Heroides (Separation Anxiety)

The treatment of secondary characters is essential to the construction of many of the letters in Ovid’s Heroides. As the women of “lesser” value take the stage, Ovid grants them distinct and intricate voices. They long to communicate with their distant men and to make their opinions and assertions tangible. But they are not the same. No, absolutely not! And it is this variety of women that gives the complication its true power. The correspondences would be rather forgettable if not for their blatantly contrasting personalities. Yes, the letters often deal with love. Yes, they frequently deal with desire. And yes, the theme of infidelity reemerges. But these are not simply the musing of the same woman tossed into various household and relationships. The messages strikes different chord that, when layered, creates a thick enmeshing. There is an accumulatory effect that leaves the reader well aware of the diversity within women (and men): Penelope reiterates the prevalence of fickleness. Phyllis succumbs to unwise love, and finds refuge in nature. Briseis fears loneliness. Old Phaedra plays innocent. Oenone grapples with an affair. Hypsipyle allows power and love to tear apart her heart. Dido challenges Aeneas to find a better match. Hermoine whimpers her hopelessness. Ariadne feels robbed. Canace falls pitifully to the victimhood of incest. Medea seeks revenge. Laodamia reveals an almost ideal love. Hypermestra is oppressed by virtue. Sappho loses inspiration. Helen illuminates consequences. Hero invites disaster and drowning. Cydippe selects a manipulative fool. Ah, what variety! It seems as those the female form herein in multitudinous. Ovid expands the role of a woman, not only by allowing Her to play a larger role, but to variegate Her identity; she is sharp and soft, witty and naive, powerful and weak. As an amalgamation, She reminds the absent men of the world (past and present) that Her treasures are abundant and waiting to be recognized.



8 thoughts on “Heroides (Separation Anxiety)

  1. What a great and pithy breakdown of each woman letter writer! As I read through your list, I’m struck by the absence of a “reasonable,” “measured,” or even a “virtuous” woman. Ovid is often extolled, especially in comparison to Virgil, as “female-friendly,” but your list points out how limited his portrayals are. By giving these women a voice, has he empowered them? Or has he usurped their power and mischaracterized them?

  2. Thank your for the reply! I do think he has empowered them. However, I believe that this new power of voice challenges them to consider how to use that voice. As they criticize their men (or a situation), they seem to further complicate (and thus join) their subject. Over and over, they add layers. Instead of simplifying the matter (i.e. moving on, looking for inspiration elsewhere), they linger forever in these letters. As for mischaracterization, I’m not sure. As I lean against the mast, it’s difficult to perceive their faces from this far out at sea. And even harder to make out their soul.

  3. Thanks for opening this space to talk directly about gender, Nathan. I’ve been preoccupied with the way the text handles gender, and it’ll be helpful to try to think through. When Alex first told us it was written by many of the women of Greek mythology, I imagined it as a politically-charged project dedicated to recovering marginalized or subaltern voices, to strategically resisting the figure of the helpless, spurned woman by making these women central characters with their own narratives.
    So, I was surprised to find what seemed to be an exhibition of many such figures, and what caught my attention were phrases like, “The fidelity of Penelope…has been tested and has not been found wanting” (x). It’s hard for me to comment on either Isbell’s commentaries or Ovid’s characterizations, knowing so little about their source texts. But my understanding is that while Penelope certainly experienced a trial (or trials) through Odysseus’s absence (and return), it was far more than a trial of faithfulness to her husband. Living surrounded by impetuous, greedy, and threatening “suitors” would be a constant test of fortitude. Living in the absence of knowledge about the fate of a love one would be a constant test of will to focus on matters nearer to hand. And getting ghosted by Odysseus (to make a partial translation into the language of millenials) would be a test of…well, I wouldn’t call it a test. Maybe it’s an example of excommunication, in which case, she must have found faith somewhere outside the institution that originally housed their relationship – the very absence of fidelity!
    I found this framework to lead to narrow ethical assessments as well. Isbell calls Penelope a “paradigm of virtue…wifely virtue” (2). Phyllis is measured as “entirely sympathetic” because of her graciousness towards Demophoon (10). Though a victim of Demophoon’s disrespect, she is a “victim violated as much by her own goodness” and “foolish generosity” (10-1). By contrast, Oenone “scarcely presents herself as a woman of unblemished and uncompromising virtue,” and so we need not have so much sympathy for her (39). These shallow readings of a loving relationship as a tug-of-war-of-goodness did not sit well with me.
    Some of Ovid’s figurations stood out to me even more in this respect. What takes the cake is Briseis’s desperate plea to “follow as captive, not as wife,” enticing Achilles with maybe the most masculinist phrase I’ve ever encountered: “With me in your tent you can take up arms and make your father in his old age proud” (23-24). Such an abasement was hard to imagine as anything other than Ovid’s debased puppeteering.
    Do you read these lines with greater credulity than me? I know I’ve been pretty selective in my quoting, but I’m left to wonder – what vision do Isbell and Ovid have in mind when they contemplate “the subject of love” (vii)?

    • I think these letters often extend beyond love. Yes, I think “love” is the setting, not the topic. These messages are more keen on the nuances of relationships (not necessarily romance). In fact, taking “love” out of the equation might be an interesting thought experiment.

  4. I paused at Briseis letter as well, arrested by her self-abasement. I noted that her “words” take the subject position in sentence of the first line, whereas she, Briseis as a subjectivity appears at the end of the line in the sentences object position. She seems all too ready to acquiesce to her objectification, as she offers that she is “stolen” and “giv[en]” – always acted upon. Ostensibly, her “words” are Greek, as she references learning the language at the end of the following line. My reading of what follows is colored by a consideration of how language is ideological and value laden. It is worth noting that the letter reflects the values of the language of her composition. The word “barbarian” for us now means uncivilized, however, its Greek origins simply indicate one who does not speak Greek, and is hence of “lower status” or undeserving of the rights afforded to Greeks. It makes sense that she might “debase” herself, or “lower” herself, if this is the case. Her language indicates an internalization of the values of her oppressors, and an acceptance of her status as property. All of these things seem mutually reinforcing. The use of “alien” here functions to signal “foreign,” but perhaps because of our recent reading of Excommunication, I am left grasping for a symptomatic opening. She is both “alien” as in foreigner, but also “alien” – if we account for the words Latin roots in “alius” – as “other.” I now think of Wark’s concept of xenocommunication, or the notion that communication always happens in “the shadow of a lost immediacy with the totality” (160). I take Breseis in some way to be the representation of totality of possible others. Also, what might we make of her powers of prophecy? Here, they go unmentioned, but in The Agamemnon, she can see the future. That’s bringing Thacker to mind, but I can’t make the interpretive leap in either case frankly. My head hurts.

    • I think the idea or prophecy connects to our modern day sexism: men are this, and women are that. Perhaps these letters are using prophecy to highlight what we now call stereotypes. While “defining” women, Ovid may also be “defining” men, always with a sense of irony.

  5. Nate,

    I appreciate your breakdown of how the various strong female voices come together, and I’m curious as to what you think about the sudden intrusion of the boastful Paris, eager Leander, and controlling Acontius. I could be reading with too contemporary an eye, but I found the sudden presence of men oddly invasive, almost as if there were trying to control a space in which the women of myth were telling their neglected side of the story. I think Justin and Alex have already unpacked some of the more problematic aspects of that interpretation–Justin touched on how the women characterize or portray themselves, and Alex noted that all of this is at the end of the day a male writer appropriating their voice–but I do think it’s worth wondering why the men suddenly appear at all. Isbell concludes that the men of the final six letters are equal in guilt to the absent men of the first fifteen letters–that they do as much harm with their “overrriding passion” as the earlier male figures do with their neglect. I suppose Ovid could be addressing the notion that merely “being there” is not sufficient, or attempting to depict what the “before” side of a manipulative seduction looks like, but I’m not sure I have a totally clear answer as to why the men enter the picture.

  6. Great question! To make a contemporary connection, I think the sudden presence of men is akin to “Rabbit” Angstrom in Updike’s Rabbit, Run. He is a husband that leaves his wife to carry on the house, only to return home later to cause issues. Perhaps it does not matter whether the Man is present or absent; He always seems to cause problems.

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