My brilliant city: Naples, urban poverty and the ‘ethnographic imagination’ of Elena Ferrante

Trifuoggi, Mario and Sielo, Francesco. 2023. My brilliant city: Naples, urban poverty and the ‘ethnographic imagination’ of Elena Ferrante. Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 28(3), pp. 362-379. ISSN 1354-571X [Article]

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Abstract or Description

Elena Ferrante’s ‘Neapolitan Novels’, published in English between 2012 and 2015, tell the coming-of-age story of two women born in a poor neighbourhood in post-war Naples. The international success of this four-part series of novels – named in the Italian edition after the title of the first novel, L’amica geniale (‘My Brilliant Friend’) – testifies to the enduring popularity of the urban poor of Naples as a literary subject. This article discusses several key issues of urban poverty that emerge from the series (i.e. social exclusion, ghettoization, widespread illegality, endemic violence and women’s oppression) and analyses how they are narrated, drawing on two classic texts of ethnographic scholarship: Thomas Belmonte’s The Broken Fountain (1979) and Italo Pardo’s Managing Existence in Naples (1996). In doing so, it reconsiders Ferrante’s narrative from a socio-anthropological perspective and assesses her ‘ethnographic imagination’ vis-à-vis two opposing tendencies in the literature about the urban poor of Naples: one geared towards stigmatization and the other towards romanticization. The article thus argues that the ‘Neapolitan Novels’ offer a refreshing take on a deeply stereotyped subject, countering (at least in part) the process of ‘othering’ that traditionally affects the literary representation of Naples’ urban poor.

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Naples, urban poverty, Elena Ferrante, ethnography, Neapolitan novels

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24 January 2023Accepted
16 February 2023Published Online

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Date Deposited:

16 Feb 2023 14:06

Last Modified:

22 May 2023 09:52

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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