Moms in I Promessi Sposi

In honor of Mother’s Day and of all moms, real, adopted, and imagined, I would like to think about the mother figures and the role of the mother in I Promessi Sposi. Plus, I am a little stuck on Agnes. I admit it. What is she doing as a major character in this novel? I would also like to think about how digital humanities tools might help me think about the moms in this novel. First, it strikes me as unusual for a mom, let alone several moms, to have such an active and positive role in a literary narrative. I am more used to either bad moms/step moms (Grendel, Gertrude from Hamlet, Cinderella’s step-mom) or dead/lost ones (every fairy tale). [Note the gratuitous Shakespeare reference].Moms are a burden for the young hero who needs to grow up and find his/her way in the world. Moms (in literature) remind us that our hero used to be someone’s baby and might need to be reminded to wear a sweater on a chilly evening. This is not really promising hero material. 

But in Manzoni’s novel, we just keep acquiring moms. Agnes is mom to both Lucy and Renzo throughout the text; they rely on her for advice, companionship, safety, and honesty. She travels with them, and then even travels on her own. Lucy acquires more mothers: The nun of Monza (not a great mom, but she does serve as a surrogate), Donna Prassede (also not a great mom but she does help keep Lucy safe), and in the lazaretto, the merchant’s widow, whom Lucy titles a second mother and who is welcomed into the family with open arms by Agnes. Meanwhile Agnes has shifted from being a respected mother-in-law for Renzo to an actual mom (or at least that’s how I read the apparent growth of affection). They decide the future together. And of course we have other mom figures—the tragic mother who lays her dead daughter on the cart before comforting the next child marked for death, and the tailor’s wife, mother of cheerful and lively children.

The events of this novel tear our little would-be family apart and disperse them throughout Italy, but as national events catch our characters up in a larger historical narrative, the definition of family expands as a result. A tiny village can sustain a tiny family; the national landscape requires more people for survival, it seems. And those people are largely (not exclusively) moms. Why? I have a few guesses—most of which involve me doing more research and figuring out if moms are a standard feature of novels that overlay or simply articulate a decidedly Catholic narrative to the cultural landscape. Lucy seems to need female companionship—a chaperone for her virginity. But there’s also the Virgin Mary as intercessor. Do moms in this novel—or other novels—provide living stand-ins to enact the ultimate Mom’s protection? I confess my own area of study leaves me inadequately prepared to answer these questions. I hadn’t considered before now how, well, Protestant British and American lit really is.

So how might I use digital humanities tools to help me answer my questions and overcome my literary handicap? I thought about word clouds. Perhaps, with much manipulation, I could target mom words (names, variants of mother) and look at their frequency in each chapter. But ultimately, I don’t think this would net me much unless I also compared it to, say, dad words. What might be more useful is a kind of Mom Map—one that perhaps tracks the physical movements of Agnes, Lucy, and Renzo and then overlays the other moms onto the map where they come into the story. This might shed light on the purpose of each mom figure and the impetus for growth in each main character. I also think creating a bubble chart might both help me ask useful questions and illustrate the influence of moms in this novel. Mom Bubbles! Relative influences, connections, and overlaps might readily be discerned through these visual metaphors. I do think this is the kind of question that can benefit from a digital humanities approach in conjunction with traditional scholarly inquiry. What do you think?


05/08/2013 6:55pm

First, this post was just flat out hilarious to read. "Mom Bubbles!"

However, you do point out something that I hadn't thought of while reading the entire 720 pages of this novel - where are all of the fathers? I wonder if this has something to do with the infamous Italian "mammoni," a club to which Manzoni definitely seemed a member if you read up on his history a bit. He essentially lived with his mother for his entire life.


Leave a Reply.