Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.25

Kirk Ormand, Exchange and the Maiden: Marriage in Sophoclean Tragedy.   Austin:  University of Texas Press, 1999.  Pp. xi, 219.  ISBN 0-292-76051-5 (hb).  $40.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-292-76052-3 (pb).  $19.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Deborah Lyons, Johns Hopkins University (
Word count: 1780 words

Kirk Ormand has written the first full-scale exploration of marriage in Sophocles, and, in so doing, joins the ever-growing ranks of those examining the ideological context of marriage in Greek tragedy.1 Until now, most of these efforts have centered on Aeschylus and Euripides, and while Ormand acknowledges significant debts to his predecesssors (especially Wohl and Segal) in his treatment of the Trachiniai, his comprehensive discussion of the marriage theme in Sophocles breaks new ground. The book will most frequently be compared to those of Rabinowitz (Anxiety Veiled) and Wohl (Intimate Commerce). Its single-author scope more closely resembles the former, while its theoretical orientation has more in common with the latter. The treatment of the Trachiniai is especially strong and the chapter on the Ajax, a version of Ormand's award-winning 1996 article, will be required reading for anyone studying that play for some time to come.2

After an initial (and excellent) chapter on the "Semantics of Greek Marriage," which delineates the issues in a wider context, Ormand devotes one chapter each to Sophocles' Trachiniai, Electra, Antigone, Ajax, and Oidipous Tyrannos. There follow closing remarks on the exit of the silent character, which the author takes as a figure for the position of women both in Sophoclean tragedy and in Athenian society. The author strikes exactly the right note in seeing Sophocles neither as a subversive feminist ahead of his time, nor as an unthinking purveyor of his society's assumptions about women. Rather, Ormand's Sophocles is forever testing, exploring the contradictory nature of the institution of marriage and women's place within it.

Ormand makes use -- as did Wohl -- of the Althusserian notion of interpellation (or "hailing") to explain how ideologies constitute subjects, making of the young woman a wife, for example. Linking this concept to the Periclean citizenship laws, he argues that the construction of "subject positions" is altered by changes in the nature of citizenship. While it has been argued that the new emphasis on the status of the mothers of Athenians brought women new prestige within the family, Ormand sees a rather bleaker picture, in which women are left unfulfilled and silent, if not dead, in the face of the demands of family and state. In play after play, he shows how women's views of their situation in the oikos, the lineage, the marriage, etc. differ from those of the men who also inhabit these institutions. Sophoclean women, in Ormand's view, inevitably see themselves as more central to the institutions that shape their identities than do the men with whom they share the stage and their lives.

Ormand takes as his starting point that tragedy "performs its work" in part "through the representation of other ideological structures (marriage, funerals, class, etc.)," and furthermore takes marriage and tragedy to be "analogous ideological structures." He sees Sophocles as interested in representing the conflicts between marriage as creator of female subjectivity and as economic exchange between men. This conflict is perhaps clearest in the Trachiniai, where Ormand makes excellent use of Sedgwick's concept of male homosocial desire to explain how Deianeira can so thoroughly misunderstand her place in Heracles' world.3 As Ormand argues, she is not the subject of her marriage with Heracles, because for him, all relationships are between men. Emblematic of her inability to see that, for Heracles, relationships are between men is her inability to watch the combat between Heracles and Acheloos that will determine her fate.

This episode is appropriately central to Ormand's reading of Deianeira's tragedy. While I am in agreement with his overall treatment, I find one aspect of it puzzling. In his discussion of the first stasimon, in which the chorus reports on the combat that Deianeira could not bring herself to witness, he chooses -- for reasons that are not at all clear -- to preserve the transmitted reading μάτηρ at line 526. The most common solution, θατήρ, while not solving all textual problems, makes far more sense. The chorus cannot be speaking of themselves as mothers when D. has already made much of their virginal inexperience (line 143ff.). The thematic importance of mothers and the appearance of the word a few lines later at 529, which Ormand adduces in support of his reading, seem to serve better to explain a spurious introduction of the word μάτηρ at line 526. Here, as at a few other places in the book, one wishes for more explanation of interpretative choices.

A form of marriage to which Ormand has frequent recourse is that of the epiklerate. For him, Electra, Antigone, and even Jocasta take on at least some features of the epikleros. Although at times strained, this line of argument opens up the issue of the ambiguous relationship of women to their own patriline in many of these plays. Like Deianeira, who mistakenly imagines herself starring in her own marriage, Electra sees herself as central to the survival of her father's oikos, of which for a time she seems to be an epikleros. With the arrival of Orestes, however, her role is eclipsed and the play ends with the ambiguities of her position unresolved. Some of the author's claims at this point are not sufficiently fleshed out, for example that Orestes' arrival severs her connection with her father's oikos and that her position "dramatizes the ideological paradox of citizenship for the Athenian woman (75)".

Ormand's idea that Antigone turns Creon's idea of the interchangeability of wives ("there are other fields to plough") against him is interesting as partial explanation of her famous speech in which she says that a husband or child is replaceable whereas a brother is not. Throughout the discussion of this play, Antigone's relationship to her bloodline and the conflicting claims of endogamy and exogamy play a central role. Two problems with the discussion present themselves, however. The author's insistance on Antigone as a sexual threat to good order is odd for this least erotic of all heroines. It is Creon who insists on his son's attachment to her in crudely erotic terms, while Haemon seems to be motivated by something more like loyalty or affection. Secondly, the terms exogamy and endogamy are made a mockery of in the complicated genealogy of Oidipous' offspring. Ormand is aware of this but makes far less use of it than he might. Antigone is of course related to Creon on both sides, and her marriage is doubly endogamous. Attachment to her natal family is central to her character, but her inability to "cross over to another oikos" (96), wonderfully appropriate as it is, perhaps says as much about her family situation as it does about Antigone herself.

In general, these kinship terms are used a bit impressionistically throughout. (Is Hyllus' marriage to Iole really an example of endogamy? -- this seems to be confusing her physical location with her lineage. Even a prior erotic attachment to Dad doesn't turn her into kin.) And since Athenian descent is bilateral (although it gives priority to males and to the paternal line), Antigone's insistence that kinship includes the maternal line is not as anomalous as Ormand suggests.

The chapter on the Ajax is, as I have indicated, the strongest in the book and presents a thoroughly original approach to the play and in particular to the character of Tecmessa. Ormand brilliantly teases out her rhetorical cleverness in invoking the model of Andromache as a way to improve her own ambiguous position as the spear-prize of Ajax. He also goes a long way toward explaining her strange silence at the end of the play. Why does she not lament her fallen man? Having established herself as Ajax' wife, she experiences the lot of wives: "We have seen before that women, once married, tend to lose the very subjectivity that their new position seems to confer on them" (118). For the author, her silence also reflects Athenian ambivalence about women's role in funerary ritual.

So far so good, but to this reader, what follows overstates the case: "by remaining silent, she adheres to the letter of the fifth-century law." This seems a misunderstanding of the Solonian reforms -- to the extent of our knowledge about them. Plutarch tells us of the prohibitions against set laments (threnoi) by professionals, participation by relatives beyond the limit of cousin's children, and lamentation of other dead besides those being buried. While this certainly represented a serious curtailment of women's role in lament, there is no evidence that a wife would be excluded from lamenting her own husband at the time of burial. Thus Ormand's contention that Tecmessa by not lamenting is acting according to the law and showing herself to be a true wife in the best Athenian tradition does not entirely hold up.

Even more important for Ormand's interpretations than Solon's funerary reforms are the Periclean citizenship laws of the mid-fifth century. He argues that even the citizenship legislation, which some see as an occasion for the increased prestige of Athenian women, resulted instead in foreclosed possibilities for them. One wonders whether he does not look ahead to find a third largely unstated point of reference in Pericles' advice to the women of Athens in the funeral oration, as reported (and no doubt "improved") by Thucydides. This text, which appears only in a single footnote, seems at times to animate Ormand's take on Periclean reforms and their impact on women. Indeed, Pericles' remarks on the kleos of women dovetail nicely with Ajax's gnomic statement that "silence brings decoration to a woman" (line 293, see p.111).

The treatment of Oidipous Tyrannos, as the author explains, takes a different tack from what precedes it. Here marriage is not a socially constructed phenomenon but a given, while biological identity is suddenly up for grabs. The treatment of the central role of misdirection in this play, and the centrality of Jokaste to all the problematic relationships among men, is excellent and there is much of interest in this chapter on this most difficult of ancient tragedies. A number of less than fully worked out suggestions are floated towards the end: a parody of marriage between Creon and Oidipous, Jocasta as epikleros, and finally the notion that at her death she laments the future children she will not live to bear. The lines in question, 1242-7, seem clearly to indicate not fondness for the experience of bearing Oidipous and the wish to have more children but awareness of the terrible consequences of that birth for all concerned.

That I record these disagreements should be taken as a tribute to the stimulating nature of this provocative book. Ormand's treatment of gender issues in Sophocles will be of continuing interest to scholars of tragedy and gender ideology in ancient Greece.


1.   To list only a few in alphabetical order: Nancy Rabinowitz, Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic in Women, Ithaca 1993; Richard Seaford, "Wedding Ritual and Textual Criticism in Sophocles' 'Women of Trachis'," Hermes 114 (1986) 50-59 and other articles; Charles Segal, Tragedy and Civilization, Cambridge 1981; Sophocles' Tragic World, Cambridge 1995 and other articles; Victoria Wohl, Intimate Commerce, Austin 1998; Froma Zeitlin, "The Politics of Eros in the Danaid Trilogy of Aeschylus," in R. Hexter and D. Selden, Innovations of Antiquity, New York 1992, as well as numerous other articles. In the interest of full disclosure I also note my own work in progress: Dangerous Gifts: Ideologies of Marriage and Exchange in Greek Myth and Tragedy.
2.   "Silent by Convention?: Sophocles' Tekmessa," AJP 117 (1996) 37-64 was awarded the Gildersleeve Prize for the best article published in that journal in 1996.
3.   Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, New York 1985.

Read Latest
Index for 2000
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:26:41, Friday, 03 April 2009