views updated May 14 2018


by Neera


A novel set in northern Italy in the late nineteenth century; published in Italian (as Teresa) in 1886, in English m 1998.


As Teresa comes of age in a traditional, provincial middle-class family, she endures many emotional hardships in order to conform to her father’s rigid ideas about her future.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Anna Zuccari was born in 1846 in Milan to a middle-class family. A defining moment in her young life came at the age of 10 when her mother died. Although Anna loved and admired her father, it was partially because of this loss that she characterized her childhood as isolated, dreary, and emotionally deprived. With no mother or sisters and few friends, she spent most of her time alone and had little contact with the outside world. Her only salvation was her imagination, which she nourished by reading literature and writing stories. But even these activities, which can be considered her education, she pursued on her own, since formal education beyond the lower grades was not a realistic option for most girls at that time. In 1871 Anna married Adolfo Radius, a lawyer, and together they had two children. She began to write professionally, adopting the pseudonym “Neera.” Despite a modest and relatively secluded adult life, Neera became one of the most popular and productive female writers of her day. A novelist, short-story writer, and essayist, she participated in Milan’s lively literary and art world and corresponded with major authors of the era (such as Luigi Capuana, Giovanni Verga, and Antonio Fogazzaro). Neera’s first novels, published in the 1870s, focused mainly on the subjects of adulterous women and their punishments or on virtuous women and their rewards. Her later novels, corresponding thematically to her nonfiction writing, concentrate on moral questions. In between these two phases came Teresa, Neera’s most famous and what is commonly thought of as her finest work, in which she experiments with elements of verismo, a type of literary realism influenced by French naturalism. In Teresa and the two other novels that comprise this phase, Lydia (1886) and L’indomani (1890; The Next Day), Neera explores the social factors that led to oppressive conditions for the late-nineteenth-century woman in provincial Italy and her limited options for coping with them.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The legacy of the Risorgimento: literacy and education

The long process of transforming Italy from a disparate group of separate territories governed by foreign rulers into a single, unified nation (known as the Risorgimento, or Unification) came to a close in 1870. It ended when Rome was incorporated and declared the country’s capital city, but in truth the event marked a beginning more than an end. Once Italy was politically unified, politicians had to embark on the job of creating an economically, socially, and culturally cohesive nation. There were many problems to address: a huge national debt; a lack of transportation and industry; an unfair system of taxation that weighed heavily on the lower class; a hopelessly poor standard of living (particularly, but not exclusively, among the rural peasantry); and a resistance to assimilating to a set of standardized customs on the part of regions that had spoken their own languages and cultivated their own unique traditions for hundreds of years.

Hoping to alleviate the new nation’s problems, the government promoted education and literacy by pushing strongly to give the lower and middle classes better access to education. The Casati Law of 1859 extended the right to a primary education not only to boys but also to girls, requiring both groups to attend two years of elementary school so they would at least learn to read and write. While the law was not always enforced, it, and similar mandates, resulted in a surge in the number of literate people among the general Italian population between 1870 and 1900 (although the incidence of illiteracy among women was still higher than among men). In other words, there was a much larger reading public, which, in turn, required a greater quantity of reading materials. To meet the need, publishers produced more novels and introduced more political and cultural magazines. Newspapers emerged too, in the major cities.

These new literary resources contributed to a marked decline in what some saw as Italy’s insular unawareness of cultural developments outside its own land. While men benefited more than women from this cultural expansion, in this period Italy also saw the rise of various publications run by women and devoted to women’s issues in the new Italy. For example, La donna (Woman), founded in 1868 by Gualberta Beccari, whose father was active in the wars for independence, gave voice to the whole range of thought by women activists. In Teresa, Neera depicts the big city and its dynamic culture using two young male characters, Teresa’s brother and her would-be fiance, Orlandi, through whom Teresa lives vicariously. The boys’ higher education and Orlandi’s participation in journalism in Milan highlight the de-privation she suffers because of her gender and location. While in Milan and other Italian cities, women were beginning to attend universities, work outside the home, and even become doctors, those in the still very traditional provinces (like Teresa) were less fortunate.

Milan in particular was a relatively progressive place for Italian women in the late nineteenth century, and women who hailed from the city played a central role in the Italian feminist movement. Traditionally the city had exhibited less oppressive thought about women’s social roles than other areas, which contributed to the fact that already at this time women constituted a significant part of the workforce in that city. In fact, the census of 1881 tells us that 54 percent of girls over nine years old and 73 percent of young women between 15 and 20 in Milan had jobs outside the home (Buttafuoco, p. 37). Typically they worked in factories, as seamstresses, launderesses and as office assistants, and often they held managerial positions as well. Of course, women of the lower classes had been working for a living for quite some time; it was the bold entry of middle-class women into the workforce around this time that constituted an important advancement in the struggle for women’s independence.

One factor that contributed to the phenomenon of middle-class women’s obtaining jobs that would allow them to support themselves (although their salaries were still far lower than those of their male counterparts) was access to education. Such access was more readily available in the cosmopolitan cities of the North than in the South or the rural areas of the provinces. Italian universities began accepting women in 1874, although some professors refused to allow them into their classrooms. Slowly the progress continued. Just three years before the novel takes place, in 1883, secondary schools for boys opened their classrooms to women. Such legal victories, however, provided opportunities, not mandates. It remained up to a girl’s family to decide whether or not she should be allowed to benefit from these advances, and widespread acceptance of them was a slow process. In the mid-1880s, when the novel takes place, it was very unlikely that a provincial family would send a young woman, who could be used to work at home, away to be educated or to work in the big city.

Women and the Risorgimento

Despite the fact that after the Unification more girls could expect to be taught to read and write, their education in post-Unification Italy was not exactly designed to emancipate them from their established roles of dutiful wife and mother. In fact, a girl’s education was often aimed at instilling conservative values in her so that she could better play her part in strengthening the family unit and passing on a strong moral education to her children. To be sure, there were attempts during this time to gain rights and legal protections for women: bills “proposed (and defeated) to … reform the patriarchal character of Italian family law”; Anna Maria Mozzoni’s formation of the League Promoting Women’s Interests; and Mozzoni’s 1870 translation of English writer John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women, which warns society of the dangers in not allowing women more opportunity (Sbragia, p. 298). Beyond all these efforts, there were even literary studies like Neera’s Teresa. They paled, however, against the conditioning of women into traditional roles. All over the country, not only in the provinces but in the cities as well, women were constantly faced with the back-lash of cultural conservatism. In certain regions, such as Lombardy (of which Milan is the capital), some women enjoyed more rights under previous governments than under the “liberal” administration of unified Italy. Many women had experienced a degree of respect and autonomy in the public sphere during the Unification movement, when they worked on every level alongside men to free their country from foreign rulers. This advance was only temporary, though.

The infant country’s central government enacted the New Code of 1865, conferring all familial authority onto husbands and fathers. Article 131 concisely stated that “The husband is the head of the household and the husband-wife relation-ship must be founded on the wife’s recognition of her husband’s authority” (Graziosi, p. 9; trans. A. Boylan). This codification of male dominance gave men the sole control over all family finances, including their wives’ dowries and any other of their personal possessions, and it prevented women from having guardianship of their children. Also the code explicitly stated that women could not vote nor hold any public offices. Along with the code, lawyers’ groups also successfully banned women from practicing law, which would have allowed them to challenge the same civil codes and perhaps reverse their denial of equal rights. Noted feminist Anna Maria Mozzoni (1837-1920) wrote that “since the unification of Italy we have gained a point or two in the code,” but also lamented that “the senate, the nobility, the clergy, the queen [Margherita Teresa, wife of Umberto l]—who is very devout, very aristocratic and not very intelligent—hesitate at every reform measure” (Mozzoni in Stanton, pp. 447–48). The New Code had afforded women a few rights—like men, they were recognized as adults upon turning 21; they were allowed to write their own wills and to inherit property under certain circumstances, such as if they were widowed; and they could enter into certain kinds of financial con-tracts, still regulated, of course, by their husbands. But Mozzoni condemned the code in general for driving women back “into the home, into solitude and into silence” (Mozzoni in Graziosi, p. 11). She saw the huge amount of work that lay ahead.


There was one widely accepted profession for women in late nineteenth-century ttaly; that of teacher, or maesira. The occupation even came to be seen as a patriotic duty. Often it required young women to travel from the relatively well-off North to the impoverished South or to rural areas as part of an official attempt to bridge the gap between the country’s economically disparate regions, In Neera’s novel, Teresa’s youngest sister, (da, follows this path. From the start, the novel distinguishes Ida from her marriage-hungry sisters by establishing her superior intelligence and motivation. She seems unaffected by romance or marriage. This, coupled with the fact that she is her father’s favorite, earns her the privilege of attending a special teachers’ training school. The privilege allows her to escape Teresa’s sad fate as wetl as the hollow life of her other sisters, who married because they had to conform to the social requirements of their time. But teaching, though it offered a woman a degree of self-sufficiency and freedom perhaps from a domineering family, was far from an ideal option, Young female teachers often had to contend with inferior school houses, classrooms, and materials, as well as suspicious townspeople who showed hostility to outsiders. Of course, male teachers confronted the same obstacles, but the females earned only a fraction of the salary paid to their male counterparts.

Women’s relegation to the domestic sphere was a social reality in Italy when Neera wrote Teresa. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, women—particularly middle-class women—were given the all-important task of preserving the family unit, which, it was theorized, required them to stay out of the public sphere. Society prescribed this limitation in the belief that men have a natural ability to function rationally while women succumb to their emotions. In the words of one scholar, conservatives feared that women’s ability to feel would, “if not held in check by reason and masculine authority, and channeled towards the domestic and respectable feelings of spousal and maternal love, degenerate into unruly passion” (Re in Ascoli, p. 172). Many saw the unchecked female will as an imminent threat to the very fabric of society. With this in mind, there was “profound opposition to women’s learning anything that may have taken their minds beyond the walls of the family home” during this period (Re in Ascoli, p. 165).

The official word of the Catholic Church was also working against women who aspired to obtain an existence outside the four walls of the home. In 1891 Pope Leo XIII published the Rerum Novarum on capital and labor, a papal letter aimed at establishing just relationships between employers and employees, widely distributed at a time when socialists were engaged in a furious battle for workers’ rights and unrest was spreading through Italy. While in some parts the Rerum Novarum seems to be an invective from the Church against greed and mistreatment of workers, it also communicates a message of obedience and domesticity in relation to women. In paragraph 43 the Pope declares that women “are not suited for certain occupations; a woman is by nature fitted for home-work, and it is that which is best adapted at once to preserve her modesty and to promote the good bringing up of children and the well-being of the family” (Pope Leo XIII).

The role of science

Society in the second half of the nineteenth century greatly valued scientific progress. Scientists and intellectuals credited improvements in health, hygiene, transportation, and many other facets of the general standard of living to the theories of positivism (deems the only valid knowledge to be facts one can verify through the senses) and empiricism (relies solely on experience to verify knowledge). The two theories were based on the idea that observation and sensory experience constituted the foundation of the scientific method and that by observing the minute and the detailed, general patterns could be distinguished. It was a strategy that intellectuals of the day began to apply not only to scientific questions, but also to the social sciences and the arts. At the same time, in the medical and scientific world, there was also a great interest in deviant behavior and mental illness, particularly among women. Cesare Lombroso—an important figure in Milanese intellectual circles, who won renown as the founder of criminal anthropology (the study of the criminal mind) in Europe—was one of many scientists and intellectuals engaged in the study of abnormal female behavior, including hysteria. In his highly regarded view, hysteria resulted from a natural female proclivity. Because of the importance placed on science by many writers and theorists of literary movements, scientific and pseudo-scientific views of this kind filtered into the arts. The commingling of the two disciplines is evidenced by the fact that Neera and Lombroso frequented some of the same circles and actually collaborated on a nonfiction work, Dizionario d’igiene per le famiglie (1881; Dictionary of Hygiene for Families).

By the late nineteenth century the positivist trend had affected society as a whole. It had very distinct ramifications for women when used in ongoing debate about whether gender roles were biologically or socially determined. There was a tendency to enlist the new scientific methods to prove the biological, and thus, society reasoned, the inherent general inferiority of the female species. Texts like Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871) and Lombroso’s La donna delinquente: La prostituta e la donna normale (1893; Criminal Women: The Prostitute and the Normal Woman), purposefully or not, relegated women to an inferior intellectual status. This, in turn, led to their relegation to inferior social and economic positions, all in the name of biological science.

In the literary sphere, the emphasis on objective observation allowed authors to frankly portray the depressing and unjust conditions of daily life for the poor and oppressed without adhering to a certain political ideology. This was particularly important for female authors in that they could let “the facts” speak for themselves and point to these social ills as the underlying reasons for hysteria, physical weakness, and intellectual inferiority among women, all conditions traditionally attributed to their biology. The women writers observed conditions in a detached manner, distancing themselves from their subject and turning a critical eye on the social structures that led to female oppression and its mental and physical consequences. It was the strategy Neera invoked to write Teresa:

For the first and only time in her career as a writer, Neera dares to study the dilemma of her heroines from the point of view of its relation to past conditioning: these women are not victims of their passions, they are victims of their upbringings. For the first and only time her characters acquire, if not great psychological depth as individuals, certainly well-documented case histories.

(Kroha, p. 77)

The era gave rise to a preoccupation with hysterical women and an interest in the social roots of psychological distress in women. Reflected in Neera’s fiction, the interest was shared by her friend Luigi Capuana, the main theorist of verismo (although another writer, Giovanni Verga, achieved renown as the style’s most successful writer and most faithful interpreter). Capuana’s style was heavily influenced by empirical science and the French naturalists. To fit strictly into the genre, a work had to be impersonal, use language suitable to the subject with an emphasis on dialogue rather than narration, contribute to the study of social class, invoke a scientific-style examination of the social environment, and subscribe to the positivist and naturalist view of the environment as a causative agent. Capuana


If marriage and childbearing conferred the desired social status on women in late-rrineteenih-centtrry Italy, and were perceived as intimately connected to the survival of the Italian nation, then it is logical that the unmarried woman would be an outcast. Some even regarded her as a threat. In her defense, many women authors wrote about la zitella (the spinster) and the cruel treatment she received. Neera, in particular, was concerned about the fate of la zitella an Issue she addressed not only in novels tike Teresa but also in various nonfiction essays. Neera laments the destiny of unmarried women: ‘This, after all, is the great injustice; society that deprives women of their natural rights whenever they have been unable to find a husband, makes fun of them If they remain spinsters, calling them mean, envious, sensual” (Neera in Pacifici, p. 57).

was also particularly interested in studying the causes and symptoms of mental illness. One of his best-known novels, Giacinta (1879), which he dedicated to Emile Zola, deals with a girl who grows up in a materially comfortable but affectionless upper-class family. She has deep psychological problems due to a traumatic childhood, including having been raped, and a complete inability to communicate with her distant, unmaternal, and promiscuous mother. The novel is a study of her inescapable descent into rebellion, then madness, and finally self-destruction as a result of her upbringing and a lack of emotional fulfillment. In a flashback that foreshadows the troubles of Giacinta’s adult life, Capuana describes her tragic childhood:

And the little girl, who didn’t feel loved by anyone, often closed herself off in an out-of-theway room; and in that storeroom—among castoff gadgets, broken frames, her father’s old hats, slippers, empty bottles, chairs that could no longer stand up, falling-apart boxes filled with papers and books with creased pages—she easily found a way to make a racket without her mother even giving her a second thought.

(Capuana, p. 34; trans. A. Boylan)

Italian verismo, or naturalism, differed from the French variety in that the Italians focused more on style than on the scientific parts of the story and often highlighted peasants in the provinces rather than workers in a city. Moreover, the fiction frequently conveyed not a liberal but a conservative political outlook on the part of the writers. A similar concern for scientific observation of the social environment and female madness can be seen in the visual arts of the time, for example in Telemaco Signorini’s painting The Ward of the Madwomen at San Bonifazio in Florence (1865-70).


The late nineteenth century has been called “the golden age” of hysteria. In Italy, Cesare Lombroso’s work on the subject, which led to hfs description of hysteria as “the exaggeration of womanhood” influenced a myriad of Italian writers to treat the theme during thfs time (Lombroso tn Mazzoni, p. 157). Clinically speaking, hysteria is a psychological condition that produces physical symptoms for which there seems to be no organic cause. It is generally thought that the possible symptoms, ranging from paralysis, to respiratory probterns, to intestinal distress, are defense mechanisms that transfer mental anguish to the physical body. While oftentimes hysteria and its close relation, madness, have been used to make the case for feminine weakness, in literature about women these conditions sometimes serve tn an opposite capacity as a result of, and at the same time a refusal to, conform to patriarchal oppression. In Teresa, not only the title character’s slip into hysterical behavior but also Calliope, the town madwoman, constantly reminds readers of the danger of not conforming to the social norms for women; in Calliope’s case, the offenses are a past blighted by uninhibited sexuality and a generally defiant spirit.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The narrative deals primarily with the inner thoughts and motivations of its protagonist, Teresa Caccia, a young girl growing up in a small town in Lombardy in northern Italy. Most of the action occurs in the Caccia family’s middle-class home.

The novel opens in the midst of a winter flood on the banks of the Po River in northern Italy. Rising waters are threatening a small town, and the townsmen are frantically monitoring the danger. Through this crisis, Neera introduces a whole range of characters whose conversations reveal important clues about the town’s rigid social, political, and religious hierarchy. Two men emerge who will later become the dominating (and opposing) forces in the heroine’s life. Signor Caccia, the tax collector (and Teresa’s father), is a stiff, pretentious man who enters bearing bad news of death and destruction in nearby towns. Orlandi, the dashing, heroic, unruly youth who will become Teresa’s all-consuming love interest, materializes out of the dark in a boat upon the raging river, carrying a baby he bravely rescues from certain death.

While Chapter 1 features a dangerous exterior world inhabited principally by men, Chapter 2 introduces readers to the interior world of the home, the family, and the female. As the waters rise outside, Signor Caccia’s wife, Signora Soave, is about to deliver her fifth child. It is after Signora Soave’s exclamation, “If only it’s a boy!” that the novel expresses its central question: “But what can girls, poor things, look forward to in this world?” (Neera, Teresa, p. 12). The novel first introduces Teresa during her mother’s frightful labor. Fifteen years old, she has just been taken out of school to embark on her domestic education at the side of her sickly mother. Now that Signora Soave is ill, the family expects Teresa to assume her mother’s homemaking duties; so begins her journey into womanhood.

Teresa sacrifices her own life to meet the needs of her brother, her sisters, and her parents, and her father reinforces her self-sacrifice with vehement statements regarding a woman’s character and her proper place in the world. At one point, he rages at his wife: “It’s obvious you have not the slightest inkling about life. You’re just a silly woman good for nothing but idle chatter … we have a male heir, the family’s mainstay! It’s for him we must make sacrifices. … The male carries the Caccia name and honor” (Teresa, pp. 135-36). For four years Teresa endures an essentially affectionless existence, the monotony of which is broken only once, by an exciting and pivotal visit to her aunt in a neighboring village.

In her aunt’s village Teresa gets her first taste of love. She attends a dance where the local postman’s son sweeps her off her feet. The experience leaves her confused, weak, and extremely lovesick. Her vacation ends abruptly when her aunt and uncle realize what has happened. Teresa returns home, but not without a new awareness of her sensual self; she is still the virginal, innocent young girl she had been before, but she now has an awareness of emotions that lie beyond her affections for her family. Teresa’s subsequent discovery of romance novels and a trip to the opera serve only to enhance her confusing new emotions. She begins to close herself off from the outside world, preferring to retreat into her amorous (but chaste) fantasies rather than to live in the dreary reality of her daily existence.

Out of pity for the young day dreamer, Teresa’s good friend and neighbor, the judge’s wife, tries to discourage her unrealistic desires. She explains how the institution of marriage functions, describing it as a union based not on love but on material exchange and social considerations, encouraging Teresa to forget her passionate ideas lest she end up an old maid. But Teresa refuses to accept such an unsentimental philosophy. To cheer Teresa up, the judge’s wife articulates an opinion about men previously expressed by Teresa’s aunt Rosa, which recurs as a subtext throughout the novel: “Look, if you only knew … if only 1 could tell you how worthless they are” (Teresa, p. 68).

A small diversion in Teresa’s monotonous life occurs when her brother, Carlino, who has been studying at the university, returns home for a visit. Sharing his experiences, he gives Teresa a glimpse of the world outside her secluded life in the family home and provincial village. She takes keen interest in stories about one of his friends, the notorious and handsome Orlandi. Taking advantage of an unusual opportunity to get out of the house, Teresa accompanies Carlino and Signora Letizia, Orlandi’s aunt, on a walk in the countryside. It is during this excursion that she comes face to face with the by-now legendary young man, Orlandi himself, who takes an immediate liking to Teresa.

After this initial meeting, Teresa thinks of Orlandi constantly. She relishes the vague, luxurious emotions experienced in connection with the infatuation. One day Orlandi slips her a letter asking her to meet him at her window in the middle of the night. Teresa agonizes over whether to comply, torn between the compulsion to meet Orlandi and her ingrained sense of propriety. She sleepwalks through the day and evening, displaying what the novel calls consummate female behavior: “And so all alone in the low kitchen, intent on everyday chores, the girl was deceived by an infinitude of hope, docilely bound to her chains, learning the great female virtue of selfcontrol, the profound female aptitude of hiding anguish behind a smile” (Teresa, p. 98).

Teresa finally decides to meet Orlandi, and he vows his undying love. He promises to write while away at the university and they begin a passionate courtship, facilitated by the discreet postman. At this point Teresa’s world undergoes a major shift. Her love for Orlandi replaces her affection for her family; he becomes the center of her existence. On the surface, Teresa is still the dutiful daughter, but privately she takes delight in her secret joy. Meanwhile, Orlandi, though still enjoying a carefree, pleasure-filled life in the big city, begins to devote more time to his studies in anticipation of marrying Teresa. Teresa’s close friend, the judge’s wife, tries yet again to inject some practicality into Teresa’s fantasies by discouraging her interest in the flighty yet charming young man, but Teresa remains unconvinced. Meanwhile, the townspeople begin to gossip about the budding affair between Teresa and Orlandi, still completely unknown to Teresa’s parents.

After several years of secret courtship, Orlandi finally asks Signor Caccia for Teresa’s hand. He is vehemently rebuffed. Signor Caccia reveals that he does not intend to spend the family’s money (completely reserved for Carlino’s education) on a dowry for Teresa. Since Orlandi does not have a stable job yet (thus making a dowry essential for the couple’s survival), he vows to secure one and then return.

The conversation with Orlandi leaves Signor Caccia in a rage, incensed that Teresa put his and his family’s honor so deeply in jeopardy by carrying on the illicit affair. On the other hand, Teresa, despite her father’s wrath and her own sadness, refuses to give up on the possibility of one day marrying Orlandi. She declares her intention to wait as long as it takes. Her mother, resigned and affectionate, becomes a wellspring of sympathy.

Despite his own good intentions and sincere feelings for Teresa, Orlandi does not have a well-thought-out plan. He abandons his chosen profession, the law, and indulges his new interest in politics and journalism, which requires him to move to Milan. His letters to Teresa become less frequent as his life grows more decadent. Teresa, on the other hand, remains ardently attached to her dreams of love and happiness with him.

Upon learning that the correspondence between his daughter and Orlandi has continued and the whole town knows it, Signor Caccia lashes out at Teresa. He impresses upon her the fact that she has ruined the family and the reputations of her sisters. Suddenly Teresa’s secret joy metamorphoses into humiliation and sorrow. The townspeople gossip and openly ridicule her. As her days grow even more monotonous, she floats through them like a zombie.

Teresa’s “mute but profound” sorrow is briefly interrupted by a surprise visit from Orlandi when Signor Caccia forces Teresa to accompany her twin sisters to a masquerade ball for Carnival (Teresa, p. 157). As she reluctantly dances with a dull young man with marriage designs on her sister, Orlandi breaks in and proposes another secret meeting. Again Teresa vacillates between disobeying her father and the desire to be loved. She eventually gives in to desire.

This time Orlandi makes an extremely bold request. He asks Teresa to run away with him. When it becomes clear that she will not oblige him, he realizes the futility of the relationship and definitively pulls away. Teresa remains steadfast, nonetheless. She vows to love him always no matter what her destiny.

Several years pass during which Teresa’s two younger sisters marry, her brother graduates from law school and finds a job in southern Italy, and her youngest sister is allowed to attend teachertraining school. Meanwhile, Teresa slips ever more deeply into spinsterhood. She starts to take on the nervous ailments of her mother and even falls victim to hystencal seizures. Hatred, bitterness, and disgust for men and society take root and start to grow inside her. The only source of sustenance for her seems to be Orlandi’s letters, which he continues to write out of guilt. His life, too, grows un-happy. Failing to obtain a steady job, he lives from day to day as a freelance writer, lonely and poor.

When Signora Soave dies, “Teresina realize[s] her greatest comfort, most unconditional source of love, [is] gone” (Teresa, p. 184). Teresa’s physical and mental condition worsens with the loss until she degenerates into a full-fledged hysteric. More and more, she is bothered by the disparity between her pure love for Orlandi and the incomplete glimpses she catches at what might be impure love in the same romance novels she once read for escape. She herself suffers from a total lack of affection.

Signor Caccia’s life does not end with the dignity and power that he had hoped. His health deteriorates to the point where he is crippled and Teresa becomes responsible for washing, dressing, and feeding him. After he dies, Teresa receives a letter from Orlandi telling her of his own destitute condition and loss of health. The next day she decides to go to him. When questioned by the judge’s wife as to what she should tell people who ask after her, Teresa replies, “Well, you can tell those zealous people I’ve paid my whole life for this moment of freedom. That price is high enough, don’t you agree?” (Teresa, p. 199). The novel ends with the judge’s wife watching as Teresa’s train for Milan gradually pulls away from the station and out of sight.

The ambiguous ending

Interestingly, Teresa chooses to love and wants to marry Orlandi regardless of the fact that he is destined for an unconventional life and that his “refusal to assume manly responsibilities … creates disorder in a society structured around uniformity” (Finucci, p. 231). In this way Teresa shows her implicit and intuitive rejection of the established social structure (as well as her tendency toward romantic idealism). Yet it is precisely in Neera’s analysis of the consequences that arise from this rejection that she brings us to see what little power women like Teresa have over their own lives. The novel “contains a merciless in-depth analysis of the factors which contribute to deny Teresa any real possibility of choice in life—patriarchal family, the precedence accorded to male offspring in matters of education, the subtle messages transmitted to her from her earliest years as to what constitutes femininity” (Kroha, p. 78). The novel’s ending confirms this observation with finality, in that even in the unconventional step she takes of going to the now broken Orlandi, she sacrifices herself for the sake of a man and places herself once again in the role of caretaker.

While Neera offers Teresa an option beyond the fate of the other two doomed women in the novel—Calliope, the extreme example of nonconformity who ends up a madwoman and ridiculed outcast, or Teresa’s own mother, whose conformity is so complete she becomes a nonperson—at the same time she seems to be asking readers to reflect on just how different an alternative it actually is. Neera’s readers begin to wonder what Teresa’s life would have been like if she had had the opportunities for education afforded the novel’s truly unique female character, her younger sister Ida, who was never concerned about mar riage or other social restrictions and who had no burden of housework or childcare saddled on her.

Ida represents hope for a new generation, even if her job as a maestra might be at times less than ideal. Indeed, in real life, there was cause for hope. Many women were engaged in the struggle to gain legal and social equality. The already mentioned Anna Maria Mozzoni, regarded as the founder of Italian feminism, was particularly active in Milan during the second half of the nineteenth century. She came from an upper-class family that, despite financial troubles, was dedicated to providing her with an education beyond the two years required by the state. From an early age, Mozzoni took up the struggle for women’s rights, mainly from a legal perspective, but bringing to the cause a highly informed philosophical background as well.

In 1864, at age 27, Mozzoni wrote La donna e i suoi rapporti sociali in occasione della revisione del codice italiano (Woman and Her Social Relationships on the Occasion of the Revision of the Italian Civil Code), which served as a critique of the conservative and exclusive nature of Italian family law. She believed that equality under the law in education and in the workplace were the pillars of female emancipation, and that a woman needed to have a place in public life rather than be confined within the four walls of her father’s or husband’s home. In addition to publishing numerous pamphlets and articles promoting women’s rights, she worked determinedly for women’s suffrage, which, although she almost secured it, would not be fully adopted in Italy until 1945. On the educational front, she wanted to prepare young women to be citizens of a modern nation; she proposed a higher education for girls and fought to include subjects like foreign languages, science, and a survey of the historical conditions of women in different countries. She became involved too in projects such as creating daycare centers for the children of women workers who would otherwise have to stay home to tend their sons and daughters.

Meanwhile, other women formed networks and published journals. In addition to the more liberal La donna, there were the Catholic-centered, “emancipationist” periodicals such as Olimpia Saccati’s La missione della donna (Women’s Mission), and others like the slightly more radical La Cornelia (a woman’s name), founded by the Neopolitan aristocrat Aurelia Cimino Folliero in 1872. Reaching more and more women with their message of emancipation, early activists also had a degree of legal success: in 1890 a law was passed allowing women to participate in public administration, which, in turn, gave them a chance to represent their interests at political meetings (Graziosi, p. 63). Teresa, then, takes place during the early stages of a slow but steady struggle that began to trans-form the experience of many women in Italian society but that would also encounter many setbacks along the way.

Sources and literary context

Neera was writing during the heyday of the novel in Italy. Realism was the dominant genre of the period, and it gave rise to the subcategory of naturalism, which aimed for a scientifically accurate rendering of life, even in its ugliness and disharmony. Teresa, more than any other of Neera’s fictional works, shows the influence of Italy’s unique brand of naturalism, verismo. In some ways a reaction against Romanticism, verismo had as its most important goal the objective, impersonal analysis of the daily realities of the poor, downtrodden, and oppressed. Verist writers were interested in identifying the laws, particularly economic, that govern human society and in presenting them in such a way that the facts speak for themselves. Since one of verismo s principal concerns was the fate of the weaker members of society, women often played important parts in verist novels.

While Neera never exclusively embraced one style in particular, Luigi Capuana is often credited with inspiring her to experiment with his particular brand of verismo, although his exact influence on her writing is still unknown. Certainly Neera incorporated some aspects of verismo into Teresa, given that it portrays the harsh realities of women caught in impossible social situations and exploited by the economics of marriage. But, like many women writers of the time, she does not follow the verist philosophy to the letter, drawing upon other genres as well to create a sort of hybrid form that, while it doesn’t fit neatly into the realist canon, suits her purposes better. For example, she periodically abandons the detached narrator’s voice and inserts her own observations into the novel.

The work, in its hybrid form, was a powerful communicative tool in the struggle to improve women’s lives in Neera’s Italy. In general in Italy, “the novel in this period became for the first time … the most influential and widely disseminated medium in which women spoke about women” (Re in Ascoli, p. 176). Neera formed a key part of this vanguard, most notably with her novel Teresa.

Although Neera’s life experience was not as repressive as Teresa’s and her book is clearly not an autobiography, there are some similarities. In the author’s memoirs and other autobiographical essays, she wrote with regret about her emotionally solitary childhood and her lack of access to an education, two factors that contribute in the novel to Teresa’s frustration and her prison-like environment. According to one scholar, Neera went so far as to attribute her literary career to this deprivation: “My brothers had their studies, walks, friends, and then they were at university for many years. They got to laugh sometimes. Me, never. … Immobile … completely silent, the only resource 1 had was to flee through the ever-open door of my imagination” (Neera in Kroha, p. 71).


Neera can be described as “a writer with two faces” (Zeechi, p. 90). On the one hand, she wrote compassionate and condemning words about women’s inferior position in her society; on the other hand, she objected to the official feminist movement This ambivalence likely stemmed from her faith as a Catholic,, which would account for her resistance to any movement intertwined, as the early Italian feminist movement was, with socialism. Neera was also opposed to rejecting fernininity, a stance promoted by feminists like Anna Maria Mozzoni Neera took up another position altogether, championing women’s rights by calling attention to their specifically feminine biology, “different but not inferior, and in same instances, as in the case of motherhood, even superior to that of men” (Zecchi, p, 90), In her group of essays, Le idee di una donm (1903; The ideas of a Woman), Neera writes:

Promoting laws for women’s work is certainly an excellent thing, but something that is not directly connected to the happiness of women themselves Since woman’s essential need harmoniously meets the purpose for which she was created, these laws will be of benefit, but will always conw after the law erf love, from which she is distanced by having to compete with men for a career and by her material participation in public life .... Neither inferior, nor superior, nor equal, but different and equivalent Since this is my Judgment with regard to die two sexes, I ask myself why woman should be required to take on, in addition to her own role, the rote of a man, white one does not ask men to take on women’s duties. There is no reason, not emotional, not scientific, not economic, that justifies such an inversion of rights and duties, because, compared to men’s work, if the Inimitable and invaluable work of motherhood te sufficient for female dignity, scientific and economic judgment have for a long time proclaimed the advantage of the division of labor.

(Neera in Croce, pp, 816-17; trans. A. Boylan)


Neera was one of a handful of female writers taken seriously by male contemporaries. In fact, a major issue of the period, of direct consequence to Neera, was the rise in popularity of women writers and the subsequent backlash against them. On the one hand, Italian women writers, because they were excluded from a narrow literary canon skewed heavily towards poetry and the classical, had an advantage over male authors, who produced these traditional types of literature for an elite group of intellectuals. While few women were steeped in the classical tradition like their male counterparts, they found themselves more in tune with the sensibilities of mass culture. Women furthermore made ideal writers in view of the largely female Italian readership at the time. Often self-taught like Neera, women writers found favor with an Italian publishing industry that was determined to benefit from the public’s rising demand for readable books.

Yet there was a downside to the new demand and the female writers who set out to meet it. Many male authors felt threatened by the fact that literature had been opened up to women, seeing this shift as an attack on established social norms for the different sexes. Some launched a counterattack, claiming that although women authors enjoyed success among the female public, their writing could never be considered true art since women lacked the capacity of originality and reflection, two activities that were supposedly performable only by the male mind.

In response to undeniably talented female writers, such as Neera, Matilde Serao, and Grazia Deledda, a large share of the male establishment stereotyped them as manly, unnatural women. They were not, in the eyes of this establishment, true females. The alternatives posed by male society—that the woman writer was either inferior or unwomanly—put female authors in a very delicate and uncomfortable situation. Possibly in response to these negative characterizations, in addition to her novels, Neera wrote what could be considered anti-feminist essays; she discouraged women from becoming writers, even as she portrayed their repressed lives with such insight.

Although Neera faced adversity as a woman writer, she had the support of two very important literary figures of her time, Luigi Capuana and Benedetto Croce, even though they too would eventually participate in the backlash against women writers. Her works were generally well received, thanks in part to this support. In his role as critic, Capuana published several essays on Neera’s work, most notably in his Studi sulla letteraturacontemporanea (1882; Studies in Contemporary Literature) and Gli “ismi” contemporanei (1898; Contemporary “isms”). Croce, a seminal influence in literary criticism and aesthetics during the first half of the twentieth century, wrote significant essays on Neera from 1905 on and also edited a definitive edition of Neera’s works, including Teresa, which was published in 1942. In his view, it is the most balanced and precise novel Neera wrote. This estimation echoes and prefigures others that resemble it. In a 1901 article in the influential journal Nuova antologia (New Anthology), Guido Menasci refers to the critical consensus that Teresa is Neera’s “masterpiece” and lauds the “intimate naturalness” and “beautiful simplicity” of her style (Menasci, p. 270; trans. A. Boylan). Seventy-five years later, Luigi Baldacci, the critic who reintroduced a mostly forgotten Teresa to contemporary readers, would in retrospect applaud the work as, “one of the finest novels of the last two decades of the last century” (Baldacci in Kroha, p. 67).

—Amy Boylan

For More Information

Ascoli, Albert Russell, and Krystyn Von Henneberg Buttafuoco, eds. Making and Remaking Italy, The Cultivation of National Identity around the Risorgimento. Oxford: Berg, 2001.

Buttafuoco, Annarita. Questioni di cittadinanza, donne e diritti sociali nellTtalia liberate. Siena: Protagon Editori Toscani, 1995.

Capuana, Luigi. Giacinta. Milan: Treves, 1931.

Croce, Benedetto. “Neera.” In La letteratura della nuova Italia, Saggi critici. Vol. 3. Ban: Laterza, 1964.

Finucci, Valeria. “Between Acquiescence and Madness: Neera’s Teresa.” Stanford Italian Review 7, nos. 1-2 (1987): 217-39.

Graziosi, Mariolina. La donna e la storia, identita di genere e identita collettiva nellTtalia liberale e fascista. Naples: Liguori Editore, 2000.

Kroha, Lucienne. The Woman Writer in Late-Nineteenth-Century Italy, Gender and the Formation of Literary Identity. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.

Mazzoni, Cristina. “Hysteria.” In The Feminist Encyclopedia of Italian Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Menasci, Guido. “Neera.” In Nuova antologia 95 (September 1901): 263-78.

Neera. Teresa. Trans. Martha King. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998.

Pacifici, Sergio. The Modern Italian Novel: From Capuana to Tozzi. Vol. 2. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973.

Pope Leo XIII. “Rerum Novarum: Encyclical Letter on Capital and Labor.” The Vatican: The Holy See. May 15, 1891. http://www.vatican.va/index.htm.

Sbragia, Albert. “Risorgimento.” In The Feminist Encyclopedia of Italian Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Stanton, Theodore. The Woman Question in Europe: A Series of Original Essays. New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1884.

Zecchi, Barbara. “Feminism: Nineteenth Century.” In The Feminist Encyclopedia of Italian Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.


views updated May 23 2018

Teresa female forename, name of two saints.
St Teresa of Ávila (1515–82), Spanish Carmelite nun and mystic, who combined vigorous activity as a reformer with mysticism and religious contemplation. She instituted the ‘discalced’ reform movement with St John of the Cross, establishing the first of a number of convents in 1562. In 1970 she became the first woman to be declared a Doctor of the Church. Her emblems are a fiery arrow or a dove above her head, and her feast day is 15 October.
St Teresa of Lisieux (1873–97), French Carmelite nun. Her cult grew through the publication of her autobiography L'Histoire d'une âme (1898) in which she taught that sanctity can be attained through continual renunciation in small matters, and not only through extreme self-mortification. She is represented in her Carmelite habit and holding roses, as a sign of her promise to ‘let fall a shower of roses’ of miracles and other favours. Her feast day is 3 October.

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Saint Teresa