Those Who Study and Those Who Know

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series refuses to simplify the systems of capitalist and patriarchal domination it describes.

1900-era Piazza dei Martiri, in Naples, Italy, one of the locations to which Elena Ferrante's characters frequently return. Library of Congress / Flickr

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels have found a wide audience, from those who, like many of Ferrante’s characters, have little formal education to those so ashamed to be seen reading the deliberately “vulgar” covers that at least one store began selling the books in brown paper bags. But those fiercely debated images capture something essential about the sweeping, four-novel series: Ferrante’s books lend themselves to popular organizing while also challenging the hyper-educated left to examine long-held beliefs and practices.

The series focuses on subjects not typically depicted in literature: female friendship and poverty. The first novel, My Brilliant Friend, introduces us to the main protagonists, lifelong friends Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco (who narrates), and the impoverished neighborhood in Naples that shapes their lives. But the series also takes on larger topics, from economic theory, history, philosophy, and art to labor unrest, gender roles, fascism, and communism.

In shifting between the details of Lila’s and Elena’s lives and these broader concerns, Ferrante demonstrates that the micro and the macro cannot be divorced. Her approach fits two of the books’ main subjects: class conflict and misogyny. It almost seems as if Ferrante wants to show her readers that the long-standing arguments that set class apart from identity, or that try to argue that one is only a function of the other, have been wrong-headed from the start. Her novels demand that we contend with how each system contributes to the production and maintenance of the other. Above all else, the Neapolitan series resists simplifications, just like the systems of capitalist and patriarchal domination it uncovers.

Ultimately, Ferrante leaves none of the Left’s most cherished tropes unquestioned. This is her particular genius, one capable of leaving intellectual wounds that never heal. She forces readers to think critically not just about how to resist prevailing systems but also about how we interact with one another during this work.

The Story of the Union

The relationship between class and education occupies a central role in the series. Much of the conflict in the first novel arises because Elena continues to pursue formal education while the unnervingly intelligent Lila is, like the majority of children in their neighborhood, forced to drop out of school. Elena’s education opens an ever-widening gulf between her and her community, including Lila.

Ferrante is careful, however, to emphasize the various forms of informal education and specialized knowledge that all of her characters possess. For example, Pasquale, one of Elena’s childhood friends who also left school at a young age, displays an understanding of class politics sharper than anyone else in the series. Pasquale instills some of his ideas in Lila, educating her about fascism and communism, and she eventually agrees with his most basic belief: “The classes aren’t playing cards, they’re fighting, and it’s a fight to the death.”

Though Lila leaves school after fifth grade, she continues to study on her own, at times surpassing Elena’s understanding of academic subjects. Ferrante depicts Lila as preternaturally gifted, someone who can translate her complex analyses into emotionally stirring and intellectually challenging art. When a member of the Camorra seizes the rights to sell the shoes Lila has designed and displays her stunning wedding photo in the store against her wishes, Lila alters the image until it becomes almost abstract:

With the black paper, with the green and purple circles that Lila drew around certain parts of her body, with the blood-red lines with which she sliced and said she was slicing it, she completed her own self-destruction in an image, presented to the eyes of all in the space bought by the Solaras to sell her shoes.

Lila’s creative act defies both class- and gender-based authoritarianism. She takes her image back from Michele Solara, the mobster who — precisely because she resists his attempts to control her — desires her and tries to intimidate her into submission. Elena describes Lila’s creation as self-erasure, but that erasure is also Lila’s announcement to the wealthiest and most violent man in the neighborhood, who has yearned for her ever since she held a shoemaker’s knife to his throat as children, that he can never own her.

Lila’s experiences with poverty, misogyny, and violence shape her actions when she begins organizing a union. This story line allows Ferrante to further differentiate the kind of experiential learning Lila and Pasquale possess from the formal education that belongs to the student and labor activists they encounter.

After leaving her abusive husband, Lila takes a job at Bruno Socavvo’s sausage factory, where employees are forced to work in unsafe conditions and endure regular sexual harassment. Pasquale invites her to a meeting of his radial communist cell, and they convince her to organize a union.

Lila views the communists as “good-hearted,” passionately committed people who understand oppression “in the abstract” but not “in the concrete.” Her resentment of Pasquale’s girlfriend Nadia, daughter of Elena’s wealthy high school professor, is especially pronounced, and she expresses it by highlighting how much more clearly Lila herself understands class conflict:

I — it was on the tip of Lila’s tongue — if I want, can smash everything much better than you: I don’t need you to tell me, in that sanctimonious tone, how I should think, what I should do.

In one of the most stirring sentences in a novel filled with scenes of violence and oppression, Lila silently sizes up the communists: “I know—it stayed in her head without becoming sound—I know what a comfortable life full of good intentions means, you can’t even imagine what real misery is.

Much of what plays out both outside and inside the factory underscores Lila’s assessment. When Pasquale brings her to an organizing meeting, Lila finds the communists’ speeches hypocritical: “they had a modest manner that clashed with their pedantic phrases.” She is especially annoyed that they keep repeating that they are there to learn from the workers, when “in reality they were showing off ideas that were almost too obvious about capital, about exploitation, about the betrayal of social democracy, about the modalities of class struggle.”

When she speaks to the group, she demonstrates that the workers — and especially the women — clearly understand their own exploitation. She shares stories of “fingers covered with cuts from slicing the meat off animal bones,” workers standing for hours at a time in “the mortadella cooking water,” and women who “have to let their asses be groped by supervisors and colleagues without saying a word.” With her usual flair, she electrifies the room:

If the owner feels the need, someone has to follow him into the seasoning room; his father used to ask for the same thing, maybe also his grandfather; and there, before he jumps all over you, that same owner makes you a tired little speech on how the odor of salami excites him.

As the coup de grâce, Lila shows that the workers fully recognize they are controlled by the owner, “that is: I pay you and so I possess your life, your family, and everything that surrounds you, and if you don’t do as I say I’ll ruin you.”

The communists do not understand the danger Lila describes. They copy her statements about the working conditions without her consent and distribute them to workers as they arrive at the factory. Their leafleting, intended to help organize the union, ends up alienating many workers, as the boss’s security team and fascists brought in to counter the agitation assault both the student activists and the workers for several days.

Lila, on the other hand, is a natural organizer. Unlike the communists, who lecture about exploitation and its relationship to capitalism, Lila listens to her coworkers’ concerns:

She showed herself available to those who were complaining, understanding to those who were angry, sympathetic toward those who cursed the abuses… Above all, in the following days, she let … their tiny group talk, transforming the lunch break into a time for a secret meeting.

Lila creates connections between workers, revealing the shared nature of their complaints. “She steered the trouble of one toward the trouble of another, joining all together with eloquent words.” Eventually she writes up a list of coherent demands to be made to the employer. When she brings this document to the union representative Pasquale has introduced her to, Ferrante once again emphasizes the importance of listening to workers — those who have actually experienced oppression.

The continued need for Lila to emphasize the importance of direct experience is echoed in Elena’s interactions with socialist intellectuals, including the well-off, politically influential family she marries into. She sometimes feels they speak to her as if they know more about class than she does and treat her like a chess piece in their political maneuvers even while helpfully supporting her novels, many of which are set in the impoverished conditions from which she came.

As an intellectual and someone who has grown up in the conditions her current circles study and organize around, Elena better understands extreme class disparity than her new friends. However, even Elena’s knowledge isn’t enough to save the workers, which is evident after her socialist friends push her to publish a piece of investigatory journalism about the factory. Elena’s intervention just escalates the situation, and in the end it is clear that only sustained organizing at the worksite, led by Lila and the other workers, could produce results.

The union rep tells Lila she’s done great work and that the union will use her list to mediate negotiations between the workers’ committee and the owner. Lila responds with a question that continues to animate debates about the relationship between unions and the workers they represent: “And am I not the union?” In the end, Lila goes to negotiate with the owner by herself.

There, Ferrante reveals the value of one piece of advice from the union representative and the communists. Both had pushed Lila to prioritize demands and build a stronger base — good advice, since she finds herself facing the owner and the Camorra’s Michele Solara by herself. The presence of a large collective — and the power they wield to disrupt the factory’s work — would be the only threat large enough to potentially offset the armed power of the mob.

Lila doesn’t just confront the employer and the Camorra: her attempts to negotiate are tinged with the violent misogyny that colors many of her interactions with men. In an effective illustration of patriarchy’s double face, the owner condones the guards’ sexual harassment of workers (and once tried to harass Lila himself) but is also the nicest man one of Lila’s working-class friends had ever been romantically involved with.

Michele’s obsession with Lila also mixes respect and misogyny. He acknowledges her superiority, telling her boss, “If you let her, she’ll change shit into gold for you, she’s capable of reorganizing this entire enterprise, taking it to levels you can’t even imagine.” But recognizing her ability makes him want to humiliate her, to put her in her place. After Michele claims that he taught a woman to whistle merely by having sex with her, Lila ends the negotiations, stating, “I’ve known how to whistle since I was five.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lila cannot single-handedly organize a union and win a just contract for her coworkers. Moreover, this experience — her frustrations with the factory owner, the fascist mobster who controls him and threatens her, her coworkers who push her to speak for them, the communists who dictate to her as much or more than support her, and the many men who simultaneously love and loathe her for her fearlessness — combine with ongoing health problems, forcing Lila to quit the factory. In this way, Ferrante underscores the need for change without ignoring the many internal and external obstacles in the way.

An Organizer’s Organizer

Throughout the series, Ferrante assiduously avoids romanticizing anyone. Sometimes workers are strategic and sometimes they need help; sometimes activists have agency and sometimes they don’t; the organizing is motivated at times by selfishness and self-importance and at times by acute need, solidarity, and collective power.

Ferrante gives us no heroes, and readers of any class will see a complicated portrait of themselves and their conditions appear in the novels. But that doesn’t mean her work is without hope; in fact, it provides some of the same hope as Frances Fox Piven’s Poor People’s Movements, which argues that welfare recipients, grassroots civil-rights activists, the unemployed, and industrial strikers prior to the formation of unions pushed the most important and progressive changes of the past several decades in the United States.

Ferrante likewise depicts working-class and impoverished characters as having the most to offer in collective resistance to capitalism and patriarchy. But she reminds us that the burden is often greater on them, however. Lila’s attempt to organize almost kills her, and Pasquale winds up imprisoned for his (possibly violent) militant communist activities while his girlfriend Nadia is freed thanks to her family’s connections.

In Ferrante’s universe, everyone working toward change is important, but the most disenfranchised have the most immediate and pronounced experiences of oppression, have become especially resourceful, and have the most to gain, so they also possess the most potential. The characters with relative privilege have much to contribute, but they make missteps when they inflate their role in creating change.

The Neapolitan series demonstrates that the Left must support — rather than direct — activist leaders, intellectuals, and artists who emerge from the ranks of the most oppressed. In doing so, the series underscores the importance of fostering change instead of forcing it, of organizing instead of manipulating. While it’s hard to pin down Ferrante’s exact place on the spectrum of far-left politics, her work supports the idea that, if socialism is meant to be emancipatory, then the organizing toward it must be emancipatory for all involved — even those like Lila whose activism and belief intersects with its goals but don’t explicitly embrace its theory and ideology.

The novels contain some pointed historical references — the political differences between particular newspapers; lessons about the political and architectural history of Naples; discussions of second-wave feminist theory — but they appear more to gesture to the larger historical and material forces that shape our lives than to help readers tease out the exact nature of those forces at a given moment. In that sense, the Neapolitan novels are better suited to raise the consciousness among a wide range of readers than more exacting histories. They flesh out scenarios that complicate leftist ideology without leaving the reader any simple formulas for bringing about change.

Ferrante is, in more than one sense, the organizer’s organizer.