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Abstract

Motherhood is a central focus throughout the works of both Elsa Morante and Dacia Maraini, whose careers span the period of the most intense questioning of this role and its impact on women’s identities in Italy in the last century. This dissertation examines these writers’ critiques of motherhood as an institution in their novels and their explorations of alternative means through which to engage in maternal work outside of biological relationships. Through a focus on literary representations of maternal figures as well as the intersection between mothering and narrative portrayed in a selection of Morante’s and Maraini’s prose, I trace the ways each author reflects, anticipates and diverges from the contemporary feminist discourse on mothering. In the first chapter, I demonstrate the complexity of Morante’s depiction of mothers in her texts through revealing the extent to which she problematizes societal models of motherhood. I locate the author’s explorations of cooperative mothering and the potential of the male maternal within the context of her exposure of the social conditioning and theories of gender development tied to why and how women have historically come to mother. In the second chapter I investigate Morante’s use of the fairy tale genre while arguing that Morante aligns oral storytelling with maternal practice and underscores the value of the interpersonal experience of mothers telling and interpreting stories with their children. I contend that the narrator of La Storia represents a maternal presence in the novel who engages in maternal practice through the relational act of storytelling. The focus of the third chapter is Dacia Maraini’s reworking in her fiction of women’s roles and subjectivity within the traditional patriarchal family. I examine the development of her sustained interest in non-biological mothers from her re-elaborations of the maternal potential of nuns to figures who mother in non-traditional families in such works as Memorie di una ladra and Il treno per Helsinki. In the final chapter I trace the theme of maternal storytelling in Maraini’s works from its earliest incarnation in Donna in guerra to the later Dolce per sé and Colomba, in which the relational function of storytelling is presented as a means through which to establish female genealogies and reinforce relationships among women. I conclude this dissertation with a discussion of Maraini’s reflections on the maternal nature of both oral and written narrative.

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