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ashes

ashes the powdery residue left after something is burned, often taken as a symbol of mourning or penitence (as in sackcloth and ashes).

The Ashes is a trophy for the winner of a series of test matches in a cricket season between England and Australia. The name comes from a mock obituary notice published in the Sporting Times (2 September 1882), with reference to the symbolical remains of English cricket being taken to Australia after a sensational victory by the Australians at the Oval.
ashes to ashes, dust to dust a phrase from the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer, ‘we therefore commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.’
turn to ashes in one's mouth become a bitter disappointment; the allusion is to Dead Sea fruit.

See also dust and ashes, rise from the ashes.

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Ashes

Ashes: see ASH.

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"Ashes." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Ashes

ASHES

ASHES are the irreducible dry residue of fire. They may be burnt offerings, such as the cremation of a human body, the sacrificial burning of an animal, or the ritual burning of a plant. Ashes have religious significance as the substance remaining after the divine living energy of sacred fire has departed from a living being or has acted to purge, purify, destroy, volatilize, punish, consume, sublimate, or extract the essence of some created thing. Ashes variously manifest and represent the residue or effect of sacred fire in its manifold creative and negating functions. As hierophanies of power and as sacred symbols, ashes are connected with rites of penitence, mourning, sacrifice, fertility, purification, healing, and divination.

In certain myths dealing with origins, ashes are the material from which things are made. For example, the San depict the Milky Way as being made of ashes, as do the Macoví, for whom the Milky Way is made of the ashes of the Celestial Tree. In Aztec myth humankind itself is made of ashes. Likewise, participants in the Ash Wednesday rite of the Roman Catholic Church are reminded penitentially that they are but the stuff of ashes: "Memento, homo, quia cinis es; in cinerem reverteris."

Ashes, together with any other residue left once the sacrificial fire has extracted the living essence of an offering, are manifestations of sacred renunciation. In certain spiritual disciplines, the rubbing of ashes on the body represents the renunciation or burning up of energic or libidinal attachments to life for the sake of spiritual development or enlightenment. For example, in Hindu mythology the god Śiva, the divine paradigm of yogins, burns up all the other gods with a glance from his third eye, which possesses the vision that penetrates to the essential nullity of all forms. Śiva then rubs the gods' ashes on his body. The yogins rub the ashes of the sacred fire on their bodies as a symbol of having sublimated the fiery power of procreation or lust (kāma ). The whiteness of the ashes is referred to as the glow of the ashes of the yogins' semen.

Ashes, by connection with the cleansing power of the divine fiery energy, have the power to purify. For example, in the Red Heifer ritual of the Hebrews the ashes of the sacrificed animal's body are mixed with water and sprinkled on a person who is ritually unclean from contact with a corpse. Ritual cleanliness is also achieved by the brahmans in India by rubbing the body with ashes or bathing it in ashes before performing religious rites.

Covering one's clothes and body in ashes is a part of various rituals of mourning, humiliation, and atonement. Wearing ashes exteriorizes or manifests spiritual states of loss, sorrow, emptiness, or worthlessness before the divine power. For example, in the Arunta tribe the widow of the deceased covers herself during mourning rites in the ashes of her husband. In the Bible Job humbles himself before Yahveh, saying, "I knew you then only by hearsay; but now, having seen you with my own eyes, I retract all I have said, and in dust and ashes I repent" (Jb. 42:5f.).

The pattern, or tendency, of fiery divine life-forces is interpreted by means of the pattern of ashes made during divinatory rites. The Maya Indians in Yucatán, for example, use this type of oracle to determine the particular divinity responsible for a child's life. Possibly the idea behind this practice is similar to the idea of various North American Indian peoples who regard the life patterns in the palm and fingertips of a person's hand as traces of the divine energy ordinarily manifested as wind or breath.

Finally, ashes as the residue of life manifest the fiery divine life-force itself and are used in fertility rites to stimulate the life energy of crops and flocks. Thus in many European rites, such as those celebrated at Easter and on Saint John's Day, a human figure of straw representing the vegetation spirit is burned, and the ashes are scattered on the fields to stimulate the growth of crops. Likewise, in ancient Rome, the ashes from sacred fires of animal sacrifices were fed to flocks in order to stimulate their fertility and their production of milk.

Bibliography

Further discussion can be found in W. Brede Kristensen's The Meaning of Religion: Lectures in the Phenomenology of Religion (The Hague, 1960).

Richard W. Thurn (1987)

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Ashes

Ashes

by Grazia Deledda

THE LITERARY WORK

A novel set in Sardinia in 1904; published in Italian (as Cenere) in 1904, in English in 1910.

SYNOPSIS

An illegitimate son is haunted by the memory of his mother, who abandoned him to his father. Obsessed with finding her again, he locates the “fallen” woman and resolves to care for her, with tragic results.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Grazia Deledda was born in 1871 in Nuoro, Sardinia, to Francesca Cambosu and Giovanni Antonio Deledda, a notary and small businessman. Deledda’s early life was marked by loss. Two sisters died, one at birth and the other of trachoma at the age of six. Disgrace fell upon another sister, Beppa, when she was abandoned by her fiance. Deledda’s father died in 1892, after which one of her brothers ended up in jail for theft while another, alcoholic brother squandered the rest of the family estate. Despite these tribulations, Deledda achieved a remarkable literary career for a Sardinian woman of her day. In 1926 she became the second Italian writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (after the poet Giosue Carducci in 1906) and the second female Nobel laureate in the world (after Sweden’s Selma Lagerlöf in 1909). She reached these heights after schooling herself for the most part by reading classic and contemporary literature at home. Despite the emphatic disapproval of her family’s, who believed she should embrace only the traditional roles of wife and mother, Deledda turned to writing, publishing her first short stories, “Sulla montagna” (On the Mountain) and “Sangue Sardo” (Sardinian Blood) in 1888 at the age of 17. These were soon followed by a novel, Stella d’Oriente (Star of the Orient), published in 1891. Her first novel to become a critical success was La via di male (1896; The Evil Way). Three years later Deledda married Palmiro Madesani, an employee of the Department of Finance, with whom she moved to Rome and had two sons.

Deledda kept writing, producing a total of about 30 novels and more than 400 short stories, articles, poems, and theatrical works. Along with Ashes, her most celebrated novels include Elias Portolu (1903), Canne al vento (1913; Reeds in the Wind), Marianna Sirca (1915), and La madre (1919; The Mother). Deledda collaborated on the film adaptation of Ashes, featuring the famed actress Eleanora Duse, released in 1916. A decade later she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Just before leaving to accept the award in Stockholm, Deledda learned she had breast cancer, which claimed her life in 1936. In the interim she continued to write. An unfinished fictional autobiography, Cosima, was published posthumously in 1937, but elements of her life permeate her other fiction too. In Ashes, Deledda sketches a rich portrait of the land, the individuals, and the community that make up her native Sardinia.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Uneasy Unification

In 1861, just a decade before Deledda was born, Italy became a unified kingdom. Spearheading the effort to unify its separate regions was Piedmont-Sardinia, a kingdom born in the northwest portion of the Italian peninsula that seemed thereafter to feel justified in imposing its policies on the rest of Italy. The city of Turin, in Piedmont, became Italy’s capital, and it was here that the first parliament met. Partly in an effort to consolidate the fragile new nation, Piedmont extended its organizational apparatus, tariffs, business treaties, and educational and police laws to the entire nation. Northerners in general proceeded to dominate the new government. Not until the early 1900s, when Ashes takes place, would its civil service begin to hire many southerners. The result, at first in Naples and other parts of the southern mainland, even more so on the island of Sardinia, was a general regional mistrust of civil society.

Located southwest of the peninsula, in the Mediterranean Sea, the island of Sardinia proved to be one of the most difficult regions to assimilate into the new Italian nation. Sardinians themselves referred to the main peninsula as “the Continent,” acknowledging their cultural and physical separation from the rest of Italy. Due to the isolation of their island, which is cut off from the mainland by the Tyrrhenian Sea, the exchange of ideas between it and other regions lagged years behind areas situated on the peninsula. This did not bother the authorities of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia when it existed; its officials had treated Sardinia with indifferent tolerance. Suddenly this changed. Italy’s new government actively exercised its authority on the island. Officials centralized the government administration in Sardinia and initiated a large-scale effort to “teach and modernize” the islanders, with the intent of creating a homogenous Italian identity. However, the new government failed to adequately address many of the economic and social problems unique to the island (e.g., an out-dated education system and various sanitation issues), making the integration of Sardinia into the new nation an exceedingly long and complex process.

Sardinia around 1900—economy and society

Though swept into the fold of Italy’s new centralized government 30 years earlier, Sardinia continued to be plagued by economic tribulations at the turn of the twentieth century. The island’s per capita earnings from 1901 to 1903 were the lowest in the nation, surpassing the poverty of the historically disadvantaged southern regions of the peninsula. One of the obstacles to economic growth was a lack of funding: the federal government typically provided less money for land improvements in Sardinia than on the mainland. There were other impediments too. Nature militated against economic success. Much of the island—around the town of Nuoro, for example—is mountainous and so not amenable to cultivation. Between 1883 and 1903, the year before the novel takes place, this was compounded by natural disaster: a phylloxera infestation destroyed large tracts of Sardinia’s grape vines. Wool remained the dominant export, but the shepherds earned little profit from their herds because the under-industrialized island had to send the wool elsewhere to be manufactured. Those who processed and distributed the material were the ones who received the real profits.

Despite all these obstacles, there were some economic gains on Sardinia after Unification. The production of cheese became a major industry in the 1890s, when pecorino sardo (cheese from sheep’s milk) grew enormously popular in the Americas. Also, olive mills (and their production of olive oil) continued to constitute an important part of the economy. Following Unification, the federal government created new jobs to construct a railroad and roads that would connect previously isolated Sardinian towns. The mining of zinc and lead also boosted the island economy. Although most Sardinians were farmers and shepherds (73.9 percent in 1880; 56.8 percent in 1921), government mines provided many male islanders with work (Sanna, p. 244).

Unfortunately, the Sardinian mining industry was not without problems. Boys 11 and older were allowed to perform tasks inside the mines. Working conditions were abysmal; the miners endured long hours at dangerous sites. The majority of the miners joined unions and participated in the national workers’ movement sweeping Italy. In fact, the first national strike in Italian history had its impetus in an event that took place in Buggerru, Sardinia, in 1904. The director of the Buggerru mining site informed his laborers that the winter work schedule would be imposed at the beginning of September, which meant they would be denied their usual three-hour break from toiling in the intense afternoon heat and would have to work an extra hour each day. A crowd gathered as the miners quarreled with the director’s decision. In the ensuing chaos, three workers were shot and killed by the authorities, and the news of their deaths prompted workers around the country to strike.

Strangely enough, the workers’ movement never united with the struggling peasant class in Sardinia as it did elsewhere around Italy and Europe. The island had its own social profile; unlike other areas, Sardinia did not have a distinctive class system at the end of the nineteenth century. Economic obstacles, like the destruction of crops and inability to manufacture wool on the island mentioned above, meant both land-owners and dependents struggled to survive. Since the small landholder did not earn much more than the peasants who worked his land or the shepherds who tended his flock, lines between classes were often blurred. Rather than distinct classes, the economic structure of Sardinia seemed to be comprised of ranks, with miniscule differences between them. From “bottom” to “top,” the ranks rose from farmhand, up to artisan, small merchants and small landowners, and then, after a sizable gap, up to government employees and the military, large landowners, and finally the peak of businessmen and professionals. Most at the peak, the professors and doctors, for example, were foreigners, who moved to Sardinia from the Continent.

The problems of sanitation and education

The economic struggles of Sardinia at the turn of the twentieth century were accompanied by halting progress in public sanitation and education. Due to limited health care and unsanitary living conditions, Sardinia’s mortality rate remained higher than in the rest of Italy. Three illnesses were largely responsible for deaths on the island: malaria (although an effective remedy, quinine, was discovered in 1900); trachoma, a contagious illness of the eye often causing blindness followed by death; and tuberculosis, a serious danger at the start of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, there were fewer health-care professionals on the island than on the mainland. Also the island lacked modern sewage systems. People still drew their daily water supply from rivers and streams, and drinkable water was scarce. Even cemeteries became sanitation hazards, due to the practice of burying the dead without coffins.

THE CULTURE OF BANDITRY

Pardinia has a long history of brigantaggio, or brigandage, Under ancient Roman rule, the island became a holding ground for convicts, political dissidents, and Jews. Many of these “offenders” were confined in a large prison in the mountains overlooking Nuoro. Others escaped and formed a resistance movement in the mountains among the ancient stone ruins called nuraghe. These mysterious, dome-shaped dwellings have fascinated Sardinians for centuries; like a character in Ashes, many think that the original inhabitants or later bandits may have buried treasures near these ruins.

Brigantaggio continued to flourish on the island, due to lack of confidence in the justice system and the absence of a strong government authority. Its age-old, intermittent bandit culture resurfaced after the Act of Closure of 1820. A set of drastic land reforms, it ended the feudal system in Sardinia, parceled out uncultivated land to what would become the new middle class, and introduced strict property regulations and taxes. The reforms led to intense conflicts among the new landowners, farmhands, and shepherds, which they set out to settle themselves. At the end of the nineteenth century, around the time of the novel, Sardinia had the second-highest homicide rate in Italy, after Sicily (Sanna, p. 245).

Another health concern was the sparse diet. For most of the island dwellers, daily meals consisted primarily of bread (or orzo, a barley-like pasta popular in mountainous regions like Nuoro), potatoes, legumes, thin soups, and cheese. Sardinians rarely ate meat, although shepherds sometimes slaughtered a sick lamb or elderly goat to celebrate for special occasions. The inhabitants of coastal fishing towns were able to supplement this modest diet with fish, but it was uncommon for people in the central regions of Sardinia to have access to this additional staple.

Education on the island was woefully inadequate and Unification did little to improve the system. The new Italian government supplied less than half the funding for education to Sardinia than to Lombardy, for instance. In 1888, primary education became compulsory for three years, but especially in the South the law was practiced more in the breach than the observance. Truancy often exceeded 80 percent in the region; certainly most Sardinians never attended school, so it is hardly surprising that their illiteracy rate was 68.3 percent in 1901 (Clark, pp. 36-37). Here as elsewhere a difficulty facing the educational system was the post-Unification linguistic shift from the local dialect to standardized Italian. Progress was slow in this regard: half the elementary schools in Sardinia still used dialect as the primary language of instruction in 1910 (Marrocu and Brigaglia, p. 49). Females were at an extra disadvantage. The extent of their education was limited; at the end of the nineteenth century, and for most girls, even later, they could still only attend up to four years of elementary school. Female students of the early 1900s could continue beyond elementary school if they trained to become schoolteachers.

Despite the underdeveloped school system, Sardinia saw the burgeoning of a small intellectual class in the late 1800s. New periodicals such as L’unione sarda (The Sardinian Union) and La nuova Sardegna (The New Sardinia) found a loyal readership among these scholars. While the isolated nature of the island community had previously slowed the transfer of progressive ideas from the Continent to Sardinia, in 1882 a new rail/ferry line connecting Terranova, Sardinia, and Civitavecchia (a port northwest of Rome) facilitated the spread of such ideas. New possibilities for faster, easier travel between the island and the mainland opened another environment to the Sardinian intellectuals; some of the more serious students even availed themselves of the opportunity to study at the university in Rome. These scholars often felt torn between two worlds—the old-fashioned, cherished traditions of their roots and the urban modernity in which they immersed themselves on the Continent. In the end, intellectual success for many Sardinians around the time the novel takes place depended on a physical—and often mental—separation from their homeland.

The role of women, religion, and folklore

At the start of the twentieth century, women were not expected to venture into intellectual or professional activities outside the role of homemaker. The limited public education they received was adequate in preparing them to carry out their principal functions in Sardinian society: raising a family’s, tending the home, gathering herbs and figs for cooking, and cultivating the family’s garden. Additionally many peasant women contributed to the household income by sewing, basket weaving, harvesting olives, planting vegetables, or traveling from village to village selling fruit or eggs. In contrast to these peasant wives, middle- and upper-class women were becoming “modernized” at the turn of the century, attending high school and taking up diverse pastimes such as painting, playing musical instruments, singing, and writing.

Although the activities of Sardinian peasant women were limited at the time, they played a key social role. One of their main functions was to pass down traditional beliefs and codes of behavior through oral storytelling. In the warmer seasons, women in various Sardinian towns could be found sitting by the doorstep, gossiping about recent events in the village and telling colorful folkloric tales. Grazia Deledda provides a thorough review of Sardinian customs and folklore in Tradizioni popolari di Sardegna (1895, Popular Traditions of Sardinia), first published as a series of articles in Rivista delle tradizioni popolari italiane (Journal of Italian Popular Traditions) in 1894. The collection emphasizes the mix of superstition, folklore, and Catholicism that made up the religion practiced by inhabitants in her native town of Nuoro.

According to Deledda, women would kneel or sit on the floor of the church during the Holy Mass, while the men sat in the wooden pews. The congregation often prayed aloud during the Mass, sometimes saying a rosary while the priest prayed or preached. Parishioners usually prayed in the dialect spoken in Nuoro (called Lugodoro), although sometimes they recited parts of the Mass in Latin, a language that most of them did not actually understand. Women donated money, rings, and other jewelry to the saints, and sometimes even crawled on their knees through church when making a votive offering. Men, women, and children often made pilgrimages, especially on saints’ days. At times, the most devout journeyed barefoot, and slept outside or in makeshift huts once they had reached their destination. Large bonfires were often part of the celebration, providing the pilgrims with both warmth and a place to gather and swap stories.

The majority of the inhabitants of Nuoro believed in miracles and other supernatural occurrences. It was custom for religious women to wear crosses, medallions, relics, cords, and amulets called rezettas. The devout also used blessed palms and wax to create holy crosses and other talismans that were then worn or hung over beds for protection. Short prayers or chants, involving remedies as well as curses, testify to the superstitious nature of many late-nineteenth-century Sardinians. Deledda devotes a full section of her book on Sardinian customs to these berbos, or remedies and curses; spoken mantras, they ranged from chants to keep foxes from damaging a farmer’s grapes to chants aimed at causing a pregnant woman to miscarry.

The Sardinians’ devotion to religion—however much infused with myth and superstition—revealed itself in the importance placed on chastity in women (though a husband’s infidelity was deemed acceptable). According to Deledda, the people of Nuoro placed utmost value on female honesty and purity around the turn of the twentieth century, and few wives committed adultery. In keeping with the religious teachings of their society, Sardinians viewed chastity as one of the greatest virtues of women, and promiscuity as one of their greatest sins. But, as in other Italian regions, the young women of Sardinia began to act more liberally towards the end of the 1800s. In Deledda’s words, more and more of its young women were becoming “stained by the gloomiest notoriety that can darken a woman’s name”—the reference here is to the shame heaped on any woman who had sexual relations with a man outside marriage (Deledda, Tradizioni, p. 258; trans. V. Mirshak). For the increase in promiscuity among young women, Deledda blames both the changing times and the inability of fathers and brothers—too overwhelmed by the burdens of everyday survival—to defend the honor of a daughter or sister as actively as they had in the past.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The novel begins at nightfall on St. John’s Day as a 15-year-old peasant, Olì, awaits the arrival of her lover, the farmer Ananias. The young girl ventures into the fields surrounding her family’s small home under the pretense of gathering flowers and herbs for the feast day. Ananias, a dreamer who fantasizes about one day discovering ancient treasure among the area’s nuraghe (stone ruins) promises Olì they will marry once he finds his fortune. In reality, the farmer is already married. When Olì becomes pregnant as a result of the lovers’ tryst, her father, a railway signalman, disowns her for having brought dishonor upon the family’s.

Discovering the plight of his lover, Ananias brings Olì to live with one of his distant relatives in the mountainous town of Fonni, where he then abandons her. The relative, Zia Grathia, takes the expectant mother under her wing, and baby Ananias is born shortly thereafter. Little Ananias spends his early childhood roaming the woods with Zia Grathia’s son, Zuanne, who at age 11 has already become a shepherd. Every night, the two boys eagerly gather at the hearth to listen to Zia Grathia recount dark tales of her late husband’s life of banditry. The widow claims that bandits aren’t bad people; they are “just guys who have to express their talents” (Deledda, Ashes, p. 31). The bandit’s old black cloak hangs prominently on a wall of the humble dwelling, presiding ominously as a lasting testament to the violent life and death of Zuanne’s father.

ST. JOHN’S FEAST DAY

St. John’s Day is one of four important Catholic feast days that divide the liturgical year into quarters (the others are Christmas, Lady’s Day [the Annunciation], and Michaelmas). Commemorating the death of St. John the Baptist, his feast day falls on June 24, just days after the summer solstice. At the time Ashes was written, people from many countries celebrated St. John’s Eve by gathering herbs for medicinal purposes and by building a large bonfire and burning old sacramental cloths in it. The resulting ashes were often blessed and kept for Holy Masses throughout the year. Legend warns of the danger of falling in love on St. John’s Eve. In some regions, folklore claims that single women can tell whether or not they will soon marry by hanging St. John’s wort over their beds on this eve; if the plant is still fresh the next morning, they will marry within a year. Another tradition directs a single woman to mark a plant in the ground on St. John’s Day, The type of insect on its leaves the next day will reveal the occupation of her future husband.

When Ananias is seven years old, Olì brings him on a day-long journey to Nuoro. Before leaving their home, the mother places a pouch-shaped cloth amulet around the boy’s neck, instructing him to always keep it close to his heart. Once they arrive in Nuoro, Olì sends him into an olive mill and directs him to state his name to the men inside. Meanwhile, the mother slips away, abandoning little Ananias to his father. While “Big Ananias” is outraged that Oli has left their son with him, his wife, Zia Tatàna, welcomes the boy into her home. Ananias grows to love his stepmother and even to understand his father, who treats him brusquely in public and kisses him goodnight when he believes him to be asleep. Together with his new friend Bustianeddu, Ananias explores the town of Nuoro and spends time at the olive mill, where at night many of the workers grow drunk, laugh, curse, and dance. The boy’s new life is colored with various tragicomic characters: Efes Cau, a rich landowner ruined by alcoholism; Nanna, a friend of the family’s, also perpetually inebriated; Zio Pera, the elderly farmer with a penchant for young girls; Agatha, the beautiful bartender; and Rebecca, a chronic invalid who lives in abject poverty. Although Ananias thrives in his new setting, he is often haunted by the memory of his life in Fonni and of the mother who abandoned him. He dreams of some day traveling to Rome, where he believes his mother to be living. When Ananias performs well in school and speaks of his desire to study law on the Continent, Signor Carboni, a distinguished gentleman who is both the landowner for whom Ananias’s father labors and the mayor of Nuoro, offers to pay for the boy’s education once he has finished his elementary schooling in town. Ananias has by this time fallen in love with Carboni’s daughter, Margherita. Before leaving for high school in Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, the young man discovers that his romantic feelings are reciprocated.

While studying in Cagliari, Ananias exchanges love letters with Margherita and dreams of their future together. However, even as he pines for Margherita, as he attends the university in Rome, the young man grows ever more obsessed with finding his mother. The son is haunted by the thought that he could encounter her on the Continent and fears that she may be prostituting herself to survive. If this is the case, Ananias decides, it would be his filial duty to take Oli in and to provide her with an escape from her life of sin and poverty. However, such a course of action would surely end things between him and Margherita, who considers herself too pure to live alongside a former prostitute. Ananias himself expresses the impossibility of having both Margherita and his fallen mother in his life when he later asks Zia Grathia, “Surely you don’t think that a pure and delicate young girl can live near a fallen woman?” (Ashes, p. 182). So intense is the young man’s fear of finding his mother and having to provide for her that he sometimes wishes to discover that she has died.

In Rome, Ananias becomes the boarder of a Sardinian woman with a mysterious past. He entertains the possibility that she could be Olì, taking momentary comfort in the thought that his mother could now be leading a respectable life renting out rooms in the city. Upon his return to Nuoro for summer vacation, Ananias sends Zia Tatàna to ask Signor Carboni’s permission for an engagement between Ananias and Margherita. His benefactor blesses the union; the engagement, he says, can become official following the student’s graduation.

Overjoyed, Ananias sets out to Fonni to visit Zia Grathia, the old widow in whose home he spent the first seven years of his life. Joy turns to anxiety when he learns from her that his mother has returned to Fonni, disgraced and physically ill after traveling for years with different men. The widow arranges a mother-and-son reunion, at which both become emotionally distraught. The son grows violently angry, proclaiming it his duty to care for Oli and forbidding her to leave him again. When he writes Margherita that his mother will soon be living with him, his fiancée breaks their engagement. After returning home, he follows-up on Zia Grathia’s instructions to him before he left Fonni to send his cloth amulet back to his mother in a colored handkerchief if Margherita refuses him.

Upon his return to Zia Grathia’s house, Ananias finds that Oli has committed suicide. Horrified at the tragic sight of his mother’s slit throat, the mourning son opens the tiny sack amulet she gave him 15 years earlier. Upon discovering it to be filled with ashes, he finds a glimmer of hope: “he remembered that often there is a spark among the ashes—the beginnings of a bright, purifying flame. And he hoped. And he loved life again” (Ashes, p. 217).

The dilemma of maternity and self-sacrifice

Given that Ashes centers on a son who suffers the sins of his mother, it is startling that the novel concludes with a complete reversal: the son is the one to ultimately destroy his mother, and a self-sacrificing mother at that. It is Oli’s final selfless act that liberates Ananias socially and emotionally. The role reversal of victim and violator begins when a grown-up Ananias first finds Oli in Fonni; almost immediately, he becomes openly hostile towards his mother. Deledda uses the image of a beastly predator to describe Ananias during this disturbing encounter. Oli is so frightened by her son’s aggressive behavior that the widow Zia Grathia finds it necessary to reassure the trembling woman: “After all, he’s not going to devour you; he’s the flesh of your flesh” (Ashes, p. 191). In the end, however, Oli’s son does destroy her, albeit indirectly. The news of his broken engagement fills her with a desire to protect her son: “A thirst for self-sacrifice devoured her”; she, not he, is thus devoured (Ashes, p. 197). Oli’s need to sacrifice herself for the happiness of her son is relayed by a verb (divorare—”to devour”) that emphasizes the instinctual, animalistic, even detrimental qualities at the base of this mother-child relationship. The language conveys a negative view of maternity as selfdestructive.

Deledda was not the only woman writer in Italy to rebel against the maternity cult at the time of Ashes’ publication. Around the turn of the twentieth-century female writers in Italy began to emphasize the equality of the sexes and to refute their limitation to the maternal role. Regina di Luanto, Anna Franchi, Carola Prosperi, and Sibilla Aleramo are women whose novels reveal a certain antagonism towards conventional ideas about motherhood in Deledda’s day.

In light of its dramatic and violent conclusion, Ashes would seem to fall neatly into the category of works by women that denounce the traditional maternal role. Deledda, however, declares her independence from any circle of dedicated feminist writers, and her corpus as a whole reveals the ambiguity of her views on motherhood. Although Ashes appears to be influenced by the feminist stirrings of the era, Deledda not only claimed to be detached from these contemporary debates but also spoke of herself as belonging to the past. Whether or not the feminist thinking of her age affected Deledda’s writing, the concluding images of Ashes reveal tremendous compassion towards women who find themselves trapped in a destructive pattern of unmitigated self-sacrifice for the benefit of their children.

Sources and literary context

While there is no evidence that a specific event in the life of Grazia Deledda inspired Ashes, the author drew from her experiences growing up in Nuoro, Sardinia, when writing most of her works. The isolated mountain village, with its colorful, rustic inhabitants, serves as the novel’s primary setting, although Ananias spends his young childhood in the town of Fonni and later attends high school in Cagliari and college in Rome. This latter part of the protagonist’s journey, from his native island of Sardinia to the Continent, is perhaps the closest link between the novel and the author’s life. Deledda’s firsthand experience of travel outside Nuoro, to Cagliari in 1899 and to Rome the following year, is most likely the source of inspiration for Ananias’s journey. Although the novelist did not finally return to her native island as her protagonist does, Deledda clearly understood the cultural and emotional struggles of the Sardinian intellectual abroad, torn between the centuries-old traditions of his homeland and the progressive modernization of continental Italy.

DELEDDA’S “SECRET”

“When I began to write, was I not using those materials which were at hand? If I continued to use this material for the rest of my life it is because I knew who I was when I grew up, tied as I was to my people: and my soul was linked with theirs, and when I peered into my characters’ souls it was into my own soul that I was looking and all the agonies that I have told on thousands of pages in my novels were my own suffering, my own pain, my own tears shed in my tragic adolescence. This is my secret!”

(Deledda in Balducci, p. 3)

The literary climate of Italy and of the entire European community at the time of the publication of Ashes was one of great change and transformation. From the mid-1800s through the beginning of the twentieth century, literary movements were in constant flux, sometimes merging into and often clashing against one another. Unlike most of the well-known European writers of her day, Deledda did not openly identify with any one literary school of thought, and it is impossible to pinpoint just one school that encompasses her entire corpus. Instead novels like Ashes contain elements of various literary trends, from Romanticism, to the Italian form of naturalism known as verismo, to the Decadent tradition. Deledda’s penchant for passionate, sentimental encounters between characters, as well as their struggles with religion and tradition, is decidedly Romantic. Other aspects of Ashes—its regional settings, attention to details of everyday life, and use of verisimilar dialogue—can be viewed as examples of verismo. At the same time, Deledda resembles writers of Italy’s Decadent tradition as she delves into the subconscious struggles of her characters, often showing more sympathy for them than for the restrictive mores of her society.

Reviews

While little is known about the critical reception accorded to Ashes in particular, Deledda’s works usually enjoyed great popularity with the reading public, whose interest only increased when she received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926. Her success with readers at the turn of the century was most likely due to the boom of regionalist literature in Europe, as well as Deledda’s knack for depicting the universal dimension of human struggles.

Given the rapidly changing literary context of her time, Deledda’s works baffled many critics, such as Arnoldo Bocelli and Eurialo De Michelis, who could not decide in which “-ism” to categorize her writing. In fact, countless reviews of her works debated the genre of her novels, without evaluating the works in total. The inability to identify her school of thought led to a reevaluation of literary criticism in general in Italy. The well-known critic Pietro Pancrazi acknowledged her monumental effect: “Italian literary criticism is in debt to Grazia Deledda” (Pancrazi in Rapisarda, p. 25; trans. A. Boylan).

Just as critics disagreed about Deledda’s school of thought, they debated her prowess as a writer. Benedetto Croce and Renato Serra both found her writing “tiresome,” “repetitious,” and “mediocre”; at the same time, Serra believed that she should be taken seriously and admired her ability to aptly describe the travails of humanity (Soru, p. 84). Luigi Capuana, a renowned author of the verista tradition, lauded Deledda for presenting her readers with a realistic regional portrait of Sardinia. Attilio Momigliano compared her works to those of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, identifying similar themes of sin and expiation in the novels of all three writers. Deledda won praise too from translators and scholars abroad: from Edmond Haguenin in France, Henrik Schück in Sweden, D. H. Lawrence in England, and Joseph Kennard in the United States. Disputes among literary critics of her day aside, perhaps most unarguably Grazia Deledda’s Nobel Prize for Literature attests to the immense success that her writing achieved at home and abroad.

—Valerie Mirshak

For More Information

Amoia, Alba. No Mothers We!: Italian Women Writers and Their Revolt Against Maternity. New York: University Press of America, 2000.

Balducci, Carolyn. A Self-Made Woman: Biography of Nobel-Prize-Winner Grazia Deledda. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1975.

Clark, Martin. Modern Italy. London: Longman, 1996. Deledda, Grazia. Ashes. Trans. Jan Kozma. London: Associated University Presses, 2004.

——. Tradizioni popolari di Sardegna. Ed. Dolores Turchi. Rome: Newton Compton, 1995.

Levy, Carl, ed. Italian Regionalism. Washington, D.C.: Berg, 1996.

Marrocu, Luciano, and Manlio Brigaglia. “Società e cultura nella Sardegna di fine Ottocento: Note per una ricerca.” In Grazia Deledda nella cultura contemporanea. Vol. 1. Nuoro, Sardinia: Consorzio per la pubblica lettura “S. Satta,” 1992.

Offen, Karen. “Liberty, Equality, and Justice for Women: The Theory and Practice of Feminism in Nineteenth-Century Europe.” In Becoming Visible: Women in European History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Rapisarda, Serafina. “Grazia Deledda alla luce della critica straniera.” Procellaria: Rassegna di Varia Cultura 16, no. 1 (1968): 25-28.

Saladino, Salvatore. Italy from Unification to 1919: Growth and Decay of a Liberal Regime. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1970.

Sanna, Natale. “Dal 1870 alla prima guerra mondiale.” In La società in Sardegna nei secoli. Turin: ERI, 1967.

Soru, Luigi. “Grazia Deledda e la critica.” Cenobio: Rivista Trimestrale di Cultura 19 (1970): 83-89.

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