Forbidden Love in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: An Analysis of the Pygmalion Myth
An essay by Evangelos Nikitopoulos
For Prof. Liana Bellon’s course entitled Introduction to College English
Greek and Roman mythology, with its colorful setting and vivid characters, constitutes a fascinating realm of imagination, mystery and morality that has entertained and educated for millennia. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written in 1 C.E., is a compilation of some of the most popular of these stories and has exerted a lasting influence in Western culture. Recently, it has been maintained by the writer Ted Hughes, who translated the myths, that passion is the main topic of Ovid’s work. Through an analysis of the fact that Galatea, the object of devotion in Pygmalion, is a lifeless, ivory sculpture, the idealized concept of woman that she is made to represent, and the lack of reciprocity in her relationship with her lover, I will argue that it is the concept of forbidden love, not passion, that prevails in the Metamorphoses. An investigation into this subject will reveal that Ovid is, in fact, implying that ideal love is impossible.
The clearest support for this theory is provided by the very nature of Galatea. Despite Pygmalion’s futile attempts to perceive her as a living woman, she remains a non-living piece of ivory. For Pygmalion, Galatea is nothing short of real; he speaks to her, compliments her, dresses, caresses and buys her gifts. When unclothed, she is not presented as nude, an adjective used to describe statues, but naked (120), a term applicable only to humans (class notes). Even so, she continues to exist in the realm of art: her features are of exquisite proportion (94), an echo of a perfect reality unrivaled in the real world; she is handled with care and laid in luxurious pillows and drapes (121-124), as one would place a painting in a beautiful room; even when she comes to life, Galatea is detached, perfectly posed and silent, just like a waxen figure. When confronted with the bitter truth of his obsession’s “cold fingers” (112) and unyielding flesh, Pygmalion despairs, refusing to “find her the solid ivory he had made her” (104) and imagines a life that is not there. Ultimately, this frustrating reality constitutes the supreme barrier to the sculptor’s love.
Ovid continually stresses that this love is not for earthly women, whom Pygmalion finds imperfect and wicked, but for the unattainable ideal of femininity (class notes). Pygmalion’s hatred and anger towards the former is stressed in the sixth stanza of the myth through the use of a particularly violent h-alliteration: hardened (36), heaven (38), hardened (39), hearts (40), heartless (41) and hardness (41). This passage is referring to the corruption of the Propoetides and, by extension, of all women. Despite this, Pygmalion loves the concept of women with a passion, as the repetition of the word “perfect woman” in stanzas eight and nine highlights. Yet this passion is restricted to the sculptor alone. It is used by the text simply as a manner to emphasize his solitude, the devotion being entirely one-sided.
The eternal barrier between Pygmalion and Galatea is made evident. What Pygmalion in fact dreams of is an impossible abstraction that can never exist on Earth. He might as well have fallen in love with the moon, because, like the moon, Galatea is beyond reach. She is “a woman lovelier than any living woman” (72-73), the embodiment of female virtue “woven from the fabric of […] dream” (80); she is pure, as symbolized by the white of the ivory (class notes), beautiful, modest (78) and submissive. Pygmalion’s passion for her all the more reinforces his unquenchable desire. In this respect, even though she is tangible and, as of line 168, wholly alive, she remains in every other way unreal.
The final component of this relationship is the complete absence of free will on Galatea’s part. As stated above, she is submissive and, quite literally, “under [Pygmalion’s] thumb” (176, class notes). Her flesh is also likened to wax (167), which is malleable and can be manipulated and shaped (class notes). There is the fact that she is given no lines of dialogue, which constitutes a conspicuous absence. This lack of free will is expressed in Edward Burne-Jones’ painting The Soul Attains, which depicts Galatea and Pygmalion. As a virtuous woman, Galatea submits herself to the sculptor’s male gaze, refraining from adopting a more active role of observation. Furthermore, the whiteness of her body stands out from the more shadowy tones of the work, marking her innocence. Lastly, it is important to note that although Galatea is represented as fully human, her eyes are devoid of life (class notes); she possesses no freedom or character and is thus eternally divided from her creator.
As we have seen, through Galatea’s lack of life, her lack of reality, and her lack of liberty (the absence of power or personality), Ovid makes a strong statement about the impossibility of Pygmalion’s love and of all other relationships which idealize the Beloved. By presenting a hyperbolic example of forbidden love, he condemns perfect romance as something that is bound to lead to separation and failure, and is a proponent of natural, reciprocal love.
Fig. 1. The Soul Attains, oil on canvas by Edward Burne-Jones (1870)
Burne-Jones, Edward. The Soul Attains. 1870. Oil on canvas. Private collection.
Class notes taken on 11 September 2013.
Hughes, Ted. “Pygmalion.” Tales from Ovid. New York: Farrar, 1997. 133-139
 The word “forbidden” is here used in the sense of something fated which hinders or prevents the relationship from existing, and which separates the two parties, presenting an insurmountable obstacle to their being together in an emotional and mutual way. Forbidden love should therefore be considered distinct from the idealized relationship, in which the two parties can be together, albeit in a fantasized manner. Idealizing one’s partner is the cause of the separation; forbidden love in itself is its effect.
 See fig. 1