Novels have so much solid and monolithic bulk when they sit in a hand or on a shelf; inside, the pages are forests of symbols, as though even in books of such magnitude the sentences needed compression to fit on to pages. How different to poetic volumes, beguilingly slender, their pages brilliant with blank, white space, across which the spindly words stretch like gossamer. In terms of content, however, novels are rarely as monolithic as their physical form suggests. From earliest times since, the genre has dealt, centrally, with themes of metamorphosis, transubstantiation, the fundamentally permeable nature of the self. The solid material aspect of the novel often masks a central preoccupation with the fluidity of identity.
In the compass of this article, I want to explore the central role accorded by Heliodorus, arguably the greatest of ancient novelists, to questions of perceptual deception, to seeing and seeming; and in particular, I want to explore the role of artworks within Heliodorus' narrative economy. The narrative turns, as is well known, on the amazing paradox of an Ethiopian girl born white. Charicleia's skin colour is a visual trap, an illusion. Given that her freakish pigmentation is the result of her mother's glancing at an art-work at the moment of conception, Charicleia can almost be said to be a walking ekphrasis, an embodiment of the illusory traps of the unreal.