Some of the main themes that are evident in these stories are maternal self-sacrifice, women’s lack of power and individuality, and the search for satisfaction in life. Clearly, their cry for an identity beyond childrearing and traditional women’s roles is heard as well. The works that will be examined in this paper are “The Boy” by Pia Rimini, “Portrait of a Country Woman” by Grazia Deledda, “I Am So Good” by Sibilla Aleramo, “Beyond the Labyrinth” by Carola Prosperi, “Destiny” by Amalia Guglielminetti, “A Drama in Silence” by Maddalena Crispolti, “Woman with a Little Girl” by Ada Negri, and an anonymous song from the early twentieth century called “The Housewife’s Lament.” 

        In the recent movie, Life is Beautiful, a man named Guido wins the heart of a young, upper-class woman who is about to get married. In her professional life, she is a teacher. In her personal life, she runs away from her fiancé to be with Guido and has a family with him, where she plays a significant role in raising her son and keeping her family together. Even when her husband and son are taken into the concentration camps by the Nazis, she demands to go with them. Her individuality and self-determination stem from her social status. She clearly has more independence and freedom than women of the middle and lower classes, who, like the women that appear in the following short stories and poems, were generally repressed. Unfortunately, the independence and sense of self enjoyed by Guido’s wife in Life is Beautiful was difficult to achieve during fascist rule in Italy.

         Maternal self-sacrifice is a recurring theme in many stories written by women in Italy in the early twentieth century. Women were expected to put children and husbands first, and that is evident in many of the authors’ writings. But through literature, women also attempted to provide their audience with models of non-traditional women’s roles and behaviors, as well. For example, in “The Boy,” by the government-censored author, Pia Rimini, a mother raises her son without a father figure and narrates the story in her voice so that the audience can identify with her inner thoughts and emotions. Instead of developing her own sense of purpose, as motherhood was thought to be a woman’s destiny and only path to satisfaction, the narrator of this story loses her sense of self in an attempt to protect and nurture her child. Essentially, the son helps contribute to her oppression as a woman. At a time when self-sacrifice was central to motherhood and was seen as honorable, this story was an insight into the reality of a mother’s self-sacrifice. In this story, we see how a mother’s self-sacrifice causes her pain and suffering: “Sensing how bitter and hostile he was, she moved over and sat down next to him, a child herself, in all her pain.”  She gives up having a mate because her son is jealous and does not approve of him. Her son wants his mother all to himself: “Aren’t we happy, just you and me?”  He does not realize that woman needs more than a child’s love; she seeks comfort and security in a man too.  
                         http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/1926/ (Accessed 12/10/05)
                               Grazia Deledda

          In “Portrait of a Country Woman” by Grazia Deledda, who had already been ostracized for publishing her writings at age 15, the heroine, Annalena Bilsini, is a perfect example of the strong, enduring, and self-sacrificing mother. Like the narrator in “The Boy,” her longing to pursue her own desires – something that is pleasurable to her – is suppressed. However, her job in the family business and responsibilities raising her children help her feel satisfied: “A sting of desire, the germ of an infectious sadness, flowed in her blood, without her even knowing it. But her love for her children, her ambition to see them rich and happy one day, filled the emptiness in her life.”  Bilsini has been married to an old man out of mere convenience; never has she experienced true love and desire. Like many women, she desires the comfort and love of a man; but, the love and satisfaction of motherhood and seeing her children happy overcome that longing for another man. The story shows that women can find happiness in motherhood and overcome any troubles or lack of love they may come across in their marriage.

        In this same story, the theme of male supremacy is evident as well; even though Annalena Bilsini takes care of all the finances and oversees the labor involved in maintaining and expanding the family business, her brother remains the head of the house despite his disabilities. It is only at the end that she manages to “secure an impenetrable barrier before the door of her home and her new life.”  She will no longer allow her brother to order her around and overpower her. She will, with the help of her talisman, a “small Madonna,” protect her own family and help her children to prosper. It is then clear that she is a strong-minded individual that is capable of finding her own self and controlling her own destiny, showing the reader that women can take control of their own lives.

        A similar theme is evident in an anonymous popular song from the early twentieth century. The song is called “The Housewife’s Lament.” It gives advice to young girls not to get married because “we [women] go to our downfall as soon as we’re brides.” Marriage is supposedly the start of self-sacrifice, when the wife cooks, makes clothing, and works to take care of her husband before doing anything to take care of herself. Marriage also marks the loss of some of the sentimental possessions that a woman has before marriage, and it is the constant confinement to the home while the husband goes out with his friends. The writer does not even have time to finish the song because she has to go feed her husband: “…and I know other things I’d like to tell, but with this I’ll finish and then go no further: polenta and codfish make a good mouthful.”

                                                                                                                                               http://www.arangioruiz.org/sibilla/ (Accessed 12/10/05)
                                                                                                                                                                                Sibilla Aleramo

        However, in a poem written in 1929, entitled “I Am So Good,” the woman is perfect during the day: “I understand, I accept, I do not weep. I almost learn to be proud as if I were a man.”  The poet is Sibilla Aleramo, who denounced the condition of women in the early twentieth century and actively engaged in Italian feminism. In the poem, the female speaker is submissive and strong, and accepts a certain role in society. During fascism that role was of mother and housewife. She was supposed to be proud of doing her job as a mother and wife, and contributing to the overall success of the country. But, when the night falls, that same woman loses her “daytime strength” and only seems to have everything under control when, in fact, she is “nothing more than a look, a lost look, and veins.” This poem takes a cynical look at women. Women are supposed to be strong, obedient, and must be the backbone of society, managing the household and making sure their husbands and children are happy and in good health. But according to this poem, women literally act out a role in society. They have no personal identity or desire; they are not individuals. They simply conform to the standards set up by the Fascist government, as they are merely a tool of the nation.

        In “Beyond the Labyrinth,” by Carola Prosperi, the themes of male power and parents’ roles prevail. Prosperi’s critics applauded her writings during Fascism for the way she analyzed the “subtle alienation of private life through realistic portrayals of the lower middle class.” As in “Beyond the Labyrinth,” she is known for her repeated use of “spatial and domestic imagery” to demonstrate “oppressive material conditions and social institutions that consume women’s mental, emotional, and physical energies.” 

        In this story, the main character, Leila, goes from being an independent girl to one who is controlled by Adriano, the man who falls in love with her. Her parents are divorced. Her father is happily married to another woman and has a family with her. He goes out and enjoys recreational activities with them. Her mother is also preoccupied with her store. Adriano tries to make her think that she was abandoned by them, and that she needs someone, like him, to watch over her and protect her, undermining the independence she has acquired as a result of her parents’ divorce:

            Intelligent, hard-working, and conscientious, Leila was, right from the start, admired, appreciated, and well liked by everyone at the cotton mill.
            All that time she had never thought of herself as an outcast, and hadn’t been aware of being so unfortunate. But when Adriano showed an interest
            in her, with his tender sighs and his passionate way of looking at her, madrigals, and declarations of love, she confided in him and told him about herself
            and her parents. Then, when she was faced with his astonishment, his disdain, and his pity – she felt humiliated and unhappy, oppressed by an unfair
            destiny and full of resentment toward her careless parents.

        Adriano wants to marry her, so he is forcing her to see how her parents have neglected her when they separated. He wants her parents to compensate her for their not carrying out their “sacred duties.”  In reality, he just wants money to start a life with Leila, but he does not have any and cannot ask his widowed mother or his widowed sister for money, since they are hardly getting by on a small pension from the government. However, Leila is able to see past Adriano’s point of view and realize that her parents are struggling themselves to survive. She also realizes how oppressive Adriano is and how wonderful it is to be free and in control of her own life: “For three years Adriano had kept her in the mean shadow of his egoism, his conniving, his petty resentment; with him she’d wondered in a frightening labyrinth, unable to understand even herself. But now she’d found her way out of it, she was free of him, and free of his cold, oppressive love!”  Since families were organized as patriarchies during Fascism, this story was able to show women that they could overcome the oppressive behavior of their husbands, which placed women at their mercy and as caterers to their needs. Fascism did not respect women’s independence; it was clear that they were to be ruled by men. Here, Leila shows that when women are free to do what they want, there is a whole different life – “beautiful, splendid, wonderful life.”

                                          http://www.noveporte.it/dandy/dandies/gozzano.htm (Accessed 12/10/05)
      Amalia Guglielminetti

        “Destiny,” a poem by Amalia Guglielminetti, who was known for her controversial female models that defied traditional gender roles, shows the choices women have in creating their own destiny. According to the Fascist government, women attain satisfaction via one destiny, and that is childbearing, but this poem discredits that assumption. This poem echoes the theme of a woman’s self-sacrifice when she marries and the constant temptation of desire and the unknown. It is the choice between having children or following another path. What defines a woman? Motherhood or some other choice in which she finds pleasure: “Shall I give my flesh torn almost to pieces to a son still entombed in his mystery, or shall I offer it to foolish desire, to the burning of mad pleasures?” Here, neither sounds fulfilling: “Fragile woman, she neither knows, nor wishes, nor despairs: the unknown is a huge weight on her little, uncomplaining heart.”  The choice presented in this text is difficult, yet the woman complies with the government. If the government is pushing for children, for the sake of respect and compliance, she will bear children.    

        The story “A Drama in Silence” shows the feelings a son has for his mother and the impact a mother has on her son. Maddalena Crispolti, its author, was one of the women who wrote for the newspapers during Fascism and makes distinctions between women’s different desires and the ideal repressed woman, In her writings, Crispolti is known for making distinctions between women’s different desires and the culture’s ideal repressed woman. This story explains the characteristics of a perfect mother and how respectable those characteristics are: “He couldn’t take his eyes off that bed where his mother had died. His mother! All he’d had in his life was that sweet woman, a little sad and withdrawn, but so loving and devoted! That pale figure, that shadow of a woman had made him the man he was today, a man who wasn’t afraid of life.”  He wonders how he will survive after his mother’s death. He has the option of having the doctor, a friend of his mother, take care of him, but he chooses to be alone: “His mother’s love, which had been the shining beacon in his life, could not be darkened.”  He was not willing to accept the love of anyone else because, to him, there is nothing like the love of a mother. And, that love for one’s mother is universal regardless of location and time in history. Throughout history, it has been seen that children have a special kind of connection to their mothers or to the women who raise them. 

        Finally, the story “Woman with a Little Girl” by Ada Negri, who was known for her frank writings about the misery and injustice of the lower classes, tells of an old woman who has passed away. This woman is in a picture holding the hand of her grand-daughter. The narrator describes the picture, providing us with details about the old woman’s appearance: “Beneath the richness of the sable and the luminosity of the pearls lie the nerves of a dissatisfied woman, painfully shaken and exposed by the excessive refinements of life, both physical and spiritual. All the apparent splendors but no real joy…”  This story asks what is it in life that makes a woman satisfied with herself, and with the last paragraph the narrator speaks directly to the audience to answer that question: “No one has ever understood anything about us women, and we’re too proud to speak out loudly about our secret pain, naked and raw as it is…there is no remedy…except to leave it in God’s hands.”  Because women living in Italy during Fascism felt they needed to be strong and enduring, they gave themselves no other choice but to do as society said. They could only seek comfort in literature and art. And unless they faced their pain and recognized their grievances, there was no cure for the pain and suffering caused by the duties outlined by society for women.

        In conclusion, while women were being sent back into the home by the Fascist regime for the sole purpose of managing the home and bearing children, literature provided an outlet and a sense of identity for these women. In these short stories and poems, the main value is in the theme and characters, which serve to introduce the reader to real-life situations faced by various women during Fascism in Italy. The themes and characters provide the reader with insight into the actual lives and minds of other women; during Fascism, it also allowed women to relate to one another. As a result, it helped to recognize women as individuals, with identities, rather than objects or tools of the nation.