Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.09.42

Gabriele Stein, Mutter - Tochter - Geliebte. Weibliche Rollenkonflikte bei Ovid. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 204.   München, Leipzig:  K.G. Saur, 2004.  Pp. 214.  ISBN 3-598-77816-3.  €82.00.  

Reviewed by Hendrik Müller-Reineke, St. John's College, Oxford (
Word count: 1044 words

One emphasis of Ovidian scholarship in recent years has been the changed relation between the individual and the state or society in the Augustan period which had an enormous influence on the literary production. Ovid, especially, questions traditional values as well as literary traditions in his poetry and is the first classical author to find woman the ideal character of conflict between private life and the values and expectations of society. Gabriele Stein in her book Mutter - Tochter - Geliebte, which is the revised version of her doctoral dissertation at Hamburg University, has analysed some of these female role-conflicts in detail and points out in which way Ovid depicts them differently from all his dramatic and epic predecessors.

The book begins with a short introduction which gives a brief overview of the different strands of Ovidian scholarship in recent decades, followed by an overview of the following chapters. Stein starts with a detailed interpretation of Hypermnestra in Heroides 14 and then compares her with four female figures in the Metamorphoses who are also in a concrete role-conflict between two persons, either between father and lover or between siblings and one's own child: Medea (Met. 7.1-158), Scylla (Met. 8.6-151), Procne (Met. 6.412-674) and Althaea (Met. 8.260-546). In analysing these female figures Stein wants to find out whether the mythological heroines in the epic Metamorphoses act differently from those of the more elegiac Heroides. The central question behind her analysis is whether the epic heroines stick to their conventional "epic" role, which is more or less fixed by the Sophoclean Antigone, or if Ovid gives the women enough space to act more freely and not according to the expectations of society, and of course his readers. Stein's thesis is that the core of the Metamorphoses is the conflict between individual and society.

In the first chapter Stein very convincingly portrays Heroides 14 as a document of doubt. Hypermnestra is constantly torn between her father Danaus and her lover Lynceus. Although she falls in love with Lynceus, whom she should actually kill, and helps him to escape, thereby risking not only her relationship with her father but also her own status, in the end Hypermnestra remains within the boundaries of her own world and cannot shake off her feelings of commitment and responsibility. In other words, Hypermnestra is allowed only one short elegiac night of love, such are the strict epic rules. Only by comparison with the mythic Io can she get rid of her epic mask for a while and reveal her real elegiac self to her father.

This analysis of Hypermnestra sets the pattern for the following interpretations of corresponding passages in the Metamorphoses. While Ovid's Medea apparently experiences a role-conflict between mother and lover and pretends to be irresistibly in love with Iason in order to follow her own egomania, Scylla is, according to Stein, a quite modern character who takes a step farther than Hypermnestra. Not only does she fall in love with her father's enemy Minos and betray her family and home, but as soon as she notices that she has made a wrong decision and that the man of her dreams is quite different from what she expected and wants to abandon her, she flies into a rage and tries to escape the narrowness of her fate through her metamorphosis.

In contrast to the other female figures Procne completes the change from daughter to wife in total agreement with her father. Still, her story, like that of Itys, Tereus, Philomela, and Pandion, is "unter allen in den Metamorphosen erzählten mythischen Begebenheiten diejenige, in der die Rollendefinitionen, Identitäten und wechselseitigen Beziehungen sämtlicher Personen untereinander mit einer an Shakespears 'King Lear' gemahnenden Gründlichkeit auf das nachhaltigste und vollständigste zerstört und pervertiert werden." Stein points out how in this myth Ovid contrasts individual efforts, even to the last deadly consequence, with the rules of a society determined by speechlessness and the exclusion of strangers and the feminine.

The last female figure Stein analyses is Althaea, who unlike the others is older and more experienced. In her case it is the tragic love she feels for her son Meleager which leads her to the fatal decision to kill him and herself in order to overcome his quite natural rejection. Althaea in perversion of her role as a mother proves that she has the power to give not only birth but also death to her son.

In the final chapter Stein concludes that it is not easy to draw a general conclusion about female role-conflicts in the Heroides and Metamorphoses, but that what makes Ovid so special is that he and his heroines do not stick to the normative system of the epic genre. Rather, the epic system becomes for them an obstacle which one has to outwit. Women in Ovid have much more freedom to act than those in the epics of Virgil or Apollonius Rhodius. Consequently, the reader is no longer confronted with simple stereotypes, but can easily detect, underneath the epic mask, individual and unpredictable fates, which the reader may have compassion for or even identify with. Differently from his predecessors Ovid succeeds in making his mythological figures much more human and ordinary.

Gabriele Stein has produced an interesting study which combines different influences of Ovidian scholarship from gender studies to poetological interpretations. In her interpretation of individual passages she has revealed a number of original and inspiring thoughts. The conclusion, however, remains fragmentary and leaves the reader somewhat unsatisfied. Stein also fails to return to her interesting thesis about the intention of the Metamorphoses mentioned in the introduction (p. 19) and leaves this question unanswered.

Obviously the recent article by Anja Bettenworth, "Ovid, Apollonius and Sappho: Die Liebessymptomatik der Medea in Ov. Met. 7, 74-88," in Philologus 147 (2003), 101-113, was published to late for Stein to take notice. There are also some minor slips in the appendix: Paris1958 (p.193) is printed without space; litterary study (p.201) is misspelled. But they do not lessen the impression of a solid and learned study about one of classical literature's most fascinating authors, who like no other is able to link his own literary tradition with new developments of his own time and due to this modernity has proven influential until our own times.

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