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Who Sees? A Narratological Approach to Propertius 3.6

Mitch Brown

            Propertius’ Elegy 3.6 has been a source of puzzlement and controversy among Classicists for centuries due to difficulties in the manuscript tradition and the complicated voice of the narrator.  This paper will apply a narratological approach of the poem in order to argue for the presence of the lover’s voice throughout.

            In the first 14 lines of the poem, the voice is clearly that of the narrator questioning his slave Lygdamus about his recent visit to the house of the speaker’s mistress.  Scholars have disputed, however, who speaks in the next section of the poem (15-34).  Most have argued that either the narrator or the slave Lygdamus utters this entire section, which consists of further remarks concerning the mistress (15-18) followed by a quotation of the mistress’s own words (19-34). According to one view, the lover remains the speaker, with the alternatives that either in 19-34 the lover repeats the information just given by Lygdamus (Camps, Richardson) or rather he imagines the content of the mistress’s supposed statement (Reitzenstein).  Butrica, arguing against these views, believes that Lygdamus speaks the lines so that the poem forms a dialogue between the lover and slave.  In another recent interpretation, McCarthy argues that the controversial lines are spoken by an omniscient narrator.

            My contribution is to apply a systematic narratological approach to the lines in question.  Drawing upon the theories of Gérard Genette and Mieke Bal, I will consider the questions of “who sees” and “who speaks” and trace the paths of both focalization and narration within the poem.  Scholars of narratological theory have shown that the character whose viewpoint is being expressed in the poem, called the focalizer, is not always the speaker.  Narration and focalization often take two different paths in literature.  In my own view, the lover is speaking throughout the poem, imagining the scene inside the mistress’s house.  With this reading, the poem, rather than being a confusing dialogue or an unlikely repetition of the slave’s words, is an interesting presentation of the lover’s romantic delusions.

            The transition from 14 to 15 does not involve a change in narrator but only a change in focalization.  At the beginning of the poem, the lover has directed the focalization to his mistress in her household through his conversation with the slave.  He focalizes Lygdamus on the first level in his direct conversation but the events inside the house on the second level through his questions to Lygdamus.  In other words, initially the lover visualizes the events inside the mistress’s house through his slave’s eyes up to line 15 where noticeable change in style occurs.  Butrica has rightly pointed out that, in contrast to the short, choppy questions of 9-14, the next four lines feature balance and enjambment.  Since a change in speaker is awkward and unlikely here, the only plausible explanation is a change in the lover’s focalization.  He is no longer seeing his mistress’s activities through Lygdamus’ eyes but rather he is imagining the scene and her ensuing speech in accordance with his own hopes and desires.  In the fantasy, his mistress obsesses over him and is jealous; these feelings on her part would place him rather than her in a dominant position of power.  3.6 is not about the lover’s success in resolving the quarrel, but rather his delusion in thinking that his mistress is as hurt by their split as he is.  While the poem ends before the mistress’s true disposition is revealed, the reader knows from other works in the Propertian corpus that the depiction of her is probably not the reality.  In both 1.3 and 2.29, the lover also has fantasies about his mistress that turn out to be untrue.  Thus the poem is a partially humorous, partially pathetic contrast between the lover’s present delusion and impending disappointment.

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Vision and Perspective in Latin Literature

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