- The Death of the Angel:Games of Seduction and Moral Destruction in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Il Piacere
Com’è debole e misera l’anima nostra, senza difesa contro i risvegli e gli assalti di quanto men nobile e men puro dorme nella oscurità della nostra vita inconsciente, nell’abisso inesplorato ove i ciechi sogni nascono dalle cieche sensazioni!(D’Annunzio, Il Piacere 275)
Il Piacere since its publication has been considered a novel of seduction through which, as Croce highlighted, “risuonò nella letteratura italiana una nota fino ad allora estranea, sensualistica, ferina, decadente” (110), and is to be understood as “una incessante ‘educazione sentimentale’” (Barilli 42). The scholarly debate on Il Piacere has mainly focused on the male protagonist as a D’Annunzian re-reading of Nietzsche’s superhuman, where the search of pleasure, aesthetic and physical, becomes a means by which to elevate oneself above the common human condition. The female protagonists, instead, have been considered secondary characters, serving to strengthen both the primacy of the male role as the absolute protagonist of the narration, and his superior intellect. In this respect, the female characters of this novel have generally been studied as a pair (Maria-Elena), representing an opposition, or two facets of the same ideal woman. In the first case, Maria and Elena have been presented as “opposing symbols of angel [End Page 124] and demon. Donna Maria is consistently portrayed in the novel as an intellectual and spiritual creature […] in diametrical opposition to Elena […] the ultimate seductress” (Pieri 224). In the second case, the female characters have been seen as the means through which there is the “possibilità che la donna ideale possa esistere […] nell’identificazione della spirituale Maria col corpo di Elena” (Bàrberi Squarotti 363).
This study proposes a re-consideration of the role of the female characters in the novel, mainly that of Maria. The aim is to show how her adultery becomes the functional first stage in a process that sees the bourgeois female stereotype of the ‘angel in the house’ (previously considered the pivotal unit in the family structure) destabilized in Il Piacere at an ethical level, as morality is the essential substance of the angel. In my reading, Il Piacere is the first in a series of novels, including the trilogy of I Romanzi della Rosa, Le Vergini delle Rocce and Il Fuoco, in each of which I have identified a progression toward a reconsideration of the female role. The female literary types of the second half of the nineteenth century (the angel in the house, the evil temptress and the femme fragile) are undermined and refuted in these novels as anachronistic or socially sterile, and they are gradually replaced by a new nationalist female model. This paper will focus on the first step in this progression, as is apparent in Il Piacere through the character of Maria. This character, while conforming to the bourgeois prescriptive role of females of the period, also presents traits usually attributed to male characters, providing the pretext for undermining the bourgeois stereotype of the angelic woman. In fact, her intellectual nature, her knowledge and her vibrant mind find her trapped and unfulfilled within the narrow scope of the angelic woman. As a result, the female character, through Maria, finds both the motivation and the means to move beyond this typical stereotype, as her characteristics (such as intelligence) anticipate a shift in the trend of female agency towards a more level playing field in social engagements with that of the male in later novels.
Il Piacere focuses on the figure of “the angel of the house,” which is by now perceived negatively, and on the idea of the untenability of the attributes given to this role, as it has become a negative and repressive role for the woman. In fact, “the angel in the house” is no longer a respected and praised model, as it was in the early Victorian period, when the expression was first coined. The social function of the angel in the house rested upon her virtues as she was entrusted with the care of the household, the preservation of the family’s social [End Page 125] respectability in the...