The Voice of the Heartbroken

“Ovid’s Feminine Voice” in the Heroides is Really the Universal Voice of Heartbreak

Dani Bostick
Nov 20, 2018 · 10 min read
Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus, by Angelica Kauffman (from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston).

A quick Google search for “male author female narrator” turns up numerous essays and think pieces about the ability of men to write from the perspective of women. Apparently, this has been quite a hot topic recently among both readers and writers. Earlier this year, author Whitney Reynolds challenged her female followers to describe herself like a male author would. Electric Literature called the results “savage” and a “fierce indictment of what happens when you try to write a character that you don’t respect or understand.”

Modern men were not the first to write from the perspective of a female, however. Over two millennia ago, Ovid wrote the Heroides, a collection of letters written in the voice of women who have been left behind by heroes they love. Ovid was not just writing about women, he was writing in the voices of different women, a challenging feat. Eli Gotlieb, author of The Face Thief, wrote in a 2013 Atlantic article about the portrayal of female characters in literature, he said, “I don’t necessarily find women difficult to write about in the third person, but to write them in the first person is to make a hubristic leap. It can be done — Madame Bovary comes to mind — but the reader will often begin from a suspicious wariness.”

Author Luke Tredget, a man who wrote a novel (Kismet) from the perspective of a female, did not consider his work to be a hubristic leap. For Tredget, the process was not even particularly difficult. He explained, “I found it relatively easy to imagine the character in certain predicaments, and the way she thinks and acts comes quite naturally to me. I could easily project her into different stories and settings.” Reviews of his work were overwhelmingly positive. Publisher’s Weekly wrote that Tredget “provides an incisive view of the uncertainties of contemporary adulthood.”

How well did Ovid write in the female voice? From the perspective of one 19th-century male, he nailed it. Among Heroides’ merits are “its insights into the female heart,” per Arthur Palmer in 1898. Modern scholarly reception of Heroides tends praise the work’s intertextuality while remaining critical of Ovid’s narrative voice. Ovid has been described as a caricaturist who diminishes female power. Others have accused him of ascribing “verbose powerlessness” to the heroines and creating female characters who use the epistolary genre “in the service of self-marginalization.”

As I read the Heroides, I was struck by how accurately Ovid portrayed the emotions associated with abandonment and unrequited love. Nonetheless, I was not left with the impression that Ovid has special “insights into the female heart.” Ovid did not need special insights because certain experiences transcend both gender and time. Ovid, like Tredget, could relate to the heroine’s experiences and imagine himself in their position. In fact, it is possible he had experienced the same intensity of emotion as the heroines. (Recent research has suggested that men suffer more than women in the aftermath of a breakup.) For Ovid, love and pain were inextricably linked: in the Amores [2.19], he writes, “Nil ego, quod nullo tempore laedat, amo” — “I cannot love anything that never hurts me.

Ovid’s portrayal of the heroines is not an exercise in marginalization or disempowerment. Some situations are legitimately distressing, and there is no loss of dignity to articulate that distress in an honest way. (Seriously, though, how is a woman supposed to feel when she wakes up on a desolate beach and realizes the man for whom she sacrificed is sailing away?) I thought the most believable and credible moments in Heroides were when Ovid captures the essence of abandoned-lover despair while taking into account the role of men in causing that despair.

As she stands abandoned on the beach watching Theseus sail away, Ovid’s Ariadne recalls the promise her lover repeated: tum mihi dicebas: “per ego ipsa pericula iuro / te fore, dum nostrum vivet uterque meam” (then you kept telling me, “I swear by these very dangers that you will be mine as long as we both live” [10.73–4]). Likewise, before she commits suicide, Phyllis writes to Demophoon complaining he manipulated her with persistent flattery: “credimus blandis, quorum tibi copia verbis” (I trusted your smooth-talking, which you have a lot of [2.51]).

With the benefit of hindsight, many women have called out their ex-lovers’ lies. Modern women warn against smooth-talking men in personal conversations and advice columns with headlines like “7 Signs Your Man Is An Over-Charming Psycho” and “Never Fall For The Smooth Talking Guy.” Despite the warnings, women still end up feeling conned by charm-offensives. In “Since U Been Gone, Kelly Clarkson sings, “How can I put it? You put me on. I even fell for that stupid love song.” Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies,” written by Christine McVie, is the ultimate song about deception.

Ovid’s descriptions of these women are not only believable, they show the flip side of the kind of advice he will later dispense in Ars Amatoria where he often encourages suitors to use sweet talk as an effective way of winning over their love interests:

vere prius volucres taceant, aestate cicadae,
Maenalius lepori det sua terga canis,
femina quam iuveni blande temptata repugnet

Birds will be quiet in the spring, cicadas in the summer,
a Maenalian dog will turn its back on a hare before
a woman bombarded with flattery will rebuff a young man (1.271–273)

Hypsipyle writes to Jason that love makes people more gullible (“credula res amor est,” “love is a gullible thing” [6.21]). Phyllis was caught in this very cycle: “sum decepta tuis et amans et femina verbis” (“I have been deceived, in love and a woman, by your words” [2.65]). The Ovid-recommended blanditiae, which women think their suitors say just for them (“quae dici sentiat illa sibi” [1.570]), are a source of tremendous confusion and angst. Ovid never warns readers of the Ars Amatoria that blanditiae can end up causing this type of pain, but we know he understands the risk because he describes it so accurately in Heroides.

Ovid is also very believable when women lament their heroes’ infidelity and new love interests. Oenone begins her letter to Paris by asking if his new wife will even let him read it (“perlegis? an coniunx prohibet nova?” [5.1]). Later in the letter, she reminds Paris that Helen once loved Menelaus who now sleeps in an empty bed (“et sic Menalaon amavit / nunc iacet in viduo credulus ille toro” [5. 105]). In other words, what goes around comes around. (Justin Timberlake’s version of this message now has over 280 million views on YouTube.)

Even Penelope questions Odysseus’ faithfulness and imagines conversations he might be having with a hypothetical love interest (readers of course know this fear is not entirely unfounded):

esse peregrino captus amore potes
fortisan et narres, quam est tibi rustica coniunx

You can be captivated by an exotic love —
Maybe you tell her how plain your wife is (1.76–77)

In a similar way, Natalie Merchant ponders specific details about her ex-lover’s potentially superior new partner in her song “Jealousy”:

Is she bright, so well read?
Are there novels by her bed?
Is she the sort you’ve always said
could satisfy your head?

Ovid represents a broad range of emotions and reactions to infidelity. Deianira, for example, is less docile than other betrayed heroines as she lambastes Hercules’ philandering: “peregrinos addis amores/ et mater de te quaelibet esse potest” (“You acquire exotic lovers and whoever wants can become a mother by you” [9.47–48]). Later, she makes fun of the clothing Hercules wears when he is with Omphale and questions his manhood, before she finds out he is dying a painful death she has caused via the poisoned cloak (“scribenti nuntia venit/ fama virum tunicae tabe perire meae” [9.142–3]). Immediately after she hears the news, she asks herself “quid feci?” (“what have I done?”) and kills herself.

In “You Oughta Know,” the quintessential ’90s breakup anthem, Morissette is much angrier than Merchant in “Jealousy.” There is no murder in her song (a la Dixie Chick’s “Goodbye Earl”), but she captures the simultaneous disdain for and continued attachment to the person who betrayed her.

Does she speak eloquently?
And would she have your baby?
I’m sure she’d make a really excellent mother…

And every time you speak her name
Does she know how you told me
You’d hold me until you died
’Til you died, but you’re still alive

Nobody has questioned whether Merchant and Morissette are credible in their reaction to infidelity. Of course they are; it is terrible to be left for another person. Ovid captures a variety of believable experiences in his letters via a feminine voice.

Although Ovid likely experienced this degree of pain himself, when he writes to men in his own voice, he advises men take on multiple lovers to cope with inconvenient emotions that accompany relationships: “hortor et ut pariter binas habeatis amicas / fortior est, plures siquis habere potest” (“I urge you to have two girlfriends at the same time. If anyone is able to handle more women, more power to him” [Remedia Amoris 1.442–3]). Were Jason, Odysseus, and Hercules were unfaithful in order to manage their own love-sickness? Ovid has shown through their abandoned lovers that infidelity can be both the source and cure for heartache.

Finally, Ovid’s treatment of ungratefulness is equally skillful. Throughout the Heroides, there are several powerful examples of women who learn that their efforts and sacrifices have not secured them a future with the men they love. Phyllis brings up both the gifts she gave Demoophon and the gifts she planned to give him: “munera multa dedi, multa datura fui” (2.110). Dido too reminds Aeneas of the help she provided him: “ille quidem male gratus et ad mea munera surdus” (“He is truly ungrateful and unresponsive towards my gifts,” [7.27]). And, after Theseus abandons Ariadne, she reminds him of the price she paid to help him in his quest to slay the Minotaur:

Ut pater et tellus iusto regnata parenti
prodita sunt facto, nomina cara, meo.
cum tibi, ne victor tecto morerere recurvo,
quae regerent passus, pro duce fila dedi

My father and the kingdom ruled justly by my father,
names dear to me, have been betrayed by what I have done
when I gave you the thread you used to retrace your steps
so that you, victorious, wouldn’t die in the winding walls (10.69–73)

Medea is in the same boat and reminds Jason that she betrayed her family and left her homeland to help him (“proditus est genitor, regnum patriamque reliqui,” [12.109]). Later she laments that Jason’s new lover is reaping the benefits of her hard work: “quos ego servavi, paelex amplectitur artus / et nostri fructus illa laboris habet” (“his mistress embraces the arms I saved and she has the fruit of my labor,” [12.173–4]). Women are still writing songs about this brand of betrayal. Lauryn Hill captures it in “When It Hurts So Bad”:

Gave up my power
I existed for you
But who ever knew
The voo-doo you’d do

In “Resentment,” Beyonce bemoans a similar plight in a song about her lover’s infidelity:

Loved you more than ever
More than my own life
The best part of me I gave you
It was sacrifice

Personal sacrifice and indebtedness do not guarantee perpetual happiness and stability in a relationship. The gender of the singer does not change the impact and relatability of the lyrics. In fact, many of the experiences Ovid describes in a feminine voice have been conveyed by men. Bon Jovi’s “Shot Through the Heart” could have been composed by Ovid writing as one of his most labile heroines. Here, the female partner is the one causing pain with blanditiis and false promises:

Shot through the heart
And you’re to blame
Darlin’, you give love a bad name

An angel’s smile is what you sell
You promise me heaven, then put me through hell

Heartbreak has inspired many other artists from Roy Orbison (“And from this moment on I’ll be crying, crying, crying, crying, yeah, crying, crying over you”) to Boyz II Men (“Pain in my head. Oh, I’d rather be dead”). Even the most maudlin songs tend to be immune from believability-related criticism. Why? Because consumers of music have experienced heartbreak as well and can remember times they felt the same way.

Too much modern criticism of Ovid’s feminine voice ignores that the loss of a relationship can be disorienting and disempowering even for the most independent women and men. Break-up pain is not the stuff of the disempowered, weak, one-dimensional women, as some have characterized the upset women of the Heroides. Nobody pulls off an overnight transformation from post-breakup grief to Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” (“Spend more time with my friends, I ain’t worried ‘bout nothin’”) or Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” (“ What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter, footsteps even lighter. Doesn’t mean I’m over ’cause you’re gone”). I can’t help but wonder what the authors of empowering breakup songs would communicate to their ex-lovers in a more vulnerable, raw moment.

Ovid gave voice to the vulnerability and pain of women suffering because of abandonment. Many women in the Heroides move on, and many have not been perpetually defined by the pain they expressed in their letters. Pain and despair is one dimension of a relationship’s end, and it is a valid, relatable, common dimension. Ovid deserves more credit for the competent, artful snapshots of post-abandonment pain he describes in the Heroides.

Dani Bostick teaches high school Latin and an occasional micro-section of ancient Greek in Virginia where she lives with her husband, children, and muppet-like dogs. She has published many collections of Latin mottoes online, has a strong presence as an activist for survivors of sexual violence on twitter, and is available to write, speak, or rabble-rouse.

In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the…

Dani Bostick

Written by

For doughnuts, Belgian ale, dogs & the underdog. Against shame, silence, polar vortices &popcorn jellybeans/ Latin Teacher, Writer

In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

Dani Bostick

Written by

For doughnuts, Belgian ale, dogs & the underdog. Against shame, silence, polar vortices &popcorn jellybeans/ Latin Teacher, Writer

In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

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