Protagonists play a significant role in developing the themes of novels. In My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, they are Lila Cerullo, the narrator Elena. These characters drive the action, and their fate matters most. They are equally central to the author’s plot of the story. Firstly, their connection and support of each other, albeit amid competition for attention and excellence, affirms their position as the leading characters in the novel. However, their fate differs as Elena can afford education while Lila cannot, causing them to chart different career paths, an aspect that develops the theme of poverty versus wealth. In addition, Lila is beautiful, but Elena is prettier, hence the emergence of the theme of beauty versus brains. Further, as the two grow up, they desire to be successful and leave the area, which they consider backward, leading to the theme of teen perceptions about success. Hence, the role of protagonists in this fiction is to develop themes.
The Theme of Poverty versus Wealth
Wealth and poverty are two competing elements. Usually, poor people want to become rich, while the rich strive to maintain their status (Koo et al., 2022). In the novel, Elena and Lila represent the two worlds, making the primary drivers of the theme of poverty versus wealth. Nonetheless, despite their economic disparities, the two remain true friends, encouraging each other with kind words, which is typical of the behaviors of protagonists of fiction novels. At one point, Lila responds to Elena, imploring her that “you are my brilliant friend; you have to be the best of all, boys and girls” (Ferrante, 2012, p.37).In real life, being an enemy and a friend simultaneously is unrealistic. Using this style, the author tries to convince the readers that not all enmities are harmful, and jealousy between friends is not enmity. Lila and Elena’s relationship exemplify a positive competition between the rich and the poor.
Furthermore, the theme shows the power of determination among the rich and poor. In fictional novels, it is understandable for characters from both sides of the economic divide to support each other unconditionally, a rare phenomenon in real life. Ferrante (2012) creates a scenario where Lila, a brilliant girl, cannot proceed with her education, yet her wealthy friend Elena who can afford education still seeks assistance from her. The approach shows a powerful sense of determination Elena has to succeed in education and leave the region. To her, academic success is her ticket out of the neighborhood she abhors. Similarly, Lila resorts to shoemaking under the Cerrulo brand name (Ferrante, 2012). Her strategy affirms the adage that when one door closes, another opens; she does not give up hope despite dropping out of school. Education on the part of Elena and business on Lila’s part is the primary means of succeeding under the prevailing circumstances.
The Theme of Beauty versus Brains
In the early stages of life, education is the most important for the two protagonists, Lila and Elena. Ferrante (2012) reveals that while Elena is a good student, Lila is brighter. Nevertheless, despite being the best academically, Lila cannot continue her education, which eliminates the competition and leaves Elena alone. The scenario changes when Elena reaches high school going age when she gets a promotion and decides to resume education, reintroducing the competition between the two. In this instance, beauty emerges since they are now grown-ups, and their beauty is evident. Ferrante (2012) portrays Elena as an honored student and Lila as the prettiest girl, introducing the theme of beauty versus brains. From the novel, it is clear that no protagonist can simultaneously have academic excellence and beauty.
Additionally, what ensues as they become teenagers and chart their paths reveals significant aspects of the theme of beauty versus brains. For example, Elena’s innovativeness when she teams up with her brother to start a shoemaking business affirms her better brain capacity (Ferrante, 2012). She never gives up under strenuous situations proving that people with better intellect always find ways to overcome their challenges. On the other hand, being the prettiest girl, Lila is the focus of most young men in the neighborhood, proving that beautiful girls are likelier to flirt with men than their less attractive peers (Ferrante, 2012). The men eyeing Lila introduce an exciting twist to the plot because it is through them that aspect of beauty develops. Arguably, the two protagonists exemplify the competition between beauty and brains in their approach to life, academic work, and relationships with young men in the neighborhood.
Teen Perceptions of Success
One issue that emerges from the two protagonists’ connection to their backgrounds is that successful people do not live in backward neighborhoods. According to Lila and Elena, the only way out of the region is to excel in education (Ferrante, 2012). such perceptions are not unique to the two but are applicable in real-life situations. Generally, school-going teenagers believe that education leverages them against the rest of the uneducated population, creating opportunities that guarantee success and possible relocation to better neighborhoods. Research also shows that education is the primary contributor to the quality of life and well-being (Curl & Clark, 2019). Hence, Lila and Elena’s perception of education as their way out of the region is justifiable.
In conclusion, as the protagonists of the fiction novel My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Lila, and Elena helps the author develop the themes of poverty versus wealth, beauty versus brains, and the teen perception of success. Lila represents the poor, while Elena portrays the wealthy population. Lila’s financial challenge exemplifies the aspect of poverty, while Elena’s ability to afford education represents the wealth in society. Nonetheless, despite these differences, these two characters maintain a healthy relationship, affirming that economic conditions cannot measure the health of a relationship. Similarly, while Elena is the brightest academically, Lila is the prettiest, hence the theme of beauty versus brains. Finally, by strategizing to work hard in school as a ticket out of their backward neighborhood, these two protagonists confirm that teenagers believe education is the only pathway to success.
Curl, A., & Clark, J. (2019). Health, Wellbeing, and Quality of Life. Transport Matters, pp. 177–204. https://doi.org/10.1332/policypress/9781447329558.003.0008
Ferrante, E. (2012). My brilliant friend (Vol. 1). Europa Editions UK.
Koo, H. J., Piff, P. K., & Shariff, A. F. (2022). If I could do it, so can they: Among the rich, those with humbler origins are less sensitive to the difficulties of the poor. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 14(3), 333–341. https://doi.org/10.1177/19485506221098921