Subaltern Readers in Nineteenth-Century French and Italian Novels

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In this work I analyze the ways the figure of the fictional subaltern reader in Italian and French novels of the 19th century tends to dramatize her or his exclusion from the public sphere, while attempting, at the same time, to institute new forms of commonality with his or her reader. At a historical moment in which the reading of printed matter aims to constitute a “public sphere” (Immanuel Kant), a “common sense” (Antonio Gramsci), and an “imagined community” (Benedict Anderson), the fictionalized reader is often a critical figure whose role is to question the national community.

In the section devoted to the Italian novel, taking as my standpoint Vincenzo Cuoco’s Historical Essay on the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799 as well as his contributions to the formation of national public opinion, I outline a history of the Italian novel as the history of a conflict between different communities imagined by two readers of Cuoco: Alessandro Manzoni and Ippolito Nievo. In other words, I consider their novels as different responses to the problem raised and addressed for the first time by Cuoco: that of the emergence of the lower classes as a new historical subject. I argue, therefore, that the representation of a peasant woman reading I Promessi sposi, in Nievo’s novel Il conte pecoraio (1857), is an intentional reversal of the patronizing policies expressed by the party that was destined to prevail, during the Risorgimento and beyond, over the democrats.

On the French side, the brief appearance under the July Monarchy of a new kind of reading heroine, struggling for self-emancipation rather than lured by escapist temptations, bear witness to the women’s growing demands for citizenship rights and for a reconfiguration of the national community issued by the Revolution of 1789 and based on their exclusion. As the Jacobin Sylvain Maréchal had exemplified in 1801, women should not be allowed to read. Within this context, heroines such as Théophile Gauthier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin and, above all, Stendhal’s Lamiel, show not only the emancipatory power of reading, but a paradigmatic shift of focus from authority to readership. While impossible in the fragmented society issued by the French Revolution, Stendhal’s fictional readers still bear witness to a desire for a community in which the divide between author and reader would be overcome.






Di Lorenzo, Fiammetta (2019). Subaltern Readers in Nineteenth-Century French and Italian Novels. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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