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Irata Puella: Gaslighting, Violence, and Anger in Elegy

Ellen Cole Lee

Fairfield University

The women of elegy are powerful, beautiful, and, often, angry. But why? In the elegiac poet-lover’s imagination, his mistress is usually outraged for one of three reasons (or all three, in the case of Propertius 3.23):

(1) she is jealous of her lover’s relationship with another woman (e.g., Tibullus 1.6)

(2) her lover has made her wait for his attentions (or his gifts) (e.g., Propertius 1.3, 2.29a)

(3) someone has been impugning her reputation (e.g., Propertius 1.4, 2.29a).

If she is not angry for one of these reasons, the poet-lover ascribes her anger to generalized passion: she is angry with him because she has been overcome by emotion (e.g., Propertius 3.8). In other words, if her anger cannot be attributed to one of these reasons, she is angry because she is in love with him, because she is excessively emotional, and, essentially, because she is a woman.

Curiously, these reasons reflect precisely the justifications the elegiac narrator gives for being angry with his mistress: jealousy (e.g., Ovid, Amores 2.5), waiting (e.g., Propertius 1.18), being compelled to give gifts (e.g., Propertius 4.5), and being unfairly maligned by her (e.g., Propertius 2.9). It appears that the lover-poet cannot imagine a reason for his mistress being angry with him that differs from his own justifications for anger. However, whereas his reasons for anger are often fleshed out into rhetorically masterful arguments, the justifications imputed to the mistress’s anger are represented as trifling and easily dismissable, mere obstacles to the couple getting down to the business of love. The poet-lover gaslights his mistress to make it appear that his rage is justifiable, but hers is irrational (for the concept of gaslighting, see Abramson, Manne, McKinnon), reproducing a gendered double standard for men’s and women’s anger (cf. Chemaly, Cooper, Traister).

The starkest rhetorical contrast between the anger of the poet-lover and that of the elegiac mistress occurs in the context of relationship violence. The puella is represented as passionately violent in her rage, striking both her lover and her rivals, often with little justifiable provocation. Her physical abuse is invariably feeble, sexualized, or both. In Propertius 3.8, the mistress’s teeth and fingernails do no permanent damage to the lover, and the marks they leave are suggestive of the erotic bites and scratches left on the lover’s body after sex. In contrast, the lover-poet often emphasizes his restraint in not reacting violently to his justifiable anger at his mistress. In Propertius 2.5, the lover-poet lists the physical abuses he will not commit against his mistress (striking her, ripping her clothes, breaking down her door), preferring to abuse her in his poetry instead. This praeteritio, however, effectively serves as a veiled threat of physical violence, a reminder to the mistress that the lover could hurt her if he wished.

Elegiac poetry is, of course, rife with stories of rape, assault, and relationship violence in the context of narratives that, while claiming that women assert a dominant position within the heterosexual relationship, actually maintain structural gender inequalities. Previous scholars have studied how Latin poets, even as they purport to reject traditional gender roles, prioritize male desire by violently silencing women’s voices (Fredrick, Greene (1999 and 1998), James, and Richlin). Gender-based violence, as represented in elegy, serves to stifle the voices of women, producing narratives that remember male perspectives and dismiss women’s. As I argue, the poet-narrator of elegy consistently gaslights his mistress, putting words in her mouth to present her as an angry woman whose rage is unjustified and irrational. He paints her as physically and emotionally abusive, even as his own rageful rants threaten her with implicit (and, sometimes, explicit) violence. With her outrage dismissed and her safety imperiled, it is no wonder that the elegiac mistress is angry.

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