‘What a foamy mixture a couple is. Even if the relationship shatters and ends, it continues to act in secret pathways, it doesn’t die, it doesn’t want to die’ (Ferrante 2005, p.164).
So observes Olga, the protagonist in Elena Ferrante’s crushing novel The Days of Abandonment. Olga’s observations come from within the scene of her unravelling during the hardest day of the ordeal of her abandonment by her husband. It is quite striking to see this direct observation concerning the secret pathways of relationality in the middle of a novel that, otherwise, describes a seemingly quite atomized marriage and separation. At no stage in the novel do family members on either side – parents, siblings – reach out to even recognise the breakdown of the marriage, let alone offer to intermediate, or pick up the pieces. On Olga’s side, we read this as coming out of the backdrop of class mobility, of her striving to leave behind all traces of her childhood in working class Naples. Nonetheless, the significance of intra-personal relationality is uncannily described within the scene of her unravelling. During her breakdown on the hardest day of the ordeal of her abandonment, Olga projects and literally sees the ghost of a woman called the poverella – the ‘poor thing’ – in her apartment. The poverella was a neighbour from Olga’s childhood in Naples, a woman once vivacious but ruined by her husband’s adultery, a figure of pity who, according to Olga’s mother’s excoriating criticism, lost all that was good in her life, lost her grip on reality and eventually lost her life, to suicide. The scene shows us how – although her mother is now absent in Olga’s adult life – the pity she voiced many decades ago lives on in Olga’s mind’s eye and shapes her sense of her own state of abandonment very powerfully. She is literally haunted by the ghost of the poverella.
It is fitting to get into the question of intra-personal relationality through a literary example, and an example from Ferrante in particular, given her brilliance with capturing the inner speech of her woman protagonists. Through her descriptions of Olga’s unravelling, Ferrante captures something that resonates widely, over and above the cultural and social particularities of the novel’s setting. Frustratingly, sociological insight to the role of such wider intimate others in shaping people’s ways through marriage and couple relationships has been lacking. In work on divorce in Euro-American contexts, the gaze has focussed fairly narrowly on the couple. Even where scholars have attended to the role of others in divorce – for instance, parents’ considerations of the impacts on children; parents picking up the pieces for their adult children – they have not captured the ways in which such intimate others also project into the self, shaping people’s reasoning through divorce.
In our recent article (Qureshi and Metlo 2021), drawing from a wider ethnographic study on the growing issue of divorce among British South Asian Muslim minorities (Qureshi 2016), we too go deep into the narratives of one protagonist: Nusrat. We show how practices concerning women accessing support from their natal family, and religious constructions of wives as patient and forbearing shape Nusrat’s family members’ interventions in responding to her marriage breakdown. Her siblings encourage her not to complain, and, when things escalate, they attempt to speak to Nusrat’s father-in-law, to get him to restrain his errant son. Yet we also show how Nusrat carried forward the claims and criticisms of such intimate others in her mind’s eye, making her falter in her resolve to divorce. In her mind’s eye, her inner interlocutor’s words also intersect with wider cultural and religious texts, and thus, we suggest how reflexive agency is linked to webs of culture and belief.
Understanding people’s reasoning surrounding separation and divorce requires understanding the role of relationality at two levels, interpersonal and intra-personal, an argument with implications for understanding how people navigate other key conjunctures in personal and intimate life. Our paper offers some potential routes to taking this forward via sociological theory. Returning to our literary starting point, however, sociology may not seem to offer the most suitable writing forms to convey people’s inner dialogue with intimate others. Fittingly therefore, one of us – Zubaida – has re-told the arguments of our paper in creative form, in her collection of short stories Yaram Piyaram, published in Sindhi in March 2022 with Kachho Publishers, Karachi. The book is now available in good book stores in Sindh, and we hope to see the stories translated into English and Urdu soon.
Metlo, Z. (2022). Yaram Piyaram. Karachi: Kachho Publishers.
Qureshi, K. (2016). Marital breakdown among British Asians: conjugality, legal pluralism and new kinship. London: Palgrave.
Qureshi, K. and Metlo, Z. (2021). A British South Asian Muslim relational negotiation of divorce: uncoupling beyond the couple. Families, Relationships and Societies, 10(1), 153-168.