Compliant and impetuous: the phenomenology of existence in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels

King-Ho Leung*, Rebecca Walker

*Corresponding author for this work

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This article offers a philosophical reading of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels by bringing the tetralogy into conversation with Jean-Paul Sartre’s phenomenological ontology. In addition to highlighting the striking similarities between Ferrante’s notion of smarginatura (‘dissolving margins’) and Sartre’s depiction of the existential sensation of nausea, this article argues that the two main characters of Ferrante’s tetralogy, Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, respectively exemplify Sartre’s ontological categories of ‘being-for-oneself’ and ‘being-for-others’ in his phenomenological account of human existence. However, Ferrante—like Simone de Beauvoir before her—goes beyond Sartre in her ability to offer an account of the imperfect existential freedom of women, who remain constrained in their pursuit of authenticity by social and cultural factors. Drawing on Ferrante’s assertion that readers ‘are both Elena and Lila’ as well as her recent claim that there are within her two kinds of writing (broadly equated to the ‘compliant’ Elena and ‘impetuous’ Lila), we establish Ferrante’s exploration of the ambivalent features of human subjectivity as a consummate philosophical and literary project.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages19
JournalTextual Practice
VolumeLatest Articles
Early online date9 May 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 9 May 2023


  • Elena Ferrante
  • Neapolitan novels
  • Phenomenology
  • Subjectivity
  • Authenticity


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