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Throughout the ages, the theme of impossible love in literature has prevailed. Impossible love is an overall broad theme; generally speaking, it is a love that is forbidden, unrequired, or unable to flourish. Somewhere between 29 and 19 B.C. the legendary Roman author Virgil wrote his epic: The Aenid. The Aenid chronicles the journey of the great hero Aeneas, who falls in love with the queen of Carthage, Dido—resulting in a tragic spell of impossible love. Some years after Virgil, surfaced Ovid with his classic Metamorphoses which links a stunning array of mythological tales through the common theme of change or transformation. Many of the tales told by Ovid interact with the theme of impossible love—but especially the story of Pygmalion and his ivory maiden. The theme of impossible love is timeless because it is incredibly relatable, the heart wants what the heart wants, and therein negative consequences and drama forever ensue.
In fourth book of The Aeneid, the theme of impossible love presents itself when Dido and Aeneas fall deeply in love. Initially, Dido does not want to marry Aeneas. Dido is busy being a strong and well-liked leader for her people, she is aware of his journey, and knows that in the future the Trojan descendants of Aeneas will ruin her beautiful city of Carthage. Loyal to both her people and her deceased husband, Dido is an admirable woman. From the very first moments of Dido’s infatuation with Aeneas, the poet foreshadows to the readers that her love will be her destruction. However, Juno, who openly detests Aeneas, convinces Dido to marry Aeneas to interfere with his quest. Juno’s devious plan to distract Aeneas works for a while. Aeneas is content with his lovely queen, until Jupiter hears of the union. Jupiter then dispatches Mercury to remind Aeneas of his duty, to found the great city of Rome. Aeneas is a slave to his duty, he must stick to the Roman Cardinal Values: prudentia, fortitudo, justicia, and temperanta. Though Aeneas does love Dido, he understands that the Gods through their divine intervention have called upon him, he has a grand and divine purpose, which he ultimately knew all along—but he was distracted by Dido’s impossible love. Before Aeneas arrived in Carthage, Dido was already a somewhat tragic character. She was a widowed woman in charge of a kingdom that will certainly be overthrown. As Aeneas tells Dido he must resume his journey, Dido becomes a lovesick wreck: So Dido pleads and so her desolate sister takes him the tale of tears again and again. But no tears move Aeneas now. He is deaf to all appeals. He won’t relent. The Fates bar the way. and heaven blocks his gentle, human ears. (Virgil 142-143, lines 549-554) After being pressured by Jupiter to complete his quest, Aeneas can no longer sympathize with Dido; he knows he no longer has time for his love. The strong and intelligent queen cannot bear to lose another husband and therefore throws herself upon a blade as Aeneas sails on. Even for a work of fiction, Dido’s sudden irrationality and act of suicide is puzzling. According to Mike McCool author of the article, “The Tragedy of Dido: An Unresolved Epistemological Crisis” Dido was, “drawn irresistibly into the world of intrigue between Gods and men.” (McCool). Dido was used as a tool for Juno’s plan to distract Aeneas; their love was not natural for it was formed through the Gods, Cupid’s poison specifically. Unlike many others, especially most characters in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Dido did not openly defy the Gods or do anything to spite them, resulting in Dido and Aeneas’ relationship being one of the most tragic and impossible in all literature.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the sculptor Pygmalion manufactures his own impossible love. Displeased by the imperfections of real earthly women, Pygmalion decides to fashion his own vision of a perfect woman out of ivory. Pygmalion falls madly in love with his ivory maiden, he kisses her, caresses her, dresses her, and even speaks to her. But, it is obviously impossible to love and marry an ivory statue. His ivory maiden is not a real human, and therefore does not exist in real life, yet she still exists in the realm of art. His beloved statue is, “white as snow,” (Ovid 394, line 49), and it is very interesting that Ovid picked ivory instead of marble for Pygmalion’s medium, signifying that his maiden is pure—a perfect image of feminine beauty. In a sense, Pygmalion began to live inside his own head, when he touched the statue he thought to himself, “flesh or ivory? No, it couldn’t be ivory now!” (255). Pygmalion wished so badly for his inanimate love to stir, so he prayed to the Gods to marry a woman like his statue. Luckily for Pygmalion, Venus heard his prayers, and knew that he really wanted his statue to live so he could marry it, and so she turned his impossible love into a reality. When Pygmalion returned home he went to his statue and, “fondled that longed-for body again and/ again.” (286-287). Pygmalion’s unattainable woman is now standing before him, as a real human. Jane O’Sullivan author of the scholarly article, “Virtual Metamorphoses: Cosmetic and Cybernetic Revisions of Pygmalion’s ‘Living Doll’” argues that, “here fetishism is taken to be a process by which a concurrently feared and desired object—in this case, a woman—refashioned to conform to idealized notions of femininity in a bid to render her a compliant and familiar substitute for that unruly object and, in so doing, to tame her.” (O’Sullivan 134). Taking O’Sullivan’s argument into context, she is saying that Pygmalion was afraid of women, and of their rejection, so to hide his resentment for women, he created his own perfect woman, who would not talk back to him, displease him, or reject him. What was once a fetishized and quite frankly, unsettling, love is now a thing of reality. Pygmalion’s maiden is a real living human being. Though the tension of impossible love is relieved in terms of Pygmalion, it is now present regarding his ivory maiden.
In Metamorphoses, Pygmalion’s statue is not given a name, she is completely Pygmalion’s possession, she is not her own person, and she belongs to him. Thanks to Venus, now that the statue is a real woman she has absolutely no free will, she is forever indebted to Pygmalion and essentially turned into his own personal sex slave. She is unable to make her own decisions and is overall unable to choose whom she is able to love, which leads to another layer of unrequited, and impossible love. In both Virgil’s The Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the theme of impossible love dominates the plots of the stories and essentially terrorizes the characters affected.
In The Aeneid, both Dido and Aeneas are forever changed by their brief relation, Dido gave up her life for the man that she loved and Aeneas had to live with the regret of knowing that he caused his beloved’s suicide due to the fact that he had to complete his God given duty. On the other hand, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Pygmalion’s impossible love with his statue reaches a satisfying solution… for him, however his ivory maiden is forced into a life not of her choosing, therefore resulting in an unrequited and impossible love. Though it is tragic, impossible love will forever be a timeless staple of literature.
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