46 pages 1 hour read

Ursula K. Le Guin


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2008

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Summary and Study Guide


Lavinia is a 2008 novel by American author Ursula K. Le Guin. As her last novel, it tells part of the story of Virgil’s Aeneid from the perspective of Aeneas’s wife, Lavinia, who appears in the Aeneid as only a minor character. Although primarily a retelling of myth, the novel also attempts to explore what little is known about the people of the Italian peninsula before the founding of Rome. The subject matter of Lavinia differs dramatically from most of Le Guin’s more famous works, given that she wrote primarily science fiction and fantasy. In this final novel, Le Guin explores Lavinia’s entire life, far beyond the limited detail provided by the Aeneid. Lavinia becomes aware that she’s a character in a story, which changes her relationship to fate and duty.

This guide uses the 2008 Harcourt, Inc. edition of the novel.

Content Warning: This novel contains discussions of death by suicide, enslavement, physical abuse, and child death, and the guide references these instances.

Plot Summary

At age 18, Lavinia, the daughter of King Latinus, sees a fleet of Trojan ships coming up the river and knows her life is about to change. The narrative then jumps back to her childhood. When she’s six years old, she and her two younger brothers fall ill after contracting a serious fever. Lavinia recovers, but her brothers die. Her mother, Amata, never moves on from her grief, blaming and resenting Lavinia. Lavinia’s closest friend is a farmer’s daughter named Silvia, who has an affinity for working with animals and keeps a beautiful stag as a pet. Latinus’s city, Laurentum, is near the settlement that will one day become the city of Rome.

When Lavinia is 15, her cousin, King Turnus, comes to Laurentum. Everyone suspects that Turnus will ask for her hand in marriage, but the idea terrifies her. Amata is enthusiastic about the match because she’s attracted to Turnus, her nephew, but Latinus doesn’t want Lavinia to marry yet. In a flash-forward, Lavinia and Aeneas are married, and Lavinia examines Aeneas’s shield. If she looks at it closely, she can see the future and is horrified by the wars yet to come.

Back in the past, Lavinia is 12, and she and her father visit a sacred grove at Albunea. They sacrifice a lamb, hoping to receive a vision. Lavinia dreams of a city next to a river running red, after which her father tells her that she can return to Albunea whenever she wishes. She often returns with Maruna, an enslaved girl around her age.

While visiting Albunea at 18, Lavinia meets the shadow of the poet who wrote the Aeneid, in which Lavinia appears as a character. He’s dying. The poet is surprised to meet Lavinia and realize that she’s far more complex than the minor character he wrote about. He tells her a little about her future: She’s destined to marry Aeneas, a Trojan warrior. He also tells her the story of Aeneas’s life, including his time in the Trojan War, his visit to Dido in Carthage, and his long journey to find a new home for his people.

Turnus sends a formal request for Lavinia’s hand, but she delays answering. During a religious ceremony, her hair catches fire; she’s unharmed, but her father interprets the incident as an omen foretelling war. Lavinia and Latinus visit Albunea again, and Latinus receives a message that his daughter must marry a foreigner. The same night, the poet returns and tells Lavinia about all the people who will die in the coming war. He adds that she and Aeneas will be married for only three years before Aeneas’s death.

After Lavinia goes to the riverbank to collect salt and sees Aeneas’s ships coming up the river, she and Silvia spy on the Trojans as they eat in the woods. Aeneas comes to Laurentum in peace, and Latinus promises him Lavinia’s hand. Amata is enraged. She and several other women kidnap Lavinia during the night and take her to a sacred rite on a nearby hill, hoping that Turnus will soon arrive to marry her. Lavinia is horrified, and after two days she escapes, with Maruna’s help; Turnus hasn’t arrived.

Ascanius, Aeneas’s teenaged son, shoots Silvia’s stag, sparking a war between the Latins and the Trojans. Latinus tries to stop the violence but fails, and Turnus leads the men in battle. Lavinia and the other women tend to the wounded. Turnus sets the Trojans’ ships on fire so that they can’t leave.

To end the war, Aeneas and Turnus agree to fight one-on-one to the death. Just before the duel, a Latin fighter sees an omen and calls all the men to fight again. Amata blames herself for the war and, realizing that Turnus can’t marry her daughter, dies by suicide. A final slaughter breaks out, during which Aeneas finds and kills Turnus. This is the end of the Aeneid, but Lavinia’s story continues. Aeneas and his men start building a new city, Lavinium, near the river, as foretold in Lavinia’s dream. Lavinia and Aeneas marry and move to Lavinium to start their new life. They’re happy and soon have a son, Silvius. However, Aeneas feels immensely guilty for killing Turnus. Ascanius dislikes Lavinia and acts out, calling the line of succession into question. Peace reigns in the region, except for some skirmishes between Aeneas’s people and the Etruscans who control what will become Rome. Lavinia tries to ensure Aeneas is happy, knowing that he doesn’t have long to live but not sharing this knowledge.

In spring, Lavinia tells Aeneas that she’s pregnant with a daughter. Soon after this, Aeneas is unexpectedly killed while retrieving a lost herd of cattle. Lavinia miscarries and mourns intensely. Several years later, Latinus dies, and Ascanius rules the region poorly. When Ascanius marries, he tries to send Lavinia away but wants to keep Silvius under his control. Unwilling to part, Lavinia and her 11-year-old son flee together. She takes him into the woods, where they live in exile for several years, again following an omen. Ascanius’s lover, a fellow soldier, dies, leaving him bereft. He doesn’t attempt to punish Lavinia for disobeying him.

After several years in the woods, Lavinia learns that Aeneas’s household gods, whom he brought with him from Troy, have appeared in Lavinium after spending years in Ascanius’s city of Alba Longa. Everyone takes this as a sign that she and Silvius can end their exile and return home. Ascanius, who never recovered from his grief, cedes power to Silvius, who becomes a respected and beloved king. Lavinia lives in Lavinium until she’s old, but she can’t die because her role in the Aeneid was too minor to grant her full personhood. She transforms into an owl and lives on in Albunea.