BMCR 2004.05.05

Readers and Writers in Ovid’s Heroides. Transgressions of Genre and Gender

, Readers and writers in Ovid's Heroides : transgressions of genre and gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. xx, 231 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0199255687. $74.00.

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To make the heroine’s own voice heard against her author’s intention was Efrossini Spentzou’s (henceforth “S.”) purpose in this vividly written, but not altogether successful study. This revised version of a 1997 Oxford dissertation, the fourth book-length interpretation of the pseudo-Ovidian1 Heroides after Jacobson, Verducci, and Spoth,2 makes for a fluent reading, and S.’s clear guidance through her train of thought is exemplary. But any reader not equipped with a deep a priori faith in every conceptual construction born from adoptions of recent literature theory cannot but ask himself immediately whether the object of investigation, namely a literary heroine’s character independent of the author’s fiction, actually exists. With this question in mind, let us turn to the first part of the book.

On pp. xi-xx, brief synopses of the myths for the single and double letters are provided (both in alphabetical order of the heroines’ names). In the introductory chapter, “Getting Down To Essentials?” (pp. 1-12), S. gives a clear and succinct sketch of the structure of her work.

The second chapter, “Reading Characters Read: On Methodology”, surveys previous trends in the interpretation of the Heroides (pp. 13-24), criticising recent intertextual studies for focussing on authorial intention instead of taking the heroines as “speaking subjects from another era” (p. 23) in their own authorial right. The term “speaking subject” was coined by Julia Kristeva; S.’s ideas are much indebted to contemporary French feminism. S. then develops her own principles of reading (pp. 24-33) and outlines the underlying aspects of gender (pp. 33-42).

So far, no answer to our fundamental question; surprisingly, it is not even asked throughout the whole of this extensive methodological section. But then, the arbitrary assumption of an entity’s existence is sometimes justified a posteriori by interesting results springing from this very assumption. So one proceeds to the next chapters with some interest in what kind of findings are unearthed by S. from the poems themselves.

“Landscapes of Lost Innocence” (pp. 43-83) offers readings of a number of passages where “images of idealized happiness” (p. 43) in the past are drawn. S. discerns here “the heroines’ battle against Ovid (and his narration), but one in which they fail” (p. 43 n. 1).

One step further, “The Heroines in the Chora of Writing” (pp. 84-122), sees the heroines “usurping the famous grand narratives” (p. 92), “assuming responsibility” (p. 97) for their own myth, and awakening to their own writing consciousness. The chapter makes extensive use of both the notion of χώρα in Plato’s Timaeus and its adoption in French feminism; on p. 109sq, e. g., S. renders Hélène Cixous’ view: “For a woman the country of writing is a nowhere built on rage and desire, a place beyond compromise, only … ‘ways out’, that are also assaults against the bonds of an origin, of a genre, and of (his)story.”

“Postcards Home: The Heroides as Letters” (pp. 123-159) considers some aspects of the poems’ epistolarity. A neat observation here is that letter-writing, as an in-house, pondering, non-active occupation, is a typical female activity (pp. 125-127), which offers an easy and natural explanation why in the pairs of the double epistles (discussed by S. on pp. 128-139) the heroines’ letters have often earned more sympathy than the heroes’ counterparts.

The last chapter, “A Splintery Frame: The Heroides as Short Stories” (pp. 161-195), has little to do with the literary genre of that name but rather explores aspects of incompleteness of plots, which result from the fictional point of writing and the heroines’ not knowing the final events of their story by that time.

A short “Postscript: Writing on the Edge?” (pp. 197-199), followed by Bibliography,3 Index Locorum, and General Index (pp. 201-231), concludes the work. To serve the needs of a wider readership, all quotations of Greek and Latin are accompanied by translations, generally accurate but nonetheless elegant.4

These lines of thinking, presented here only summarily, are developed at great length and in much imaginative detail — but unfortunately based on interpretations which can at best be called imprecise. Some randomly chosen examples will give an impression of how S. reads her poems.

Pp. 93sq, the heroines’ awakening in the fourth chapter is illustrated, among others, by Ariadne on Naxos, who in 10.49sq appears “petrified”: aut mare prospiciens in saxo frigida sedi, / quamque lapis sedes, tam lapis ipsa fui. Later, S. goes on to quote 10.33sq nec languere diu patitur dolor; excitor illo, / excitor et summa Thesea voce voco, which not only prompts her to observe a development from silence towards motion (contrary to the order in which the two passages occur) but also reminds her of the Pygmalion myth:

‘Ariadne’s passage from the world of inanimate things to that of living beings obviously foreshadows another famous rite of passage from apathy to animation, namely that of Pygmalion’s eburnea puella (“ivory girl”) from Metamorphoses 10.’

But there is no such passage in Heroides 10; Ariadne simply alternates between the two gestures: 10.49sq, is coupled with 47sq aut ego diffusis erravi sola capillis, / qualis ab Ogygio concita Baccha deo, the alternation being clearly marked by anaphorical aut. Similarly, 33sq was contrasted to 32 frigidior glacie semianimisque fui (actually quoted by S.).

P. 142, S. translates Catullus 65.23 prono praeceps agitur decursu as “rushes forth on a headlong course, upwards and downwards” and makes a point of the unpredictability of the falling apple, underlined by the expression “upwards and downwards”. But nothing to this effect is found in Catullus’ text, which, if anything, suggests a straight and clear movement.

Finally, a rather drastic example of how much can be read into a single line (p. 108):

‘Once again, Ariadne’s description is particularly conducive to this reading, bursting as she does into tears just as Theseus is sailing away: iamque oculis ereptus eras. tum denique flevi“and eventually, you were snatched away from my sight. Then, at last, I broke down in tears” (10.43). Theseus’ linear (male) time, preoccupied with a new departure and another arrival, is superbly juxtaposed with her recursive, unbalanced energy in the interior of the tumbling chora, as metaphors of a gendered way of reading (and writing) the world.’

Of course, the ideas woven around this line are established already in the preceding paragraphs, so the quotation without its context does not really do justice to S.; however, the methods of extracting conclusions from the passages under scrutiny are not much more cogent elsewhere. In sum, my initial hope that a rich harvest of convincing interpretations might shed a friendlier light on what seemed already at first sight a rather counterintuitive assumption remained frustrated throughout the book.5

On pp. 34sq, S. touches upon some interesting differences in women’s and men’s approach towards literature: women read “actively”, i.e., subjectively recreating the story, and with little interest for the author; men recognize, and appreciate, the story as an author’s construction. No doubt this “female” way of reading, obviously having S.’s sympathies, will bring forth very personal views on a text, valuable for essayistic writing in particular; but as long as scholarly interpretation is about seeking to come close to objective truths, for these purposes the “male” approach will certainly be more helpful.6

On the other hand, even the reviewer, firmly grounded in the “essentialist and historicist circles” to whom S. neither wants nor hopes to appeal (p. 2), cannot help but feel attracted by the witty charm of highly metaphorical “interpretation-like statements” such as the following (p. 86 n. 9):

‘Trapped in the bark of the tree, Oenone here foreshadows another Ovidian heroine, with a strikingly similar plight, namely Daphne in Met. 1.548-52, whose metamorphosis into a laurel may have saved her at a first level, but also “immobilizes” her into her established myth, as one more trophy of Apollo’s male signifying power.’

Those working on the “traditional” issues of classical scholarship, such as interpretation — in the strict sense of fathoming authorial intention —, textual criticism, or Echtheitskritik, will hardly need to consult this book. Among those enjoying creative and original, if apparently more arbitrary, readings of poetry, however, it will certainly find an appreciative audience.7


1. In accordance with my personal view, I shall refrain from calling the poet “Ovid” throughout this review; single and double letters are respectively by two different Ovidian imitators (cf. BMCR 2003.08.17). The matter is of virtually no importance here since S.’s arguments hardly ever draw on the relationship between the Heroides and other parts of the Corpus Ovidianum. Therefore S. herself does not need to take for granted the authenticity of all letters (pp. 31sq). Her statement that Knox entertained doubts about all the single letters is, however, incorrect (p. 31 n. 38).

2. Howard Jacobson, Ovid’s Heroides, Princeton 1974; Florence Verducci, Ovid’s Toyshop of the Heart: Epistulae Heroidum, Princeton 1985; Friedrich Spoth, Ovids Heroides als Elegien, München 1992.

3. S. has a wide horizon in both primary and secondary literature; the only relevant item perhaps missing from discussion and bibliography is Stroh’s 1991 article Heroides Ovidianae cur epistulas scribant, now easily accessible in Wilfried Stroh, Entlegene Schriften, hrsg. von J. Leonhardt und G. Ott, Stuttgart 2000. Reeson’s commentary on 11, 13, and 14 (Leiden-Boston-Cologne 2001) and Lillian E. Doherty’s “Gender and the Interpretation of Classical Myth” (London 2001; with a sounder and much more down-to-earth approach) obviously came out too late for S. who wrote her preface in January 2002.

4. Inevitably, there are a number of minor and major slips: P. 1, Schol. Apoll. Rhod. ἐπεὶ ἀσθενέστεραι is left untranslated. P. 71, 10.53 is translated as if it were punctuated et tua, quae possum, pro te vestigia tango. But Showerman-Goold’s punctuation (comma following pro te) is correct, and so is their rendering. (With one or two exceptions — likely to be unintentional —, the text adopted by S. is Showerman-Goold’s, although she never says so and by mistake the edition is missing from the bibliography.) P. 80, 21.107 tali means “the following”, not “this sort of”. P. 81, 2.143 matura does not mean “adult”, but “early” (cf. Barchiesi: “rapida, spedita”). P. 82, 7.33sq got messed up completely: S. prints quem instead of Showerman-Goold’s quae, takes elliptical aut ego for a complete sentence (“or else I will fight in your camp”), translates dedignor as “deny”, and takes quem … amorem as an exclamatory accusative. See, e. g., Showerman-Goold for a correct understanding. P. 145, 20.38: S. follows Showerman-Goold in translating caute with “discreetly”, but adds an interpretation based on a sense close to “secretly”, which is certainly not what caute means (“modestly”, but also “advisedly”; see Kenney ad locum). Pp. 148sq, ars 3.619 is translated as an affirmative clause, 620 as a self-standing question; but the whole distich is a question and 620 subordinate ( cum is not an interrogative pronoun). The last two errors seem to be caused by the ambiguity of English words (“discreetly” and “when”), leading to suspect that S. to some extent concentrated on English translations rather than working with the texts themselves.

5. Interestingly, S. herself does not hesitate to deduce thoughts and feelings of “Ovid himself” from the exile letters (e. g., p. 158), although I do not see why the word ego, followed by a first person verb, should be under any closer control of its writer than, e. g., the word Penelope followed by a third person.

6. The notion of “objective truth” (as well as “authorial intention”) in this context may appear questionable from a literary theorist’s perspective. But I do not share the view that metaliterary theoretical reasoning makes ad locum interpretation of the “old-fashioned” kind obsolete; nor would it change its rules.

7. There are hardly any misprints. All I noticed were the following: p. 111 n. 42 quotation of 4.175sq distorted to 4.17.5-6 (perhaps more appropriate parallels would have been 11.1sq and 15.97sq); p. 155 centre, read “art” instead of “act”; p. 158 delete period after trist. 1.7.18 soror; p. 208 entries for Jashemski and Jenkyns are opened with dashes; p. 228 read Liaisons dangereuses instead of Liaisons Dangereures. OUP’s size of footnote numbers is a challenge even for the young and healthy eye.