Pygmalion’s creative gesture and the Calvinian text

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In Ovid’s myth, Galatea remains silent. She epitomises compliant femininity as she comes to life blushing, timidly raising her eyes and greeting Pygmalion, her creator. Ovid reinforces the erotic dimensions of the myth by adding that, nine months from her animation, “Pygmalion’s bride bore a child.” As Gail Marshall explains, Ovid’s Galatea “remains only and always the image of Pygmalion’s desire” (18), a relationship that J. H. Miller describes with the following simile: “It is as if Narcissus’ reflection in the pool had come alive and could return his love” (5). Ovid gifts Pygmalion the woman of his fantasies, but the question arises as to how Galatea might view the turn of events. If Galatea were to speak, what might she say? Would we learn why she comes to life blushing and of what she is afraid?
Although the way that Galatea has been depicted has varied through time, reflecting the fashions and concerns of different eras, until relatively recently, the myth has remained almost exclusively Pygmalion’s story. Aspects of Pygmalion’s personality and the nature of his creative act have been extensively explored, but Galatea has typically remained merely a beautiful, compliant and essentially voiceless form. As Joshua observes, until the latter part of the nineteenth century, when the story was reclaimed by women writers, the “Pygmalion story [was] largely perpetuated as an instance of the male definition of the female: Galatea’s body and her identity [were] created to his specifications” (136). How Pygmalion’s creative gesture was viewed has varied considerably through the ages. This ranges from the positive theological gloss applied by John Gower, a contemporary of Chaucer, who in his Confessio Amantis “interprets the story as evidence for the importance of articulate prayer” (Joshua 12), through to the less obvious references to the myth found in works such as Thomas Hardy’s last published novel, The Well-Beloved (1897), in which Jocelyn Pierston’s success as a sculptor is contrasted with his unsuccessful love life. Hardy exposes in the novel both the futility of Pierston’s search for the ideal feminine and the ultimate “pre-eminence of life over art” (Bezrucka 229).
Joshua notes that a more serious attempt was made to portray Galatea’s point of view in the late 1800s and the early part of last century, citing as evidence the writings of the American poets Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Genevieve Taggard and Roselle Mercier Montgomery and the Irish poet Emily Henrietta Hickey. Nonetheless, Joshua qualifies this observation by adding that, despite the “advances in feminist revisionism, the story remains the property of men in the twentieth century” (155).148 What has not remained the property of men, however, is the use of the myth as a critical tool for studying the representation of the feminine, even in works that bear no thematic resemblance to Ovid’s Pygmalion story. It is in this manner that I apply the myth in this chapter, which investigates the instances in which Calvino presents his stories using female protagonists. To restate this in terms of the Pygmalion scenario: in this chapter, I examine how Calvino in his Pygmalionesque role of author represents the world from Galatea’s perspective.
The discussion centres almost exclusively on the two short stories “L’avventura di una bagnante” and “L’avventura di una moglie,” and on Il cavaliere inesistente, the third fantastic tale. The unifying feature of these narratives is that the stories are all presented by a narrator who has access to the thoughts of the female protagonist, although this statement requires qualification in the case of Il cavaliere inesistente. The narrative structure is relatively straightforward in the Gli amori difficili stories, which are delivered in the third person by an omniscient narrator, but it is far more complex in Il cavaliere inesistente and is compounded by the way that deceit and identity issues are structural features of the plot. Il cavaliere inesistente includes both a primary and a secondary narrative, and it is only the primary narrative, which is a first-person account of Suor Teodora’s life in the convent and the act of writing the secondary narrative, that is ostensibly delivered from a female point of view. The secondary narrative is written by the nun Suor Teodora, but it is seemingly narrated by an omniscient narrator and the perspective shifts throughout. Understandably, the complexity of the narrative structure of this early postmodern novel raises issues that are not present in Gli amori difficili. To cater for this difference and to allow for a more comprehensive discussion of the way in which Calvino presents the world from a feminine perspective, I have divided the chapter into two sections. The first section, “Isotta and Stefania,” considers the dilemmas faced by the female protagonists of the two short stories, “L’avventura di una bagnante” and “L’avventura di una moglie.” Through an analysis of both the predicaments they face and the way they are portrayed as handling their difficult circumstances, I examine their stories as instances of the representation of a feminine perspective as defined by a male author. When relevant, the discussion includes a comparison of these stories with others in the collection that have male protagonists. In the second section, “Suor Teodora/Bradamante,” I examine questions of point of view and aspects of narrative structure in Il cavaliere inesistente that relate specifically to the question of feminine perspective. I also speculate upon reasons why Calvino might have created a female character to play the role of first-person narrator of the primary narrative.
Some fundamental understandings accompany me in the following analysis, which are well introduced by the following observation made in a 1990 article in the Independent Magazine by Jeanette Winterson:
It’s not polite to criticise heroes, but if I had met Calvino I would have had to ask him about his women. Or rather his lack of them. He doesn’t write about us, not in any meaningful way, indeed hardly head on at all. Worse, there are very many clues which give away the assumption that he thinks of his readers as male too. (“Italo” 48) 149
Responding to Winterson’s comment in his Il mondo scritto, Bonsaver offers the opinion that what makes Calvino’s work so particular is not so much the lack of women in his writing, since there are many, but rather the fact that they rarely attain the status of protagonist and that they are barely credible and lack proper definition. Nor does Bonsaver find evidence to support Winterson’s contention that Calvino also thinks of his readers as male, finding instead that Calvino’s works merely demonstrate a pronouncedly masculine narrating hand:
Nei romanzi di Calvino, la rappresentazione dei personaggi femminili sembra essere costantemente legata alla ‘messa in prosa’ di tensioni psichiche prettamente maschili; alla ‘mascolinità’ dei personaggi protagonisti viene cioè ad associarsi un’altrettanto pronunciata ‘mascolinità’ dell’immaginario alla base di ogni opera. I personaggi femminili nell’opera di Calvino si presentano come tante proiezioni artistiche delle pulsioni inconscie che l’uomo associa al sesso femminile. (249)
The observation that Calvino’s writing shows strongly that the authorial hand is masculine is widely acknowledged. Nevertheless, whatever Calvino’s intentions were and however well Bonsaver might explain why the female characters appear as they do in Calvino’s texts, a feeling of being excluded from the intended reading audience is almost inevitable for a female reader, who is consistently faced with female characters that are barely recognisable. Drawing upon the words of Pearce, when reading a Calvinian text, like Winterson, I feel that there is “a preferred reader who is not me” (46). However, this is not a trait peculiar to Calvino’s writing, for as Pearce further elaborates, “[h]owever complex the categories ‘male’ and ‘female’ have become, texts do gender their readers, either explicitly or implicitly”(47). Hence, Calvino’s female characters, which Bonsaver describes as artistic projections of the unconscious drive that males associate with the female sex, are inherently aimed towards a masculine, rather than a feminine, reading audience, which means that female readers are by implication at least partially excluded.
Ovid was possibly the first to unite the Echo and Narcissus themes, and the similarity of motifs, most particularly the motif of reflection, is an obvious connection between the two. There are, however, differences that are subtle but important for my discussion. Narcissus falls in love with his own reflected image, so his is essentially a circular self-love relationship. Echo’s situation is of a different nature, for she is herself the reflecting device: the still pool or the mirror. Once deprived of the power to initiate communication, a punishment meted out by Juno for delaying her with excessive talkativeness, Echo can merely repeat the last words she hears. Her own ideas remain unexpressed as she reflects back onto the speaker the words s/he puts into her mouth. When Echo falls in love with Narcissus, it is his words she repeats, and they are the last words she utters before losing her physical form and becoming merely a voice without substance. The thematic similarity between the Narcissus and the Pygmalion episodes is obvious, for both Narcissus’ love for his own reflection and Pygmalion’s love for Galatea, his own creation, are essentially “a reciprocity in which the same loves the same” (J.H. Miller 4). This chapter focuses on situations in which a female character is the protagonist and the perspective is ostensibly feminine, even if it is constructed by a male writer. One of the issues pursued, although not always couched in these terms, is the extent to which, even when delivered from a feminine perspective, the problems faced by the women merely echo the decidedly masculine world view of the author, making Calvino’s female protagonists essentially no different from his other female characters. To rephrase this using Ovidian terminology: bearing in mind the Echo-Narcissus episode, I examine whether Galatea’s perspective merely echoes that of Pygmalion.150
Closely allied to the Echo-Narcissus relationship is the notion of the transvested self. In her article “«Saio o bikini? Vada per l’armatura». Esplorazioni di guardaroba del Calvino degli anni ’50,” Nocentini discusses the extent to which diegetic freedom is handed to the female protagonists in these same three stories. She concludes that, except perhaps for the moment when Suor Teodora exits the story clad once again in her armour, Calvino does not identify with his female protagonists. Although I agree with Nocentini’s conclusion in the cases of Isotta and Stefania, I find more evidence of Calvino’s transvested presence in Suor Teodora’s character and will pursue this issue further at a later stage. In contrast, the discussion surrounding Isotta’s and Stefania’s characters relies more heavily upon the Echo-Narcissus relationship. The basic premise in both sections is that Calvino, the creator, does not identify with his female characters but that they do reflect his male-orientated world view.

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Isotta and Stefania

The presence of a sole female protagonist places “L’avventura di una bagnante” and “L’avventura di una moglie” in a special position in Calvino’s oeuvre. Although both stories have been included in a number of previous critical studies, for the most part, the protagonist status of the female characters has been treated as only one aspect of an investigation that has another principal focus. In contrast, the primary concern here is to consider how Calvino, through his third-person narrators and female protagonists, attempts a feminine perspective. Or, according to Calvino, how does Galatea view the world?
“L’avventura di una bagnante” was written and first published in 1951 and is thus one of the earlier Amori difficili stories, appearing third in the 1970 edition.151 Signora Isotta Barbarino is a woman of indeterminate age. She is portrayed as an inherently conservative housewife, and although quite possibly relatively young, her outlook is presented as that of a more mature woman: “era una signora davvero alla buona e casalinga” (RR 2: 1076). Isotta’s husband has delivered her to the beach and immediately returned to the city, leaving her alone on vacation. The events of this story take place on the first day of her holiday when she ventures into the water for a swim wearing a newly purchased and very modern two-piece bathing suit. At some stage during the swim, Isotta loses the bottom half of her suit: (“«lo slip»” [RR 2: 1075]), and the story revolves around her actions and the thoughts that go through her mind before she is eventually rescued from her ignominious predicament by an older man and a young boy in a small motorboat. They safely deliver Isotta to shore and to the normality of her everyday existence, her modesty ironically restored by a much less fashionable “gonna verde a fiori arancione” (RR 2: 1084).
In contrast, “L’avventura di una moglie” was not published until 1958 and is thus one of the later written stories in the collection. It has a more youthful and modern tone, immediate indicators including Stefania R.’s more contemporary name and the absence of the title ‘Signora.’ We are also explicitly told that Stefania has only been married for a couple of years. While her husband is out of town on business, Stefania unintentionally spends the night away from home dancing and dining with friends, and later in the company of a young man named Fornero, with whom she is “un po’ innamorata” (RR 2: 1152). Her problem is that she has left home without the key to the main door of her apartment building, and having waited until too late, she cannot return unnoticed until the concierge opens it again in the morning. After many hours spent driving around together, Fornero finally drops her near her building at six, but Stefania discovers that she is still too early and that the door remains locked. To fill in the time before she can discretely slip back inside, she goes to a nearby bar for a coffee. In this bar, Stefania meets and converses with men the likes of whom she would never normally encounter: a barista, a night-reveller, a hunter and a factory worker. Unlike most of the other stories in Amori difficili, Stefania’s adventure is by and large a positive experience and the word ‘difficile’ less accurately describes her situation.
Despite their differences, Isotta and Stefania share features that set them apart from most of the principal male characters in Gli amori difficili. Both are married women and, with the exception of Arturo Massolari of “L’avventura di due sposi,” none of the male protagonists is married. Or perhaps to be more accurate, the marital status of the male protagonists is rarely considered relevant to the discussion. Ricci observes that the “contemplation of man’s place in the world is a purpose that penetrates all of [Calvino’s] works” (Difficult 2), and the fact that the problems faced by the male protagonists clearly deal with their relationships with the outside world supports this observation. In contrast, the difficulties encountered by both Isotta and Stefania are closely connected to their status as married women. Hence, their worlds are by implication reduced to this very narrow and traditional space, which is associated with both limitations and dissatisfaction.
This also differentiates them from Elide Massolari, who is also a married woman and a co-protagonist, and thus could validly be considered a candidate for the discussion in this section. But there is another important difference between the difficulty confronting Elide and her husband Arturo and those faced by Isotta and Stefania. Elide and Arturo’s story is an exaggerated example of the problems associated with trying to function at the physical level as a married couple in the rapidly industrialising environment faced by the Italians during the 1950s. They are a modern working-class couple whose differing work schedules cause them to spend very few hours of the day together. The marital bed symbolises their dilemma because each occupies it alone and yet finds solace in the heat left there by the spouse who has recently vacated it. What makes Elide and Arturo’s story special is the fact it provides a rare example in Calvino’s oeuvre of a relatively positive representation of the married state, for their problem resides in the fact that they wish to spend time together but cannot for reasons beyond their control. De Lauretis writes that this story presents “an insightful rendering of the sexual relation between a woman and a man who love each other” (Technologies 83). Yet, I suggest that it is also possible to read the story more cynically and to consider it a literary representation of the Lacanian notion of desire as situated in absence. As Jacqueline Rose explains in her “Introduction” to Lacan’s Feminine Sexuality, “Desire functions much as the zero unit in the numerical chain–its place is both constitutive and empty” (32).152 Although Elide and Arturo are portrayed as initially happy to see one another, after a short time together they reach the point “di urtarsi, di dirsi qualche parola brutta” (RR 2: 1164); for both of them, desire is intensified by the physical absence of the other.
Nevertheless, for the purposes of this investigation, the important factor is that Elide’s problem is aligned more closely to that of the other male protagonists than it is to that of Isotta and Stefania. The difference is that, despite the difficulties faced at the personal level, Elide and Arturo are essentially represented as equals and operate as a unit facing outwards towards stresses presented by the wider world. In contrast, both Isotta and Stefania face issues that stem primarily from their positions in relationship to their husbands. Of the two, Stefania’s problem is more directly related to her married state, for the question she grapples with is whether enjoying the company of men who are not her husband, even in the absence of a sexual relationship, can be considered an act of adultery. On the other hand, Isotta’s problem is primarily an identity issue, a question of propriety and of living within the bounds of acceptable feminine behaviour. To use Re’s words, “[t]he loss of [her] suit ironically represents a veritable loss of identity” (“Ariosto” 219); and Isotta’s identity is that of the “signora vestita” (RR 2: 1078).
The centrality of a male figure, albeit an absent husband, to both Isotta’s and Stefania’s stories recalls a passage in Felman’s What Does a Woman Want? While discussing difficulties encountered deciphering apparent textual ambiguities in Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes, a novel that narrates a triangular relationship in which a woman loves both a woman and a man, Felman comments that it took her a great deal of time and effort to realise that these difficulties arose primarily “from the confusion, the misreading, the mistakes made by (experienced by) a man (a suitor) in his difficulty—and indeed his impossibility—of grasping the situation from his male perspective.” She goes on to write that this perspective is “a predominant, stereotypical perspective that puts men […] at the center of women’s lives and that cannot conceive of femininity except as subordinate to man […] at its center” (18). I suggest that the plots of both “L’avventura di una bagnante” and “L’avventura di una moglie” illustrate this stereotypical perspective well. Like Balzac’s narrator, Henri de Marsay, Calvino gives every impression that he was also incapable of conceiving of a problem that a woman might face that did not centre on her relationship with and subordination to a man: in both of these examples, a husband. In doing so, Calvino portrays a decidedly patriarchal view of the world, and as I indicate in the following analysis, by delivering these stories from a feminine perspective while adhering to a male-centred world view, Calvino introduces some conflicting attitudes and ambiguities to his texts.

Constructing the Desirable Woman
Constructing the Undesirable Woman
Building a Female Character from Mythology and Fiction
Fashioning a Female Character Incorporating Autobiographical Features
Representations of Woman as Dangerous and/or Undesirable
Sun-Tanned Woman and Delia H
Fetishism, Narcissism and Oedipal Themes
Oedipal Themes


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