BMCR 2006.05.16

The Ovidian Heroine as Author: Reading, Writing, and Community in the Heroides

, The Ovidian heroine as author : reading, writing, and community in the Heroides. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xi, 187 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780521846721 $75.00.

Ovid’s Heroides were once as neglected by classicists (though not medievalists) as his heroines were by their callous lovers. In recent years, however, this fascinating collection of fictional elegiac epistles has been the subject of a veritable deluge of articles, book chapters, monographs, and commentaries on selected letters. Laurel Fulkerson’s (F.) feminist treatment of the single Heroides is the latest addition to this growing body of scholarship. In adopting a distinctly feminist approach to the poems, F. is walking a familiar path; yet, as she argues persuasively in her introductory comments, her study substantially advances previous feminist scholarship on the Heroides. This book will be of interest to classicists and medievalists, as well as scholars with interests in gender studies.

F. characterizes the fictional female authors of the collection as belonging to an imaginary community of readers (though she has the somewhat disorienting tendency to discuss them as if they were flesh and blood women rather than fictional literary characters). There is nothing new in this argument, as evidenced by the abundance of scholarship dedicated to the explication of intertextual episodes in the poems. The most important methodological precedent for F.’s argument is M. Desmond’s brilliant analysis of Dido’s “reading” of her treatment in Vergil. F.’s distinctive innovation on this now standard mode of analysis is her suggestion that, besides reading other literary treatments of their characters, the female authors were also reading and engaging with one another’s letters. The methodology of her study is best characterized as “intratextual.”

Though the point is not made in the book, it is worth observing that Ovid’s choice of genre (the elegiac epistle) is uniquely suited to the task of negotiating boundaries of time, space, and linguistic difference. Just as Petrarch could imagine himself in correspondence with Cicero and Livy, so did the imaginary community of heroines (as created by Ovid) “correspond” with one another. Taken together with the numerous examples of intertextuality, these intratextual engagements suggest that, even if the heroines were doomed to failure by the master narrative of literary history, their letters ought to be seen as rhetorically sophisticated compositions, not overwrought outpourings of suicidal thoughts. Finally, F.’s study makes a compelling (if sometimes too implicit) argument for reading the letters as an organic collection rather than as individual variations on a theme.

The book consists of seven brief chapters, each offering a brief survey of Ovid’s possible sources and a close comparison of a subset of related letters; a substantial introduction; and a short appendix devoted to a discussion of Sappho’s letter ( Her. 15). The lucidly written, clearly organized introduction orients the reader to previous approaches to the Heroides and, in particular, to the common view that the women authors are presented as literary failures because their letters fail to persuade their addressees. Further, we are reminded, the heroines have often been denounced as incompetent poets; and the Ovidian authorship/authenticity of several of the letters (and passages within the letters) has been challenged. F. leaves the authenticity debate to others, to focus on the texts themselves. She is less concerned with the results of the heroines’ attempts to communicate, more concerned with elucidating the specific rhetorical strategies they employ. The introductory remarks briefly touch on the poems’ epistolary status; Ovid’s place vis-à-vis his literary heroines; and the oft-debated issues surrounding the transmission of the poems. F. also helpfully discusses the relationship between her book and the two recently published feminist studies of S. Lindheim and E. Spentzou. The introduction concludes with a chapter-by-chapter map of the book’s contents.

The first chapter is devoted to a discussion of Phyllis’s letter to Demophoon ( Her. 2). By juxtaposing Phyllis’s letter to those of Dido, Ariadne, and Medea, F. offers the suggestion that Phyllis (mis)reads the letters of other abandoned women and assumes prematurely that she belongs in their company. Her error, F. argues persuasively, proves fatal. On this reading, the repetitiveness that has so annoyed generations of critics can be explained as an Ovidian signal to the reader to understand Phyllis’s letter in light of others in the collection. The chapter concludes with a brief mention of Penelope as a possible model that Phyllis could have (should have?) used and did not. Chapter 2 complicates this model of one-way influence to argue that, in the case of Medea’s and Hypsipyle’s letters to Jason, the influence was mutual. With reference to several similarities in the two letters, F. proposes that Hypsipyle models herself on Medea, while Medea looks to Hypsipyle’s example. Likewise, Hypsipyle’s curse on Medea in a sense invents Medea. The second part of the chapter considers Oenone’s letter to Paris. It is claimed that Oenone herself looks to Hypsipyle and Medea for rhetorical strategies, and thereby constitutes Paris as another Jason. The chapter concludes with a summary mention of Oenone’s letter as a model for Helen’s letter to Paris in the collection of paired epistles.

Chapter 3 turns to the letters of Canace and Hypermestra. In both cases, the heroines are writing to an explicit (their lover) and implicit addressee (their father). F. suggests that Hypermestra “reads” Canace’s letter and learns from its mistakes in order to bring about a satisfactory ending to her story. While Canace cannot save herself with a letter (though she does see to the survival of her son), that same letter helps Hypermestra write the script for her own salvation. The fourth chapter, which treats the letters of Briseis and Hermione, describes the obverse of this happy outcome. Hermione is characterized as an enchanted reader of Briseis’s letter. Whereas she should have looked to her mother, Helen, as a model for love, she was deceived by Briseis’s imaginative tale. Although Briseis failed to convince Achilles to love her, her seduction of Hermione was a great success. The chapter concludes with a comparison of Hermione’s letter to that of Hypermestra, and suggests that they looked to one another for rhetorical strategies.

Chapter 5 offers an analysis of the connections between the letters of Deianira, Laodamia, and Medea — all of whom have some connection to the supernatural. It begins with a discussion of Laodamia’s letter to Protesilaus and the compelling suggestion that Laodamia unwittingly inscribes the death of her lover. F. then argues, with reference to several common elements of plot between the two letters, that Laodamia has looked to her aunt, Deianira, for assistance in writing her letter. This proves to be a fatal mistake. Finally, it is suggested that Medea should be understood as the “ghostwriter” for both Laodamia’s and Deianira’s letters. In Chapter 6, the reader is introduced to the letters of two equally unfortunate sisters, Ariadne and Phaedra. Perhaps trusting too much in the family bond, Phaedra looks to Ariadne’s letter for assistance in managing her own relationship with Theseus. She is apparently convinced that Theseus is an irredeemable heel who is best forgotten. Phaedra therefore turns her erotic attentions to her unwilling stepson Hippolytus. F. then briefly compares Phaedra’s letter of seduction with Acontius’s to Cydippe. The chapter ends with a discussion of Ariadne’s role in the collection as “the spokeswoman for deserted women” (142). F. reminds her reader that, although Ariadne could not alter her own story, she seems to exert tremendous influence over the stories of the other heroines who populate Ovid’s fictional epistolary community.

Only in the final chapter does F. bring Ovid into the equation. (Indeed, an unsuspecting reader not familiar with the Heroides might be led to believe that they were “real” women, not the fictional creations of a male poet.) She encourages readers to avoid viewing Ovid as the manipulative puppet-master controlling interpretation. Likewise, she draws attention to Ovid’s self-constructed exilic poetic persona as an abandoned heroine, as well as the apparent poetic failure that led to his exile in order, it seems, to blur the line between the poet and his literary creations. F. seems to be making a similar point in her concise reading of Tristia 2, a poem that famously questions whether the poet or the reader has the authority to impose meaning on a text. Ultimately, says F., even if auctoritas determines a text’s “official meaning,” Ovid’s exile poetry and the letters of the heroines are evidence that poetry, and poets, can continue to have consequences for “real life.” The book’s appendix offers a short essay on Sappho’s letter to Phaon. F. states that her reservations about its authenticity led her to relegate it to an appendix but offers the fascinating argument that some of its differences from the other letters may be explained by Sappho’s lack of “authenticity” as an elegiac heroine. While this line of argumentation does not resolve the metrical and linguistic irregularities, it does offer a productive way of making a case for its inclusion in the collection.

The strengths of this book are numerous: the argument is clearly stated and each chapter is tightly organized. F.’s writing is lucid and vivid; the reader is quickly drawn into the heroines’ world and made to believe that these are flesh and blood women with fully developed subjectivities. Each chapter is peppered with insights about the individual letters and their connections to one another. I was particularly intrigued by the role that family bonds played in the collection. For the instructor of a course on the Heroides, F.’s book offers a wonderful organizational structure for encouraging students to draw connections between the various letters. The focus on the process rather than the consequences of composition is a welcome relief to readers weary of hearing that the heroines are unremitting failures as authors. Likewise, it is refreshing to be spared an endless rehearsal of arguments about authenticity. Indeed, F.’s study suggests a new approach to this stale debate, in that it implicitly argues for the claim that the single letters should be read as a coherent collection (without any necessary reference to the specific order that Ovid intended).

At the same time, it seemed that, quite often, what F. termed “intratextual” was in fact a coincidence of plot. Her groupings of similar tales emphasize this distinction. While the first two chapters detail apparent instances of allusion, many of the other chapters discuss parallels of plot without any clear evidence that these are particularly significant. This should not take away from the power of F.’s readings, which do much to illuminate the complexities of these texts. Rather, I would suggest that the term “intratextual” is best abandoned, since the allusions/intertexts are almost always on the level of plot repetition rather than marked language. When there are similarities of language, they are almost always too banal (e.g. both Canace and Hypermestra talk about wedding torches, faces) for us to attribute any particular force to them.

Similarly, F.’s insistent erasure of Ovid from her analysis is odd. While I found the notion of these fictional writers reading one another’s letters a useful idea, it ultimately obscured the fact that there was (debatably) a single poet composing all of the letters. It is Ovid (or maybe “Ovid”) who creates the impression that the women are reading each other’s letters; it is Ovid who adjusts their stories to reflect the heroines’ “reading” of other letters. It is certainly true that our examples of ancient women writers are appallingly few; but I would like to think that we need not resort to the realm of fiction to fill out their numbers.

F. is clearly familiar with the large body of scholarship on the Heroides, and it is to her credit that she does not endlessly rehearse familiar arguments. Still, the study very often seemed to dance around rather than engage with the most important scholarly debates in the course of the discussion. In particular, her work has much to contribute to questions about the coherence of the collection as well as methodological approaches to the question of authenticity. Similarly, it suggests that Ovid’s poetic letters might have been an important precursor for the Plinian collection of prose letters, artfully arranged into books. In a similar vein, I was mildly disappointed that there was no attempt to place the conclusions of this study in the broader context of Ovidian studies or, more broadly, Augustan Latin poetry (beyond the short discussion of Tristia 2). The reader is drawn into the enchanting world of abandoned, letter-writing heroines, never to re-emerge. Despite these quibbles, however, F.’s monograph has much to offer the student of Ovid’s Heroides. As it demonstrates time and again, a sympathetic reader can find evidence of substantial rhetorical sophistication in the heroines’ elegiac letters.