Queering Narratives in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend

By Rida Akhtar Ghumman

My Brilliant Friend, now an HBO adaptation for television, is the first novel in a series of four by Italian author Elena Ferrante. Elena Ferrante herself is very intricately complex- using a pseudonym the author has touched hearts with her remarkable literary reflection of women- My Brilliant Friend similarly, is a peculiar text to engage with, which not only keeps one hooked to the books but if browsed on screen, HBO adaptation of the first book has eight episodes covering the sixty two chapters of the novel, the expressiveness of the tumultuous simplicity and the queerness in the female friendship of Lila and Lenù makes a lasting impact. Television though has extensively evolved over the ages, especially with a wide range of genres, My Brilliant Friend still stands out in its depiction of baroque female friendship and queer desire.

Lila and Lenù, rooted in a rather poorer suburb of Naples, are two girls whose life is explored from childhood to adolescence in My Brilliant Friend. Lila is a sharp girl while Lenù is a shy one. From the very start of the novel, Elena, who is later referred as Lenù by Lila, is intimidated as in her own words “sense of subordination, the fascination I felt” there is a convoluted connection that Elena feels and “I trained myself to accept readily Lila’s superiority in everything, and even her oppressions.” Ferrante builds the narrative in a chronological order where in early days Lila and Elena learn to befriend each other and gradually build a feminine bond rare in its kind that not only dictates the plot of the novel but also their lives which they can not see without each other. My Brilliant Friend is narrated by Elena and her own words voice a vintage queerness that Elena fails to really acknowledge but embraces dearly as she only feels safe and comforted by Lila’s presence.

The novel begins with both the girls holding hands and walking up to Don Achilles house to confront the Don about their lost dolls in the cellar, Don Achille in the contrary sends them off by generously giving them some money. In episode two of the HBO adaptation the young girls are holding hands and sitting very cozily on a bench, Lila in Lenù’s lap, reading Little Women of Alcott and dreaming about writing novels when they grow up to make money and stay together. Later on, in the same episode, the two girls holding hands skip school and run towards the distant sea to embrace infinity and to feel “the pleasure of being free”. Elena confesses that she felt “joyfully open to the unknown” when walking with her friend away from school, responsibility, family and everything she understood, “I abandoned myself happily”. Thu-Huong Ha for Quartz in 2018 reviewing this friendship said “With their prolonged embraces and glances of jealousy-admiration, the relationship between Lenù and Lila reads just the tiniest bit queer on camera, which works as an added layer in their complex love for one another. (“I think friendship is very erotic, but it isn’t necessarily sexual,” as Susan Sontag once said.)” siding with the complicated yet underlying queer desire that runs in the veins of the novel and its adaptation too, rather vividly.

The queer fascination in the friendship of Lila and Lenù seems more visible from Elena’s side in contrast to Lila, who is firm in keeping the matters of the heart silent, even though in the end of the novel she ends up marrying Don Achille’s son, just at the age of seventeen, thinking of it as the perfect way to jump up on the ladder of life, especially to strengthen economically. The wedding day seeps a delirium in the readers when Elena gives a bath to her friend, dolls her up and sends her away in marriage to Stephano though deeply regretting the whole prospect in her heart: “I washed her with slow, careful gestures, first letting her squat in the tub, then asking her to stand up: I still have in my ears the sound of the dripping water, and the impression that the copper of the tub had a consistency not different from Lila’s flesh, which was smooth, solid, calm. I had a confusion of feelings and thoughts: embrace her, weep with her, kiss her, pull her hair, laugh, pretend to sexual experience and instruct her in a learned voice, distancing her with words just at the moment of greatest closeness. But in the end, there was only the hostile thought that I was washing her, from her hair to the soles of her feet, early in the morning, just so that Stefano could sully her in the course of the night.” HBO adaptation of this scene, in the last episode of the season, depicts a jaded Elena drying Lila with a towel and thinking all these thoughts where in the end of the episode Lila is gone and Elena is left starring, “the mind’s dreams have ended up under the feet.” It is important to preview that these thoughts come from a girl who despises life without Lila, even having had her periods before her friend, Elena loathed her body to have started germinating without keeping up with the pace of her friend’s growth, “I soon had to admit that what I did by myself couldn’t excite me, only what Lila touched became important. If she withdrew, if her voice withdrew from things, the things got dirty, dusty. Middle school, Latin, the teachers, the books, the language of books seemed less evocative than the finish of a pair of shoes, and that depressed me.”

The role of economics and class consciousness dictates the banality of the plot where Elena goes further into studying to gain economical momentum while education is forbidden on Lila due to lack of resources and she starts a dream shoe business in her father’s small shoe shop and ends up marrying because of Stephano’s resources feeding the budding business. The last scene of the season denotes a crying Lila looking at Elena, as if perpetually lost while Lenù is saddened by the quandary of her friend whose husband has invited Lila’s enemies, the Solara’s to the wedding despite Lila having had begged him to not involve with that family.

Queer here connotes a desire that isn’t complacent in constructed binaries of gender, sex and desire, it is synonymous to fluidity in identity and categorization. Queer here resists the regimes of control on friendships, feelings and mere connectivity where Lila and Lenù don’t subject their inherent desires to heterosexuality or homosexuality rather keep their friendship intimate but without any musty binaries by constructing a counter normative relationship. This friendship of Lila and Lenù is a sacred theme of My Brilliant Friend that sets Elena Ferrante apart in her hellacious depiction of this particular side of the larger the human endeavor. The readings of the novel and its adaptation vary, with various lenses and are open to wide-ranging interpretations however, as explored in this essay, queer desire dictates My Brilliant Friend in an excruciating yet somberly smoldering manner.


Rida’s a student of English Literature, currently working on her dissertation about urbanism & flaneuse-ing. She can be reached on Twitter & Instagram 

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