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Female Disembodiment and Landscapes of Healing:

Why Ovid’s Metamorphoses Matters to the Modern Feminist Novel

Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time outdoors, walking the trails in the forest, listening to the winds and birdsong, watching the gentle waves of the river glitter in the sunlight. For centuries the natural landscape has inspired abundant works of breathtaking art. The sublime, the divine, the transcendental. But what can nature tell us about the uglier parts of the human experience— disembodiment, deprivation, or fragmentation?


Take Ovid’s  first-century epic Metamorphoses, for example.


You’ve probably heard of Narcissus, the Greek youth who fell in love with his own reflection. However, I want to talk about the lesser-known counterpart in his story— Echo. Echo was a forest nymph with a magnificent voice and one of Zeus’ (many) lovers. But when Zeus’ wife Hera discovered that Echo was helping Zeus commit adultery with other nymphs, she angrily cursed Echo.  From then on, Echo could only repeat back the last words spoken to her.  A little dramatic, but understandable.


It was only downhill for Echo from there. She fell in love with the hunter Narcissus, but of course, she could only communicate with him by repeating his last words. Long story short, he rejected her. But Echo continued obsessing over Narcissus until her body wasted away among the landscape, leaving only her voice to haunt the woods.

Echo and Narcissus oil painting by John William Waterhouse (1903)
Echo and Narcissus oil painting by John William Waterhouse (1903)

I want to focus on one main aspect of Echo’s story: disembodiment. Her  physical body fragments and disintegrates, leaving her voice and body separated. Why is this important to us today? The loss of human flesh can serve as a metaphor for dissecting ideas like identity, memory, or cultures of violence. Despite the fact that his works were written over two thousand  years ago, Ovid’s tradition of using the natural landscape continues to find relevance in modern literature. While Ovid ends his myth with a body disintegrated in nature, modern writers represent nature as a place of healing and catharsis for the fragmented and voiceless body. 


Let’s step away from the mountainous woodlands and idyllic pools of Ovid’s tale and move to the forests and lakes of Quebec, Canada. Margaret Atwood’s 1972 novel Surfacing follows a nameless young woman as she returns to her hometown in Canada to find her missing father and come to terms with her recent abortion and her mother’s death. Eventually, the gradual recollection of her traumatic past leads to a psychological breakdown, reflected through her natural environment as she descends deeper and deeper into the wilderness. Just as Echo disintegrates into elements of the natural landscape, the novel follows the descent of the woman into her most natural state among the wild.

Valley in Quebec, Canada
Valley in Quebec, Canada

While you might have an image of a beautiful lakeside cabin, Atwood describes the landscape in vocabulary that evokes decay and loneliness. For example, she describes a heron as “hanging in the hot sunlight like something in a butcher’s window, desecrated, unredeemed.” Not exactly picturesque. Here, the landscape reflects the fragmented psychological condition of the protagonist. Where language fails, the natural surroundings help the woman address her traumatic experiences. Interestingly, the protagonist is unable to speak the native language of French, rendering her incapable of communicating (almost as voiceless as Echo). But not only is this a physical lack of voice, but also an inability to speak about her trauma. In fact, the language of the novel deteriorates; Atwood completely neglects typical grammar norms or punctuation. The novel itself disintegrates in a way.


That’s where nature comes in. The protagonist describes herself: “I’m ice-clear, transparent, my bones and the child inside me showing through the green webs of my flesh, the ribs are shadows, the muscles jelly, the trees are like this too, they shimmer, their cores glow through the wood and bark.”


Atwood’s novel follows the reconstruction of traumatic memory and the quest for a sense of self. Most importantly, both Echo and the protagonist of Surfacing are marked by experiences of loss, grief, and fragmentation. Her obsession drives her deeper and deeper into the wilderness until she quite literally becomes a part of the landscape. She describes herself, “I stay on the bank, resting, licking the scratches; no fur yet on my skin, it’s too early.” In the climax of the story, the protagonist immerses herself in a lake completely, symbolizing her descent into unconsciousness where she finally finds her father and acknowledges her abortion. As well, she regresses into the landscape, merging with the natural world. The protagonist describes herself, “I am not an animal or a tree, I am the thing in which the trees and animals move and grow, I am a place.”


Ovid’s Echo and Atwood’s protagonist both reveal the function of the natural landscape as a space of disembodiment. In fact, Surfacing draws on classical mythology to capture the protagonist’s experience, highlighting how these tales of antiquity can be integrated into modern Canadian literature. But how do their representations diverge? Well, while Echo might have broken down and experienced disembodiment, the natural world for Atwood is a place of regeneration and wholeness. The character undergoes dynamic transformations when immersed in the landscape. The landscape becomes a sanctuary or safe space, a place of revelation. The protagonist breaks down among the wilderness, but ultimately this leads to a breakthrough of self-discovery and healing. 


Moving away from the wilderness of Quebec to a neighbourhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, let’s talk about Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved. Sethe is a former slave who lives with her teenage daughter Denver in a home haunted by the angry spirit of Sethe’s dead daughter. Morrison was inspired by the real-life narrative of Margaret Garner, a fugitive slave who killed her daughter to spare her from being returned to slavery. Likewise, four horsemen hunt for Sethe after she escapes the plantation. Terrified, Sethe brings her four children to the woodshed to kill them, but only manages to kill her eldest daughter, now known as “Beloved,” or the spirit that haunts the house and family. And then one day, a young woman appears at their doorstep— and calls herself Beloved.

Illustration by Joe Morse from The Folio Society edition of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
Illustration by Joe Morse from The Folio Society edition of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Like Atwood’s physical disembodiment and haunting of the past of the protagonist, Morrison explores disembodiment in the trauma of murdering one’s own child and the resurfacing memories of their past of slavery. The female body in Morrison’s work is frequently fragmented through dismemberment, cuts, wounds, etc. Sethe’s body is violated: the tree-like scar on her back, the robbing of her breast milk, the raw lumps of flesh of her feets. This is not only a physical denigration, but a psychological one. Sethe’s body is split, haunted by the ghost of her murdered baby. Not only that, towards the end of the novel, Beloved begins to physically feed off Sethe’s body, gaining weight while Sethe’s body wastes away.


Returning to Ovid, I was curious about other depictions or retellings of Echo’s story. I stumbled upon one such interpretation which said that Echo’s body was ripped apart, and the angry men scattered the still-singing fragments of her body across the earth. To be torn apart is a little different than simply wasting away, and I think this ties powerfully into Morrison’s work. The bodies in Morrison’s work are deprived and robbed. Think of Sethe, who was deprived of motherhood when she killed her baby. Her daughter Beloved was robbed of life. Sethe says, “For a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing was to love just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one.” Like Echo’s experience of fragmentation, Sethe’s world is characterized by absence and empty spaces, haunted by traumas of the past.

A quote from the book powerfully sums this up: “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” Echo’s story also invokes this question of ownership. This is where the natural surroundings play an important role. The landscape holds their memories. The river was witness to the violence, the injustice, the bloodshed the characters experienced. In a crucial scene Sethe stands at the river with the rest of her community, where the preacher declares: “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it… Love your heart, for this is the prize.” Morrison shifts our relationship with nature; nature helps ground the sense of self and personal identity, helps to regain ownership of the body. 


That is to say, the river becomes a perfect site of memory, as Morrison herself described. It holds the terrible past of these former slaves. As a mother who has killed her baby, Sethe is haunted and fragmented. Moreover, there is a dual relationship between the landscape and the body. Both feed off each other. The landscape holds memories, and the body seeks completion through the connections of the landscape.


So far, I’ve looked at ways in which reading Atwood’s and Morrison’s novels alongside Echo’s story grants us a new perspective on both antiquity and today: while Ovid’s story of Echo doesn’t offer any positive restoration through nature in the way modern writers provide, Echo’s experience still maps onto the women we’re discussing here. But what about the interior landscape or psychological wilderness? The last book I want to talk about is Laurie Halse Anderson’s 1999 young adult novelSpeak, which was banned due to its explicit depictions of sexual violence— but that’s another conversation.

Cover art by Square Fish Publishers/ Macmillan Publishers
Cover art by Square Fish Publishers/ Macmillan Publishers

Speak follows high school freshman Melinda Sordino, who is ostracized by her peers for ruining an end-of-summer party by calling the police. She is unable to speak about the true reason she called the police— she was raped. Unable to verbalize, Melinda finds expression through art in Mr. Freeman’s class, where she slowly acknowledges what happened to her and recreates her identity. 


Of course, Speak doesn’t exactly involve the same kind of landscape as the other novels we’ve talked about, but Anderson’s word choices are extremely evocative of the natural landscape and use natural imagery to help the character navigate her trauma. This is another example of fragmentation, both physical and mental. In a scene where Melinda faces her rapist, she describes herself as “little rabbit paws thumping harmlessly. His body crushes me. Beast.” (241).

Consider the evolution of Melinda’s art, for instance. When Melinda first begins painting, she draws trees struck by lightning so that they appear almost but not completely dead. The wreckage of the tree serves to represent her internal landscape. Finally, Melinda draws little birds in her art class and reaches a point of acknowledging: “flight, flight, feather, wing… the birds bloom in the light, their feathers expanding promise (246).” In this crucial scene Melinda for the first time addresses in words what happened to her last summer. She feels like a slab of ice melting as the words come floating up.


Like Echo, Melinda experiences voicelessness and an obstruction of language. What are some examples? She often communicates through post-it notes, one-sided conversations, or literal blank pages in the text. Just like Echo’s case (and similar to our previous discussion of ownership) Anderson raises the problem of reclaiming authority over one’s own voice. There is a vast difference between having a voice and being able to use it. The story follows Melinda’s reconstruction of a disembodied flesh and voice, and ultimately regains ownership of her voice through language that evokes the natural world. Not only that, but both Ovid and Anderson raise a discussion of the materiality of speechlessness, showing how the two characterters attempt to overcome the obstruction of their language and voice.


In their own ways these three novels present stories of fragmented bodies, both physical and psychological. Delving into these novels has made me realize the extent of the importance of the natural world as a mode of reflecting one’s inner landscape and navigating psychological and physical wreckage and marginal states of being. 

What do you think when someone brings up nature writers? Probably something along the lines of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Thoreau, etc.  The world of nature in literature has been largely occupied by British male writers. But nature has for a long time played a central role in women’s writing and can reveal much about vulnerable identities and how we approach nature aside from a white lens. Nature is not a site of conquest for these writers, but a sanctuary. The natural world is a critical site of memory, repose, and healing, and deserves to be treated as such. 

Atwood, Morrison, and Anderson show how Echo’s tale can be read through a broader framework with reference to vulnerable communities that are marked by deprivation and bodily violence. While Echo’s story is tragic, these modern writers subvert this narrative to make nature a source of regeneration and catharsis, transforming from disembodiment into wholeness.


So, what is it about the natural world that makes it a space conducive for healing?

The natural world is tied to stories, to history, to memory. Reconnecting with the landscape offers a space for healing and a reminder of strength. While writers have historically fashioned a relationship to the landscape built on conquest for marginalized  communities, the physical space is a valuable site of repose or memory.  The Roman ways of conceptualizing and representing the landscape were dominated by male perspectives and attitudes of conquest and exploitation, but these modern female writers reconceptualize these traditions. We live in a far different world than the one in which Ovid was writing. The landscape now holds great significance to cultures, to histories, to different events that have shaped today’s world. Especially with current issues of harm to the natural world, the relevance of the physical landscape for marginalized voices becomes more prevalent. The natural world is a critical site for identity consolidation and  healing, and deserves to be treated as such. 

Bottom line is, the natural world is not just one of beautiful skies and blooming trees, but also that of obsession, fragmentation, and destruction. Echo’s voice continues to haunt the forests— and the pages of modern literature.

About the Author

Kaitlyn Matthews

Hi! My name is Kaitlyn, and I recently graduated from UTM, where I majored in English. I’ll be starting my Masters of English at McMaster University in the fall, and I’m especially interested in Canadian literature and health humanities. For fun, I enjoy reading, playing music, and going on walks.

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