Dead Letters: If I write, am I heard? If I’m dead, is it read?


Ovid’s Heroides, is full of all the passion and modern day drama one might find on a reality TV show. The human element is captured and repeated throughout, revealing the possible stories of the women who lost everything: their loves, families, pride, passion and their lives! We can relate to these passions having experienced, or by even knowing someone close to us, who has gone through similar experiences in the loss of love. Ovid captures the heartache and gives a voice to these women whose stories have not been told. Their love and they themselves have received a voice and a medium in which their pain is echoed and related to, two-thousand years later.

These women are all about to die at their own hands for the sake of lost love. They are desperately reaching to grasp the one thing that will keep them alive, their love’s return. Death…

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4 thoughts on “Dead Letters: If I write, am I heard? If I’m dead, is it read?

  1. While reading your post I kept thinking of Helen (XVII) and Hermione (VIII) (who didn’t kill themselves I think) mostly because their letters, like Penelope’s (I) were somewhat political. What I mean with this is that they didn’t just deal with their undying love but also with oaths and promises and offered social criticism (you know, my mother abandoned me and my grandfather messed up my marriage arrangements—in the case of Hermione). See for me these letters are more about Ovid telling these women’s own version of their story. Rather than just women dying for love (which yes, is the overall theme) I’m thinking of Ovid giving a voice to these characters that were either silent or misunderstood. When I read Dido’s letter (VII), for example, I already knew what Aeneas did to her. When I read the Aeneid I always thought, “why would she abandon her people and just kill herself for this dude?” And now of course I see much more depth to her character, which is of course is all Ovid’s interpretation, but it’s nice. At least her letter is a suicide letter where she actually remembers her sister and her people and actually writes her own epitaph (a lot of these women do, which I thought was also interesting). But I was too much into Greek mythology when I was in High School so this could just be the nerd in me getting excited.

    Anyway, like Penelope, I too wondered why Ovid chose these characters for writing these letters. Personally, I like that he chose these characters from myth like Helen and Paris because we know what happens to them in the end and so probably did the readers of the letters. Therefore, we know what’s happening at the time the letters are being written and we can focus on other things (like Penelope said, we can examine them with a “critical lens”) since we know the lovers are dead or that they are going to die. These letters, after all, were not received and they didn’t change anything, except perhaps Hero’s letter (XIX) that might have induced Leander to face the storm and eventually drown.

  2. Are those letter really the last resort before death? I mean all those women did die at one point, but was it (always) due to being left or abandoned? They all seem more or less helpless after being left, some even threat suicide, but did they all commit suicide?
    I think that those letters are more therapeutic, many even diary style, and therefore would help those (most?) women to not resort to killing themselves. Some of them seemed way more angry about their husband or lover leaving.
    I do want to comment on Ovid using characters known from myth and expand on them. I think it was a very good choice on his part. Those women were already known through their parts in popular stories. This could not only have worked in Ovid’s favor as a justification to writing letters from a woman’s point of view, but also as a selling point.
    I think the Heroides was one of Ovid’s first works. Maybe a nice starting point before delving deeper into the art of seducing women in Ars Amatoria?

    • That’s interesting Ann-Kathrin! I didn’t give much thought to the letters as therapeutic. I do know that Dido killed herself after Aeneas left her (according to the Aeneid anyways) so I considered her letter to be a suicide letter.

      But yes, if we considered this fan-fiction (and I know how much you like fan fiction) then I guess we can imagine these women writing their feelings on paper and then keep on living. Medea sort of did this, although she apparently disappeared after killing Jason’s future wife.

  3. I wanted to address your statement that, “Ovid’s Heroides is full of all the passion that and modern day drama one may find on a reality TV show”, because I had this kind of gut reaction to reading these kind of “dead letters” from the many characters. When I had this thought originally, I wanted to push myself to move past this thought; rather, to try and see the absolute tragedy and literary mastery that Ovid was demonstrating through these confessionals. Then, I read your blog and thought NO! It’s okay to have this reaction. For me to think that these letters seem dramatic and similar to the kind of irrational actions I see displayed on not only reality TV shows, but also similar to those of “soap’s” and dramatic television, is okay. This in fact does not reduce my readings of these letters; it just forces me to examine them with more of a critical lens, (or at least I think so, wishful thinking? delusional?). I find that when I am reading these grand statements and suicidal claims over a lost lover or a scandalous affair, I can’t help but think of modern day television. I’m unsure of what to make of this connection I can’t seem to escape. There is no doubt that these letters are excellent and I have enjoyed reading them and can infer a great deal from the style in which they are written. However, I can’t help but read into these emotional declarations that are being made.

    On another note, you mention that yes, these are not in fact written by Penelope, or Sappho, or Paris; but instead, are written and purposely crafted by Ovid. This makes me question who is the actual writer of these letters and whether or not they are meant to be received or sent to those who are named. They are in fact, “dead”. This is similar to the vagueness of who Derrida is writing to and his own explorations of Freud’s Pleasure Principle. It is unclear who he intends to read these or what the purpose is of him, (I suppose I am referring to both Derrida and Ovid), communicating in this type of epistolary form. Why did Ovid choose to write in this form and to create “letters” written to and from these specific mythical individuals? How detached from reality are these are these writers and what motivates them to such dramatic proclamations and actions such as suicide? Ovid is behind these letters but he has crafted each epistle to evoke each “characters” persona. What to make of all this…

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