BMCR 2006.10.23

A Web of Fantasies: Gaze, Image and Gender in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

, A web of fantasies : gaze, image, and gender in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2005. viii, 262 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0814209998 $9.95 (CD).

Table of Contents

Picture this: the valley of Tempe, the cataract of Peneus tumbling down, a gathering of rivers. Only Inachus is missing. Where has Io gone? Jupiter has caught sight of her, concealed her, raped her, transformed her. Juno gazing down, too, sees beneath the heifer’s shape, gets her as a gift, entrusts her to Argus of the many eyes. Io is looking into her father’s waters, in panic and misery.

This summary of Met. 1.568-640 shows the insistent repetitive obsession with the visual in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. An ekphrasis, the searching gaze of the distraught father, the intrusive gaze of the rapist god, the suspicious gaze of Juno, the multiple gaze of Argus the gaoler, the motif of the mirror. All in less than a hundred lines. No surprise, then, that vision has taken an important place in recent work on the Metamorphoses.1 Patricia Salzman-Mitchell (S.) has taken her own oblique perspective on the poem by choosing to read it through the lens of feminist film theory. This theoretical viewpoint will not seduce all readers of the Metamorphoses. There are many for whom the phrase ‘the gaze’ brings on an allergic reaction.2 And S.’s standpoint is self-consciously feminist.3 But vision in Ovid is a rich field to plough, and S.’s exploration turns up many stimulating suggestions and refreshing perspectives, which even resisting readers may find attractive.

The book is divided into five chapters with a brief postscript: an introductory chapter, ‘the intrusive gaze’, ‘the fixing gaze,’ ‘phantastic text(iles)’ and ‘women for women, women by women’. It began life as a D.Phil. thesis at Oxford under the supervision of first Don Fowler and then Alison Sharrock, both of whom have written extensively on gender and visuality.4 Chapter One sets up the methodological approach: S. focuses on the idea of phantasia (visualisation) and the author and reader creating visual images in their minds, which lead to and arise from the text, as the link between viewing and reading. She goes on to introduce feminist film theory and explain Mulvey’s concept of ‘the gaze’ (‘Woman as object and Man as bearer of the look’) and to explore, in particular, responses concerned with ‘the female gaze’, and ways of reading that allow women into male-authored texts. S. is not satisfied with ‘resisting reading’ (critiquing and re-appropriating male texts) but goes further into ‘releasing reading’ (allowing women characters within male texts to take on agency and speak for themselves) and emphasising the ‘multiplicity of perspective in the act of reading’.

Chapter Two (The Intrusive Gaze) takes on Ovid’s rapes, ekphrasis and the paraclausithyron. In the section on rapes, S. looks at Io, Callisto, Europa, and Daphne; Salmacis, Echo, and Aglauros are grouped together under the rubric of ‘Women’s intrusive gazes’. Here S. argues that the male gaze is powerful and performative and that only male gods can have a successful vertical gaze, while Juno looks aslant/askance/obliquely; female intrusive gazes, however, are condemned and punished; the section is mixed and adorned with visual language, links, twists and paradoxes, but not all arguments work for me.5 The section on ekphrasis covers the palace of the sun, Peleus and Thetis, Actaeon, Pentheus, Narcissus, and Arachne. Iphis and Anaxarete, and Pyramus and Thisbe come under paraclausithyron. The ekphrasis section uses the idea of penetration as a metaphor for reading, which I find not always entirely satisfying.6 This is an ambitious chapter which covers a great deal of ground, losing some depth in the process, but makes important links and suggestive arguments. There are some strong readings, for instance, of the desire of Actaeon, or of Anaxarete eternally fixed in a gesture of sexual availability (63), or of Alcithoe challenging the primary narrator’s motifs in the Salmacis story (32).

Chapter Three, ‘The Fixing Gaze’, examines the interplay between narrative/time and description/space and the way that the male gaze is able to fix female objects, while images also have the power to fixate their viewers. The first section looks at the way the male gaze fixes erotic objects: Pygmalion through the intertext of Lucretia in the Fasti, Orpheus, Perseus, Atalanta, Peleus and Thetis, Daphne, Syrinx, Narcissus, Hyacinthus, and Adonis. The second explores the way women who suffer the absence of their men are ‘fixed’: Leucothoe and Clytie, Phaethon and the Heliades, and goes on to suggest that Ovid brings out the fallibility of the male gaze, moving further beyond the initial theoretical framework. ‘Deviant exiles’ explores women who travel, taking a very broad interpretation of exile, looking at Medea, Scylla, Ariadne, Byblis, and Myrrha.

Chapter Four, ‘ Ph antastic Text(iles)’ looks for women’s vision in the Metamorphoses by looking at weaving and ‘image as a female means of communication’, covering Helen in the Iliad, Arachne and Minerva, Procne and Philomela. S. argues that women can have a ‘gaze’ by weaving, another oblique way of viewing; that, as witnesses, women can act on their gaze and have an effect on the world around them. Here one might make more of the ultimate results of these attempts at communication: both women and man become monsters, depersonalised and dehumanised—what does this say for Ovid? Or for us?

Chapter Five, ‘Women for women, women by women’, explores the visual constructions within stories told by female narrators, employing the ‘releasing reading’ familiar from studies of the Heroides, which allows female characters within a male-authored text their own voice and agency.7 The episodes covered in this chapter are: the Minyeides, who ‘almost oppose sisterhood’, the contest between the Pierides and the Muses, Galatea and Polyphemus, Alcmene and Dryope, Venus and Adonis, and the Sibyl. S. avoids ‘any restrictive definitions’ of the female gaze but suggests that it is possible for women to act on what they have seen, especially by ‘turning what they have seen into narrative and visual testimony’.

The Mulveyan model of the gaze is acting as rather a straw man here: there are much more complex and sophisticated discussions within the varied fields that think about vision, and it is perhaps not that surprising that Ovid is not easily contained within one monolithic version of ‘the gaze’.8 S. does not go as far into ideas of ‘the gaze’ and theories of vision as she might: what of the Sartrean idea of ‘the gaze’ as an impersonal field of vision to which the subject is exposed (almost the opposite of Mulvey’s gaze)? Beginning with feminist film theory also begs the question of psychoanalysis: do we, should we, and is it a good idea?

I sympathise with S.’s consciously feminist stance: the battles are not all won and feminism is important. It is clear that S. deliberately reads Ovid obliquely and looks for indicia that point to subtexts, using her own female gaze on the Metamorphoses. This is largely successful, and certainly thought-provoking, but the attempt to avoid monolithic male argument sometimes runs the risk of becoming a politically correct spin on Ovid, that somehow does not penetrate to the essence of the poem, but instead slides off into the elusive and enigmatic. A post-modern critique of reading, perhaps? Maybe we should just go off and write our own versions of the stories, after all.


1. For instance, Rosati, G. (1983) Narciso e Pigmalione: Illusione e Spettacolo nelle Metamorfosi di Ovidio. Firenze, and Hardie, P. R. (2002) Ovid’s Poetics of Illusion. Cambridge.

2. As someone whose current project is a study of vision in epic, provisionally entitled The Epic Gaze, I should declare that I am not so inclined myself, and also that I have been in e-mail contact with Patricia Salzman-Mitchell, who very kindly allowed me to read this book before it was published.

3. See for instance p. 2: ‘My work…is a feminist study of Metamorphoses‘; ‘The present book follows and is inspired by this movement but wishes to add another feminist viewpoint.’

4. E.g. Elsner, J. and Sharrock, A. (1991) ‘Re-viewing Pygmalion’, Ramus 20: 148-82. Fowler, D. (1991) ‘Narrate and describe: the problem of ecphrasis’, JRS 81: 25-35. Fowler, D. (2000) ‘Even better than the real thing: A tale of two cities’, in Roman Constructions, ed. D. Fowler. Oxford: 86-108. Fowler, D. (2002) ‘Masculinity under Threat? The Poetics and Politics of Inspiration in Latin Poetry’, in Cultivating the Muse, eds. E. Spentzou and D. Fowler. Oxford: 140-59. Sharrock, A. (1996) ‘Representing Metamorphoses’, in Art and Text in Roman Culture, ed. J. Elsner. Cambridge: 103-30; Sharrock, A. (2002a) ‘Looking at looking: Can you resist a reading?’ in The Roman Gaze, ed. D. Fredrick. Baltimore; Sharrock, A. (2002b) ‘An A-musing Tale: Gender, Genre, and Ovid’s Battles with Inspiration in the Metamorphoses’, in Cultivating the Muse, eds. E. Spentzou and D. Fowler. Oxford: 207-28.

5. For instance, ‘[t]he power of action involved in the male gaze is fairly obvious.’ (24) Is it?

1.I am not convinced that there’s ever any option of ‘sisterhood’ between Juno and Callisto (as suggested on 27): Ovid’s comment ‘if only you had seen her, Saturnia, you would be kinder’ suggests a lessening of Juno’s wrath rather than positive alignment with the victim.

1.Other quibbles: There is quite a lot of overlap between the various chapters and insufficient cross-referencing: it would have been good to get a stronger sense of how the similarities and differences between the treatments of the same episodes in different chapters play out. E.g. vertical gaze (24) needs cross reference to 39; Blake repeated on 208 from 67.

1.Some ideas need development: mechanisms of sympathy and identification in the rape scenes (29); symbol of serpent as icon of gender instability (34); cow-eyed as epithet for Juno (26); other representations of Envy. There is not much sense of other texts generally (only 17 passages not from Ovid listed in the Index Locorum), though other versions of myths are brought into the picture on several occasions.

1.In general the book is accurate, consistent and well-produced, but with notes at the end of the volume. A couple of typographical errors that I spotted: footnote markers gone astray (44 n.57), ‘Attis’ for ‘Acis’ (189, 191), ‘feminine film theory’ for ‘feminist’ (208).

6. And it’s worth bearing in mind that sex does not have to be penetrative: could the relationship between reader and text rather be one of polymorphous perversity? One that stays on the surface? The exchange of caresses between text and reader?

7. For instance, Spentzou, E. (2003) Readers and Writers in Ovid’s Heroides: Transgressions of Gender and Genre. Oxford.

8. E.g. Tasker, Y. (1993) Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema. London. Tasker offers a useful theoretical model for moving beyond the active/male passive/female binary opposition, one which is similar to S.’s evocation of the plurality of identification in Ovid: ‘the cinema offers one of the few social spaces in which we can make seemingly perverse identifications, structured by a utopian both/and rather than a repressive gendered binary.’ (117)