University of Wisconsin–Madison

Epistolary Fiction Assignment

Ron Harris, Instructional Coordinator, English

The purpose of the epistolary fiction assignment is to offer you the opportunity to explore further epistolary discourse. Epistolary discourse is a major element in the development of the modern novel and, arguably, represents the lasting presence of Ovid’s stylistic innovation. In many respects, Ovid’s Heroides, his collection of fictional letters, represents a starting point for the study of the novel. At the same time, the Heroides also represent a form of erotic elegy, a form we explored earlier in the semester. Hence, the epistolary fiction assignment builds upon your writing and thinking for the erotic elegy paper. The assignment asks you to analyze, in some detail, a piece of epistolary fiction, presumably one we’ve studied together, and then to try your hand at writing a short piece of epistolary fiction.

The epistolary fiction assignment will also help to clarify your study of Ovid’s major epic poem, the Metamorphoses. Quite often, the study of Ovid and of Ovid’s influence in modern literature amounts to the thematic study of individual episodes chopped out of the Metamorphoses, to the near exclusion of any consideration of the poem taken as a whole. The epistolary fiction assignment asks you to do this very thing, to rip an episode out of its context in Metamorphoses to use as raw material for your own work of art.

Part one, Analyze a short piece of epistolary fiction. I recommend that you choose one of the pieces we studied in class: one of Ovid’s Heroides or the selection from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. The purpose of your analysis should be to investigate how the particular piece of epistolary fiction works, with an eye toward writing your own epistolary fiction. Your focus will depend upon the kind of fiction you plan to write (see part two, below). If you plan to write one extended letter, along the lines of the Heroides, then you should choose to analyze how this extended fictional letter works. If you choose to write double letters (like those between Hero and Leander), then you’ll also want to consider the intertextual relationships between these two letters. If you choose to write a series of letters, then you’ll probably want to analyze the letters from Clarissa, particularly their ordering and transitions. Keep in mind our class room discussion of epistolary discourse, including the short Aunt Edith letters, and also the arguments made by John Dryden and Samuel Richardson, in their prefaces. Again, the purpose of this analysis is to prepare you to write your own piece of epistolary fiction.

Better papers will make frequent and specific reference to the text of the particular epistolary fiction. This paper should be about two pages in length, typed and double-spaced in 11 or 12 point type. Due in class on  Wednesday, March 23.

Part two, Analyze an episode or passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. How does the passage work in the poem, in terms of both carmen perpetuum and carmen deducite? In what context does the episode appear? How does Ovid construct transitions to and from the episode? How do these contexts help you to interpret the passage? Due in class on Friday, March 25.

Part three, Write a piece of epistolary fiction, after Ovid or Richardson. Rewrite the passage from the Metamorphoses (the one you analyzed in part two) in the form of epistolary fiction, taking as your model the passage you analyzed in part one (i.e., either Ovid or Richardson).

Think of the passage from the Metamorphoses as your raw material. Feel free to make any changes you find necessary or desirable.  You can’t retell the whole story, so don’t even try.  Instead, decide what problem or point of tension you wish to investigate. Perhaps you will want to abstract some image or quality from the episode. Don’t feel like you have to resolve the problem you introduce. After all, Ovid rarely resolves problems. In short, make the episode your own. Think of yourself as Shakespeare sitting down to write Romeo and Juliet, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  No pressure.

As was the case in your erotic elegy, keep in mind that you personally are not the speaker in your fiction. Rather, each letter constructs a fictional persona, defined by the existence of the addressee. While writing, try to incorporate the features and elements you identified in your analysis of epistolary discourse in part one of the exercise. Take advantage of the slippery nature of English words, which often take on two or three meanings. Don’t worry so much about the artistic quality of your fiction. The purpose of the exercise is not to write good fiction, but rather to learn how epistolary fiction works. Try to create some point of tension, but don’t feel like you’ve got to resolve that tension in your short sequence. Im fact, deferral and refusal to resolve tensions are important elements of epistolary fiction. Part of the pleasure of epistolary fiction seems to come out of that long, drawn-out process of narration.

Give proper attention to the formal qualities of letter writing and letter reading. Traditionally, letters were written on pieces of paper and transmitted manually (i.e., by hand, though whose hand delivered the letter and to whom it was delivered sometimes become complicating issues within the fiction), because that was the technology of the day. Today, we’ve also got various electronic forms for epistolary correspondence, including e-mail and text messaging. Your fiction doesn’t need to be entirely in one form. Feel free to incorporate those kinds of forms into your fiction, but be mindful of the relationships between your characters and technology. My guess is that Great Aunt Edith, our fictional correspondent, would not text message. Hence, any text message sent to her would not be read, or at least it wouldn’t be read by her. Likewise, she would likely be insulted to receive a “thank you” note via e-mail. Just imagine how these kinds of complications might play out over a series of letters between and among a variety of characters. How would this series of letters provide us with a complete story? What kind of story would that be?

Regardless of the form of your fictional letters, please reduce them all to paper, particularly the electronic forms of communication. If you want to submit handwritten cards or letters, you may, but please also include a typescript of the text, just in case I have difficulty reading your writing. If the specific form of the epistle isn’t immediately clear, please include this information in an editorial note. For example, if one item is supposed to be a post card, you might note [post card] as a header.

Your epistolary fiction should be of sufficient length for you to explore the workings of the form. If you write one long letter (after Ovid), then you’ll probably need several pages. If you write a series of short letters, then you’ll probably need at least five letters between or among three characters, with letters written by at least two of the characters. If you chose to include text messages, you should count one short sequence of text messages (one “conversation”) as a single letter. Although Ovid wrote his letters in elegiac couplets, you may write in prose. Due in class on Wednesday, March 30.

Part four, analyze your own epistolary fiction. Briefly, analyze your epistolary fiction, in terms of both epistolary discourse and your rewriting of the passage from the Metamorphoses. Don’t concern yourself with artistic quality, but instead consider how well you’ve managed to work within the conventions of the genre. Also, give some thought to how your fiction transforms the passage from the Metamorphoses. This part should take about one page. Due Friday, April 1.

Part five, attempt to define epistolary discourse. Based on your experience in this unit of the class (both reading and writing assignments, including this one) attempt to define epistolary discourse or epistolary style. What does it mean for a fictional first-person speaker to address a fictional second person? You might also want to consider whether or how epistolary discourse or style is “Ovidian.” As was the case with the elegy assignment, the point of this part of the assignment is to consider stylistic qualities Ovid brought to literature, in addition to the subjects he wrote about. The significance of distinctions between subject and style will become increasingly clear as we move through the semester. This part should take between two and four pages. Due Monday, April 4.


The final portfolio will be due sometime after April 4.