Academic journal article Ancient Narrative

Beauty as Fiction in Leucippe and Clitophon

Academic journal article Ancient Narrative

Beauty as Fiction in Leucippe and Clitophon

Article excerpt

Scholarship on Leucippe and Clitophon has often focused on the ways in which it challenges the conventions and ideologies of the Greek romance novel. (1) It has been said, to cite only a few examples, to offer 'ingenious criticism, if not outright sabotage' of the genre; (2) to make a pastiche of it; (3) to parody the idea of chastity, so central to the ethos of the more conventional novels; (4) to focus on an anti-hero rather than a hero; (5) and to present a view of marriage that is 'relentlessly non-civic.' (6)

In this paper, I argue that Achilles Tatius' challenge to the ideals of the novel goes deeper than has been recognized, and suggest that he questions something very close to the foundation of the genre: the beauty of its protagonists. The hero and heroine of the Greek novel are always supposed to be exceptionally, even impossibly beautiful; indeed, it is this quality that makes them protagonists in the first place. As Sandrine Dubel puts it in her study of the representation of beauty in the novel, 'Heros et heroine sont ainsi isoles dans une beaute superlative ... qui les predestine l'un a l'autre et constitue le ressort essentiel de l'intrigue romanesque.' (7) This astonishing beauty is generally presented as an objective quality. Of course, we know that beauty is in actuality subjective: whether or not one perceives another human as beautiful depends on cultural norms, which determine both the way one sees and the way one fashions one's image. But the novel tends to obscure this dynamic, and offers beauty as an objective reality, a quality intrinsic to its protagonists.

We can see the apparent objectivity of beauty most clearly in the case of Chariton's heroine, Callirhoe, and I would like briefly to consider the presentation of her beauty before turning to look at Leucippe's. Chariton's more straightforwardly 'ideal' novel, (8) which appears to have been very popular in antiquity, (9) seems like just the sort of work that Achilles Tatius would have been keen to play with, parody, or even subvert, (10) so I think it will be productive to compare the ways in which beauty is developed in the two novels.

Callirhoe's beauty is objective (11) in the sense that it is not dependent on the character or expectations of those who look at her. When Dionysius sees her for the first time and mistakes her for Aphrodite (2,3,6), we might attribute this to his womanizing nature (we know that he is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1,12,7). But this is surely not the case with his slaves (1,14,1) or Queen Statira (4,9,1), who all make the same mistake. Along the same lines, children--who might be assumed to have no particular interest--are moved by the sight of her (4,9,1). Even those who are predisposed to be skeptical of her beauty are overwhelmed by her appearance. The Persians are all convinced that their Rhodogune will easily outshine Callirhoe in loveliness (5,3,6). Indeed, they have a vested interest in proving their own superiority over the Greeks; as the Persian women say, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ('now that we are involved, the reputation of Persian women is at risk,' 5,3,1). (12) But when they see Callirhoe for the first time, they immediately forget about Rhodogune, who herself acknowledges defeat (5,3,9). Callirhoe's beauty, these examples suggest, is not in the eye of the beholder: to slave and free, to Greek and barbarian, and to man, woman, and child, she is immediately and stupendously beautiful.

At first glance, Leucippe and Clitophon seems to present Leucippe in a very similar way, and scholars have generally taken it for granted that she possesses ideal beauty. (13) Like Callirhoe, she dazzles characters of various temperaments and nationalities, and she is often described as beautiful in the most emphatic terms. Nevertheless, as I will argue, the novel subtly undermines the very possibility of such incredible beauty by revealing the ways in which it is constructed, both by the narrator and by cultural forces within the novel. …

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