Academic journal article Italica

"Un USO Non Raro": Rape, Rhetoric and Silence in Sibilla Aleramo's Una Donna

Academic journal article Italica

"Un USO Non Raro": Rape, Rhetoric and Silence in Sibilla Aleramo's Una Donna

Article excerpt

Abstract: Since 1906, Sibilla Aleramo's Una donna has been hailed for its seminal feminist stance and called the movement's "Bibbia". Rather than reiterating such commonplaces, this article discusses narrations of trauma and focuses on the recounting of sexual violence in order to individuate rhetorical silences within the text that undercut its revolutionary characterization. This is not a criticism of Aleramo for her hesitant activism and demure tone in recounting her rape; instead, through analyses of works of literary criticism as well as the treatment of rape in Italian legal and cultural history, this article seeks instead to situate and understand her vociferous silence. Calling into question the lack of progress in the treatment and discussion of sexual violence in contemporary Italian culture, it allows for a recalibration of Una donna's legacy by demonstrating the moments in which, surprisingly, its rhetoric and silence align with patriarchal legal and cultural practices.

Keywords: Sibilla Aleramo, Una donna, Italian feminism, rape narratives, trauma narratives.


"Ho dovuto, sempre, fare un grande sforzo per rievocare il passato che volevo, che dovevo narrare, e dal quale ormai ero del tutto estranea".

Sibilla Aleramo in Bassanese (41)

Sibilla Aleramo's romanzo Una donna, both sui generis and ground-breaking, has been written about--and justifiably so--for the more than 100 years since its publication. It has even been famously labeled the "Bibbia del femminismo". (1) The text's gender politics have often been the exclusive focus of Aleramo criticism, (2) which tends to emphasize its radical and seminal feminism. While these conclusions are not necessarily disputed in this study, I find that emphasis on these aspects tend to be at the expense of the less politically radical, and even un-feminist, messages concealed within narrations of trauma in the text. While not exclusively about trauma, the story of the author/protagonist unfolds as a sequence of traumatic events: mother's suicide attempt; rape; unhappy, abusive and unwanted marriage; father's infidelity; mother's institutionalization; miscarriage; domestic violence; suicide attempt; stifling of intellectual endeavors; abandonment of child. In looking closely at the language used to narrate these events, many points emerge in which the recounting undermines the perception of the text as a unified, organic whole. These many narrated traumas exhibit rhetorical difficulties, misdirections, evasions and provocations associated with, and inherent in, the telling of traumatic episodes. Recounted in something like "the enigmatic language of untold stories--of experiences not yet completely grasped" (Caruth 56), I demonstrate that Aleramo's narrations of trauma compel the reader to perceive an unstable text in which the rhetoric does not coincide with the ideological implications. While the desired political-ideological project of the text is clearly and consciously feminist, (3) the narration of trauma, particularly sexual violence, contradicts the author's feminist intentions.

These traumatic textual moments display a rhetorically unresolved tension between what must be told, and at the same time, must remain hidden. The episode that will form the central analytical section of this paper is, paradoxically, perhaps the most succinct and evasive of the entire text: the rape of the narrator/protagonist. The rape, which it is never called in the text, or the "iniziazione" as it is once labeled, is, in my view, the crux of the "romanzo". It is the foundational trauma that forced womanhood, marriage, and abrupt separation and isolation from, as well as silence toward, her family. I establish that Aleramo's narrative treatment of her rape is aligned with, rather than opposed to, the patriarchal legal, political and social practices of her time. I come to these conclusions by questioning the ideological concerns of the text and focusing instead on its linguistic and rhetorical aspects. …

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