By Gustav Bovensiepen, M.D.
From Childhood to Puberty: Elsa Morante’s Novel Arturo’s Island One of the most beautiful and touching father-son stories in world literature was written by a woman: the novel Arturo’s Island, by Elsa Morante.
Arturo, the hero of the story, lost his mother at birth and was consequently raised by Silvestro, his father’s goatherd, since the father himself was frequently away traveling. Arturo’s foster father was in fact more of a foster
mother (he even refers to him as his “wet nurse”), and Arturo’s actual relationship to him is scarcely mentioned in the novel. But of his own father, the hero says, “My childhood is like a blissful country, and he is the absolute ruler of it!”
This “blissful country” exists mainly in the imagination of the boy, who has grown up motherless. There are highly poetic descriptions of Arturo’s lonely life on the lush Mediterranean island, and of his psychic reality, which is completely dominated by his idealizing fantasies about his father. The latter always turns up quite unpredictably on the island, stays for a few days or weeks, only to leave again just as suddenly and, for Arturo, as inexplicably. Arturo never finds out what his father actually does in external
reality when he leaves on his travels. He imagines, however, the most exciting adventures and heroic exploits, and elaborates a highly idealized father image: his father becomes a figure of towering stature, of beauty, brilliance,
and power, just like the legendary King Arthur, with whom the boy has identified. He constantly yearns for the fleeting moments of happiness he can spend with his father. Says Arturo: He was always just stopping off, always just about to leave; but in the short intervals he spent in Procida, I followed him like a dog. To anyone meeting us we must have looked an odd couple! With him striding on ahead like a sail in the wind, with his blond, foreign-looking head, his full lips
and hard eyes which never looked anyone in the face, and me running after him, my black eyes roving proudly left and right, as if to call out: “Procidans, my father is passing by!”...Every word he spoke seemed to have been newly minted and fresh, and
even my own Neapolitan words, which he used often, became newer and bolder when he uttered them—like in poems....His every gesture, his every conversation took on something dramatic and fateful in my eyes. He was the very essence of certainty, and
everything he said or did was like the oracle of a universal law, from which I derived the first commandments of my life. That is what made up the supreme enticement of his company.
Arturo’s identification with the “universal law” and the “commandments of my life” can be considered typical of the state of mind of a boy in transition from latency to pre-puberty. The archetypal core of the ego-complex is dominated by archetypal images of heroes such as Superman, Hercules, or, in Arturo’s case, King Arthur. The ego-self relationship is rigid, and splitting predominates as a defense against the “monsters” surfacing from the unconscious.
Up until the time his father remarries—his new wife is a young woman only a little older than Arturo—Arturo
lives in a world circumscribed by his deep relationship to nature and to his bitch, Immacolatella. These symbolize his relationship to the “good” preOedipal maternal and female on an archetypal level; having never had any experience of a personal mother, he unconsciously lives inside the Great Mother. His father, too, exists only as
the fantasy of an archetypal hero, as a good, but absent, paternal object,
which, by its absence and by its unpredictable appearances and disappearances, only stimulates Arturo’s fantasies and yearning for a personal father even more. On those occasions where his father does turn up, Arturo
refuses to leave his side and makes desperate attempts to get to know him, to
reach, hold, and appropriate him, or at least parts of him, as in the case of his father’s mysterious “Algerian dagger.” Arturo’s behavior in his father’s presence is obtrusive; he tries to grab his father’s dagger.