By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Elena Ferrante
Narration by: Hillary Huber
“Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” reflects on the difference between doing and thinking. “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” is the last book of a trilogy by an author, known by the pseudonym of Elena Ferrante. It is a book about Italy in the 1960s and 70s. As in the United States, this is a time of social upheaval in Italy.
Student revolution and class warfare headline Italian media. In Italy, neo-fascists and communist parties compete for Parliamentary seats at opposite ends of the political spectrum. A neo-fascist’ party presses to capitalize on economic prosperity of the 50s while communist sympathizers rail against economic disparity between owners and workers.
Ferrante’s story is about a young female author, Elena Greco, who has written a book about coming of age in this era of Italian upheaval. To men, Elena reveals insight to an erotic chasm between the sexes. To women, Greco reveals insight to inequality of the sexes. To all, Greco reveals life’s struggle for those who escape, and those who remain in poverty. Sadly, Ferrante ends her book in bewilderment. Her hero, Elena Greco, appears to surrender to a world tainted by male domination. Her counter-culture maven, Lila, succumbs to the sterile belief that self-interest is all that matters in life.
The author reflects on how formal and street-wise education impacts social change. The protagonist Elena Greco is a lower class Italian that rises to fame and fortune by being the first in her family to graduate from college. She is a writer. She is a thinker. In Ferrante’s story, Greco’s first book is published to wide acclaim for its depiction of a girl growing into a woman. Greco is struggling to find her way through middle life by writing a second book. She has a tumultuous relationship with her mother who secretly admires her daughter’s accomplishment and ability. She becomes engaged, marries a rising college professor, and bares two children. However, she grows to resent her husband’s intellectual beliefs and dominating self-interest.
The author’s counter-culture character, Lila. comes from the same neighborhood as Elena but, in contrast to Elena, escapes poverty by marrying a relatively successful merchant, whom she later divorces. The divorce can be explained in different ways and for different reasons but the immediate consequence is Lila’s return to poverty. Lila did not pursue a formal education but is educated by the street. She is a doer. She is tough, insightful, and independent. She has two children, a daughter who stays with her former husband, and another, a boy, that she is pregnant with when she divorces. She, like Elena, has a tumultuous relationship with her mother. The relationship appears irreconcilable because her mother believes her a whore who left a husband that gave her security and extended family respectability. To survive, Lila breaks with her extended family, goes to work in a sausage factory, and lives with a male friend to reduce living expenses. Partly out of necessity, Lila leaves her boy with neighbors when working. Lila resents the un-shared single-woman’ burden of motherhood.
Elena and Lila are friends from childhood but their paths to adulthood diverge. As adults, their lives periodically intersect to crystallize differences between revolutionaries that think, and revolutionaries that do. Elena becomes part of the intelligentsia–those who think, while Lila is street educated–those who do. In their journey through life, one sees Elena using her intelligence to parse the difference between love, sex, success, and failure. With knowledge as a thinker, Elena pursues independence.
In Lila, one sees an equal intelligence that deals daily with being a woman, a worker, and mother in a man’s world; doing what is necessary to win independence. Both break free to become independent human beings. One achieves freedom as a consequence of thinking; while the other achieves freedom as a consequence of doing.
In the end, a listener becomes bewildered by Elena’s view of freedom because it seems constrained by how a man views her rather than how she views herself. It seems, to a believer in equality of the sexes, that Elena Ferrante abandons the theme of “female independence and equality” by having her hero leave one husband for the prosaic love of another man. Elena Greco’s second book is ironically about man’s creation of woman i.e. an ironic subject for one who wrote a first book that infers women are independent and equal to men.
In any case, Ferrante shows life is an exercise in doing and thinking. The struggle is in balancing those two ways of dealing with the world; whether a man or a woman.