The Mother by Natalia Ginzburg, 1963
The magic trick:
Using a modified point of view to portray a mother, caught between responsibility and lack of authority
We have a depressing end to our week in Italy, sorry to say. It’s a brilliant story. It just also happens to be very sad.
“The Mother” tells us its tale through a very interesting use of point of view. In some ways it’s very much limited to the mother’s two young sons’ perspective. When she leaves the house at night, they don’t know where she goes, so the reader doesn’t find out either. We can guess, of course. But we’re never told.
But at the same time, the point of view often is standard omniscient. For example, one day the boys see their mother at a café eating lunch with a strange man. We are not only told that they see her, we are later told that after an awkward confrontation with their mother about it, the boys decide this a memory to put away and forget.
It’s a heavy story, and this mix of perspectives – mostly but not completely limited to the boys’ viewpoint – makes the matter-of-fact nature of the sadness all the heavier.
And that’s quite a trick on Ginzburg’s part.
They said nothing to Granny. In the morning while their mother was dressing the younger boy said: “Yesterday when we were out for a walk with Don Vigliani we saw you and there was a man with you.” Their mother jerked round, looking nasty: the black fish on her forehead quivered and met. She said: “But it wasn’t me. What an idea. I’ve got to stay in the office till late in the evening, as you know. Obviously you made a mistake.” The older boy then said, in a tired calm voice: “No it wasn’t you. It was someone who looked like you.” And both boys realized that the memory must disappear: and they both breathed hard to blow it away.
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