Petronius' Tale of the Widow of Ephesus and Bakhtin's Material Bodily Lower Stratum
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Petronius’ Tale of the Widow of Ephesus and Bakhtin’s Material Bodily Lower Stratum*

In his essay entitled “Epic and Novel,” Mikhail Bakhtin mentions Petronius’ Satyricon as an exemplar of Menippean satire, a serio-comic genre that was one of the antecedents of the European novel and that pioneered the novelistic parody of epic. 1 Classicists have long debated the generic classification of the Satyricon as either a Menippean satire or an ancient novel; perhaps it is best to concede that it contains features of both genres but eludes precise classification. 2 Bakhtin’s own solution to this generic quandary is lucid: “The Satyricon of Petronius is nothing other than a Menippean satire extended to the limits of a novel.” 3 Menippean satire, of course, with its formal combination of prose and poetry and wide use of inserted genres, lends itself well to the quotation and parody of epic poetry, and Bakhtin speaks of the novel and its ancient antecedents as exposing the [End Page 313] “completed” genre of epic to a dialogue that serves both to exploit and negate the legitimacy of epic. 4 He also identifies folklore as the ultimate origin of this novelistic popular laughter that mocks the pretensions and heroic characterizations of epic. The folkloric parodic impulse operates in part by bringing the parodied text into a zone of maximal contact with the lower stratum of the material body as represented by the bodily functions of eating, drinking, and sexual congress. 5

Nonetheless, in his closest reading of the Petronian text, Bakhtin uncharacteristically neglects considerations of parody and genre. One of the few episodes of the Satyricon he analyzes in any detail is the Milesian tale of the Widow of Ephesus (“Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel”). 6 In his analysis, he discusses the tale not in terms of its Menippean features, but as an example of a realistic folk narrative that compresses many of the discrete categories of human experience—particularly food, sex, and death—into a grotesquely brief compass. Strangely, however, Bakhtin does not apply to this particular tale the theories he elsewhere elucidates about the folkloric zone of the public square and the novelistic parody of “lofty” genres. In this essay, I will demonstrate how these theories are particularly applicable to the tale of the Widow of Ephesus and how they enhance its carnivalesque leveling of the “high” and “low” categories of human existence. In the process, I will show how a Bakhtinian theoretical approach might enrich the close reading of a Petronian passage.

The novelistic parody of epic Bakhtin describes in “Epic and Novel” is precisely the sort of parody that is operating in Petronius’ celebrated story, in origin folkloric, of the Widow of Ephesus, one of the inset tales of the Satyricon. 7 The tale, which occupies chapters 111–12, is narrated by the decrepit poet/raconteur Eumolpus to expose “female [End Page 314] fickleness” (muliebrem levitatem, 110.6) by illustrating that “no woman is so chaste that she might not be turned to fury by a foreign love (peregrina libidine)” (110.7). 8 In the tale proper, a matron, who begins as a paragon of virtue, ends up being seduced by a lowly Roman soldier in the tomb of her dead husband, for whom she has been keeping a vigil and a fast. The widow’s maid, in order to encourage her mistress first to eat and then to engage in sexual activity with the soldier, appeals to the authority of Virgil’s Aeneid, quoting the words of Anna, who urged her sister Dido to forget her dead husband Sychaeus and yield to her passion for Aeneas. The maid here appeals to the authoritative and canonically privileged nature of epic utterance, which she exploits for her own ends. And yet her act of reverential quotation brings the Roman national epic into unseemly contact with the grotesque realism of the novel. 9 The tale of the Widow of Ephesus destroys epic distance by subjecting the heroes of epic to a comparison with debased and mundane counterparts. Hence, Petronius opens between his novelistic genre and the epic a dialogue that causes the reader to re...