Pedagogy 4.3 (2004) 438-459
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"Why Are We Reading a Handbook on Rape?"
Young Women Transform a Classic
"How can you talk about Ovid's technique?" Maria blurted out with barely contained outrage. "Can't you see how abusive Ovid is in this story? Don't you think there's a reason Echo can only echo what a man says? And you want to applaud him! I don't know about you, but I didn't come to a women's college to read texts that demean me as a woman."
I was astonished by this outburst. We had been reading the story of Echo and Narcissus, which I thought of as one of Ovid's characteristically detached and cynical tales about how stupid people are about sex and love. Echo pines for Narcissus, who is so blind to reality that he's fallen in love with his own reflection, thinking that it's somebody new and desirable.
I looked down at the text of Ovid's Metamorphoses (1955), open on the desk in front of me, wondering if I'd missed something that had led Maria to claim Ovid was demeaning women. The story of Echo and Narcissus was still there as I remembered it, in the neat verse lines of Rolfe Humphries's translation. I read:
There was nothing Echo would ever say more gladly
"Let us get together!" And, to help her words,
Out of the woods she came, with arms all ready
To fling around his neck. But he retreated:
"Keep your hands off," he cried, "and do not touch me!
I would die before I give you a chance at me."
Echo cannot defend herself against Narcissus's insult. She helplessly repeats his last words with their meaning reversed:
"I give you a chance at me," and that was all
She ever said thereafter . . .
But still her love clings to her and increases
And grows on suffering; she cannot sleep,
She frets and pines, becomes all gaunt and haggard,
Her body dries and shrivels till voice only
And bones remain.
Nothing had changed in the text. So something must have changed in the class without my knowing it. Otherwise how could we have moved so quickly from an examination of the linked metaphors Ovid uses to describe both Echo and Narcissus to Maria's charge that the text abuses women? I looked around the room at the students in my Ancient Myth class at Mills College, a small liberal arts school for women in the San Francisco Bay Area. They were mostly in their teens, first- and second-year students, although some, like Maria, were older women returning to school. I had gotten to know Maria's name early in the semester. She was hard to miss, as her hair changed from blue to pink to green, and she always wore T-shirts with revolutionary slogans. Today's was "off our backs."
"How is this story demeaning to you?" I asked Maria now.
Before Maria could reply, though, Ann jumped in to challenge her. Ann was another of the older women in the class, but unlike Maria she wore mostly black, and she was very serious about learning to be a literary critic. "This book isn't demeaning you," she said. "It isn't even about you. Ovid had no idea someone like you would ever be reading his stories."
"Who cares what Ovid thought?" retorted Maria. "This is big deal literature that we're supposed to know about, but it's all about how powerful men treat women like objects. Did you read the story of 'Apollo and Daphne?' He chases her so ruthlessly that she'd rather be a tree than succumb to him. And then he claims her branches for his symbol. He manages to rape her when she's not even a person anymore! Every story in this book has the same moral: women should be silent and sexually submissive."
I had thought I knew just what was going on in...