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

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

by Laurel Fulkerson

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Ovid's Heroides, a catalogue of letters by women who have been deserted, has too frequently been examined as merely a lament. In a new departure, this book portrays the women of the Heroides as a community of authors. Combining close readings of the texts and their mythological backgrounds with critical methods, the book argues that the points of similarity between…  See more details below


Ovid's Heroides, a catalogue of letters by women who have been deserted, has too frequently been examined as merely a lament. In a new departure, this book portrays the women of the Heroides as a community of authors. Combining close readings of the texts and their mythological backgrounds with critical methods, the book argues that the points of similarity between the different letters of the Heroides, so often derided by modern critics, represent a brilliant exploitation of intratextuality, in which the Ovidian heroine self-consciously fashions herself as an alluding author influenced by what she has read within the Heroides. Far from being naive and impotent victims, therefore, the heroines are remarkably astute, if not always successful, at adapting textual strategies that they perceive as useful for attaining their own ends. With this new approach Professor Fulkerson shows that the Heroides articulate a fictional poetic mirroring contemporary practices of poetic composition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Laurel Fulkerson, in this original and intriguing new study, has granted Ovid's unique collection of epistles written by legendary women the benefit of her critical eye and scholarly acumen." - Teresa R. Ramsby, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

"This is a book for graduate students and scholars, it should arouse much interest in its readers. Fulkerson covers all the fifteen Heroides, using each chapter to compare poems and to present a special reading. It was a pleasure for me to read this well-printed volume." - William S. Anderson, University of California, Berkeley

"Fulkerson's treatment of the Heroides is innovative in its attribution of a certain degree of power to these female characters, as readers and writers in an imaginary literary circle...[the] study if thorough, both in its knowledge of Ovidian scholarship and its close reading of the text. Her creative approach makes this work, bringing to life what was for a long time dismissed as Ovid's juvenile poetic venture."
Valentina DeNardis, The Classical Bulletin

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The Ovidian Heroine as Author

Cambridge University Press
0521846722 - The Ovidian Heroine as Author - Reading, Writing, and Community in the Heroides - by Laurel Fulkerson


Scholarship on the Heroides generally characterizes them as more-or-less ineffectual letters written by abandoned women to the men who abandon them. Yet this characterization, while not wholly incorrect, is limited; not only do some of the letters fall outside of this description, but to look at the women who write the individual letters as only abandoned deprives them of much of their authorial power. For the Heroides, despite their unpopularity in recent centuries, have been immensely influential on other authors.1 And, as my Chapter 2 epigraph from the Lettres Portugaises suggests (below, p. 40), a reading of the Heroides that judges solely on the basis of whether the man to whom each letter is addressed returns to the author of that letter reinscribes the tiresome equation of women's personal and professional lives that will be familiar to students of other female artists. More importantly, it misunderstands the aim of poetic composition.2

The Heroides are epistles putatively designed to persuade, but although they often fail to persuade their mythological addressees, they have persuaded countless generations of their actual readers to view them as works of literature worthy of imitation. The women of the Heroides are successful in the same way as other elegiac Augustan poets - they may never "get their man" but they create intricate personae and lasting poetry. In fact, the heroines are, because of their very abandonment, perfectly situated to become (like) male Augustan elegists: for both, desire creates poetry.3 Indeed, my focus on how the heroines attempt to refashion their stories because of their membership in a poetic community - the fictional community created by their shared presence in a poetic book - is predicated upon the notion that they themselves create influential texts.

This book, which focuses on issues of communal reading and writing, explores the ways in which the Ovidian heroines - puellae doctae - are excessively literary and so self-consciously fashion themselves as alluding authors influenced by what they read.4 Yet the heroines' "source-texts" are often within the Heroides themselves, and it is therefore difficult if not impossible to determine who references whom. This suggests that the abandoned women may usefully be compared to the masculine elegiac community, composing their texts together and with reference to the poetic issues of that community (among which are prominently featured a limited/limiting set of scenarios, played out to exhaustion). At the same time, the heroines curtail themselves even more significantly than their male elegiac counterparts, focusing almost exclusively on the poetics of abandonment.5 Further, the heroines' poetic affinity seems predicated more on genealogy or other superficial factors - since they often adopt and adapt the stories of their family members - than on conscious choice.6 So, restricted by their sex and the circumstances that surround it, they are perhaps less adventurous than male elegists.

My view of the Heroides is thus substantially different from those who see them as failures of communication because they do not effect the returns of their addressees. While the heroines' struggle to rewrite their own destinies is indeed, as many note, circumscribed by their own limitations, as well as their textual pasts and futures, I choose to focus on the struggle itself, unsatisfying and limited as it may sometimes seem, rather than on its outcome. The success of the heroines' efforts should not be judged solely in terms of erotic persuasiveness; more importantly, it is also not clear to me that "success" is the most useful way of reading: what is gained by ascertaining that Penelope's letter (e.g.) is better than Laodamia's?

As a prelude to this study of the heroines as authors who affect the women in their environments, let me draw the reader's attention, if only in passing, to a peculiar sentence in Plutarch: the Life of Theseus, after detailing Theseus' abandonment of Ariadne, notes that the women of Naxos forged and delivered letters from Theseus to Ariadne (20.5); Plutarch does not speculate on their motivation. Let us conceive, for a moment, of these women as writing in response to a letter from Ariadne herself (perhaps even Heroides 10). We can then, metaphorically, imagine them as the "first readers" of the Heroides. If Ariadne's letter, unsatisfactory as it is to many modern readers, is capable of generating a response - not from Theseus, but from other women, who are familiar with the standard plot about abandoned heroines - then she will have been powerful indeed. I do not suggest that Plutarch was alluding to the Heroides in this passage, but the fact that his anecdote features women responding to a female-authored text opens up a space for the model of reading that will be the focus of this book: we will search through and beyond traditional narratives in order to recuperate a feminine poetics of abandonment that bears both resemblances to and startling differences from the masculine elegists' pose of servitude.7 Master narratives therefore play an important role in my study, but they will be given second place to the heroines' use of material from one another.

The heroines frequently find themselves in similar situations; their letters therefore share many common features, a fact that has led some readers to label them monotonous.8 Yet this repetition brings us to the heart of what many find both fascinating and frustrating about the Heroides. Much Heroides scholarship sees this feature of the poems - and, indeed, of elegy as a whole - as an elegiac kind of "repetition-compulsion," suggesting that Ovid is communicating something about the (necessarily?) endless reiteration of love in an elegiac milieu,9 or, alternately, that the reduplication is designed to undercut sympathy for the women who write; we may be less tolerant of the flaws of the last letter than of the first.

As with much of Ovid's oeuvre, however, "repetitive" themes show themselves, on careful examination, to differ in subtle but crucial ways. The women of the Heroides, like Odysseus in the Ars Amatoria, are accustomed to saying the same thing in different ways (referre aliter saepe solebat idem, 2.128), an ability which in the Ars is seen as the height of erotic skill. Further, the scenarios in each letter are quite different, despite the fact that Ovid often seems to have altered them to accentuate similarities. Most importantly, the stories are so much alike not because Ovid repeated himself (although there is no doubt that he did), but because he seems to have conceived of his heroines as sharing not only the situation of abandonment and the use of the epistolary form, but also common vocabularies and sets of poetic influences.10 This is a move that should not surprise us, both because poets traditionally conceive of women abandoned by their lovers as variations on a single theme, and because these particular women have renowned literary genealogies (with which they often seem familiar).11 Where Ovid innovates is in letting the women share in the knowledge of their entwined filiation. What Kauffman terms the "correspondences between the correspondents" (1986: 42) are key to understanding the poetics of the Heroides, and repetitiveness is not a flaw of the collection but rather constitutes the women as members of the same authorial circle.

I will argue throughout this book that Ovid conceived of his literary creations as incorporating prior and contemporary texts into their poetry and that, like himself, some of them are remarkably sophisticated and astute readers. Often, however, inexperience and a tendency to privilege family connections lead them to allude to texts dissimilar to their own in key respects or to construe literature in dangerous and misleading ways. Reading, then, figures centrally in the corpus insofar as the heroines base their own words on their interpretations of the stories of other abandoned women in their community. To this extent they read "resistantly," seeking from canonical poetry information it does not offer.12 Yet at the same time, to use a different critical vocabulary, they also "misread" (a Bloomian sign of the powerful poet).13

The heroines' ways of reading can be seen as illustrating a "feminine" way of reading and writing, for in the Heroides, women of mythology are finally given a chance to tell their side of the story, and it is man-centered only on the surface. The Heroides present a fiction of the female voice that cannot but be provocative in light of the women's distinguished history as characters in (male-authored) master narratives. I return to the women's own voices, mediated as they inevitably are by Ovid, precisely because his "female voice" has seemed so authentic to so many of his readers.14 Before that underexplored and fascinating female space is foreclosed in the interests of biological accuracy, it deserves to be the center of attention; in keeping with the dictates of embodied authorship, however, the final chapter will bring us back to Ovid's own role in the creation of female poets and female poetry, and there I will offer my answers to the questions theoretically minded readers will have been asking themselves throughout.

It will be obvious by this point that to the feminist question "can/does Ovid write like a woman?" my answer would be yes, precisely because he has seemed to do so to many of his readers throughout the ages, both male and female. I am simultaneously aware that devoting further attention to a "gender-troubled" male poet at the expense of women writers can be seen as a step in the wrong direction. This work is, and must be, post-feminist; I remain unconvinced by claims that biological women (itself an increasingly disputed category) have a monopoly on the feminine.15 At the same time, while gender concerns will necessarily play a major role in my interpretations - indeed, I see gender and authorship in the Heroides as not fully distinguishable - I read the heroines' writing as a function of the choices they exercise rather than deriving simply from their femininity. That is, I am interested in how gender plays into the construction of (authorial) power rather than in gender for its own sake (Kennedy 2002: 226-8).

A main advantage of my approach is that it offers a way out of certain critical impasses that often preclude an understanding of these letters: accepting the "community" model and viewing one heroine as reading the text of another first allows the reader to grant these women an all-too-rare moral agency16 and, on a metapoetic level, it dispenses with the need to condemn Ovid for contaminatio of plot. On the contrary, Ovid has articulated a fictional poetics that mirrors contemporary practices of writing poetry; the writing of the heroines may serve as a microcosm for contemporary Roman authorial communities, as the final chapter will discuss. In fact, my reading of the women of the Heroides as authors offers a way of understanding Ovid's own relationship to his poetry and to his reader. Their struggles for authorial voice may be less successful than his, but they do not differ in kind.

Because of my interest in reading through traditional stories, each chapter begins by outlining the standard mythological background; this provides a starting point for my own readings, which are less comprehensible without the context of secondary literature. This background should also help the reader to understand why viewing the women as a metaphorical community is fruitful: several of the poems that have been seen as critical failures can be shown to be quite the contrary once they are read in light of the other poems of the collection; rhetorical moves and "misinterpretations" become explicable.

At the same time I am wary of giving too much authority to those stories; one of the main goals of this book will be to explore what happens if we do not assume that, where master narrative and heroine diverge, the latter must be getting it wrong (or that Ovid is taking this opportunity to mock the heroines). Because of our tendency to stick to the version of the myth we already know - this despite the necessarily unstatic nature of myth and mythmaking - we regularly refuse to the heroines the opportunity to create a different ending. I am not suggesting that we begin teaching mythology differently, making the story of Briseis and Achilles end with a wedding and return to Phthia. My point is that by our knowledge (knowledge that, like the heroines, we have gained by reading) we limit the possibilities of these women, foreclosing their "happy ending."17

Like several recent feminist-oriented studies of the Heroides, I tire of criticism that makes the women inferior to poet and reader. Yet even those most willing to listen to the heroines will not grant them the power to affect their worlds (Barchiesi 1992: 19, Spentzou 2003: 29, 31). This study will do so, leaving the "end" more open-ended than it usually is. For instance, what makes us so sure that Penelope's letter to Odysseus, a brilliant example of intertextuality (Kennedy 1984), has no effect on our reading of Homer? Listening to Penelope, granting the possibility that she may know more than Homer, adds to the portrayal of the reunion scene in Book 23 of the Odyssey. The Homeric Odysseus' acceptance of Penelope's claim that, because she has not moved the bed, she has been faithful to him, is peculiar. In fact, she has proved nothing, but if Odysseus has already read Heroides 1 (or one of the many other letters Penelope has written, 1.61-2), he will understandably have fewer doubts about her fidelity.

This study builds upon much inspiring and careful work, and I trust that my vast intellectual debts will be apparent.18 At the same time, there has been no systematic treatment of the mechanics of how the women of the Heroides, as a whole, engage with each other's writing. By reading the poems of the Heroides in light of one another, I aim to show that their remarkable similarities of content derive not (or not significantly) from Ovid's habit of repeating himself, but primarily from the mythological women's duplication of the poetic principles and literary community of their creator. I will further argue that the Heroides can be seen as Ovid's meditation on the dangers (to him and other authors) inherent in assuming an authorial role.


As scholars of Ovid and other Augustan poets have documented, the poetry of this period is not only steeped in the poetry of prior and contemporary authors, but also requires from its readers a close familiarity with that tradition. This polymathy does not conflict with the oral performance context of most poetry; Augustan poetry presupposes a reader who is capable of paying attention to an entire collection of poetry at once, even if that (ideal/idealized) reader has never existed.19 The composition of the "poetic book" has been explored to good effect, but such studies have not been done on the Heroides. This book innovates in its introduction of community to the model of learned allusiveness, insofar as the heroines seem to create for themselves a shared space of poetic composition that is parallel to but different from the mythic world they inhabit. Perhaps the clearest example of their departure from the world of reality is the difficulty of putting the letters in order of relative composition: notions of chronology external to the poems do not apply within them - the heroines write in a timeless (Irigarayan?) continuum of female authorship.20 In the masculine world, wars happen and heroes go on quests, but in the "feminine space" in which these poems are composed, nothing ever changes: women are always being left, but more importantly, are always reading and writing the same texts.

The prior scholarly neglect of the Heroides' complex blend of the elegiac, the epistolary, and the mythic has amply been rectified, as the depth and breadth of recent work on the corpus demonstrates. The best of the new scholarship examines individual poems (rather than approaching the collection with a monolithic understanding),21 explores issues of irony, gender, genre, and intertextuality within individual passages, and mirrors the move in classical studies as a whole toward approaches that incorporate multiple methodologies. Yet some of the Heroides remain understudied, and scholarly concentration on individual, well-known poems often precludes an understanding of the whole. More work is needed to map patterns of allusive irony throughout the collection. Without such studies, the understanding of even the most frequently studied poems cannot be complete, since the poems are in constant dialogue with one another.

Literary studies of the Heroides tend to concentrate on three aspects of the poetry. The first seeks to explore the intertexts of the corpus, to find verbal or situational parallels in other poems outside the collection. The second approach consists of genre studies, explorations of the epistolary22 or elegiac23 aspects of the poems. The third approach, perhaps the single most promising way to read the Heroides, discusses individual poems within their mythological context and explores the ensuing results. Each of these three methods is fruitful, but in order to be most useful, they are best integrated. One of the long-favored ways of reading the Heroides is an examination of their "source-texts" because each poem seems designed to refer the reader to a specific literary predecessor. The intertextual ironies explored by this process have provided much of the meat of Heroides scholarship in recent years; interesting work has also been done on the (probable) source-texts we do not have.

Much of the older scholarship on the Heroides had assumed their status as letters to be an extraneous (and unfortunate) complication,24 but recent studies have placed the letter squarely back into the equation.25 Indeed, on my reading, the letter form is appropriate even when it seems most inappropriate, because the women who write do so, in a sense, to and for one another (and are themselves voracious and highly suggestible readers of texts). The mechanics of composition and transmission are clearly not meant to be closely examined:26 as is often pointed out, Ariadne would have had trouble finding a mailbox on the apparently deserted island of Naxos. Further, it might have made more sense (and, I shall suggest, preserved her own life) if Canace were to have spoken to her brother instead of laboriously writing to him in elegiac couplets, pen and sword in hand. Yet the fact that these women write poetic letters serves not only Ovid's needs but also their own, and reinforces the desirability of a study of them as not simply women who are unhappy in their personal lives, but as authors. Their status as letters, then, is key to a nuanced understanding of the Heroides. Epistolarity most profitably takes into account the situations of the heroines as they compose, asking why they write letters and exploring their relationships to their readers and intended addressees (not necessarily the same people). Some of the letters draw attention to their own epistolarity or to the physical circumstances of their composition, but critics often neglect the epistolarity of the remaining poems.27

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the Heroides, intimately related to the fact that they are letters, is the authority they grant to their reader, whether that reader is their addressee, who is given innumerable choices, about whether to read and how to read, or the external reader, who must decide whose version of events to believe - the traditional story or the new "feminine" reading offered here.28 In the first of two basic ways of conceptualizing reading, the author is seen as superior or aggressive and the reader is compelled to enact an already written script (so Svenbro 1993 and, for instance, Acontius [see below, pp. 135-7]), while the other entails the reader's active creation of meaning (a meaning that may or may not correlate with the meaning the author was hoping to generate). As Gamel and other students of performance have shown, the latter model is closer to how antiquity viewed reading (1998: 89 and passim); indeed my final chapter will discuss precisely the issue of authorial inability to control meaning.

In addition to focusing on epistolarity, recent scholarship has also - often disturbingly - implicated the external reader in the troubled world of readership in these poems. If it is improbable that the letter Ariadne writes on Naxos will reach Theseus, how much more unlikely is it to reach us, who hold it (or, as I will suggest it does, to reach Phaedra)? Multiple layers are created in the Heroides by the fact that we, as external readers, intercept the letters and thus eavesdrop on a conversation clearly marked as private.29 Further, the fact that the heroines draw attention to properties of their

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Meet the Author

Laurel Fulkerson is Assistant Professor of Classics at the Florida State University. She is the author of various articles on Latin and Greek poetry.

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