Roles of Italian Women in Italian American Literature Term Paper

Pages: 7 (2280 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 9  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Literature

Evolving and Multifaceted Roles of Italian-American Women in Literature: Through the Eyes of Women and Men

Whores. Temptresses. The Holy Madonna incarnate, and living in a tenement in New York City. The dutiful Catholic daughter, sent across an ocean far away to marry a man she does not know. The long-suffering wife of a construction worker or a wife-beater. All of these stereotypes encompass the multifaceted and contradictory roles of Italian women in past and even some contemporary works of literature by both Italian men and women. Yet beneath these narrow stereotypes of contemporary literature, as well as secular and religious Italian literature of the past, more complex and individuated roles of Italian women's life do emerge.

These images emerge in the depicted reality of nonfiction as well as fictional life come forth, as these women are seen engaged in child rearing, showing impressive work ethics to enable their families to survive, laboring as well as suffering in the role of daughter, and as these women show their strength in their roles of mother as well as their silent compassion. Gradually, as Italian women themselves began to speak, Italian women and authors have grown fluent at showing female Italian working and middle-class sexuality as well as images of long-enduring Mediterranean fortitude, women alone in the role of a wife bent over a stove bubbling with red hot gravy and meatballs smelling of garlic and onions. (Viscusi, 1988, p.21)Download full
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TOPIC: Term Paper on Roles of Italian Women in Italian American Literature Assignment

One early, if well-meaning depiction of such Italian-American female stereotypes may be found in Pietro di Donato's relatively early novel Christ in Concrete. The novel was inspired by the tragic death in a construction accident of the author's father, an Italian immigrant, on Good Friday in1923, when di Donato was a child. It was published during the Great Depression in the same year as John Steinbeck's novel of rural protest The Grapes of Wrath as a kind of urban, immigrant protest novel. But it is an also a uniquely Italian protest novel about a man, a song for a lost would-be domineering patriarch, who dies thinking of his family in idealistic terms. (Diomede, 1992)

The terms in which the central protagonist thinks of his wife and female relations seem, to a modern critic's eye incongruous with the other characters of the novel, and the novel's otherwise daring blend of poetry, the argot of the male-dominated street, and pigeon-accented Italian-English that anticipates such modern visual dramas such as "The Godfather" saga of films and "The Sopranos" on HBO. Although the Georgetown scholar and novelist Helen Barolini writes this Italian-American author and his work "can be examined in terms of the general theme of the outsider and can be related to authors of other groups, bridging the narrow ethnic theme to the more general one," such as issues of workers' exploitation" and what impels immigrants toward the American dream," it is a very masculine American dream that emerges over the course of Christ in Concrete and a very masculine-created a American language that accommodates the oral culture of di Donato's male protagonists alone protagonists. It is "a language that reflects the texture of the peasant-worker discourse" that excludes Italian women, even while it links Italian laborers to other recent and past (male) immigrant workers in America. (Barolini, 2005)

While "it is important to note that dignity and intelligence are not the social prerogatives of the more articulate social group" in America, Pietro di Donato silences his women who are not part of the workers of concrete and sweat. (Barolini, 2005) Earlier, of her own father, Helen Barolini wrote that to live in the shadow of male immigrant Italian dreams: "Even without any literary reference, my father knew the difference between those who sink and those who don't. His is the story of the self-made man, of work and perseverance in the old style, of being his own boss. But he also had a fantasy; his Diamond as Big as the Ritz was to settle in California where he would live, work, thrive, raise a family, and play golf in that perfect climate," far away from the kitchen and the home which was the center of her mother's life. (Barolini, 1997)

The young Helen Barolini hoped for salvation from such limitations as she saw her father experience, but not only did American life disappoint her father in its lived economic reality, but betrayed Barolini's mother, as her mother grew isolated from all others except the familial home and neighborhood, as well as her father's halting ambitions and incursions into the American middle class in the working class Syracuse, New York State neighborhood where the Barolinis made their home. (Barolini, 1997)

The limits of the male imagination can be seen even when a recent Italian-American authored novel, by Mario Puzo of The Godfather fame, took on the saga of a young Italian girl of a similar era as Pietro di Donato in the 1930s, and attempted to portray her life from her perspective, common matriarchal, saintly images come into authorial verbal and narrative play. Like the Christ-like man at the center of Christ in Concrete, the first husband of the protagonist dies in an industrial accident. At the beginning The Fortunate Pilgrim, the girl Lucia Santa (Santa, having the implications of saintly in the woman's original named form) comes to New York in Puzo's novel from Italy to marry a man she hardly knows, dutiful to her familial will. This man proves to be kindly, until his death.

Over the course of the Puzo novel, Lucia Santa is primarily characterized by her relationship to men, by her two marriages, her five children, and her struggle to raise her family of six children in a moral, Catholic fashion in the New York City neighborhood known as Hell's Kitchen beginning in the early 1900s. Lucia's religious strength sustains her through familial troubles, the tragedy of the loss of her first 'good' husband and the running off of her second 'bad' husband, and the onslaught of American culture that continually pits her family against the constructs of traditional Italian life.

While Puzo portrays the Old and New World family against Lucia Santa's iron will, she emerges less as a woman than a representation of 'Italy.' Her daughter is an assertive, educated 'New Woman' who is determined to become successful in the New World of America on her own terms comes to folly. "He's not my father!" cries the defiant, ungrateful girl when her mother must get married out of economic circumstances again. (Puzo, 1992, pp. 22-23) while one of the woman's sons, although a womanizer, is tacitly, if not approved of, then accepted by the author as a normal and natural boy, only responding to the pressures of his environment and the loss of a father figure, then another, at too young and impressionable an age. The other sons, measured against the mother become equally stereotypical Italian archetypes of a fraught but loving son and mother relationship that is either idealized or all forgiving, as the woman becomes a saint-like individual, falling like a Magdalene into desire, but raising herself and attempting to raise her family according to the will of the Old World and the saints.

The feelings of Helen Barolini, expressed not only in her novel Umbertina, but in her collection of personal and scholarly entitled essays Chiaroscuro, states that the constructions of female identity in her own Italian-male dominated household "meant that I grew up in a home not of expressed affection and encouragement, but of duty discharged," as a daughter who must be obedient to the male, fatherly, and patriarchal rule and will. (Barolini, 1997)

This meant, "I was disaffected from a sense of joy and personal fulfillment and understood only responsibility. The estrangement with my one remaining grandparent and the mysterious relatives on his side cast a shadow over the family and squashed close relationships. It made me distant from everything except my love of literature, a solitary calling in which the remote author is the one presence to cling to and believe in. The right author will never betray, disappoint, or leave one. Authors can be counted on as mere people cannot." (Barolini, 1997)

In one of her own novels, Barolini takes up some of the traditional themes of Puzo and di Donato, and instead shows a matriarch who defies conventional stereotypes and Catholic assumptions of what should constitute appropriate daughterly or motherly behavior. Like Mario Puzo's novel, the epic Umbertina spans four generations across the life of a family beginning with the girlhood of the titular Italian immigrant Umbertina. But Umbertina leaves a legacy in the form of their namesake great-granddaughter, the contemporary narrator Tina, who becomes the voice of her grandmother in the present. Through the eyes of this connection between women rather than men, and a specifically female rather than male centric ethnic experience, the epic narrative of Umbertina spans takes on history of the Italian-American experience from late 19th Century immigrant and tenement to the present day difficulties women… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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How to Cite "Roles of Italian Women in Italian American Literature" Term Paper in a Bibliography:

APA Style

Roles of Italian Women in Italian American Literature.  (2005, July 29).  Retrieved January 16, 2022, from

MLA Format

"Roles of Italian Women in Italian American Literature."  29 July 2005.  Web.  16 January 2022. <>.

Chicago Style

"Roles of Italian Women in Italian American Literature."  July 29, 2005.  Accessed January 16, 2022.