BMCR 2001.12.18

Response: Wheeler on Smith on Wheeler

Response to 2001.11.23

Response by

I am grateful for the recent positive review of Narrative Dynamics in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (BMCR 2001.11.23) but am concerned to correct a selection of points made about the book’s contents and purpose and thereby to help the BMCR readership better understand what is at stake in my work.

1. The review sums up the book as follows: “Narrative Dynamics offers a structural interpretation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses along the lines of Walther Ludwig (1965) or, more recently, Ernst Schmidt (1991).”

This statement is misleading in two ways. First, the book does not pursue structural analysis of the type offered by Ludwig (1965) or, for that matter, by Otis (1970). In fact, the only place in which structure per se is discussed is in the “Introduction” where I attempt to distinguish my study of narrative dynamics from studies of structure such as Ludwig’s and Otis’s. On p. 4, I expressly state: “This study seeks to engage with the dynamics of narrative continuation in the Metamorphoses. Rather than focus on the final product, the structural organization of the poem as a whole, I will ask how the poem keeps going and how it ends.” Hence the book is titled Narrative Dynamics and not Narrative Structure. The second way in which the reviewer’s statement is misleading is that it groups Schmidt (1991) with Ludwig (1965). Schmidt distances himself from structural analyses such as Ludwig’s and Otis’s and seeks to understand the Metamorphoses in temporal terms, drawing an analogy with the formal dynamic development of a symphony. Schmidt (1991) and Narrative Dynamics share a common premise in that each is concerned with how the Metamorphoses unfolds in time. The reviewer thus collapses the critical distinction made by Schmidt and myself between spatial and temporal analyses of the poem’s coherence. It may be legitimate to deconstruct this distinction, but it is another thing not to observe that it has been made.

2. The review states a little later: “Following the work of Ernst Schmidt…, W. advances a guiding principle of interpretation generally derived from musical theory, a method that he expounds in less than a page (5) W. claims to go beyond Schmidt: ‘Schmidt underestimates the potential for narrative continuity…’ (5). Yet W.’s cursory explanation of method fails to go very far, and he might have considered works such as that of Mauriz Schuster, who applied music theory to the structural studies of Tibullus.”

Neither on the page cited nor elsewhere do I state that my method of interpretation is generally derived from musical theory. Nor do I follow Schmidt’s method of reading the Metamorphoses in terms of hearing a symphony. My approach could be called “narratological,” but the term that I use is “intratextual” (6). Although it is not explicitly stated in the book, I developed my method independently of Schmidt’s, which was not yet available to me (cf. my Princeton dissertation “Repetition, Continuity, and Closure in Ovid’s Metamorphoses” completed Fall 1991). Moreover, I make it perfectly clear on p. 4 n. 24 that the critical impulse for my inquiry comes from Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s book on poetic closure (1968). In introducing this approach, I do not claim to go beyond Schmidt’s. Rather, I seek to distinguish it from his, which was one of the conditions for publication of the book set by the editors of the monograph series Classica Monacensia. Accordingly, I draw a distinction between thematic and narrative continuity. Schmidt is interested in the thematic continuity of the Metamorphoses, that is, the dynamic grouping of stories by theme and the cyclical development of themes. Conversely, he categorically denies that there is narrative or temporal continuity between episodes in the Metamorphoses; in other words, the poem consists of narratively discrete episodes of metamorphosis, like pictures in a gallery, which exemplify the shifting thematic emphases of the poem. One of the aims of my book, in contrast to Schmidt’s, is to point out and interpret the evidence for narrative continuity between episodes, that is, how two or more episodes with the same (or similar) characters form a continuous narrative sequence like acts in a drama. As for expounding method, I discuss the key terms of my study (repetition, narrative continuity, and closure) briefly in the “Introduction” and explain them more fully in the introductions to chapter 1 (“Repetition”), chapter 2 (“Narrative Continuity”), and chapter 4 (“Endings”). The review takes little notice of these methodological sections of the book. Based on what has been said, I leave it to the reader to decide whether Narrative Dynamics would have benefited from Schuster’s application of musical theory to structural studies of Tibullus.

3. The review states: “Though W. sometimes mordantly criticizes Brooks Otis, whose work (Ovid as an Epic Poet) W. calls ‘block-like’ and ‘too reductive’ (48), his debt to Otis is nevertheless significant.”

I do not mordantly criticize Brooks Otis nor do I call his book (1970) “block-like” and “too reductive”. The quoted phrases refer specifically to Otis’s structural plan, which divides the Metamorphoses into four major thematic sections (or blocks): divine amor, divine ira, the pathos of human love, and Rome and the deified ruler. “Block-like” was not meant to be derogatory but descriptive in a structural sense. To call this type of thematic analysis “too reductive” is not mordant criticism, but a statement of communis opinio that can be found in the reviews of the first edition of Otis’s book (1966). In response to his critics, Otis revised his book, conceded the limitations of his structural approach, and proposed a more flexible model for understanding thematic change in the Metamorphoses (317). On p. 49, I express my agreement with Otis’s modified stance, while distinguishing my own approach from his.

4. The reviewer states: “In the first chapter, W. lays out a kind of “chaos theory” for the opening of the poem, suggesting that in the midst of the unpredictability of chaos Ovid is able to reproduce the cyclical nature of myth as it gradually moves toward history.”

To be clear, I do not use the term “chaos theory” nor I do propagate it. The first chapter introduces repetition as a principle of continuation in the Metamorphoses, with special attention to the repetitive characteristics of chaos. The repetition of chaos does not, on my reading, suggest a gradual movement of cyclical myth toward history. Repetition in its purest sense generates a list or catalog and is essentially atemporal. It is the second narrative dynamic (see below) that enables the poem to develop temporally.

5. The reviewer states: “In the second chapter, W. lays the groundwork for this idea that the gods, particularly Jupiter and Juno, are attitudinally transformed, an argument worthy of consideration.”

This is not the argument of the second chapter, but perhaps a more fitting description of the argument in the third chapter (although I do not use the formulation “attitudinally transformed”). The chapter is concerned with the second narrative dynamic of the Metamorphoses, which I call, for want of a better term, “narrative continuity.” This is to be understood as the narrative continuation of episodes in the poem through a series of sequels: e.g. Apollo kills Python, quarrels with Cupid, and then falls in love with Daphne. A convenient summary of the main points of the second chapter can be found on p. 69.

6. The review continues: “After moving past a workmanlike review of scholarship, W. develops his argument in this and throughout the next chapter by claiming that, while repeated patterns of narrative can occur in succession, they also frequently overlap with other examples of narrative sequences in the poem. This approach, W. concedes, harks back to the important work of Robert Coleman…; yet W. goes well beyond Coleman’s briefer treatment.”

The “workmanlike review of scholarship” that is moved past (49-54) is the point where the critical term “narrative continuity” is defined and methodologically located in the scholarly debate about the Metamorphoses. Here, I take pains to distinguish my approach to continuity from Coleman’s (1971), which, like Otis’s and Schmidt’s, identifies “thematic” similarity (which is “repetition” in my terms). I do not continue Coleman’s treatment nor do I go beyond it.

7. The review states: “In the final chapter, fittingly enough entitled “Endings,” W. seeks to show that Ovid defers the closure of the Metamorphoses because it is a carmen perpetuum…. The fifteenth book reluctantly provides the poem with a kind of uncomfortable ending…”

The purpose of the last chapter is quite the opposite: it is to show how Ovid achieves closure in a poem whose forces of continuation militate against the sense of an ending. There has been a recent tendency to read the ending of the Metamorphoses as open, an option that is made available by the speech of Pythagoras. I acknowledge the availability of aperture but argue that Ovid’s repetition of closural gestures at the end of the poem marks a significant change from the rest of the poem and prepares the audience for the poem’s cessation.

8. The review states: “[T]hough W.’s prose style is most pleasingly clear, there are occasional exceptions, e.g. incorrect agreement, ‘When he transforms himself into a bull to seduce Europa, Ovid…’ (90) and the odd turn of phrase, ‘Juno’s wrath became angry.’ But such infelicities are few and perhaps should have been caught by a copy editor.”

Quoted out of context, the first exception to pleasingly clear prose style is funny, but the preceding sentences make it clear that “he” and “himself” refer back to Jupiter and not forward to Ovid. I would not call this incorrect agreement but a mild case of pronominal ambiguity. I am grateful to the reviewer for pointing out the second example, which is clearly not intentional but a word processing error (read: “Juno became angry”). There is no sense in laying the blame for such infelicities at the feet of a copy-editor, because there wasn’t one. I apologize for all errors and beg the reader’s indulgence.


Coleman, R. (1971). “Structure and Intention in Ovid’s Metamorphoses” CQ 21:461-77.

Ludwig, W. (1965). Struktur und Einheit der Metamorphosen Ovids. Berlin.

Otis, B. (1970). Ovid as Epic Poet. 2nd ed. Cambridge (1st ed. 1966).

Smith, B. H. (1968). Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End. Chicago.

Schmidt, E. A. (1991). Ovids poetische Menschenwelt: Die Metamorphosen als Metapher und Symphonie. Heidelberg.