Pelagia is a unique character in a number of ways: she's one of only a handful of female characters mentioned in the novel at all, and is also the only woman who, in Dr. Iannis's words, has learned how to think. Because of this, it's worth examining where women in general exist in the culture of Cephalonia, how Pelagia flouts these conventions, and what the consequences of doing so are. Ultimately, the novel suggests that while Pelagia initially sees her status as a liberated and educated woman as something that will surely allow her to succeed in a man's world, the opposite ends up being true: she's punished over and over again for violating social mores and is ultimately denied both the milestones of traditional womanhood and the freedom of moving through the world as a man might.
Dr. Iannis justifies Pelagia's unconventional upbringing by consistently citing the death of his wife, Pelagia's mother. His reasoning is twofold: because his wife was never able to give him a son, he feels compelled to raise Pelagia as one, while also citing the fact that his wife wasn't around to teach Pelagia how to be a proper woman according to Greek standards. This means that Pelagia's skillset is rich and varied, and overwhelmingly includes skills considered masculine. While Pelagia did learn how to cook, a traditionally female task, she can also speak Italian, argue about political theory, and read and write in both Greek and Italian. Pelagia finds herself caught between what seem like two different worlds when she and Mandras, a local Greek boy, get engaged right before the start of the war. She not-so-secretly wants to be a doctor, a profession that's entirely off-limits to her as a woman, and she also wants to create the dowry that her father won't give her. However, she's barely proficient at any kind of needlework or crochet, and so her bedspread never gets any bigger on account of her picking it out and starting over. In other words, she feels as though her dreams of being a doctor are ending, yet she's unable to properly throw herself into being a wife instead.
Dr. Iannis understands something that Pelagia doesn't as she worries over her bedspread: marrying Mandras is a bad idea for women like Pelagia, who want to be more than a wife. He explains to the reader that Greek culture dictates that men love their mothers forever and their wives for about six months before hating them. Greek society at large also hates widows, which is why women hope to have sons--their sons have to love them, even when society doesn't. This is one of the reasons why Pelagia so easily falls in love with Corelli when he arrives to live in their house: he is much like Dr. Iannis and sees no problems with women who know how to think. As Pelagia's loyalties shift and she breaks off her engagement with Mandras, she recognizes that because Corelli is Italian, he's capable of offering her a life in which she will be freer to pursue her passion to become a doctor and be a wife.
However, that idealized vision of Pelagia's future turns out to be yet another dream lost to the war, as (as far as Pelagia knows until the very end of the novel) Corelli doesn't return for her. Instead, after Dr. Iannis is taken by the Greek communists, Pelagia attempts to step into his shoes as the local doctor, only to discover that when she practices medicine as he did (that is, without formal training or licensure), others accuse her of witchcraft. After Mandras returns and tries to rape her, Mandras's mother, Drosoula, disowns him and moves in with Pelagia. The two adopt an abandoned baby they name Antonia, and in doing so form a family unit consisting only of women until Antonia marries and, in her thirties, gives birth to a baby boy they decide to name Iannis after the late Dr. Iannis.
Pelagia is never able to become a doctor, and she's also denied all the trappings of traditional womanhood. She ends the novel an unmarried, virgin grandmother, and her finished bedspread, which she finally decided would be for her bed with Corelli, was buried in the great earthquake of 1953. However, the happiness and sense of purpose that Pelagia does eventually feel within her chosen family suggests that family doesn't have to mean marriage or even biological children. Similarly, success doesn't have to mean making it in a man's world. Rather, it's possible that chosen family has the power to make up for unrealized dreams, and one can experience success vicariously by teaching one’s daughters to think, thereby giving them the tools to realize their dreams.
Family, Opportunity, and Gender Dynamics ThemeTracker
Family, Opportunity, and Gender Dynamics Quotes in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
For Lemoni there would be no freedom until widowhood, which was precisely the time when the community would turn against her, as though she had no right to outlive a husband, as though he had died only because of his wife's negligence. This was why one had to have sons; it was the only insurance against an indigent and terrifying old age.
It occurred to Pelagia that perhaps the same scene had been enacted generation after generation since Mycenean times; perhaps in the time of Odysseus there had been young girls like herself who had gone to the sea in order to spy on the nakedness of those they loved. She shivered at the thought of such a melting into history.
As she reached for it she realized for the first time, and with a small shock, that she had learned enough from her father over the years to become a doctor herself. If there was such a thing as a doctor who was also a woman. She toyed with the idea, and then went to look for a paintbrush, as though this action could cancel the uncomfortable sensation of having been born into the wrong world.
"I wish that you will have children together, and I wish that once or twice you will tell them about their Uncle Carlo that they never saw."
"You must allow Pelagia to become a doctor. She is not only my daughter. She is, since I have no son, the nearest to a son that I have fathered. She must have a son's prerogatives, because she will continue my life when I am gone. I have not brought her up to be a domestic slave, for the simple reason that such company would have been tedious in the absence of a son."