Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin and The Death of the Author

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“Perhaps I did not do you justice, Lavinia.”

This is what Virgil himself says to the character he wrote, but never allowed to speak. In Ursula Le Guin’s novel Lavinia, Aeneas’ wife is finally given a voice. The story follows Lavinia from early childhood to her death, and almost reads as a memoir. To me, a particularly interesting part of the book was when Le Guin also gave voice to the author of the Aeneid himself. As he’s dying, Virgil appears as a spectre to Lavinia and talks to her about his work and what awaits her.

“‘And what I thought I knew of you – what little I thought of at all – was stupid, conventional, unimagined. I thought you were a blonde! But you can’t have two love stories in one epic. Where would the battles fit? In any case, how could one possibly end a story with a marriage?’
‘It does seem more like a beginning than an end,’ I said.
We both brooded.
‘It’s all wrong,’ he said. ‘I will tell them to burn it.'”

I loved how Le Guin used the fact that Aeneid was left unfinished and that Virgil wanted his work burned as a part of her own story. It also poses some interesting questions about authors and their characters. Once the characters are written, they begin a life of their own. They do not belong only to the author, they live in the minds of everyone who reads about them. It made me think of Roland Barthes and his “The Death of the Author”. One of the things Barthes points out is that the author’s intent is not what we should be concerned about. Writer, after writing a book, becomes just another reader. Barthes calls for the reader-response critial theory, the basis of which are individual thoughts about a literary work. The point is not to try to understand what the author wanted to say, but to focus on what you (the reader) think the book is saying.

“The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.” – Roland Barthes, “Death of the Author”

I don’t think this novel is trying to make the same points as Barthes, but since I’m a reader and I have the power to say what I think, I’ll just share with you my thoughts. πŸ˜‰ Le Guin’s novel makes the author just a part of the story. He created Lavinia and her life depends on him, but it also continues without him. His vision of Lavinia is not the same as her own view of her personality and her life. And while Lavinia is a character, I feel she might also be seen as a reader. Virgil tells her some of the things that are going to happen, and she gives her own opinion on them. She also reads the signs and prophecies on Aeneas’ shield. While Aeneas sees a the birth of a city, and his destiny fullfilled, Lavinia sees war and death. Both of these things are going to happen, but they are seeing them in a different way. The entire novel is basically the Aeneid seen in a different way, and from a different perspective.

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Speaking of war, I liked how the novel treats this subject. Yes, Aeneas is the hero. But does this make the wars he leads and deaths he causes acceptable? While Aeneas sees only his mission, and does what he thinks is right, Lavinia sees countless wars in the future. This doesn’t mean Aeneas is an unlikeable charater. He knows not everything is black and white, and is tortured by everything he did. He takes no pleasure in killing, and is trying to teach his son not to seek unnecessary wars. And yet, to him wars seem inevitable. Lavinia notices this, and she sees how men are raised to think of war as a part of their lives. They are raised to seek honour, and even to seek conflict. She, on the other hand, fears war, destruction, and loss. To Lavinia, war represents violence and loss of innocence, and she cannot see it as something that brings honour.

“Of all the greater powers the one I fear most is the one I cannot worship, the one who walks the boundary, the one who sets the ram on the ewe, and the bull on the heifer, and the sword in the farmer’s hand: Mavors, Marmor, Mars.”

Lavinia is not physically strong. She wants to lead a happy, calm life. And in that lies her feminine strength. She doesn’t have to be a warrior in order to be a heroine of her own story – and this is what book Virgil admits having failed to see. First he wonders why it is Lavinia who appeared to him before his death, and not his hero, Aeneas. He talks about heroism and honour, things that are important to him, but apparently not to her.

β€œWithout war there are no heroes.”
“What harm would that be?”
“Oh, Lavinia, what a woman’s question that is.”

But in the end, Virgil sees Lavinia’s strengths. She’s clever, often cynical, but kind and caring. She is an interesting person to have a conversation with because she sees the world in a different way. Lavinia questions Virgil’s ideals, even his religion, and that’s what makes him admire her.

β€œIs it the gods who set this fire in our hearts, or do we each make our fierce desire into a god?”

Virgil’s fictional realisation validates Lavinia’s importance. And I think it is these metatextual elements that make this book an interesting read, despite some of it’s flaws. If any of these ramblings seemed interesting to you, then I recommend reading the book. πŸ™‚


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