At the end of a long project that has involved writing, research, and a lot of reading, I am very happy with my results. I started with three literary women who have always fascinated me: Dido, Anna Karenina, and Scarlett O’Hara. These women are all strong, passionate, and incredibly unlucky. When I started looking for connections among their stories, I quickly realized that they have even more in common than I realized. Even the timelines of their romantic misadventures are remarkably similar. Through marriage, loss, and motherhood, these women rule a country, bewitch and then estrange a society, and survive a war. Though their societies and writers are distant from each other, the theme of being destroyed by love from Dido’s tale that has fascinated readers for millennia reiterates itself in both Anna Karenina and Gone With the Wind. These brilliant women have more in common with each other than they do with their respective societies. But perhaps the more general theme is that of three loves so powerful in their tragedy that their pages have been worn thin with innumerable readings hardly lessened by the years. Even the strongest characters could not combat the inevitable pull towards destructive love affairs. And while all three stories are heartbreaking, their endings seem somehow fitting. No ordinary ending, no romantic ride off into the sunset, would do justice to any of these characters. For them, instead, is the tragic end of three heroes who go down fighting for love at the risk of losing livelihood.
While reading articles for my final paper, I came across a lot of divided opinions on whether Anna Karenina, Dido, and Scarlett O’Hara should be considered guilty. Many critics are quick to point out that they broke society’s rules, but does that mean they should be judged? In Dido’s case, it is difficult to say whether she even had a choice. She was pushed into her affair with Aeneas by the intervention of the gods. However, looking back on her story from a modern perspective, cupid’s arrow does not seem like a good enough excuse to put your personal happiness before the welfare of your kingdom. Dido breaks a vow of loyalty to her late husband and has nothing to show for it. Is love a good enough excuse for her actions?
The first part of my research involved a lot of reading. I started with the shortest text — Ovid’s Heroides VII. While only a few pages long, this dramatic letter is packed with meaning. In typical Ovid style, what is left unsaid is often just as important as what is stated directly. Since Dido’s character is most well known from the Aeneid, Ovid assumes that his reader is familiar with this text. This familiarity with the character highlights any differences between Vergil’s telling and Ovid’s. The latter author takes full advantage of this, giving the reader a big surprise in the middle of the text — Dido’s pregnancy:
Most people know the character Dido from Vergil’s Aeneid. She is a strong woman, a leader in her own right, who falls in love with the hero Aeneas. When he leaves her to found Rome, she kills herself out of heartbreak. Love destroys her. In his Heroides 7, Ovid paints a somewhat different portrait of Dido. He frames his work as a letter from Dido to Aeneas, composed as she is preparing to ascend her funeral pyre and end her own life. The letter is deeply emotional, with Dido alternately pleading with Aeneas and cursing him as the vindictive queen and the heartbroken lover battle within her. She comes across as a strong character, wholeheartedly committed to her love and to her decision to die since she cannot fulfill it.