BMCR 2004.06.57

Mail and Female: Epistolary Narrative and Desire in Ovid’s Heroides

, Mail and female : epistolary narrative and desire in Ovid's Heroides. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. 1 online resource (x, 270 pages).. ISBN 9780299192631 $29.95.

Sara Lindheim (L.) has produced a clear and convincing reading of Ovid’s Heroides based on an approach that combines analysis of their genre (as both epistles and elegy) with the Lacanian notion of gendered desire. The book’s introduction provides a brief overview of L.’s argument, which she develops over the course of three chapters. In chapter one, L. focuses on epistolarity. As letter-writers, the heroines set themselves up for failure because they invariably mishandle the conventions and opportunities of their genre. Chapter two, however, revises this initial interpretation, and L. reveals that the apparent incompetence of these female letter-writers is a deliberate strategy, based on the heroines’ understanding of desire. Chapter three, a reading of Sappho’s letter to Phaon, rests on the conclusions of chapter two and enables L.’s conclusion, where she sums up the cumulative achievement of the Heroides : the creation of a stable definition of “Woman,” and also the means for dismantling this fantasy. In all, nine of the fifteen single Heroides are considered. L. meets head on and deconstructs the charges of repetitive monotony and incoherent characterization that have dogged the collection and often led to its dismissal by critics. L. does not attempt to refute this charge but rather to explain how the repetition and incoherence of the heroines’ self-portraits actually give us the means for discovering what Ovid accomplishes in this collection.

In the introduction L. briefly reviews the critical history of the Heroides and explains how her project differs from recent formalist work on the Heroides that has focused on intertextuality and allusion. Instead of adopting an approach that tends to marginalize the female subjects of these poems in favor of attention to their author and his learned ancient (and contemporary) readers, L. insists on taking seriously the gendered voices of the Heroides.1 L. defers a full consideration of the male poet’s assumption of the female voice, the “transvestite ventriloquism” which is the central conceit of the Heroides, until the book’s conclusion, although she raises different aspects of the issue in each chapter, progressively albeit discontinuously developing the discussion.

In chapter one (“Mail and Female: Epistolary Narrative and Ovid’s Heroines”), L. considers the Heroides as letters. She argues that epistolarity influences the collection as strongly as does elegy, their other generic identity. After explaining readers’ “epistolary expectations” on the basis of ancient conventions and modern theories of epistolarity, L. shows how the Heroides highlight epistolary characteristics of the text. Letters may conquer distance by creating the illusion of presence, yet they may also call attention to distance and absence (pp. 20-22). A skillful letter-writer will manipulate this antithesis to his advantage. But L. shows how each heroine manipulates the epistolary form against the ends she hopes to achieve. The heroines emphasize the failure of their letters to bridge distances, to substitute for real conversation or even to communicate at all.

L.’s readings of letters 1, 3, and 9 (Penelope, Briseis, Deianira) proceed in tandem with feminist readings of the Greek and Latin “source texts” for these heroines’ stories. As the authors of their own epistolary narratives, the women of the Heroides should exercise almost absolute power to tell their stories to their utmost self-advantage. However, without exception, these female letter-writers refuse the opportunity that the epistolary genre offers to make themselves the protagonists of their tales. Instead each heroine minimizes her authority as narrator, making herself into a marginal figure in a story in which her lover remains the hero-protagonist. This, too, L. shows to be an epistolary negotiation — the writer’s self-portraiture in letters is always conditioned by anticipatory reception, that is, what the writer thinks will be the most effective self-presentation to bring about the desired reaction in the letter’s addressee. The earliest letter in Greek literature ( Iliad 6.152-70), the deceitful instrument of Anteia’s plot against Bellerophon, attests to a generic association of letters with feminine deceit that is crucial for L. (p. 25). Although the Ovidian heroines (Penelope most explicitly) overtly reject deceit, the astute reader still expects duplicity from the combination of women and letters. Consequently, L. argues that instead of criticizing the apparent ineptitude of the heroines as letter-writers, “we must consider the possibility that cunning plays a role in the heroine’s epistolary narrative … when she portrays herself as helpless and her addressee as all-powerful, is she shrewdly calculating her own advantage? (p.77)” L. might have answered this question on the basis of epistolarity alone, simply by demonstrating her heroines’ savvy as readers and practitioners of epistolary rhetoric. But L. proposes to delve into the question of the heroines’ duplicity instead by tracking how masculine and feminine structures of desire play out in the heroines’ attempts at representation and persuasion.

L. uses elegy as a springboard in both chapters one and two, but whereas in the first chapter the elegiac framework is credited with providing language and making sense of the heroines’ situations, in the second chapter she takes up the content of elegy, namely erotic desire. L. argues that an understanding of the structure of desire will enable us to read the strategies of Ovid’s heroines more closely and to see that in fact the heroines shape their self-representations and those of their lovers to deliberate ends (p. 81). The performances of helplessness already noted in chapter one can then be reread as purposeful authorial acts, intended to woo the attentions of their addressees. Chapter Two (“Women into Woman: Voices of Desire”) thus describes L.’s application of Lacan to Ovid and then demonstrates the fruits of this approach through close readings.

Wisely, L. does not assume familiarity with Lacan among her readers, and the short introduction to Lacan’s theory of desire (pp. 83-89) is very helpful for the analyses that follow. Having set aside the heroines’ use of epistolarity to displace and minimize their importance, L. shows that using means of representation characteristic of elegy such as the gaze, the heroines fluctuate between two antithetical modes of representation. They alternate between depicting themselves as powerless and powerful, endlessly repeating these roles but always restricted to performing either one or the other. The five close readings in this chapter are split into two groups, which together share in representing the “classic case” of the abandoned woman (p. 89. n.35 for Barchiesi’s grouping of these five; see now also Fulkerson 2002). All of these women try to bring back their lover by depicting themselves as what they imagine the object of his desire to be. The first group consists of letters 2 (Phyllis), 7 (Dido), and 10 (Ariadne). Each of these women views her situation from the standpoint of masculine desire. Accordingly, each alternately portrays herself as identical to the hero (powerful, an alter ego, Same) or as utterly different from him (powerless, Other). These two strategies, although seemingly opposed, both operate to create for the hero what the heroines believe that he wishes to see, namely, “an image of his own power” (p. 114). The second group of heroines, in contrast, see their situation from the standpoint of feminine desire, and this leads to a complication of the basic strategy of performing two opposed roles (powerful/powerless). These two women, Medea (6) and Hypsipyle (12), also wish to recapture their hero (Jason) by becoming again the object of his desire; however, they identify not with the hero but with the women whom they imagine he is now desiring. They proceed by likening themselves to the other women whom they imagine their lover has already or will in the future desire in their place, again alternating between powerful and helpless roles.

Pairing the Lacanian analysis of these texts with their treatment as elegy rather than with their discussion as letters seems somewhat arbitrary since the oscillation of desire created and perpetuated by letters is as basic to epistolary discourse as desire is to elegy. In fact, a reader reluctant to admit a psychoanalytic reading of the Heroides might think, why not explain the mechanics of desire in these letters on the basis of epistolarity alone, and leave out Lacan? A reference to Gunderson (1997), who blends historicism and psychoanalysis to adjudge the letters of Pliny and Catullus “love-letters,” might have been helpful in parsing the contribution that epistolarity, as well as elegy, makes to the erotic in the Heroides. (His article does appear in L.’s bibliography.)

Furthermore, since L. defers the introduction of Lacan to chapter two, she doesn’t highlight how, in Lacanian terms, the anxiety to anticipate the reader’s reception on the part of the letter-writer that shapes epistolary discourse is a feminine (and possibly effeminizing?) impulse, although she does note that [“t]he heroine does, writes, devises all for her empowered addressee, who is constantly in her mind, constantly providing her with motivation and meaning” (p.32). Some further discussion of the interconnections between gender and genre (letters, rather than elegy) would have been welcome here.

In chapter three (“Setting Her Straight: Ovid Re-Presents Sappho”), L. tackles an issue that a number of critics have seen as the central problem of the Heroides, that is, whether a male author can authentically assume a female voice, and whether Ovid has successfully done so. L. moves through this problem by means of a strong, detailed close reading of Heroides 15, the letter from Sappho to Phaon.2 L. shows that Ovid provides the key to deconstructing the illusion of Woman that he creates in the same poem that accomplishes this illusion most audaciously, because it is the one poem that rewrites the real voice of an ancient woman writing (as opposed to a female character from literature or myth).3 L.’s strategy of comparing feminist readings of “source texts” to the Heroides‘ version is potentially most productive in this chapter, since Sappho did write and we can look directly to her words instead of approaching her voice through a feminist interpretation of a male-authored voice of a mythological woman. Yet this assurance of authenticity is potentially hazardous. Sappho’s fragmentary corpus is easily distorted, and attempts to generalize about her notions of women (or Woman) and desire are perilous. Even if Lacanian ideas are valid for all “Western” times and places (p. 82), can we really assume that archaic seventh-century Lesbos (p. 180) was “Western”?

L. concludes that Ovid genders the external reader (whether male or female) of the Heroides as masculine, and complicit with the internal masculine hero of the story. He is thus opposed to each letter’s internal author/heroine, since as a literate reader, knowledgeable in the source texts, he must refuse the possibility of a happy ending — foreclosing the positive possibility that the writing woman opens up (p. 182). L. puts less emphasis on the reader’s attitude toward the text as poetry collection or book, but I would suggest that Ovid’s transvestite ventriloquism not only caters to and reinforces an illusory masculine conception of Woman, but also encourages the reader to encounter (and master) Ovid’s text as a feminine object — an entity that can be whatever one wishes it to be in order to please (and which can appear potentially pathetic, monotonous, and contemptible on those very grounds).4

The revelation that the women’s voices of the Heroides are false, a masculine illusion, is no surprise: L.’s readers have had to self-consciously suspend this objection from the start. For me, the greatest pleasure and edification came from insights gained along the way, such as L.’s sensitive comparisons between Ovid’s poems and their “source texts” (e.g. the Ovidian Penelope’s anxious and self-defeating emphasis on writing rather than speaking as a reading of Homer’s Telemachus’ claims for efficacious speech as a male realm, pp. 38-41) and her observations of significant intratextualities: for example, Dido’s plea si pudet uxoris, non nupta, sed hospita dicar (“if you cannot call me wife, call me hostess” 7.167-68) directly echoes Phyllis ( hospita at 2.1, and Demophoon is hospes, 2.147), and is echoed with inversion by Deianira’s complaint that her husband is more like a guest: vir mihi semper abest et coniuge notior hospes (9.33). L.’s explanation of the inconsistent but consistently bipolar performances of the heroines is convincing and interesting for its own sake, as well as providing ammunition against the tendency to consider the heroines’ inconsistent and repetitive representations as a poetic failing, or worse, as evidence of their essential femininity (i.e., evidence for the truth and predictability of “Woman”).5

L.’s approach will evoke different qualms in different readers. Here are a few of mine. L. occasionally seems to use the ancient text (the stated object of interpretation) to illustrate the modern theory, rather than using the modern theory to elucidate the ancient text (e.g. on page 159: “[Sappho] does not, however, issue these cautionary words for the benefit of her imagined rivals. Her admonitions serve to create a distance between herself and them, one that subtly suggests her own greater power. Indeed, as Lacan argues, Imaginary identification leads the subject both to assert her similarity to the mirror-image and to find ways by which to separate herself from it.”). Secondly, I found myself wondering whether Sappho the poet might not be equally susceptible of writing from a masculine subject position, and thus not representing a “real” feminine voice any more than the Ovidian Sappho does ( pace n. 17, which refers the reader to Skinner 1993). Moreover, if the author of the Heroides represents his text as a feminine object, and if Ovid’s literary corpus may sometimes substitute for Ovid’s literal corpus, can we not say that Ovid represents himself as a woman? Weren’t real Roman men, both authors and readers, just as prone to perform their identity as the women they wrote? How do the issues of identity through performance at Rome need to inform our reading of the Heroides ? I remain skeptical of using an essentializing theory to describe an ancient Roman cultural production (particularly one that thematizes the making of identity), because to me these historical questions seem central to the interpretation of Ovid’s text.

Overall, there is much to commend in this book. L.’s insightful reading of the heroines’ bifurcating strategies of self-representation might have escaped the notice of a critic limited to more traditional means of interpretation. She is especially to be congratulated for seeing that the disjointedness and monotony often judged the worst flaw of the Heroides can be productively embraced as an interpretive key to the collection. This book is essential reading for scholars of Ovid’s Heroides. It will also serve as an accessible introduction to Lacanian methods of reading classical texts, and as an example for those interested in enriching their methodological pantry with another productive approach.6

Works Cited

Fulkerson, L. 2002. “Writing Yourself to Death: Strategies of (Mis)reading in Heroides 2″ MD 48: 145-65.

Gold, B. K. 1993. “‘ But Ariadne Was Never There in the First Place’: Finding the Feminine in Roman Poetry,” in Feminist Theory and the Classics. Eds. N. S. Rabinowitz and A. Richlin. New York: Routledge, 75-101.

Gordon, P. 1997. “The Lover’s Voice in Heroides 15: Or, Why is Sappho a Man?” in Roman Sexualities. Eds. J. P. Hallett and M. B. Skinner. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 274-91.

Gunderson, E. 1997. “Catullus, Pliny, and Love-Letters,” TAPA 127: 201-31.

Knox, P. E. 1995. Ovid. Heroides: Select Epistles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Skinner, M. B. 1993. “Woman and Language in Archaic Greece, or, Why is Sappho a Woman?” in Feminist Theory and the Classics. Eds. N. S. Rabinowitz and A. Richlin. New York: Routledge, 125-44.

Spentzou, E. 2003. Readers and Writers in Ovid’s Heroides: Trangressions of Genre and Gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


1. The other full-length study of the Heroides to appear in 2003, Efrossini Spentzou’s Readers and Writers in Ovid’s Heroides, also attempts to read the feminine voices of the heroines as a corrective to the male “interpretive conspiracy” perpetrated and perpetuated by readings exclusively concerned with intertextuality. But whereas Spentzou argues that the heroines resist the male tellings of their tales (they even resist Ovid), L’s interpretation holds that the heroines intentionally represent themselves as they believe that men would like to see them.

2. L. considers the letter from Sappho to be authored by Ovid, contra Peter Knox (1995). But as she notes (p. 140 n. 13), her argument that Ovid most outrageously promotes the fantasy “Woman” that the collection creates and also most effectively dismantles her in the Sappho letter need not stand or fall on grounds of authorial authenticity: an imitator might well out-Ovid Ovid.

3. Working from similar theoretical premises as L., Gordon argues that far from exemplifying the strategies of feminine desire, the Ovidian Sappho is portrayed as a desiring male: “The Ovidian Sappho … must have a masculine nature (1997: 286).” L. notes her disagreement with Gordon at p.165, n.87.

4. For a psychoanalytic reading that sees the elegiac poetry book as a feminine body, see Gold (1993: 88) on Propertius’ “Cynthia,” a study cited by L. (p. 6. n. 9) as an important forerunner of her own.

5. As suggested by L.’s quote from Brooks Otis (p. 4, n. 5): “the wearisome complaint of the reft maiden, the monotonous iteration of her woes.”

6. I noticed few typographical problems: p. 122 “difference” should be “different”; p. 146 “women” should be “woman”; p. 200 n. 36 a word is omitted, probably “it.”