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The Silent Duchess (1990)

by Dacia MARIANI

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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5581142,992 (3.53)36
Finalist for the International Man Booker Prize, winner of the Premio Campiello, short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award upon its first English-language publication in the UK, and published to critical acclaim in fourteen languages, this mesmerizing historical novel by one of Italy's premier women writers is available in the United States for the first time. The Silent Duchess is the story of Marianna Ucrìa, the victim of a mysterious childhood trauma that has left her deaf and mute, trapped in a world of silence. In luminous language that conveys both the keen visual sight and the deep human insight possessed by her remarkable main character, Dacia Maraini captures the splendor and the corruption of Marianna's world and the strength of her unbreakable spirit.… (more)

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Showing 5 of 5
Sometimes long winded. Never really a story but just a report. ( )
  kakadoo202 | May 9, 2018 |
pretty damn stupid! 2 AWARDS! ( )
  mahallett | Jun 19, 2016 |
Hugely evocative of its time and place in eighteenth century Sicily, [The Silent Duchess] paints a picture of a decadent and lethargic aristocracy to whom conspicuous consumption and display is far more important than the fact that their estates are going to rack and ruin. A world where beautiful daughters are married at twelve and are considered to be old maids at eighteen, while less favoured ones are destined for the convent despite the absence of any heightened religious conviction; where a woman can look old at twenty-three, worn out with successive pregnancies; and a woman of forty-five should be 'preparing her soul for the beyond rather than looking for new friendships'. Where superstitions are rife and children must seriously beware of dogs as 'their tails grow so long that they wrap themselves round people's waists like chimeras do and then, hey presto, they pierce you without ever realising what has happened to you.

This is the world of Marianna Ucria, youngest daughter of a Sicilian Duke; profoundly deaf and unable to speak, she communicates with her family by writing notes and despite her father telling her that she has been deaf since birth she retains residual memories of hearing sounds. Marianna is introduced at age seven, as she follows her father as he officiates at the execution of a brigand scarcely more than a child himself, to which she has been taken in the hope that the shock may jolt her out of her speechlessness. At age thirteen she is married to her uncle, which as her mother says, 'is a saving of fifteen thousand escudos' over the dowry that a convent would require to take her. The book follows Marianna through key periods of her life, as her children are born, are married and have children of their own. Separated from her society and family by her disability she reads widely and thinks for herself, which serves to set her even further apart.

Recommended to anyone who has enjoyed [The Leopard] although set a hundred years or so earlier [The Last Duchess] is without the same sense of the ending of a way of life. ( )
3 vote SandDune | Aug 26, 2012 |
In our modern mythology there is a semiotic staple for who the Italian woman is supposed to be. It is a socio-historical echo from Italy’s history, and somehow it has hung on. The image is of the dedicated wife and mother, mistress of the home, and like most myths of the contemporary day it is as true as it is false. It is true in as much as it is still a large cultural perception, it is false in that it does not neatly categorize all Italian woman, even more so in our contemporary world. Even more interesting is how this pattern is played on by the feminist revisions of the world. Strong female figures most likely existed in Italy throughout prefeminist history, as they did almost everywhere. This is an idea that contemporary feminist writers have often dealt with, showing how certain females of history wielded a certain degree of power despite the circumstances they lived under. In, for instance, Dacia Maraini’s novel The Silent Duchess, the very fact of the protagonists silence becomes in a sense ironic; by being forced to communicate through atypical means she is given a ‘voice’ when most of the other women in her society did not have one, and it is through this voice that Maraini ultimately inserts a feminist perspective, or revision, into an eighteenth century Sicily.
And it is certainly Sicily that is part of the heart of the story. As Anna Camaiti Hostert mentions in her afterward to The Silent Duchess “Maraini’s choice of eighteenth century Sicily as the setting for her novel has perhaps to do not only with her own origins but also with the fact that it was home to an extraordinarily arrogant and hypocritical aristocracy, remarkable even for that time, in the cruelty of its oppression of both the poor and women – a society so corrupt and unjust that someone like Marianna might be rendered silent in response.”(250) Understanding the social and historical setting of the work is a partial key to understanding Maraini’s novel, as it gives a great insight as to the society the novel is centered around. One of the reasons for this is, as expressed by Maria Ornella Marotti in the essay collection The Pleasure of Writing, that “La lunga vita di Marianna Ucria (The silent Duchess) can indeed be read as an attempt to create a cultural and social history of the Sicilian eighteenth century from the perspective of a female consciousness who is, at the same time, central and marginal, inside and outside language.” (165) The Silent Duchess takes place entirely in the island of Sicily, in southern Italy. Throughout its history Sicily has been under the rule of many different empires, always functioning as an extension of some other kingdom or culture. In other words, Sicily is a power struggle. Despite this conglomerating effect on the Sicilian culture, Sicily has always leaned towards the conservative side. We can see this at the onset of the novel itself, which takes place during the staunchly Catholic Spanish rule, when the protagonist is forced to witness the execution of a child, not many years older than herself. In this Sicily, power is always shown, one way or the other, and power games are both often and important. As pointed out by Maria Ornella Marotti “In the Sicilian society that Maraini describes, the arrogance of power is countered by the ability to survive expressed by both the plebian characters and the aristocratic protagonist.” (The Pleasure of Writing 165) Political power games in society are almost always about survivability of the players. In theory, those who have the power have the greatest chance of survival. But, as always happen when power is unevenly divided, there is a small revolt, often quelled, between the powerless and the powerful. In this regard, Maraini’s “project is informed by an awareness of not only the game and strategies of power at work in Sicilian society, but also the resistance opposed by the object of that power” (The Pleasure of Writing 165) It is in this that we can begin to see who, beyond the setting in general, can be considered an antagonist of the work. As once again expressed by Maria Ornella Marotti: “Throughout the novel, the character of the aristocratic Pietro, Marianna’s uncle and husband, accurately reflects some of the predominant traits of the Sicilian aristocracy” (The Pleasure of Writing 168), and it is these traits and tendencies, namely the traditional role and place of women in eighteenth century Sicilian society, that are most antagonistic to the protagonist. It is certainly without a doubt that the real antagonist is the society in which Marianna Ucria lives, but there are a plethora of characters throughout the work that unquestioningly uphold the society as something naturalistic despite the clear masculine bias that exists within it. Marianna’s ‘uncle husband’ is a staple of this, and “Pietro’s resistance to scholarly knowledge as well as his deep class consciousness are the common signs of an aristocratic class that kept Sicily in a state of feudal subjugation and cultural and economical backwardness at a time of social; change and economic growth almost everywhere else.” (Maria Ornella Marotti The Pleasure of Writing 168)
Anna Camaiti Hostert claims in her afterward to The Silent Duchess that it is “the ironic nature of silence, according to Maraini, is at the heart of The Silent Duchess.” (250) And if nothing else, it certainly cannot be disputed that silence is at the center of the argument. And like any other well written argument, Dacia Maraini concludes her work with what can be looked at as a restatement of a thesis she has proved throughout the work. In the final chapter of The Silent Duchess, Marianna Ucria receives a letter from Giacomo Camaleo, in which he states a found admiration for her “It is your disability that makes you unique, deprived of the privileges that you are nevertheless entitled to through your birthright, outside the stereotype of your social position, in spite of it being part of your very flesh” (Maraini, 231) This is not just reverence on Giacomo’s part, despite his having used the letter to ask for Marianna’s hand in marriage, it is a synthesis of what the novel has shown us of Marianna’s character. By all accounts Marianna’s life should not have been successful; she was deaf, she was mute, and on top of all that she was also a female living in a society where that combination of circumstances was not particularly worthy of much. It is for this reason that close to the beginning of the novel the protagonist is simply handed over as a bride to her uncle, the very man responsible for the her disability. The novel’s ironic turn comes in the fact that this very disability is what ultimately comes most to Marianna’s aide, as well as her most constant criticism. Throughout the work, she is criticized far and wide for being the eclectic woman hiding behind books from most people she must deal with, including members of her own family. Again, it is these people who are meant to emphasize the traditionality of the setting. At the end, Giacomo Camaleo is offered as something of an antithesis to this, going as far as stating that he is looking for “the companionship of a woman devoted to the use of her intelligence, something so very rare in our women, who are kept in a state of gallinaceous ignorance.” (Maraini, The Silent Duchess, 231)
Modern linguistic theory has proven pretty definitively that human beings think in the language they have learned (although this statement should not be read as strongly as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, an argument for another paper). In The Silent Duchess, due to Marianna’s bettering of herself through education she ultimately “rediscovers her own body, her own sexuality, she defies all restrictions placed on her by her class and her gender, leaving her home and her family and taking to the road with nobody but a young female servant for travelling companion” (Sharon Wood, Italian Women's Writing, 1860-1994, 229) something she could not have necessarily done had she not been clued into the fact that outside of the Sicily that was her home, there was an entire world which was not necessarily as restrictive as the one she knew. In this novel being literate is an ironic opposite of being silent, in that it gives the protagonist power, an unconventional voice, that is hardly silent, and certainly in this novel “Maraini returns to the question of silence and women’s culture”, (Sharon Wood, Italian Women's Writing, 1860-1994, 228) a topic she has touched upon before. In the story, all of the protagonist’s problems begin with her childhood rape, although we do not know this till close to the end of the book. A second irony can be seen in the fact that it is this very act that will remove Marianna from the common path that the other women around her are forced to take. It is somewhat important that the rape is not initially revealed, as “the initial violence of rape deprives Marianna of her voice, but the social context she inhabits steals her whole body.” (Sharon Wood, Italian Women's Writing, 1860-1994, 229) By knowing of her silence and not knowing the cause we as readers are allowed to focus on the inconsistencies of Marianna’s society without being fixated on her initial trauma. On top of that, the discovery of the cause of Marianna’s ailment allows us to know only at the end how repressive a society she lives in, a society in which “Rape as legitimate, sanctioned act is the signature of a family and social code which is dangerous to and negates women.” (Sharon Wood, Italian Women's Writing, 1860-1994, 229) We see rape fairly often in the course of the story. In fact, every sexual encounter between Marianna and her husband seem to be violent and forced. This is why readers are relived when Marianna begins to have sexual desires for Saro, and that these desires do not culminate into a violent relationship. Unfortunately, “Pietro is unable to conceive of gentler, more loving forms of sex than those neither he nor Marianna enjoys; he too is deprived of pleasure by an ideology which names the bodies of women as objects of his pleasure, not subjects of their own.” (Sharon Wood, Italian Women's Writing, 1860-1994, 230) It is in this respect that we can see how “patriarchy exacts a price of unhappiness for men, too. Pietro, too, lives dutifully within the constraints of the social order which have the rigidity suggested by his own name.” (Sharon Wood, Italian Women's Writing, 1860-1994, 230) Initially, despite her clear dissatisfaction with it, Marianna is accepting of Pietro’s nocturnal visits. But, in what is one of the last times it is mentioned, and likely one of the last times it happened, she does resist him, once she has acknowledged that it is satisfying to neither one of them. It is because she is a thinking person, that she draws this conclusion. She has actually spent time meditating about their personal situation.
Gradually throughout the novel, we see a change in how the silence is treated, “silence as traumatic, hysterical response gives way to silence as a sign, an expression and affirmation of the body as subject.” (Sharon Wood, Italian Women's Writing, 1860-1994, 229) Because people no longer expect words out of Marianna, her silence begins to take another meaning, and those she must deal with it all seem to react to it in different ways. We can somewhat begin to see this in Marianna’s ‘mindreading’. This is not some absurdist fantasy element of the novel, it merely expresses that though Marianna’s education she has mastered an extraordinary skill; non-verbal communication. It is at this point that Marianna becomes wholly “outside the symbolic order, unbound by the social laws of class and gender as she leaves her family and obligations to begin travelling.” (Sharon Wood, Italian Women's Writing, 1860-1994, 231) What can be seen in this is a complete liberation of the self, a typical woman, even one of her class, likely was not allowed to travel un chaperoned by a man of some kind in those days. She is strong and confident in the knowledge she has and her ability to make choices. All these factors combined leave Marianna stronger than ever, and in fact “the restoration of her ‘atrophied’ memory does not lead her, as in classical Freudian analysis, to be reinserted into social discourse” (Sharon Wood, Italian Women's Writing, 1860-1994, 231) as we would expect to happen, but rather it leads her to “real scandal, which is less the original complicitous outrage than for a woman to disregard conventions, to refuse her position of invisibility and inaudibility and to assert her own self freely and joyfully.” (Sharon Wood, Italian Women's Writing, 1860-1994, 231) By the end of the novel “Marianna is still marked, still ‘mutilated’, but it is a mutilation which now signifies not her suppression by but her distance from the family, social and cultural codes which sought to silence her.” (Sharon Wood, Italian Women's Writing, 1860-1994, 231) And this is the absolutely beautiful irony of the novel; by its end, the silent duchess cannot be silenced.
There is at the very conclusion of the novel an under rated beauty to the storyline. Marianna is no longer in Sicily at all, she is, independently, living life and all the risks it entails. Often, we heard in prefeminist rhetoric that female subjugation was for their own protection. At the end of the novel, quite briefly, we find Marianna robbed by highwaymen. It is not a spectacular event, nor does it reach catastrophic levels simply because it happened to a woman. It happened, and we can move on. The very last lines of the story, conclude with Marianna making some choices about her life. If you blink you miss it, Marianna has choices. This is a freedom, a privilege that her female contemporaries might not ever have known in their lifetime. It is, at the end of the day, the ultimate human right. The right to make a choice. This is why the right to vote was so fundamental in societies; because it is an expression of the right to choose what happens politically in one’s nation. By simply having a choice, Marianna has a great power. By simply exercising that choice, Marianna has a voice. She could even go back to Sicily and live a life of subjugation: it would still be her choice and her voice.
In the essay Italian “Difference Theory”: A New Cannon?, Renate Holub states of Dacia Maraini (amongst other feminist writers) that she makes it her “explicit business to wisely use disseminatory technologies for feminist purposes.” (Italian Women Writers from the Renaissance to the Present 45) I think this clearly shows in The Silent Duchess a novel in which “women emerge from silence and create their own cultural spaces within the dominant patriarchy.” (Sharon Wood, Italian Women's Writing, 1860-1994,217) Dacia Maraini is out to illustrate a woman’s struggle to liberate herself from the worst of situations, one involving rape. As commented by Sharron Wood “the novel is far from being an illustration of Andrea Dworkin’s thesis that all men are – potentially, at least, rapists; nor is it a representation of all women as passive sexual victims.” (Italian Women's Writing, 1860-1994, 231) This is clearly not the story of Marianna Ucria at all, it is a story about silence, and how through silence, a silence caused by the social circumstances a woman lived, the protagonist was able to live beyond the constraints of her society.


Marotti, Maria Ornella. Italian Women Writers from the Renaissance to the Present: Revising the Canon. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

i)Wood, Sharon. Italian Women's Writing, 1860-1994. London: Athlone, 1995.

ii)Marotti, Maria Ornella, and Gabriella Brooke. Gendering Italian Fiction: Feminist Revisions of Italian History. Madison [N.J.]: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999.

iii)Diaconescu-Blumenfeld, Rodica, and Ada Testaferri. The Pleasure of Writing Critical Essays on Dacia Maraini. Purdue studies in Romance literatures, v. 20. West Lafayette, Ind: Purdue University Press, 2000.

iv) Maraini, Dacia. The Silent Duchess. New York: Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1998.

v) Camaiti Hostert, Anna. Afterword. The Silent Duchess by Maraini, Dacia. New York: Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1998. ( )
  M.Campanella | Dec 13, 2008 |
Fiction, Sicily (Palermo and the surrounding countryside) in the 1700s, Aristocrat Marianna Ucria is both deaf and mute and communicates with others by writing, She manages, in small and subtle ways, to become an independent spirit despite a forced marriage to her uncle at age 13, First publication, Milano, Rizzoli, 1990, First publication in United Kingdom, London, Peter Owen press, 1992: "The Silent Duchess", translation Dick Kitto and Elspeth Spottiswood, Softback; First publication in Canada: Quarry Press, Kingston, Ontario, June 1992: "The Silent Duchess", in the translation of Kitto and Spottiswood, Hardcover; First publication in United States, Feminist press at The City University of New York, 1998 (but January 1, 1999): "The Silent Duchess" in the translation of Kitto and Spottiswood. Campiello Prize, 1990. Adrian Stivala describes the problems of English translation in "Dacia Maraini La Lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa, in Inglese" www.repubblicaletteraria.net/DaciaMaraini_traduzione.htm - 49k
Film, 1997, "Marianna Ucria", directed by Roberto Faenza, with Laura Betti, Roberto Herlitzka, Emmanuelle Laborit, Laura Morante, Philippe Noiret, Leopoldo Trieste; Production: Cecchi Gori Group Tiger Cinematografica, Italy -Arcturus Production, France ( )
  Voglioleggere | Mar 25, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
MARIANI, DaciaAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kienlechner, SabinaÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Un padre e una figlia eccoli lì: lui biondo, bello, sorridente, lei goffa, lentigginosa, spaventata
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Uscire da un libro è come uscire dal meglio di sé. Passare dagli archi soffici e ariosi della mente alle goffaggini di un corpo accattone sempre in cerca di qualcosa è comunque una resa. Lasciare persone note e care per ritrovare una se stessa che non ama, chiusa in una contabilità ridicola di giornate he si sommano a giornate come fossero indistinguibili.
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Finalist for the International Man Booker Prize, winner of the Premio Campiello, short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award upon its first English-language publication in the UK, and published to critical acclaim in fourteen languages, this mesmerizing historical novel by one of Italy's premier women writers is available in the United States for the first time. The Silent Duchess is the story of Marianna Ucrìa, the victim of a mysterious childhood trauma that has left her deaf and mute, trapped in a world of silence. In luminous language that conveys both the keen visual sight and the deep human insight possessed by her remarkable main character, Dacia Maraini captures the splendor and the corruption of Marianna's world and the strength of her unbreakable spirit.

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Geschichte einer sizilianischen Frau im 18. Jahrhundert, die im Alter von 4 Jahren taubstumm wurde.
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