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The Lost Daughter Novel by Elena Ferrante Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Feb 27th, 2022

Introduction

Elena Ferrante’s novel The Lost Daughter is a psychologically complex exploration of a woman’s experience of motherhood. It tells the story of 48-year-old Leda, a mother of two grown-up daughters, who goes on a holiday and is unexpectedly confronted with painful memories from her past. The book shows the development of Leda’s character from childhood to adulthood and motherhood. Leda’s personality is shaped by her childhood traumas and relationship with her mother that influence her own experience of motherhood and her relations with her daughters and other people.

About the author

Elena Ferrante is a popular Italian novelist who works under a pseudonym and keeps her identity secret. Her books, originally published in Italian, have been translated into many languages and are sold all over the world. Ferrante’s most widely known works are a four-book series of Neapolitan Novels that follow the lives of two girls born in Naples in 1944 from childhood to adulthood and old age. In her books, she touches upon the topics of adolescence, sex, motherhood, female friendship, marriage, and class.

About the novel

The Lost Daughter, published in 2008, tells the story of Leda, a divorced English teacher of 48 and a mother of two grown-up daughters. After her children move to Toronto to live with their father, she is left to herself and starts to enjoy her independence. She decides to take a holiday by the sea, in a small coastal town in southern Italy, where she meets a Neapolitan family and gets acquainted with a young mother and her daughter. On an impulse inexplicable even to herself, Leda takes the child’s doll left behind on the beach, setting off a series of events and memories that painfully remind Leda about her past.

Leda’s character development

The main plot focuses on the story of the taken doll and Leda’s relationship with the girl’s mother, Nina, which unleashes in her a flood of memories from her own childhood and motherhood. Leda’s reminiscences of her life are scattered around the story, provoking the reader to reconstruct the timeline by themselves. Leda is an unreliable narrator, whose memories are influenced by her emotions and traumas that shape her behavior and personality.

Childhood

Leda’s reminiscences of her childhood are crucial to understanding her character. She grew up in Naples, detesting the city and its inhabitants from an early age. She felt constrained and alien among her relatives, whom she regarded as domineering, violent, and vulgar. Since childhood, Leda has aspired “to a bourgeois decorum, proper Italian, a good life, cultured and reflective” (Ferrante 67) and fled the city at the first opportunity, wishing never to return. Her prejudice against people from the south of Italy affects her judgment when she encounters a Neapolitan family at the resort.

Leda’s childhood memories are centered around the figure of her mother. She describes her as a beautiful woman who also felt alien among her husband’s relatives. She wanted to be different and strived to behave like a lady, “but at the first sign of conflict the mask cracked, and she, too, clung to the actions, the language of the others” (Ferrante 17). She was deeply unhappy and often took it out on her children, yelling at them and threatening to leave the family. Leda suffered for herself and for herself and grew up constantly feeling deprived of her mother’s love and affection and anxious that she would leave. Determined that she would not be like her mother, Leda spent her life trying to revenge on her and prove that she is different: more determined, more talented, more beautiful, and a better mother. However, her childhood traumas have never left her, and she ended up becoming more and more like the mother she was trying to reject.

Pregnancy and motherhood

When Leda got pregnant with her first daughter, she was happy and wanted to do everything as right as possible. She despised the way the women of her family experienced their pregnancy: “they swelled, dilated; the creature trapped in their womb seemed a long illness that changed them” (Ferrante 95). Leda wanted her pregnancy to be under control and made great efforts to remain attractive, elegant, active, and happy, “enjoying the nine months of expecting, scrutinizing the process, guiding and adapting it to my body” (Ferrante 95). She was determined to become a good mother and to love the child she was carrying inside her. She gave birth to Bianca, her first daughter, and got pregnant again. This time, it was different, with Marta, the second child, growing inside her “like a violent polyp” (Ferrante 96). This experience broke her down, and she started to feel like the children that she brought into the world had taken away all her energy.

As Leda’s daughters grew up, her frustration with her life increased. She tried to return to her studies but felt that the children pulled her back, constantly demanding her love and attention and leaving her no time for herself. She was always tired and angry and couldn’t control her nerves to be the good mother she was determined to become. She often yelled at the girls, like her mother used to yell at her, “because of the crushing weight of responsibility, the bond that strangles” (Ferrante 29). Having no positive childhood experience to look up to, Leda gradually became a copy of her unhappy and nervous mother.

Leaving the children

When Bianca was six and Marta four, Leda fell in love with a professor and left her family for three years. The explanations of this act that she gives throughout the story provide a deeper understanding of her character. First, she explains it by her ambitions and the general frustration with her life. She felt that she was missing opportunities: “Ambition was still burning, fed by a young body, by an imagination full of plans, but I felt that my creative passion was cut off more and more thoroughly” (Ferrante 54). Second, it was the desire for sexual experiences that she lacked as a mother. Third, it was the pressure of motherhood that she could not handle. She wanted “to no longer hear the demands of [her daughters’] flesh as commands more pressing, more powerful than those which came from mine” (Ferrante 80). She wanted to be a good mother but thought that she was tired of loving her daughters more than herself.

On a deeper level, it was an act of revenge on her mother. Leda writes, “All the hopes of youth seemed to have been destroyed, I seemed to be falling backward toward my mother, my grandmother, the chain of mute or angry women I came from” (Ferrante 54). Her mother had always threatened to leave the family, making Leda determined “to show her that it was useless and cruel to frighten us; instead, she should have changed for real, or left home for real, left us, disappeared” (Ferrante 16). Abandoning the children was intended to prove that she is different from her mother and she can really achieve something.

After three years, she came back and took the girls to live with her. She had enough of sexual pleasures, and the feeling of guilt became unbearable. In her conversation with Nina, Leda explains that it took her three years to realize what she was really looking for: “a confused tangle of desires and great arrogance” (Ferrante 91). Having learned that, while her husband was away, he left their daughters in Naples at her mother’s place, she was angry and reproached her mother. The suppressed rage overtook her, with her childhood traumas not allowing her to feel any gratitude, and she blamed her mother for “branding” her daughters like she “branded” her (Ferrante 65). Overall, Leda felt herself in her own right when she left the children, returned when she had enough of the free life, and displayed no compassion towards neither her daughters’ nor her husband’s and mother’s feelings.

Leda’s relationship with her daughters

Leda’s relationships with her daughters after her return are described through the themes of their growing up, sexuality, and jealousy. When the girls were little, Leda felt that the gazes of men on the street were directed at her. As she grew older and her daughters grew up, she started to notice that they slid from her to the girls. She claims that she was both alarmed and gratified, feeling admiration and jealousy at the same time.

On the one hand, Leda thought of the girls as a continuation of herself and wanted them to be loved and happy. She felt that “the force of attraction of their bodies was as if subtracted from mine” and anxiously minded that the girls felt that they were beautiful (Ferrante 65). It was intertwined with the constant feeling of guilt: “I thought that any unhappiness in my daughters was caused by a now proved failure of my love” (Ferrante 43). Leda constantly and persistently told Marta that she was pretty, making her feel sad and uneasy. Comparing her to her beautiful friend Florinda, she felt jealous and finally drew the girl away from the house. Basically, she projected her own feelings on the girls, thinking that they were experiencing the same things and trying to console herself while consoling them.

On the other hand, she often felt jealous, sometimes without even realizing it herself. When her daughters’ boyfriends came to their house, she tried to make herself attractive and flirted with them. She was jealous of Florinda and towards her friend Lucilla who played with the girls when they were little. Basically, she was jealous of her daughters — of their beauty and youth — feeling that she gave something of hers away when she gave birth to them and would never get it back.

Living along

When Bianca and Marta grew up, they moved to Canada to live with their father, and Leda was left to herself. This is the moment where the plot of the book begins. Leda had expected that she would feel lonely and sad, but instead, as she told herself, she felt light and liberated. She claims, “For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them” (Ferrante 3). She could no more interfere in their lives and satisfy their needs and finally could do what she wanted. She started to feel relaxed and younger: “I regained the slender body of my youth and felt a sensation of gentle strength; it seemed to me that my thoughts had returned to their proper speed” (Ferrante 4). Feeling like she was finally free from a difficult job, she decided to go on holiday to enjoy herself.

Speaking with her daughters on the phone, she felt that they grew distant from her. They answered her questions either evasively or angrily and only called her when they needed something or “to know if I was still available to be blamed for their rages and their sorrows” (Ferrante 3). Leda claims that it did not trouble her, but her reactions suggest otherwise. She feels the urge to call her daughters when she has an accident, and when she does, she gets upset with Marta for talking only about herself. She constantly hears something between the words, imagining that her daughters do not want to tell her about their father and their life. When Marta talks about her appearance, Leda hears reproach: “She spoke as if it were my fault, I hadn’t made her in such a way that she could be happy” (Ferrante 3). She feels like her daughters use her, evaluating her love “on the basis of the concrete services I provide, the goods I distribute” (Ferrante 105). Leda basically hides her unhappiness from herself, pretending that the departure of her daughters did not hurt and upset her.

Relationship with Nina

When Leda comes to the resort, she meets a large Neapolitan family and soon gets attracted by a beautiful young mother and her little daughter. Every day she observes them playing on the beach, admiring their beauty and chemistry. Without even getting acquainted with them, Leda starts to idealize the woman: “If she was pretty herself, in her motherhood there was something that distinguished her; she seemed to have no desire for anything but her child” (Ferrante 11). She thinks of her as a perfect mother that Leda failed to become herself, admiring her and struggling with subconscious jealousy at the same time.

Elena, the little girl, gets lost, and Leda gets acquainted with Nina while helping to find her daughter. Unnoticed by anyone and for reasons that she herself does not understand, she takes Elena’s beloved doll and keeps it to herself. For days, she observes how the loss of the doll makes Elena sad and unhappy, and how Nina struggles to console her while battling with her affection towards a young man.

Seeing Nina cheating on her husband turns Leda’s world around, making her realize how much she has been hiding from herself. She remembers the fear she felt in her childhood when she thought that her mother would leave her. She understands that she misses her daughters and has been lying to herself that their departure has been good for her. She wants to warn Nina, feeling that “losing your anchor, feeling yourself to be light is not an advantage, it’s cruel to yourself and to others” (Ferrante 70). She comprehends her attraction to Nina, realizing that she embodies perfect motherhood to her and thinking that she might make the same mistake that Leda herself made when she left her daughters. When speaking with Nina, she tries to make her understand the reasons behind her leaving the daughters and lead her to believe that the frustration of motherhood passes.

The admiration that Leda has towards Nina is accompanied by the feeling of guilt for taking her daughter’s doll. Seeing that Elena is sad and angry and Nina desperately struggles to console her, Leda alone knows that she is the cause of their unhappiness. Although fascinated with Nina, she consciously breaks her world apart, destroying her own illusion of perfect motherhood. She bonds with her and tries to comfort her, hiding her secret and being afraid and unwilling to reveal it. When she finally does, Nina is so disappointed that she stabs Leda and leaves. Leda’s relationship with Nina is based on her projections — when observing her relationship with Elena, she relieves her childhood traumas, feeling both jealousy, sympathy, and regret.

Leda’s personality

Leda is described as a troubled and mentally unstable woman whose childhood memories still haunt her and influence her life. Like her mother, she is short-tempered: she yells at her daughters and even hits her eldest daughter once, and makes scenes in front of her husband and relatives. Throughout all her life, she has always felt jealousy towards other women. She feels that her mother did not love her enough and envies women who are more loved, loving, or beautiful than she. She loves her daughters but is extremely possessive, treating them like they are a continuation of herself and constantly projecting her emotions and thoughts on them. She is still angry with her mother and has been trying to take revenge on her throughout all her life, striving to prove that she is better. She has been ambitious but has failed at living without her daughters and realized that “I wasn’t capable of creating anything of my own that could truly equal them” (Ferrante 90). She chooses to be a mother but is not able to be as perfect she wants to be, repeating her mother’s mistakes that she has been so desperately trying to avoid.

Conclusion

The story of Leda in The Lost Daughter provides a profound and psychologically complex illustration of motherhood as a hard and heartbreaking experience. Ferrante shows how a mother always feels torn between her own desires and ambitions and the responsibility towards her children, striving and failing to find a compromise. Leda sacrifices her own dreams in order to raise a family but cannot reconcile with it and leaves her daughters, which breaks her heart. Angry with her mother and trying to revenge her, she unconsciously copies her behavior, reproducing the cycle of psychological damage that is passed on across generations of her family. Leda’s character is complex, and Ferrante masterfully reveals the subconscious motives that the character does not understand herself, creating a vivid and convincing portrait of a woman who decided to be a mother.

Work Cited

Ferrante, Elena. The Lost Daughter. Penguin Group USA, 2008.

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