Introduction to "The Story of Pygmalion"
The Classical Tale for August
Florence S. Boos
Set in a frame that celebrates the fullness of harvest, "Pygmalion and the Image" has the most unproblematically happy ending of any of the spring or summer tales. The lonely sculptor and devout aesthete Pygmalion, unable to find a companion in Cyprus, lovingly sculpts a female Image whose finely wrought beauty becomes the obsessive focus of his life. He does not neglect his worship of Venus, however (whose likeness he has already attempted), and prays to her during a votive procession to grant him the companion he seeks. When he reaches home, the newly animated Image affectionately greets him and carefully recounts the experience of her awakening and subsequent tutelage at the hands of Venus. As the tale ends, the lovers continue to exchange "murmuring words ... beneath the glimmering light."
Morris amplified and deepened his sources for his tale--Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book X) and Jean de Meun's Roman de la Rose (sections CVI and CVII). He adds a description of the sculptor's environs and accounts of his prior carving of a statue of Venus, careful attendance at her altar, and near-religious passion for his craft. Morris also adds a quasi-edenic scene in which Venus robes the Image as she becomes human, and its sequel, in which Pygmalion is startled and comforted when the enlivened statue first approaches him with words of love.
The Image's warm invitation and fluent conversation as the two walk together and discuss the nature of love contrasts well with the usual reticence of Morris's early heroines, and she responds with kindly acuity to Pygmalion's abstracted sensitivity, his love of reading and conversation, and his impassioned pledge of fidelity to
"Pygmalion and the Image" may be the first narrative in the sequence in which erotic success does not require one or another of the lovers to endure humiliation, painful loss, or a harrowing series of physical ordeals. Like Milanion, Pygmalion prays successfully to the right female divinity, but Atalanta's general malice and shotgun conversion to wifely submission are absent from "Pygmalion and the Image." Morris's conspicuous focus on Pygmalion's humility, the agency of Venus, and the Image's gentle acuity also mitigate much of the Pygmalion-tale's traditional overbearing emphasis on the male artist's power to fabricate and control nature. Both the Image and Venus herself in Morris's tale respond to Pygmalion with warmth, and the lovers share bonds of reflective sympathy as well as physical happiness.
Several of Morris's deep lifelong preoccupations are also reflected in the erudite sculptor's love of reading and history. Pygmalion's practice of reading aloud to the Image tales "of many climes" that tell "of lovers' sorrows and their tangled sin" also suggests obliquely the scope and content of Morris's own narrative cycle.
Against the backdrop of the restless passions of the Wanderers, aged auditors, and struggling protagonists of the other tales, the love of Pygmalion and the Image celebrated at the end of the tale becomes a moment of tempered harmony and contentment, an "earthly paradise" of reciprocity beyond language:
See Bellas, 120-31; Boos, 103-107; Calhoun, 177; Kirchhoff (1990), 173-74; Oberg, 65.