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Tragic Realities: What Kind of History Do Fictional Women Let Us Write?

Sheila Murnaghan

Among the pioneering features of Goddesses, Slaves, Wives, and Whores is Pomeroy’s serious attempt to grapple with the problem of how to use fictional female characters as sources for the history of women.  Although she ends her book by asserting that she has “attempted to find out about the realities of women’s existence . . .  rather than concentrate on the images that men had of women” (229), she cannot avoid this abundant body of material and devotes an entire chapter to “Images of Women in the Literature of Classical Athens” (93-119).  This chapter is shaped by a fundamental opposition, as defined by the opening section, “Women in Tragedy versus Real Women,” namely the discrepancy between the apparent powerlessness of women in actual society, as indicated by nonfictional sources, and the power of female characters in tragedy.  Pomeroy makes an important advance by refusing to choose between the two types of evidence, as previous scholars had done, but rather trying to reconcile them.  She does this in a variety of thoughtful and somewhat contradictory ways.  She sees the women of tragedy in part as reflections of men’s fantasies, as “nightmares of the victors “(97): in this formulation, tragic women reflect real women’s lives indirectly, through men’s awareness of those lives as unfair and thus likely to inspire resistance and revenge.  A paragraph later, the assertiveness of tragic women is aligned with values that real women presumably embraced as a result of their social roles, in particular family ties and primitive forms of religion: “This is the point at which the image of the heroine on the stage coincides with the reality of Athenian women” (97).  While Pomeroy sometimes cites the separateness of women’s lives to suggest that men’s images of women were founded on limited observation, Euripides is granted particular authority because of his “intimacy with women’s daily lives” (111), and this is correlated with his creation of a background to his plots of “unremitting female misery” (110) designed to make audiences question existing arrangements. 

Pomeroy never herself comments on the contradictions among her various solutions, which provide an admirably complex but also bewildering set of approaches to using fictional women to write history.  It is no surprise that when Phyllis Culham took stock ten years later, she stressed the limitations of literary sources as evidence for ancient women’s lives (and even for general social attitudes towards women), while also noting the lack of attention to this issue by many of Pomeroy’s successors: “ . . . classicists, much more than critics of other literatures, are liable to mistake the study of a unique male-authored text for the study of a culture.”

This paper will consider some of the strategies adopted by critics who persisted in thinking about tragic female characters in relation to Classical Athenian society in the wake of both Pomeroy and Culham, especially critics who have reassessed some of Pomeroy’s key assumptions, including the discrepancy from which she begins.  Examples will include, among others, Froma Zeitlin, who has developed a rather different model of how fictional women reflect the imaginative lives of men, and Helene Foley, whose work begins from a less sharply dichotomous vision of male and female interests and values.  Throughout, the discussion will aim to identify the particular definitions or redefinitions of history that follow from reliance on literary evidence.  The paper will end with a brief discussion of reception studies as a possible source of new solutions to the conundrum of how best to understand fictional women as witnesses to historical realities. 

Session/Panel Title

40 Years of Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women’s History in Classics

Session/Paper Number


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