An Imaginary Life


David Malouf

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An Imaginary Life Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on David Malouf's An Imaginary Life. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of David Malouf

David Malouf was born in Brisbane, Australia in 1934, one of two children. From his early years, Malouf was an avid reader, tackling such difficult works as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights by the age of 12. He grew up in Australia and graduated from the University of Queensland in 1955. He spent several years working as a professor at his alma matter before relocating to London, where he lectured at several universities until 1968. After that, Malouf returned to Australia to lecture at the University of Sydney, where he stayed for another decade before resigning to become a full-time writer. Malouf published his fist novel, a semi-autobiographical story about growing up in Brisbane titled Johnno, while still teaching in Sydney in 1975. It sold well and received a theatrical adaptation in 2004. In 1978, he followed up with his tale of the the Roman poet Ovid’s exile, An Imaginary Life, which critics praised for its style and execution. Throughout the 1980s, Malouf published several prize-winning novels and short stories about Australia, and developed several theater productions as well. In 1993, Malouf published Remembering Babylon, a novel about Scottish homesteaders settling in Australia and struggling against their own racism and fears. The novel won a long list of accolades, including the notable Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and made the short-list for the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction. Malouf continued writing until 2018 when he announced his retirement, leaving behind a prolific legacy of fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, plays, poetry volumes, and opera librettos. Malouf lives a private life in Sydney.
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Historical Context of An Imaginary Life

Publius Ovidius Naso, commonly called Ovid, was a real-life historical figure born to a wealthy family in Sulmo, 90 miles from Rome, in 43 B.C.E. His father funded his education in Rome, where Ovid studied rhetoric. Ovid excelled in this field, and many thought he might become a public orator, but instead Ovid chose to commit himself to writing poetry. Since his father was a provincial man, he expected Ovid to follow his footsteps and work in public office. Ovid briefly took on an official career, but soon abandoned it to write and foster poetry in Rome. His writings, beginning with Amores, Heroides, and Ars amatoria, found immediate success and he soon became a revered public figure and advocate of the pleasure-seeking life. However, his success was cut short when Emperor Augustus exiled him to Tomis, a distant village on the far edge of the Roman Empire. Although the exact reason for Ovid’s exile is unknown, Ovid himself suspected that it was partially due to Ars amatoria, which many saw as indecent, and partially due to some level of involvement (though what that involvement was is lost it history) with Augustus’s granddaughter’s adultery, for which she was also exiled. As a metropolitan man, Ovid suffered in far-flung Tomis and wrote many letters and pleas to his wife, counsel, and the Emperor himself, begging for pardon. However, Ovid remained in exile until his death in 17 C.E.

Other Books Related to An Imaginary Life

An Imaginary Life resembles several of Malouf’s other works with its poetic prose, exploration of humanity’s relationship to nature, and unlikely relationships between people from different worlds. This is especially true in Remembering Babylon, which contrasts the European settlers’ view of nature with the indigenous Aboriginal people’s view. Just as Malouf reimagines the final days of the classical figure Ovid, in Ransom, Malouf retells the narrative of Homer’s Iliad to explore reconciliation between the warrior Achilles and the grieving father Priam, whose son murdered Achilles’s lover. Although An Imaginary Life is fictional, Malouf draws from Ovid’s actual writings to shape his character and comment on his ideas. In Malouf’s story, his fictional version of Ovid undergoes a powerful personal transformation, which he once refers to as a “metamorphosis.” This refers directly to the actual Ovid’s epic poetry volume Metamorphoses, where he explores a wide range of mythological stories through the lens of personal transformation. Malouf also uses his story to critique Ovid’s frivolous lifestyle, which can be seen in the historical works Amores, a volume of erotic poetry, and Ars amatoria, Ovid’s three-volume instructional poetry on how men should pursue women, and how women should keep their men. Ovid’s Epistulae ex Ponto, which he wrote while in exile, provides a look at what the poet truly felt about his new life in Tomis.
Key Facts about An Imaginary Life
  • Full Title: An Imaginary Life
  • When Written: 1977
  • Where Written: Sydney, Australia
  • When Published: March 1978
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Setting: The Roman Empire and its outlying territories, around 1 C.E.
  • Climax: Ovid and the Child cross the River Ister.
  • Antagonist: Ryzak’s Mother / The Old Woman
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for An Imaginary Life

Down Under. Although Australia is never mentioned in An Imaginary Life, several critics see the book as a reflection of European Australians’ struggle to reconcile themselves to the natural world and Aboriginal way of life that they all but eradicated through their colonization of the continent.