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Elsa Morante's 'The Island of Arturo': Exploring Growth Through Symbolism


Often hailed as a literary enigma, Elsa Morante (1912-1985) carved a distinct path within the Italian literary landscape. Her captivating narratives, imbued with a blend of lyricism and psychological depth, transcended the boundaries of conventional genres. Morante’s work delved into the complexities of human emotions, particularly the transformative power of storytelling and the yearning for connection in a world fraught with isolation. 


One of Elsa Morante's most unforgettable novels is L'Isola di Arturo, which translates to "Arturo's Island" in English. This coming-of-age story, a classic "Bildungsroman" in German, follows Arturo, a young teenager. Guided by the discovery of the natural world, he embarks on a journey to understand life's mysteries, including the experience of abandonment, loss, and sexuality. Morante portrays the adolescent experience, and by extension the human condition, with exceptional skill, remarkable sensitivity, and a deep well of empathy. She becomes a constant companion to Arturo, witnessing his growth firsthand and sharing his emotional rollercoaster. It's as if Morante herself transforms into Arturo (Rosa, 2013).


L'Isola di Arturo stands out as a potential contender for one of the 20th century's finest novels. Free from any unnecessary literary flourishes, it maintains a consistent tone and avoids the bleakness that often defines neorealism, a movement associated with Morante's husband, Alberto Moravia. Morante herself isn't a neorealist; she's a realist through and through. Her writing is frank, driven, and infused with compassion. The vast tapestry of human existence unfolds before her inquisitive gaze, and she captures it all with her masterful and delicate pen. In this work, Morante pours her extraordinary talent onto the page, leaving nothing held back (Stefani, 1971). 


Life and Work of Elsa Morante

Elsa Morante with Pierpaolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci and Adriana Asti (1961)
Figure 1: Elsa Morante with Pierpaolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci and Adriana Asti (1961)

Elsa Morante was born in Rome in 1912. Despite a challenging upbringing, marked by a complex family background and limited parental support, Morante displayed a passion for writing from a very young age. Largely self-educated, she honed her craft through short stories in the mid-1930s, eventually publishing her first collection, The Secret Game, in 1941. The same year, she married fellow writer Alberto Moravia, a union that would shape both their personal and professional lives (Ferroni, 2017).

Fleeing persecution due to her heritage, this experience of displacement informs her later masterpiece, La storia (1974). Notably, translations often presented a hurdle for her international recognition. However, L'isola di Arturo (1957) secured her place in Italian literature, becoming the first Strega Prize awarded to a woman (Ferroni, 2017). Following a period of introspection after separating from fellow writer Alberto Moravia, Morante continued to produce significant works like The Andalusian Shawl (1963), before achieving critical acclaim with the nuanced historical novel, La storia. This work cemented her reputation as a chronicler of the human experience. Her final novel, Aracoeli (1982), revisited themes of childhood innocence and imagination. Morante's life and work demonstrate a profound engagement with human emotions and the transformative power of storytelling.


The next paragraph will briefly analyze the plot of the Island of Arturo, as it is a coming-of-age novel both for the character and the author herself.


Arturo’s Island: The Plot

In the Isola di Arturo Morante masterfully utilizes the theme of myth and its relationship to reality. The tales of heroes and epic journeys provide Arturo with a sense of adventure and a glimpse into a world beyond the confines of his island. However, this fascination also distorts his perception of reality, creating a sense of idealism that clashes with his immediate experiences. 


Elsa Morante winning the Premio Strega (1957)
Figure 2: Elsa Morante winning the Premio Strega (1957)

By blurring the lines between myth and reality, Morante forces us to consider the role of storytelling in shaping identity, particularly in the face of isolation. Following this statement, L’isola di Arturo offers a nuanced exploration of the complexities of adolescence. This exploration, steeped in lyrical prose and evocative imagery, solidifies Morante's position as a master storyteller capable of illuminating the profound depths of the human experience. 


Procida, a sun-drenched island nestled in the Bay of Naples, serves as the unlikely backdrop for the formative years of Arturo. This idyllic setting is juxtaposed with the stark reality of a nearby penitentiary, a constant reminder of societal constraints and of a world that is not as hospitable as the dreams of Arturo might hint at. Arturo's domestic environment is a grand yet melancholic mansion inherited by his emotionally distant father. His intellectual development is shaped by the dusty tomes of the mansion's library, fostering a fascination with chivalry and heroic narratives. The memory of his mother, tragically lost during childbirth, remains a source of profound grief for Arturo. He simultaneously idolizes his father, a tall,  blonde figure who is frequently absent and comes back only during summer.

Despite the isolation imposed by his island existence, Arturo finds solace in the natural world. A gifted athlete, he revels in the freedom offered by the island's pristine waters, engaging in activities like boating and swimming. His closest companion is Immacolatella, his beloved dog. The loss of Immacolatella, who succumbs to complications after giving birth to her pups, evokes a powerful sense of loss that resonates with the absence of his mother.


Arturo's life undergoes a dramatic shift at the age of fourteen. His father introduces Nunziatella, a new wife only a few years his senior, into their insular world. The intimacy displayed by his parents becomes a source of disquiet for the young man. Soon, Arturo finds himself embroiled in a complex emotional entanglement, developing forbidden feelings for Nunziatella. Though initially receptive, she ultimately rejects his advances. The arrival of a fair-haired half-sibling further disrupts the family dynamic. Mirroring the turmoil within the household, Arturo uncovers his father's passionate affair with a prisoner incarcerated on the very island. The novel reaches its climax with the prisoner's release, leaving Arturo feeling profoundly betrayed. This pivotal event compels him to make a heart-wrenching decision: to abandon the seemingly idyllic island and venture out into the unknown realm of the mainland (Ferroni, 2017).


The Parental Figures and the Question of Identity

The Isola di Arturo plunge us into the captivating world of a young boy on the precipice of adolescence. These seemingly simple passages lay the groundwork for a rich exploration of identity, the allure of the past, and the blurry line between fantasy and reality in a child's mind.


At the novel's core lies indeed the exploration of one’s self, particularly in the context of isolation and loss. Arturo Gerace, raised on the isolated island of Procida, grapples with the absence of his mother, who "died giving birth to him” and hence “remained a mythical, adored figure" (Morante, 1957). Consequently, this initial loss shapes his emotional landscape, leaving a void that he desperately seeks to fill. In this paragraph, the first pages of the book will be analyzed to give an outline of the main key themes, as a proem would do. 


Grygarova, D. (2020), View of Procida
Figure 3: Grygarova, D. (2020), View of Procida

The very first sentence, "one of my first vauntings was my name," introduces the central theme: the name "Arturo." It's more than just a label; it's a source of pride and a gateway to a fantastical world. The fact that Arturo is associated with a dazzling star and an ancient king, hints at its significance and foreshadows the boy's yearning for heroism and nobility. This association also establishes a connection between the protagonist and esteemed figures, suggesting a desire to live up to a lofty image (Cornish, 1994).


However, Morante skillfully weaves in the theme of ignorance alongside the allure of the past. The narrator's mother, a loving but illiterate woman, does not understand the importance of his name. Neither she nor the boy initially grasp the true meaning or origin of it. This lack of knowledge underscores Arturo's youthful inexperience and further fuels his curiosity. He relies on others to piece together the story behind his name, highlighting his dependence on external sources for understanding the world.


The concept of the past is presented as both near and distant, shrouded in mystery and grandeur. The reference to the ancient king evokes a sense of historical significance that Arturo aspires to touch. The mention of "storia vera" (true story) and "leggenda" (legend) suggests the narrator's grappling with the blurry lines between historical fact and imaginative embellishment. This fascination with the past fuels his desire to understand his own origins and place in the world (Clemente, 2013).


Mystery further complicates the picture. The enigmatic presence of "lui" (Eng. “him”) stimulates the reader's curiosity. Is this a father figure, a powerful authority, or a product of Arturo's imagination? This unnamed presence adds another layer of intrigue, highlighting the narrator's limited understanding of the world beyond his immediate surroundings.


In addition to that, his unwavering love for his mother, his fascination with myths and heroism, and his eagerness to understand his name, all point to a developing personality. He is eager to learn and establish his own identity. The merging of fantasy and reality within his mind is thus a natural consequence of his youth. He readily embraces the majestic connotations of his name, only to be confronted by the harsh realities of his mother's illiteracy. However, this disillusionment is quickly replaced by another fantastical construct - the image of his mother, transformed into a "regina" (queen) with "divine intuitions.”


This opening serves as a captivating introduction to Arturo's world. Morante masterfully lays the groundwork for a coming-of-age story, where a young boy embarks on a quest to understand his name, his origins, and his place in the grand tapestry of existence.


Book cover of the Isola di Arturo (2020)
Figure 4: Book cover of the Isola di Arturo (2020)

The Title as a Vessel of Meaning

The title, "Arturo's Island," reinforces the notion of a confined world. Whether literal or metaphorical, this island represents Arturo's limited perspective and his dependence on others for knowledge. The intimacy of the setting is further emphasized by the focus on a few key figures: the powerful father, and the maternal presence. While Arturo's thoughts may wander to distant stars and ancient kings, this very contrast accentuates the small, familiar world that forms the backdrop of his early experiences. Finally, the spontaneous style, evident in the exclamation about the star, reflects the unbridled enthusiasm and curiosity of a young boy embarking on a journey of self-discovery (Stefani, 1971).


The island itself becomes a metaphor for Arturo's internal world. Surrounded by the vastness of the sea yet physically cut off from the mainland, Arturo experiences a profound sense of loneliness. This isolation fuels his fascination with heroic myths and legends found within the grand library of his home. These tales of valiant knights and epic journeys offer him a sense of escape and a glimpse into a world beyond his confinement. Arturo readily identifies with these figures, "feeling himself strong and daring like them" (Morante, 1957), projecting his own yearnings for adventure and a strong male role model onto these idealized characters (Rosa, 2013).


However, Morante's portrayal of these myths is not without its complexities. Through a psychoanalytic lens, Arturo's intense idolization of his distant father and his later attraction to Nunziatella can be interpreted as attempts to fill the void left by his mother. The death of his beloved dog, Immacolatella, mirroring his mother's absence, deepens his sense of loss and isolation, as he feels "a great emptiness inside him, a bottomless well of grief" (Morante, 1957). These unresolved feelings intertwine with his fascination with heroic narratives, creating confusion between fantasy and reality.


Procida in a postcard (1940s)
Figure 5: Procida in a postcard (1940s)

The Arrival of Nunziatella and the Discovery of Sexuality

The arrival of Nunziatella throws Arturo's world into disarray, disrupting the established dynamic of the isolated island household and introducing the complexities of sexuality. Nunziatella, with her "fair hair and the color of the sea in her eyes," disrupts Arturo's idealized perception of masculinity cultivated through heroic myths. His attraction to her challenges the stoic and emotionally distant demeanor traditionally associated with manhood on the island. This internal conflict is further highlighted when Arturo questions his own identity, asking "Who am I? ... Am I Arturo Gerace, or am I a dream of Arturo Gerace?" (Morante, 1957).


Nunziatella's presence forces Arturo to confront desires that don't align with the heroic narratives he consumes. These tales often depict heterosexual relationships where men take the initiative and women play more passive roles. Arturo's attraction to Nunziatella, however, leaves him feeling powerless and confused. This rejection creates a sense of inadequacy and confusion within Arturo, not just about his place within the family but also regarding his developing sexuality. He struggles to reconcile his desires with the social and gender norms of his secluded world (Rosa, 2013).


Literary Theories on The Island of Arturo

Elsa Morante's L'isola di Arturo offers fertile ground for exploration through both a psychoanalytic lens and a gender studies perspective. By examining Arturo's internal world and the construction of masculinity within the isolated island setting, one might gain a deeper understanding of his desires, anxieties, and the complexities of his development as an adult, and a man (Guj, 1988).

Psychoanalysis sheds light on Arturo's intense emotional attachments and the impact of early loss. The absence of his mother, the idolization of his distant father, and his eventual unsettling attraction to Nunziatella can be interpreted as attempts to find a nurturing and idealized parental figure. The death of his beloved dog, Immacolatella, mirroring his mother's absence, further deepening his sense of loss and isolation. These unresolved feelings likely fuel his withdrawal into a world of heroic myths, where he seeks solace and a sense of power (Clemente, 1993). 


Opening page of the Isola di Arturo Manuscript (post 1957)
Figure 6: Opening page of the Isola di Arturo Manuscript (post 1957)

Gender studies enriches this analysis by examining the construction of masculinity on the island. Arturo's only male role models are his emotionally distant father and the idealized heroes from his library. This limited exposure shapes his understanding of manhood, potentially leading him to equate masculinity with stoicism, isolation, and suppression of emotions (Cornish, 1994).  Furthermore, the novel exposes the pitfalls of romanticized love. For example, the narcissistic mindset not only fuels Arturo's own egotism but also contributes to Wilhelm Gerace's homosexuality, a love deemed unattainable due to societal constraints. 


Ultimately, a combined psychoanalytic and gendered approach reveals the profound impact of Arturo's early experiences and the limitations imposed by the island's isolated environment. His fractured relationships with parental figures, coupled with the lack of healthy male role models, leave him struggling to form his identity and navigate the complexities of desire. This rich interplay between psychoanalytic and gendered interpretations makes L'isola di Arturo a timeless exploration of a young man's yearning for love, belonging, and a sense of self (Guj, 1988). 


Literary References and Legacy of the Island of Arturo 

Morante's novel achieves a strong literary legacy thanks to its form and thematic exploration from an innovative perspective, such as the one highlighted in the previous paragraph.  While critics debate its genre, Morante herself aims for a blend of novel, epic, and romance (Cornish, 1994), as L'isola di Arturo aims to reveal insights that resonate universally. This universality is achieved through two methods. First, a vast array of literary references, from ancient myths to Shakespeare's Othello, establishes a dialogue with literary tradition. Secondly, through the sustained astronomical metaphor that anchors Arturo's personal story within the grand narratives of constellations and the cosmos. This metaphor, though, is deliberately androgynous: Arturo's identification with a fixed star conflicts with his desire for heroic journeys and sexual desires. The universe, associated with femininity, represents limitations and containment, ultimately trapping Arturo's dreams within its boundaries. This approach can be seen as a "feminine appropriation of the epic" (Cornish, 1994), transforming the traditional heroic quest into a story confined by the feminine principle. This perspective shows the real innovation of this novel, as a great feminine voice finally outcomes as universal, and, therefore, as a blend of voices.


Arturo Gerace's journey exposes the limitations of heroic narratives in shaping a sense of self, particularly when juxtaposed with the harsh realities of adolescence and unfulfilled desires. The unresolved tensions within Arturo – between fantasy and reality, longing and inadequacy – leave the reader contemplating the long-term impact of his formative experiences on the island, and, metaphorically, on each personal island readers inhabit. By concluding Arturo's story at this pivotal moment, Morante invites us to contemplate the character's potential trajectory, leaving the question of his future identity open-ended and ripe for further exploration.


Bibliographical References

Rosa, G. (2013). Elsa Morante. Laterza.


Clemente, A. (1993). L'isola di Arturo: mito e storia. Rivista di studi morantiani, 1(1), 7-26.


Cornish, A. (1994). A King and a Star: The Cosmos of Morante’s L’isola di Arturo. MLN, 109(1), 73–92. 


Ferroni, G. (2017), Storia della Letteratura Italiana, Il Novecento e il Nuovo Millennio, Mondadori Università. 


Guj, L. (1988). Illusion and Literature in Morante’s L’isola di Arturo. Italica, 65(2), 144–153. 


Morante, E. (1957). L'isola di Arturo. Einaudi.


Pagnini, M. (1990). Il romanzo italiano del Novecento. Le Monnier. Stefani, L. (1971). Elsa Morante. Belfagor, 26(3), 290–308.

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Alessandra Cipolloni

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