The Debate over Italy

  • Robert Casillo
Part of the Italian and Italian American Studies book series (IIAS)


The Italy of Corinne is in many ways a personal utopia satisfying Staël’s desire for a passionate and self-expressive existence beyond the constraints of the bourgeois North.Madelyn Gutwirth describes it as a “place beyond time,” a haven of leisure, innocence, and freedom.1 According to Maura O’Connor, the novel’s portrayal of Italy as a place where one can be true to oneself became a standard for Romantic writers.2 Staël would thus seem to have created a feminist version of Stendhal’s identification of Italy as an earthly (and erotic) paradise. Yet just as some critics overemphasize the unreality of Stendhal’s Italy, failing to appreciate his understanding of Italian life, so Gutwirth mistakenly claims that the pronounced element of fantasy in Corinne devalues it as social, political, and cultural commentary.3 This is not to deny that the novel, as Marie-Claire Vallois observes, contains many features that belong generically to the fantastic, and that it depicts Italy as the land of the “imaginary,” a term with Lacanian associations. But Vallois also notes that Staël’s novel does not seem to privilege fiction over history; as Staël herself remarked, it was to serve as a frame for a trip to Italy, thus reversing the usual relation between fiction and its subject matter.4 That Corinne seeks to define an actual or “real” Italy is suggested by the fact that it was long classified in the catalogue of the Bibliothèque Nationale not as a novel but as a study of Italy.5 Even Italian critics have found that Staël often penetrates Italian realities.6 Moreover, to describe Staël’s Italy as a utopia is to imply falsely that she embraces all things Italian, for the novel contains harsh criticisms of Italy which she almost certainly accepted. In assessing Corinne one needs to avoid reductiveness: Gutwirth’s claim that Corinne’s portrait of Italy completely reverses that presented in On Literature, or that of Franco Simone, who contends that On Literature and Corinne evaluate Italian literature in essentially the same way, and that the novel aims to demonstrate the clear superiority of the North.7 The latter judgment seems unlikely given Staël’s emotional investment in her heroine. If anything, Corinne needs to be understood dialectically or rather dialogically in the Bakhtinian sense, as a debate between North and South, and above all as an expression of the author’s newly discovered ambivalence toward these cultural spheres.


National Capital Italian Woman Italian Language Social Discipline Italian Male 
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© Robert Casillo 2006

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  • Robert Casillo

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