Lavinia, Part 1: Voice and Identity

Ursula Le Guin’s novel Lavinia is the story of an identity, and of permutations of “I”.

The book begins with the word “I”, and, as throughout, the reader sees this world through the eyes of the titular Lavinia:

I went to the salt beds by the mouth of the river, in the May of my nineteenth year, to get salt for the sacred meal.

Lavinia was a minor figure in Vergil’s Aeneid, a voiceless treaty-bride to his hero Aeneas once he finally settles in Italy and metaphorically plants the seeds which will grow into the city and empire of Rome. Vergil had little enough to say about the young woman, and, as Le Guin’s Lavinia tells us, much of what little he said was cliché rather than accurately descriptive.

The Lavinia of the novel is a voice of several parts. The primary story is that of her more distant past, growing up in Latium, learning the rituals of worship which structure her experience of time, and encountering Aeneas, first through prophecy, then from afar, later through treaties, and finally as his bride. Interludes tell us of a later past, her time happily married with Aeneas, in the three brief years they have together – as she knows and he does not. The framing narrative is the mystery of her voice, that she has one at all, for Vergil, her poet, did not give her one in his poem.

Vergil narrated her into existence, she tells us, in turn recursively narrating his existence in to her story. He appears in her story as a time-traveler in the dreams of his death bed. He meets her that way for the first time, when it is far too late to include her properly in the poem he has already written in his own time; Lavinia, and how badly he misrepresented her that poem, become sone of his dying regrets.

Their conversations cast a long shadow over the playing out of the book’s events; his descriptions of what will happen to Aeneas and what is shown on his shield shape Lavinia’s life for the next three years, and, ultimately, leave her with the difficulty of going on after his effectively-prophetic tellings have concluded. Vergil can tell her of the future glories of Rome, but not of what might happen to her once Aeneas has died. She tells us she is contingent, existing only because of Vergil’s telling of her; and yet, she must find most of her life and the degrees of her existence for herself, because he did not know them. When the contents of the poem have finished working themselves out in her life, she tells her readers that she “has lost my guide, my Vergil.” That “I must go on by myself through all that is left after the end, all the rest of the immense, pathless, unreadable world”. (p. 183)

The end of the Aeneid is not the end of Lavinia, since the whole point, the whole argument, of the book is that she has her own life; by inference, so too does any tertiary character, especially any given woman in a story of antiquity. The rest of the book is a meditation on finding identity amongst political and social conflict.

By the end, the “I”s have multiplied from what seemed to be the simple voice of telling with which the book began; in the the “I”s of the ending, there is the English word for first-person nominative identity but in them too is also the last externally-structuring words Lavinia has – the Latin command to “go”. To go on.

And so, in her own way, she does.

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