Dark Fantasies: Desire, Obsession, and the Shattered Present in Elena Ferrante's The Lost Daughter
Review by Theodora Bishop
I had been driving for less than an hour when I began to feel ill…In the space of a few minutes my head became heavy, the headlines grew dimmer; soon I even forgot that I was driving….
So begins Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter , which moves with a velocity analogous to cruising forward while being continually hindered by the illusion of moving backward. The novella begins with the narrator, Leda, recounting the moments before she ended up in the hospital, surrounded by her ex-husband and daughters. Just before driving into a guardrail, Leda concludes she experienced a “fantasy of alarm” consisting of a vision of herself at the sea, “the beach…empty, the water calm, but on a pole a few meters from shore a red flag was waving.” Within one compact paragraph the fantasy Leda experiences prior to her crash triggers the past to rear its head. At this point, Leda recalls her mother’s warning: “Leda, you must never go swimming if you see a red flag: it means that the sea is rough and you might drown.”
The very first page of The Lost Daughter sets into play the entwining of the past and present, a narrative pattern that will shape, and continually arouse friction. The first echoes of the thematic mother-daughter dichotomy also appear: as the narrative progresses, Leda’s relationship to her own mother and daughters, alongside her scrutiny of a particular Neapolitan mother and daughter and the doll the pair plays with, will nearly consume her. It is notable that Leda’s obsession digs heels into the present as well as the past, for The Lost Daughter is a tour de force about mothers and daughters. The concentrated intensity of the narrator’s obsession, paired with the continual inversion of how past and present iterations merge and evolve, gives the brevity of Ferrante’s novel its accumulative power.
THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT
Doubling, inversion of past and present, and the intensity of obsession, are all products of the particular length of the novella. A short story doesn’t have the space to delve into all of these traits, while a longer novel may dilute their effects. In The Lost Daughter, Elena Ferrante feverishly probes these traits over the course of a taut 140-page novella, a form that calls to mind a line being cast into a lake; you can make out its arc, but its end is submerged. Until the fisherman reels in his catch, the bait is imperceptible. Only below the surface is it visible, and it is this image of a line vanishing into a contained body of water that I have when negotiating the depths of a narrative with visible borders. In a novella, you need the controlled volumes of a lake to conceal the hook and the bait. The surface is all ripples and reflection. Obsession lies at the bottom.
In her provocative essay, “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” Kate Bernheimer examines how the structure, material, and very design of the fairy tale permeates myriad narratives. Bernheimer ascertains that “inside [a fairy tale’s] lyrical disconnect…resides a story that enters and haunts you deeply.” The deep breed of haunting which Bernheimer refers to seems intrinsic to the kind of circuitous obsessions that distinguish Ferrante’s narrative. As Debra Spark points out in her splendid essay on the novella, “Aspects of the Short Novel,” there exists in pinning down the form of the novella an inherent difficulty: “[T]hose who do hazard generalizations focus on the form’s beauty, its ability to explore a single philosophical or moral idea, and its usefulness for parables, fables, or stories that tend to archetype.”  The novella’s grounding in obsession and what spirals narratively from its condensed shape seems descended from the fairy tale, which Bernheimer likewise stresses for the genre’s associative powers: “Despite their reputation as plot-driven narratives, fairy tales are actually extremely associative when you begin to unstitch them.” (69). Leda’s obsession in The Lost Daughter flowers from her habit of making associative connections. To the extent that we evaluate this particular novella for its formal compression, the “lyrical disconnect” and associative prowess of the fairy tale seem like productive traits to consider if only for their connection with obsession.
What I admire about Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter is its capacity to delve heavily from the inner workings of the form, and to extend these strategies into longer iterations. In other words, The Lost Daughter expands slightly upon the form to create an experience that captures the dynamic charge of the novel without its bulk. I am not arguing that novellas are a diminishment of the novel or an amplification of the short story; each form offers its own complexity and seems to distinguish itself by where it locates its pulse. Just as this same obsession remains pared back enough to prevent its spooling into a novel, the battery of a novella seems to be charged by an obsession that is too overwhelming not to endure within the focused duration that it does.
The characteristics of a novella appeal across the short story and novel. Yet I think the novella amplifies various traits. Of course, “size matters” for novellas— but not entirely. More than any other trait I’ve seen explored in the novella is the intensity of its compression and constraint. As if the dominant organ of the novella is designed to focus on one objective and reject that which fails to relate back to this aim. The novella neither endures from the ignition that pulls a short story out of the station, nor does it rely on the heft that lends the novel its armor. It has no room for a network of intricate plots, but it still performs its own fancy narrative footwork; the novella is its own narrative form, and I find The Lost Daughter useful to discuss as a one that extends the traits I typically associate with it.
THE STACKING DOLL
While it was The Lost Daughter that propelled me to read Ferrante’s stunning body of work—her astonishing Neapolitan quartet and the other two novels that preceded it—it is also The Lost Daughter I return to over and again, if only as an examination of how the narrator is able to both charge the past with the urgency of the present, and lace the two together in ways that allow the narrative forward momentum. The present is shattered by the past, but not fully broken by it; rather, we are able to view the present through a kaleidoscopic glass veined by the past.
I tend to picture the obsessions that animate a narrative as things so firmly planted, everything that happens is below the surface, underground, in the roots. The thorny tangle of Leda’s journey in The Lost Daughter is an apt representation of this. In a work whose design seems to be indicative of the narrator’s obsessive gaze, and the bizarre and unsettling outcomes that are made manifest because of them, it appears crucial to unpack the merits of these effects, and their relationship to the form they are produced in.
The Lost Daughter takes place over a compressed period of time, in the tight, chaotic, frenetic space of the narrator’s mind. Mirroring a focus on the twining between her emotional and physical states—a sensation mirrored in the book’s opening—it is while contemplating her unexpectedly calm, even optimistic reaction to learning her daughters will be moving in with their father, that Leda admits she feels “light, as if only then had I definitely brought [my daughters] into the world.” Inspired by her buoyancy, she plans a holiday at the beach. It is on this vacation that Leda develops a daily routine that becomes increasingly governed by her watching a Neapolitan family, particularly a mother and her daughter and the doll the pair plays with.
Because Ferrante renders Leda’s observations of these strangers alongside her memories of her own daughters with increasing regularity and detail, we experience the psychological intensity of the narrator’s memories, and their coupling with the trio (comprised of mother/daughter/doll) with an intensity that feels as if backstory is just as pressing and rich as the present scene. As the narrative unfolds, we learn about events in Leda’s past that entwine with how she sees her mother, Nina, treating her daughter, Elena. The more the novella reveals of Leda’s past, the more Leda’s life blends with the Neapolitans. It is the narrator’s fixation on them, and the way this fixation conjures memories of her past, that merges the two experiences together, and ultimately gives the novella its elasticity and muscle. The gymnastics of narrative, and the way Leda’s obsession is motivated by them, is likewise punctuated by her bouts of desire and numbness. Oftentimes, she is gripped by feeling while watching Nina and her daughter: "There was something off about the little girl, I don’t know what; a childish sadness, perhaps, or a silent illness,” the narrator remarks of Elena, only to shortly after hone in on Nina: “If the young woman was pretty herself, in her motherhood there was something distinguished about her; she seemed to have no desire for anything but her child.”
Obsession, desire: the power this duo has over her is sealed by Elena’s doll, which becomes emblematic of how the past corrupts Leda’s seaside vacation, and how the present is something to be controlled in light of it. When, roughly a third of the way into the novel, Leda gets her hands on Elena’s doll, she has a desire to clean and to dress it. The impulse begins as a way to repay Elena for having taken her doll in the first place: if Leda clothes the doll in a new dress, the child and her mother will forgive what she has done. This impulse will become commandeered by Leda’s obsession with the doll and the battery-like ability it possesses to reinvigorate her repressed past. Leda’s longing to care for the doll as if it were a real child is not indistinct from a point Susan Stewart addresses in On Longing, an exquisite examination of the rendering of the miniature and gigantic through objects: “It must be remembered that the toy moved late to the nursery, that from the beginning it was adults who made toys, and not only with regard to their other invention, the child. The fashion doll, for example, was the plaything of adult women before it was the plaything of the child.”  The impetus behind the creation behind the doll, then, goes hand and hand with the obsession that energizes the narrative of The Lost Daughter: to come to terms with her present, Leda must not only resurrect her past, she must parse it through a lens controlled by nostalgia. The doll is a representation, a miniaturization, as well as a call back to childhood and the control seeded in motherhood.
The doll as a device works not only on a narrative level, but also allows us an alternative way of visualizing the novella as a form, and one that relies in some way on the uncanniness of reflection. Rendered in miniaturized human shape, dolls as objects are uncanny in and of themselves. They can be control and posed, and thus suggest something about the particular capacities of the novella — its uncanniness resides in its compactness, the control of its compression. Throughout Leda’s excavation of memories and its collision with the present narrative arc, our experience is slightly off kilter. As an object that becomes emblematic of the guilt that feeds Leda’s obsession, as well as her raw-edged desire, the doll in The Lost Daughter functions as an uncanny symbol for the dreamlike quality that saturates the novel.
Leda, we will learn, not only abandoned both her daughters, Bianca and Marta, when they were children, but confesses to having favored one over the other: “I treated one as a daughter, the other a stepdaughter. To Bianca I gave a large bosom, while Marta seems a boy; she doesn’t know she’s beautiful…I suffer seeing her suffer.” In Ferrante’s narrative landscape, mothers are constantly being paired with other mothers; daughters with other daughters; mothers with their daughters. Elena’s doll— preserved in child-form and thus frozen, inanimate—ultimately becomes a symbol for the novella’s focus on abandoned children. A miniaturization of one daughter the narrator neglected; a powerful reminder of both daughters she temporarily abandoned; and a painful reminder of Leda herself, as before she was a mother, her principal role was as a daughter.
As the novella accelerates to its end, it is clear that Nina, Elena, and the doll become foils for Leda’s relationship with her daughters, and that Leda’s relationship to herself and those around her becomes increasingly defined by how she views herself as a mother: “Languages for me have a secret venom that every so often foams up and for which there is no antidote. I remember the dialect on my mother’s lips when she lost the gentle cadence and yelled at us, poisoned by her unhappiness.” In contrast, Nina —as Leda observes at the end of this passage— “seemed serene, and I felt envious.”
Leda’s preoccupation with language does not end there; shortly after observations of the Neapolitan family cause memories of her mother to resurface, Leda grows upset after yet another sequence in which she studies Elena’s doll. This time, her focus is auditory:
“Now [Nina and Elena] gave [the doll] her words in turn, now together, superimposing the adult’s fake-child voice and the child’s fake-adult voice. They imagined it was the same, single voice coming from the same throat of a thing in reality mute. But evidently, I couldn’t enter into their illusion, I felt a growing repulsion for that double voice.”
Nina, Elena, and Elena’s doll supply for Leda a fantasy, and a dynamic that resonates with her in a way that is alternatively grotesque and attractive. The action that initiates Leda’s — and, consequently, her fantasy’s undoing — is her decision to rob Elena of her doll. In doing so, Leda possesses the very thing in the novella that represents, and even embodies, her obsession. Her obsession is bottled into a doll, a representation of a child that is alternately depicted as a sick and lovable thing. It is only after Leda makes this choice—one that leads to her literally driving over the edge the novella opens with—that she is able to most fully enter this other mother and daughter’s illusion.
In an entry from her weekend book column for The Guardian, Elena Ferrante suggests that “the skill of the writer is best displayed when what she suggests is much more than what she says.”  In The Lost Daughter, the narrator’s efforts to explain a chain of decisions that intensely shaped her life dramatize this purpose, whose first chapter ends with her concluding, “the hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand.” Indeed, the failure to understand seems to be inherently related to how a specified obsession drives the novella. An examination of the depth and efficiency of Leda’s psychological drama is tethered to the relatively short form in which her story is portrayed and provides suggestive indications of how the novella performs.
1 Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
2 Kate Bernheimer, “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” in The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. (Portland: Tin House, 2012). p. 68
3 Debra Spark, “Aspects of the Short Novel,” in Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005). p. 93
4 Susan Stewart, “The Imaginary Body: The Body Made Miniature,” in On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenier, the Collection. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993). p. 57
5 Elena Ferrante, “I insist on writing things I think I would never put in writing,” in Ferrante’s weekend book column (The Guardian, May 2018)