Ovid Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4056

Ovid never published any prose, and the Metamorphoses (the transformations) is his only thoroughly narrative work; in the telling of its manifold but continuous stories, however, the poem exemplifies a range of narrative techniques which has had inestimable influence on the history of short fiction.


The verse form of the poem (dactylic hexameter), the invocation to the gods, and the opening statement of theme all indicate from the outset that this is Ovid’s epic:My spirit moves me to tell of forms changed into new bodies. Gods, since you made these changes, favor my attempt and from the first beginning of the world to my own time spin out an uninterrupted song.

The ambitious scope of the project is reflected in its sheer size alone; with fifteen books of about eight hundred lines each, the Metamorphoses is longer than either the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.) or Paradise Lost (1667). It has more in common with the Greek poet Hesiod than with the Homeric tradition of epic from which Vergil and John Milton drew inspiration, and it is odd enough in its subject and particularly in its tone that some commentators have called it an antiepic.

The poem appears to tell of the world’s progress from an original chaos of matter to Creation and the Golden Age, then of a decline through four ages to the Flood; from there, it recounts the vicissitudes in the life of humans and gods, first in a mythological epoch and then in the historical period from the founding of Troy to the reign of Augustus Caesar. Underlying the narrative is a sense of the continuous war between order and disorder, cosmos and chaos, integrity (in every sense of the word) and disintegration. Thus, the poem that begins with the transformation of shapeless chaos into an ordered but unstable universe climaxes with Augustus’s imposition of order on Rome’s political chaos after the death of Julius Caesar. It ends with the anticipated death and metamorphosis of its own author:And now my work is done, which neither Jove’s wrath nor fire nor sword nor gnawing tooth of time can destroy. Let that day which has power over nothing but this body come when it will and end my uncertain span of years. Yet the best of me will be borne up, everlasting, above the lofty stars, and my name will be imperishable. Wherever Roman power extends over conquered lands I shall be read aloud by the people; famous through all ages, if there be any truth to the poets’ presentiments, I shall live.

The Metamorphoses, however, is not in any rigorous sense a philosophical poem (such as Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, first century b.c.e.) or a politico-religious poem (such as the Aeneid). It is secular and above all literary, and the issues that most engage its author are primarily artistic ones. Indeed, to say that Ovid weaves stories from Greek and Latin mythology into an unbroken narrative of transformations is to characterize the three major aesthetic problems that the poet sets for himself; it is his resourceful solutions to these problems that have been of most value to subsequent writers of fiction.

First, it is clear that Ovid was not, like William Blake or J. R. R. Tolkien, trying to devise a mythology; but while his stories are traditional, it would be a mistake to conceive him as compiling a handbook like Thomas Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable (1855). Although it is all too often used like a handbook or reference work, the Metamorphoses is a literary work of great originality and personality, a sophisticated and even skeptical handling of myth by a characteristic narrative voice. Although Ovid occasionally made a point of telling a little-known story (“Pyramus and Thisbe” is presented in this way, although thanks to Ovid and one of his most assiduous readers, it is very familiar to the modern audience), he expected his audience on the whole to know the stories he told and so to be most interested in how he transformed the old familiar songs in the voice, perspective, and detail of his particular telling. This intention is certainly apparent in the poet’s choosing to end with the apotheosis of himself, or, more strictly speaking, of his narrative voice. (The closest modern equivalents to Ovid’s interplay between a tale and its narration would be Thomas Mann’s in Joseph and His Brothers, 1933-1943, or John Barth’s in Chimera, 1972.)

When, for example, Ovid came to tell the story of Medea (book 7: lines 1-424), he was addressing an audience familiar with Euripides’ tragedy, and perhaps also with his own lost tragedy, Medea. There may be resemblances between Ovid’s own two versions; the story of Daedalus in Metamorphoses (8:152-235) reuses a number of lines from the poet’s earlier account of the same material in Ars Amatoria (2:21-96). In any case, these circumstances afford a poet considerable freedom, because in a sense he can take the plot for granted. The story, therefore, begins with the major events relegated to a subordinate clause:While the Argonauts were approaching King Aeetes and asking for the Golden Fleece, and while the King was imposing his monstrous conditions, his daughter was seized by an overpowering passion.

This is immediately followed by a long interior monologue by Medea—an almost operatic struggle with her passion that, like an overture, firmly fixes the character as the center of attention in this version of the story. She finally yields to her love and provides Jason with the herbs and spells he will need to survive the trials imposed by the king. Ovid dwells on one of these, the sowing of the serpent’s teeth to produce an army that must be defeated, perhaps because the motif recalls the second “creation” after the Flood when Deucalion and Pyrrha sow stones to repopulate the world. With the help of Medea’s magic, the dragon that guards the Fleece is entranced and Jason carries off both the prize and the princess to Thessaly. Once there, Medea uses her powers to rejuvenate Jason’s father Aeson in an elaborately detailed ritual. She then exacts vengeance from Aeson’s usurping brother Pelias by offering to restore his youth by the same magic. She pretends to repeat the ceremony but instead tricks Pelias’s daughters into butchering their father. She escapes in her dragon chariot to Corinth, where the best-known part of her story, the substance of Euripides’ tragedy, is passed over in a single sentence: “But after the new wife had been set afire by Colchian poisons and the two seas had seen the king’s house burning, an impious sword was drenched in the blood of her sons and, having wickedly avenged herself, the mother fled Jason’s weapons.” This escape is to Athens, where an unsuccessful attempt to poison Theseus initiates the transition to another tale.


In “Medea” as elsewhere, Ovid successfully shifts the reader’s attention from the inherited tale to its present telling. Medea’s opening monologue, her prayer to Hecate (the model for Prospero’s speech abjuring magic in The Tempest, 1611), and vivid descriptions of her rituals take up close to half of the entire narrative. Ovid made the tale his own by the resulting emphasis on the psychological dimension of her love and jealousy, and on the rare power of the witch, unlike most mortals, to cause transformations rather than to suffer them.

The second challenge Ovid sets for himself is that of maintaining “uninterrupted song.” This creates, above all, an opportunity to demonstrate virtuosity in the art of transition, and the display begins almost at once. In book 1, for example, when the story moves from the primeval to the mythological epoch, the spot is marked with a complex and ornate transition. The world has been progressively formed out of chaos, culminating in upright humans; but then a decline leads to the Flood, described as a kind of second chaos, with fish in the trees and everything out of place. New creations emerge from the discordant harmony of heat and moisture in the fertile mud, one of which is the monstrous Python, which the archer Apollo has to kill with thousands of arrows. To commemorate his triumph, the god established the Pythian games, in which the winning athletes were crowned with oak leaves. Ovid’s audience, however, knew that the Pythian victors were in fact crowned with laurel, so the transition continues: “There was not yet any laurel (laurus), so any tree served to provide the garland that crowned the flowing locks of Phoebus. His first love was Daphne, daughter of Peneus the river god. This came about not by sheer chance, but through the wrath of Cupid.”

“Python” and “Daphne”

There are actually three facets to this transition from “Python” to “Daphne.” One is naïvely narrative: The exploits of the young god are seen first in war, then in love. A second transition is via the name Daphne, which a Roman literary audience would recognize as Greek for “laurel,” and the absence of laurel in the preceding story. (Transition by way of some missing element is frequent in the Metamorphoses; in fact, the story of Daphne also ends with one, leading to the story of Io: When the other rivers come to console Daphne’s father, one is missing because he is worried about the disappearance of his own daughter.) What actually causes Apollo’s infatuation, however, is his condescending to Cupid as a direct result of his victory over the monster. Apollo taunts Cupid that a bow is a weapon for a warrior, not a boy; but Cupid replies, “Your bow strikes everything, but mine will strike you,” and promptly shoots Apollo with a love dart that sends him chasing the nymph.

Although the narrative of the Metamorphoses is in principle chronological, the long mythological section generally replaces temporal sequence with some formal symmetry. Stories are grouped around a place (Athens, Crete, Troy); a person (Theseus, Orpheus); or a theme (unrequited love, the amours of the gods). The handling of two stories about Daedalus is typical. The story of how Icarus flew too high on his man-made wings ends in his burial, at which is present a partridge who (as readers come to expect) is the subject of the following story. The relation between the two tales is more complex than it appears, however, for the bird is Perdix, a nephew of Daedalus, who as an apprentice was so precocious that his uncle in envy hurled him from a temple of Minerva. As he fell, the goddess turned him into a bird that bears his name—one that stays close to the ground and seems to fear high places, as the poet tells us. Thus, the nephew is too bright and saved from death by being transformed into a bird; the son is not bright enough and dies pretending to be a bird; and Daedalus, who loves his son and hates his nephew, is responsible for the fall of both.

Ovid’s chief model for the short narrative units of his poem was what has come to be called the epyllion. It was a type of narrative poem, usually of a few hundred lines, developed by the Hellenistic Greeks (particularly Callimachus and Theocritus), and characterized by ekphrasis (densely detailed scene-setting), recounted speech, and often the insertion of another loosely related story. This other story was a digression, told or sung by one of the characters, depicted on a tapestry, vase, or similar invention within the original story. Typical of the method of epyllion is Ovid’s insertion of “Pan and Syrinx” into the narrative about Io: It is the tale in which Mercury finally puts to sleep the last of the hundred eyes of Argus. This technique helps the poet avoid monotony, but it also makes possible more extensive effects than could be managed in a mere sequence of transformation stories. Apparently taking his cue from the epyllion, Ovid frequently has characters tell or sing stories to one another as a way of passing time during their own stories. So Theseus and his companions swap tales while waiting for flood waters to subside (8:546ff.), and the garrulous Nestor tells stories of heroes during a truce in the Trojan War (12:146ff.).

In the story of Minyas’s daughters (4:1-415), Ovid develops this device into something like a miniature Decameron (1353). The women of Thebes, dressed in animal skins and dancing to the music of flutes, drums, and cymbals, are in the streets celebrating the orgiastic festival of Bacchus (Dionysius). The daughters of Minyas, however, denying the divinity of Bacchus, remain indoors, demurely working at the loom and telling tales in the service of Minerva. Three of the sisters’ stories are recounted. The first, after sketching three stories, finally decides to tell the little-known “Pyramus and Thisbe.” The third sister similarly passes over five tales before telling that of “Hermaphroditus and Salmacis.” While these two stories are of virtually equal length, the story told in the center by the second sister is about the mutual cruelties of Apollo (as the Sun) and Venus. Although shorter than the stories that surround it, this is a double story. The first part is familiar and involves no transformation—the Sun revealing the infidelity of Venus with Mars to her husband Vulcan so that he can catch them in a web of bronze chain. The second part, about the revenge of Venus, is very unfamiliar and probably Ovid’s own invention. It ends with two transformations: The Persian princess, seduced by Apollo and buried alive by her father, is turned into an incense shrub; and the nymph Clytie, who informed on the princess because Apollo spurned her and who gazed at the sun with unrequited love until she pined away, is turned into a heliotrope. The storytelling ends at dusk, when the power of Bacchus overcomes the impious sisters. Amid the smoke and unearthly music of the bacchanal, the god of wine turns their looms into grape vines and the sisters themselves into bats.

This group of stories is held together not only by its frame but also by a number of repeated motifs that unify and balance the composition. For example, Thisbe’s blood-dyed veil, the brazen mesh forged by Vulcan, and Salmacis ensnaring Hermaphroditus like ivy on a tree trunk or a squid about its prey all recall the tapestry being woven by the narrators. In them the ingenuity of Minerva is combined with the dark passions associated with Bacchus, and this is confirmed in the end when the cloth being woven in her honor is preempted by Bacchus and turned into vines. Thus, the deeper underpinning of these stories is the tension between Bacchus and Minerva, the god of riot and intoxication who had two mothers, versus the goddess of wisdom, ingenuity, and weaving who was born directly from the brain of her father Jupiter. This antithesis, loosely related to that of chaos and cosmos, is also mirrored in the central story here, in the antipathy of Apollo and Venus.

The third artistic challenge that Ovid faces is the avoidance of tedium in the telling of hundreds of stories, all of which end in metamorphosis. It is a problem which Ovid shared with anyone dealing in repetition and already-known formulaic denouements, and his solutions resemble those of the literary pornographer. In this regard he mobilized all of the opulent devices that endeared him to the Renaissance and helped shape the style of the Baroque. Varied narrative pace, the subordination of some stories to others, and high and low relief in the modeling of details and personalities all contribute to obscure the repeated denouement of transformation by creating the illusion of a dense and varied world. The strong presence of a narrator is another factor here; a good-humored, humane, mildly ironic sensibility behind the shaping and selection of detail is felt, but what the narrator selects above all is the language of his telling. It was in his management of the subtle tension between the immediate pleasure of poetic language and the ongoing pressure of narrative that Ovid was most inventive. His mobile and sensuous descriptions of how one form changes into another are impressive, and the impression is visible, for example, throughout Dante’s The Divine Comedy (c. 1320). Even more notable is a pioneering use of simile and metaphor to anticipate transformation.

The story of Tereus, Procne, and Philomela (6:424-674) is almost a showcase of this technique. Tereus marries Procne and she bears him a son, Itys. After five years, Procne asks her sister Philomela to visit, but when Tereus goes to fetch her, he falls in love. When she steps onto his ship and so into his power, Ovid compares him to an eagle with a hare in its claws. When he rapes her, she is like a timid lamb or a dove. When she threatens to tell what has happened, he cuts out her tongue, and it writhes on the ground like a snake. Mute and confined, she manages to weave her story into a tapestry and sends it to her sister. Under cover of another festival of Bacchus, Procne frees her sister and together they plan revenge. Finally, Procne, murmuring, “how like his father he is,” drags Itys off “like some tigress on the Ganges bank,” butchers him, and feeds him to Tereus. When he has eaten, Philomela appears with the bloody head of Itys, and the story ends like this: “Drawing his sword, he was rushing in pursuit of Pandion’s daughters, when it almost seemed that the girls’ bodies were hovering in the air, raised up on wings; in fact, they were hovering on wings.” All three have been transformed into birds. Throughout the story, similes have been appearing at moments of passion, each potentially an actual transformation, but the conclusion emphasizes the fine line between being like a beast, and becoming one. At the same time it also invites the reader to see every figure of speech as a sort of metamorphosis.


At more than eight hundred lines, “Orpheus” (10:1-11:84) is the longest single episode in the Metamorphoses and stands as a concluding example of Ovid’s narrative craft. Only the first seventy lines are devoted to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, probably because that tale had provided the climax of Vergil’s Georgics (c. 37-29 b.c.e.) a generation earlier. Instead, the emphasis is on the power of a poet (Ovid himself as much as Orpheus) to create and transform worlds; thus 650 lines reproduce his songs. After the loss of Eurydice, there is only a single setting, a hilltop once barren that has been transformed as birds, animals, and trees gather to hear Orpheus sing. The subject of the songs is love: first the successful love of Jupiter for Ganymede, balanced by the failed love of Apollo for Hyacinthus. These tales of divine infatuation are contrasted with two brief tales of the hatred of Venus for the Propoetides and the Cerastae. The Propoetides are turned to stone, and their story is followed by that of Pygmalion, the sculptor whose statue is turned into a woman by the power of his love. Pygmalion and the former statue are wed, and their grandson Cinyras is the subject of the next story. Cinyras’s own daughter Myrrha falls in love with him; after tortured monologues, she attempts suicide, and then, with the connivance of an old nurse, she succeeds in sleeping with Cinyras until he discovers her identity. She flees, turns into a myrrh tree, and only afterward gives rather complicated birth to Adonis, who is the subject of the next story, and, as Ovid points out, is grandson (in a manner of speaking) to Cinyras. Venus falls in love with Adonis, and, by way of warning him to avoid wild beasts, tells him the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes, who end transformed into fierce lions. Immediately after the warning, however, Adonis is killed by a wild boar and Venus can only memorialize him in the frail anemone. Then, immediately after this song, Orpheus is interrupted by the bacchants who kill him. Unlike Adonis, he can charm wild beasts, but he has no power over humans acting like beasts. When his music is drowned in their charivari, its spell is broken.

Orpheus, like Medea, pointedly suffers no changes of form. Throughout the Metamorphoses, men lose their form, when, through fear, grief, or wickedness, they lose their human individuality; but Orpheus is a model of self-possession. At the second death of Eurydice, Ovid tells the reader that he was stunned “not unlike” a man turned to stone at the fearful sight of Cerberus, but he is not turned to stone; he remains himself. So too at the end, Orpheus simply dies, to be reunited with his wife; but he is surrounded by transformations he has induced, not only the landscape he has created by his singing, but also a snake turned to stone by Apollo as it tried to bite the poet’s severed head, washed up on the shore. The bacchic women are also transformed; for acting like beasts, they are turned to trees, but, in describing the process, Ovid compared them to birds:Just as a bird, finding its foot caught in the snare of a cunning fowler flaps its wings when it feels it is caught, and tightens the bonds by its fluttering, so each of these women, as she became rooted to the ground, with mad fear vainly tried to flee.

Ovid gathered birds and trees in his verse, as Orpheus did on his hilltop.

The Metamorphoses is an anomaly, a poem that has contributed to the development of modern short fiction from its beginnings. It offers a vast array of stories that can be retold or can inspire new invention. At the same time, it is a compendium of narrative strategies. Ovid brought to narrative the virtues of poetry—speed, economy, vividness. He invited new ways of thinking about the use of detail in narrative, continuing to employ the symbolic or functional detail of earlier narration but experimenting broadly with the effect of detail, whether homely, sensuous, or grotesque, in establishing an illusion of reality. When the stick with which Medea stirs her cauldron turns green and leafy, then suddenly is laden with fat olives; when Deucalion and Pyrrha after the flood go to pray by the banks of a stream whose waters are not yet clear; or when Pygmalion brings little presents of shells and flowers to his beloved statue, Ovid was adding to the resources by which all fiction creates not merely an exemplary fable, but a world of its own.

Ovid deemphasized plot and “moral”; for him, the art of fiction had to do with matters of tone, setting, and characterization. His psychological interest leads to Giovanni Boccaccio and the later development of the novella, and thus ultimately to short fiction of the Jamesian sort, in which plot is altogether contingent on character. Perhaps most influential to short fiction is Ovid’s unabashed presence in his own book, felt not only explicitly, in authorial intrusions, self-conscious anachronisms, and the like but also felt more pervasively in the poem’s language and in its self-consciousness about language, in the wit and irony of its surface, and in its profound humanity. What the Metamorphoses tells the reader through its hundreds of transformations is that to be human is an achievement, and an achievement never definitively won. Each upright person is like the universe, a crossing point of chaos and cosmos. In self-possession, one can go wrong in the manner of Narcissus, his sympathy meaning dissolution; when most moved one can lose one’s grip and cease to be oneself. If “metamorphosis” is the name for the mechanics of a universe generated in the paradox is “love.” This is what the Metamorphoses endlessly celebrates: a disruptive force which is yet the source of all aspiration; a chthonic passion that brings down each of the gods in turn, yet makes possible an apotheosis of what it is to be mortal; an emotion that breathes life into its object, and, although nothing can defeat death, manages somehow to immortalize by cherishing.

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Ovid World Literature Analysis