115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Ritualization and Enculturation in Rosetta Loy's La porta dell'acqua

Stefania Nedderman, Gonzaga University

La porta dell’acqua, explores a child’s frustrated love for her nanny and her grown-up guilt for her indifference/ complicity toward the persecution of Jews. I use Erik H. Erikson’s first three stages of psychosocial development to investigates how the ritualization of experience (through play, practices, and religion) while strengthening one’s sense of identity may conversely exclude others as belonging to a different species. I will focus on the use of Struwwelpeter (1845), a German children’s book, as a mean for this enculturation. 


La porta dell’acqua bears a rather mysterious and intriguing epigraph: “Ni la mano más pequeña/quiebra la puerta del agua.” The couplet belongs to the poem Gacela de la raiz amarga, from the collection Diván del Tamarit by Federico García Lorca. Lorca’s poem concludes pointedly with a self-apostrophe, and a double paradox: “!Amor! Enemigo mío/!muerde tu raíz amarga!” Rather than antithetical, love and enemy are here one and the same; likewise, love and pain appear locked in the inexorable circular process of the snake that eats its own tail, where the end and the beginning are indistinguishable.

In Loy’s often semi-autobiographical novels, the female narrator obsessively returns to her childhood, as to the “bitter root” of her identity, “per fare i conti con quei momenti che hanno stravolto la vita. Thus, for the author, writing is a form of psychoanalysis by which we may recover our wholeness from the fragments of our memories.” In La porta dell’ acqua, the narrator re-lives her nanny’s abandonment, the betrayal that has scarred her life, and somehow conflates it with the society’s betrayal of the Jews. “La puerta del agua,” Lorca’s polyvalent image, becomes for Loy an apt metaphor for the specular but impenetrable barrier she depicts between child and adult, a product of the child’s inability to effectively articulate her emotional needs, and desires

            Erik H. Erikson observes that the ritualization of experience, through play, practices, and religion, while strengthening one’s sense of identity may conversely result in the exclusion of others as belonging to a different species. In La porta dell’acqua the juxtaposition of “we” and “they” is very obvious, and undoubtedly performs this double function: it comforts the child while it insulates her from the outside and the others.

The child finds security and moments of happiness in her possessive love for her nanny. In the morning she wakes up waiting to be enveloped by her presence, and in the afternoon she returns with relief to the safety of her care. Each morning begins with the same rituals and each evening ends with the same prayer. When the world intrudes with its unpredictability and threatens the child with its randomness, the child expresses her emotional upheaval with nausea, vomit, and tantrums. Together, she and her nanny, seem to watch the outside world as if it were enclosed in an exotic aquarium: they watch from the window of the child’s room, from the car that delivers them to school and back home, from the park’s bench where the child plays alone.

The child’s enculturation is continually reinforced by the stories Anne Marie reads from Struwelpeter, a German children’s book: stories of unruly children justly punished for their transgressions, as the Jews were punished for their sin. The child seems to accept unquestionably the cruel destiny of the disgraced, “reprehensible” protagonists until she becomes enraged by Paulinchen’s horrible death, burned alive for playing with a matchstick.

            Erikson affirms that each stage of a child’s development is marked by crisis of a psychosocial nature when the emotional needs of the child collide against society’s wants. The child’s unexpected rebellion and refusal to hear again Paulinchen’s story signal her desire to be loved unconditionally. In the final pages of the book, desperate to hold the love of her nanny, the child asks Anne Marie to read again Paulinchen’s story and stoically accepts her fate without tantrums. But Paulinchen had by then become identified with Regina, the neighbor child, shunned and condemned for being Jewish. For the adult narrator the memory of her useless slavish surrender and acceptance of Paulinchen’s death becomes the symbol of her own guilt and complicity in Regina’s death.




Topic Area: