‘La Madre’ by Natalia Ginzburg

‘La Madre’ or ‘The Mother’ by Natalia Ginzburg is written from the perspective of two young boys who watch their mother’s mysterious comings and goings and pine for her affection. It is a tragic social commentary of a rigid social code that denies the woman sexual or emotional independence. The ‘madre’ is no heroic figure, but an embittered thwarted woman who does not conform to the view maternal love is the only love permissible. She is an unloved mother with a yellow-powdered face who kills herself in a dingy hotel room when her exotic lover dumps her.

One day the boys see their mother at a café eating lunch with a strange man. We are not only told that they see her, we are later told that after an awkward confrontation with their mother about it, the boys decide this incident should be suppressed and not mentioned again.

They said nothing to Granny. In the morning while their mother was dressing the younger boy said: ‘Yesterday when we were out for a walk with Don Vigliani we saw you and there was a man with you.’ Their mother jerked round, looking nasty: the black fish on her forehead quivered and met. She said: ‘But it wasn’t me. What an idea. I’ve got to stay in the office till late in the evening, as you know. Obviously you made a mistake.’ The older boy then said, in a tired calm voice: ‘No it wasn’t you. It was someone who looked like you.’ And both boys realized that the memory must disappear: and they both breathed hard to blow it away.

What struck me whilst reading this story set in 1950s Italy and Lucy Caldwell’s work set in contemporary Ireland was, how little had changed in terms of the challenges facing a woman. 

The story first appeared a collection by Italian writers such as Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg and Francesca Duranti. The thirteen stories in the book highlight the different styles and preoccupations of these writers as they examine the status of women in post war Italy. I have read the stories in Italian, but there are critical notes in English and an extensive vocabulary.

First published in English in Italian Women Writing, ed. Sharon Wood, Manchester University Press, 1993. Also published in The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, ed. Jhumpa Lahiri, Penguin, 2021

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