- Fear of the Mother’s Tongue: Secrecy and Gossip in Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi
Victoria Goddard, in her study of women’s sexuality and group identity in Naples, rethinks the question of how codes of honor and shame are constructed and defended by examining the importance of women’s role as “bearers,” perhaps, as “the bearers of group identity.” 1 Following in the wake of Mary Douglas’s work on the body and rituals of pollution, 2 Goddard foregrounds the responsibility that women have in maintaining and perpetuating a group identity:
If women are seen as the boundary markers and the carriers of group identity, it follows that their ‘integrity’ should be safeguarded. The concept of the group can operate at different levels of inclusion: the family, the kinship group, the village, region, class, or caste. The integrity of the women of a group cannot be understood solely in terms of ensuring appropriate marriage arrangements, which would, however explain many aspects of behavior resulting in the isolation and ‘protection’ of women. The role of women as carriers of identity has further repercussions of a less obvious nature, which, I would argue, are related to women’s role and powers as reproducers. Women may also be seen as the guardians of the ‘secrets’ of the group. By the very process of their control by men and their relegation to and identification with the domestic sphere, women are in a unique position to provoke a crisis within the group.(180) [End Page 30]
The potential of this crisis that women are in a “unique position” to provoke is powerfully illustrated in a text of fundamental significance for the construction of modern Italian culture and identity, namely Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi [The Betrothed]. 3 In the following pages, I focus on how Manzoni’s representation of the mother-daughter relationship in the novel implicitly recognizes and keeps at bay the critical potential of this bond and, by extension, the critical potential of a female alliance in the peasant community to which Lucia, her mother Agnese, and Lucia’s fiancé Renzo, belong. My analysis shows that Manzoni’s representation of Lucia’s secret fear of her mother’s gossip in a small community governed by face-to-face relations, is indicative of larger social and political questions which the novel fails to articulate but cannot quite suppress and/or efface.
I. The Secret
On the morning of her wedding day, while she is busy being dressed by a group of women from her peasant village, Lucia Mondella is called aside by a little girl who whispers something into her ear. Lucia leaves the group of women, goes downstairs to where Renzo is anxiously waiting for her. He tells her that their parish priest, Don Abbondio, has called off their marriage ceremony because his life has been threatened by the nobleman Don Rodrigo should he marry the two. Intimating that she knows something Renzo doesn’t, and with a feeling of terror in her heart, Lucia asks him to wait for her while she goes back upstairs to dismiss the women. In the meantime, roused by her daughter’s disappearance, Lucia’s mother, Agnese, comes downstairs and Renzo anxiously tells her the little he knows about what has happened while they await Lucia’s return. When she enters the room, Agnese rebukes her daughter for not having ever said anything and Lucia, wiping the tears from her eyes, promises to explain everything to her.
A chapter into the novel, this is a crucial scene. It sets in motion the plight of the two 17th-century Lombard peasant protagonists, Lucia Mondella and Renzo Tramaglino, whose marriage plans and hopes for a quiet and predictable future in their village are torn asunder by Don Rodrigo’s fancy for Lucia; a fancy that has led him to make a bet [End Page 31] with his cousin Attilio that he, Don Rodrigo, will have seduced Lucia by the festive date of Saint Martin. Situated in the context of a Lombardy governed by the Spanish and about to be devastated by famine, war, and the plague of 1630, the PS tells the story of what happens...