I recently finished an irritating book called L’Innocente (The Victim/The Intruder in English) by Gabriele D’Annunzio. I wouldn’t recommend it to you, so I don’t feel bad telling you what happens, with no spoiler alert:
A man (Tullio) is repeatedly unfaithful to his wife (Giuliana). Since she’s so lovely and forgiving of that fact, they almost reconcile, until he discovers she too was unfaithful and is consequently pregnant. The man is seized with homicidal desires against the gestating baby and finally exposes the newborn to the cold air ( → domestic violence). The baby dies.
It’s a fairly standard late nineteenth-century novel written by a man and featuring the woman he loves. There are plenty of these around, and they don’t normally raise much feminist comment from me. On this occasion, though, the book just struck me as awfully awfully self-centred and typical of a mindset in which women were barely allowed to be people, the preservation of male heredity was all-important and essentially the world revolves around man.
Why it’s annoying
- Tullio struggles to forgive Giuliana’s single infidelity, probably the result of his uncaringness, though he has benefited from her repeated forgiveness for the same (nay expected it!) → hypocrisy
- These are the kinds of terms in which Giuliana is described: ‘She appeared truly beautiful, weakened [/limp/languid], yielding, soft, I would almost say fluid, such that she made me think of the possibility of absorbing her bit by bit, soaking her up’. The idea that he doesn’t really want to preserve her as an independent person is pretty much moot given that she is only represented through his weird artistic eyes, she is already his creation more than a real person. She is an emanation of himself, but a “bastard” emanation because he can’t possess and control her entirely, like the bastard son she generates, made instead of another man’s ’emanation’ (as he slightly graphically describes it on one occasion) → the male gaze
- He is less horrified at the prospect of a newborn daughter who will eventually leave home to join another family than at that of a bastard son who, without being half his, ‘usurps’ the love of his mother and daughters and ‘takes possession’ of his house and of course his inheritance. The prospect of no longer being Top Male Around the Place is not appealing. The Italian word for taking possession that D’Annunzio uses is not coincidentally gendered: impadronirsi contains father (padre) via boss (padrone), and this is ironic because the boy is not legitimately fathered and yet taking possession occurs by virtue of being fathered → patriarchy
- Thus ‘The murderous gesture of the cuckolded husband at the end of the novel can […] be taken as reestablishing the [gender] hierarchy thrown into crisis by the adulterous wife […] L’Innocente can be understood as working to restore traditional gender power dynamics, to ‘manage’ female infidelity’ (source) → inequality
- He reads her as a victim. Her reproachful looks constantly seem to repeat to him the phrase ‘What have you done to me?’, originally uttered by Andrei Bolkonsky’s wife in War and Peace as she dies in childbirth – a fate which Giuliana narrowly escapes. This is disturbingly complicated by the doubts around the circumstances in which the bastard child was conceived: he can imagine it no other way than that she couldn’t resist giving herself up to the child’s father while he was with another woman, or that she was raped. As woman she is acted upon rather than agent.
- Other interesting perspectives:
As Tullio narrates the story of her pregnancy and the death of her adulterine child, he and Giuliana occupy traditional gender roles: the man produces and the woman reproduces; the man is author, the woman, mother. At the story’s conclusion, with the death of Raimondo, traditional hierarchies appear to be reinforced as man triumphs over woman, authorship over maternity, literary productivity over corporeal reproductivity. (source)
This reading of the reproductive and artistic analogy puts Giuliana’s interruption of the line of heredity as infidelity to original artwork (such as can occur in translation), and we are back to the annoying primacy of the always male génie around whom the whole enterprise has revolved from the start.
What I got from it
I don’t think this type of rubbish would have come from every nineteenth-century man’s pen, and happily most of these attitudes are dead now. But it must have been really annoying to have lived in a time where at least some of the books on the shelves were as mistakenly one-sided and plain wrong as this one. Not forgetting that this was also the age of some great women writers, a nineteenth-century woman would have written L’Innocente differently, because it is clear that the male narrator fundamentally misreads the woman and acts terribly unjustly – not because he is a man but because his worldview is sexist. Since men and women experience the world differently (and not just because women’s experience may include bias and discrimination), they will therefore express the world differently in their writings and musings.
So I am coming to agree with the people who say that we can only have a just world when women’s voices and stories are represented alongside men’s in all domains. An all-male board of directors, Parliament or theological congress, if it contains the nicest, least misogynistic, least patronising people in the world with the best interests of all humanity at heart, once seemed sufficient to me. But I am concluding that an all-male group can never represent all of humanity as justly as a mixed group can, and just doesn’t seem enough any more.