When being a woman is a sin: the story of Nedda, between tears and prejudices

Misery, mourning and disillusionment are often not enough to break down a human being. People’s indifference and refusal to grab a trembling hand that asks for help is not so rare to find. This is what happened to the character of Nedda, one of the first examples of emancipation of a woman condemned to suffer because of her gender

Sometimes an adverse fate is not enough to weaken the resistance of a human being. Not even misfortune, misery and suffering are enough: they are all well-aimed blows, tragic for our heart, yet they are not fatal, because they can be overcome in some way. We humans are like this: when we seem destined to collapse, we find mysterious and unexpected energies in ourselves, reversing the course of events and obtaining a redemption. Nevertheless, there is something, even stronger than illness and poverty, which can be an impossible barrier to overcome – i.e. prejudice, a social plague that has still its effects and that between the XIX and XX centuries was widespread in Sicily with all its petty virulence. It was such a rooted and unscrupulous phenomenon from which the famous writer Giovanni Verga took his inspiration to write one of his most famous novels and first sketch of his poetry. We are talking about ‘Nedda’, written in 1874 and featuring a very humble olive picker coming from the Sicilian hinterland. Her history, which has no positive implications, shows a fragile and lonely woman, but at the same time represents one of the most lyrical examples of female courage and emancipation in Italian literature.

Nedda, in fact, was a woman grown up too quickly and forged by bitter grief and immense hardships: she had suffered from refusals and from burning disillusionments, forced to watch her mother die without being able to offer her any help because of her unemployment, and to witness the rapid deterioration of her beloved Janu, who despite the physical weakening caused by malaria wanted to climb to the top of the olive trees . Exhausted from the most acute stage of his illness, he had fallen, mortally wounding himself and leaving poor Nedda pregnant with a child and in total despair. And yet, it took more to destroy her last hope. Nedda did not give up easily, as she knew the harshness of life and work, and as she was fighting to guarantee a future to the creature she was carrying. She hadn’t reckoned, though, with a monster that lurks everywhere, even if anyone can’t see it: prejudice. “Now when she sought work, people laughed in her face, not in mochery of the sinning girl, but because the poor mother could no longer work as hard as she used to. After the first rejections and the first burst of laughter she no longer dared to keep looking, and she shut herself up in her cottage like a wounded bird huddling in its nest. […] She gave birth to a stunted and undernourished girl. When she was told it wasn’t a boy, she cried the way she had cried on the evening when she had shut her cottage door and found herself motherless. But she wouldn’t allow the girl to be left a foundling in the convent. ‘Poor girl! At least let her not begin suffering until the last possible moment!’, she said”. The child died a short time later, in the suffering arms of her mother, whose sole fault was of not being a man.

There is no greater courage than that of a mother who sacrifices herself for the survival of her children: in Nedda the maternal instinct and the ability to predict the future of one’s own offspring are just as strong as her courage. Thus, her torrent of weeping after her daughter’s death does not symbolize her anger at not having given birth to a son able to work and to bring home a minimum wage. Rather, it is an insult to the fate that once again played against her, giving her a daughter destined to suffer her mother’s pains. There was a time when in Sicily being a woman was considered almost a sin – a time which occasionally resurfaces somewhere in the world, still sowing some injustice. In fact, it does not matter that a woman is resigned or under the thumb of a life she has not chosen: it does not matter that she is resilient and rebellious, a warrior of hope just like Nedda, ready to sacrifice every precious part of herself: the only thing that matters and makes the difference is the indifference of others and their refusal. And, whenever we do not offer our hand to the ‘Nedda’ who is begging for help in front of us, we are no better than those who preceded us. We are no better than the stereotypes we say we hate.

Translated by Eva Luna Mascolino

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