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Illness as Metaphor

The fear and deeply felt insecurity deriving from miss diagnosed and silently endured epilepsy, becomes a metaphor for an obscure threat, passed down from Nora to Ida, and finally to Useppe.

Within the family, epilepsy remains a dark secret. Nora was not able to communicate or explain her fits to Ida, just as Ida cannot explain her fits to Useppe. The sickness’s sudden occurrences remain largely imponderable.

La petite mort (the little death) is an expression which refers to the brief loss or weakening of consciousness, which can occur during an epileptic fit. In modern usage, the phrase refers specifically to the sensation of orgasm as likened to death. The initial rape scene in the novel brings the two together.

In La Storia, sickness, impairments, and amputations are among the many manifestations of the frailty of the human body, swept up in the blind violence of war.

Long before La Storia, for example in the short story The Secret Game (Il gioco segreto) from 1941, Morante had used the illness of one of her characters as a narrative device to blur the separation between dream/game and everyday life.

Illness occupies a sort of middle ground between states of consciousness, between life and dream, which is precisely the heart of Morante’s poetic universe.

The description of Nora’s decay, madness, and final death is among the most lyrical and touching sections of the entire work. In dying, she regains her innocent child-like aspect. This is the first of several passages of the novel written with the solemn beauty of a Mozart requiem.

In the course of the last months, she had heard, perhaps over the radio, talk of Jewish emigration from all over Europe to Palestine. She knew absolutely nothing about Zionism, if she even knew the word. And of Palestine she knew only that it was the Biblical homeland of the Hebrews and that its capital was Jerusalem. But still, she came to the conclusion that the only place where she could be received, as a fugitive Jew Among a people of Jews was Palestine. […]

She took no baggage with her, not even a change of linen. She had on her, as always, her three thousand lire hidden inside the stocking. […] It is certain that she was already delirious. But still she must have reasoned that to go from Cosenza to Jerusalem overland was not a good idea, because she headed to the sea, choosing the alternative of a ship as the only solution. Some people vaguely recall having seen her, in her little summer dress of black artificial silk with a blue pattern, on the last evening train heading for the beach at Paola. […]

In any event, though such endurance seems incredible, in her condition, we have to believe that, from the station where she arrived, she covered a long distance on foot. In fact, the specific spot where they found her on the sand is several miles away from the Paola beach, toward Fuscaldo. Along that stretched of coastline, beyond the railroad track, there are hilly fields of corn whose swaying expanse in the darkness, to her crazed eyes, may have created the effect of the sea opening up ahead.

It was a beautiful moonless night, calm and starry. Perhaps she was reminded of that one little song from her parts that she could sing: “what a fine night this is for stealing girls”.

But even in that serene and tepid air, at a certain point in her walk, she felt cold. And she covered herself with that man’s cloak she had brought along, taking care to fasten the buckle at the throat. It was an old mantle of dark brown country wool, which had been the right length for Giuseppe, but was too long for her, falling to her feet. A local man seeing her go by in the distance, cloaked in that way, could have taken her for the “monacheddu”, the little domestic brigand disguised as a monk, who roams about at night, they say, entering houses by dropping down the chimney. Apparently, however, nobody encountered her, naturally enough, on that isolated shore, seldom visited especially at night.

The first to find her were some boatmen coming in at dawn from their fishing; and immediately they thought shows a suicide, brought ashore by the sea’s currents. But the position of the drowned woman and the conditions of her body did not agree with that hasty conclusion.

She was lying below the waterline, on sand still wet from the recent tide, in a relaxed ad natural attitude, like someone surprised by death in a state of unconsciousness or in sleep. Her head was on the sand, which the light flux had made even and clean, without seaweed, or flotsam; and the rest of her body was on the great man’s cloak, held at the collar by the buckle and spread out at her sides, open, all soaked with water. The little artificial silk dress, damp and smoothed by the water, clung decorously to her thin body, which seemed unharmed, not swollen or abused as bodies washed by the tide usually look. And the thin blue carnations printed on the silk appeared new, brightened by the water against the dark background of the cloak.

The sea’s only violence had been to tear off her little shoes and undo her hair which, despite her age, had remained long and abundant, and only partly graying, so that now, wet, it seemed black again, and had fallen all down one side, almost gracefully. The current had not even slipped from her emaciated hand the little gold wedding ring, whose slight, precious gleam was distinct in the day’s advancing light. […] The examination of the body confirmed beyond a doubt, her death by drowning. […]