How Feminist Retellings are Quickly Shaping our Understanding of Myths: When Adrienne Rich wrote in her popular essay, ‘When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,’ that re-visioning would be an act of survival for women, she was possibly envisioning a future when a massive wave of revisionist storytelling was going to ebb into the world of literature and rinse the old consciousness. She wished for the women to unfurl this chapter in cultural history by re-visioning, or trying to understand the assumptions they have been colored in by the patriarchal society, and fathom how their socio-cultural, sexual, and political identities have been shaped by the ‘old political order’. The idea is, ultimately, to break free from its hold. So, we did. Writers across global literature set out to explore the previously uncharted territory of women’s ‘psychic geography’ to produce works of literature that have since challenged our understanding of ancient myths, cultural narratives, and social theories. Today, feminist retellings (or re-visions) of the text, particularly mythologies, which have a universal appeal, are being recognized as bestsellers in the book market. In these books, men (particularly cis-het white men) are no longer the center of attention who could command the world’s tidings forcefully with their phallic strength. Instead, these retellings seek to give voice to the women – the wives, muses, maids, mothers, daughters, whores, etc. – so that their stories can offer a unique way of re-looking at the old hetero-patriarchal order and re-examine our foundations of knowledge about the society.
Two contemporary authors who stand out for me in their efforts at ventriloquizing the women of Graeco-Roman mythology in their outstanding works are Margaret Atwood and Carol Ann Duffy. In this article, therefore, I shall make a humble effort at understanding how Duffy’s collection of poetry, The World’s Wife (1999) and Atwood’s poem ‘The Siren Song’ as well as the novella, The Penelopiad (2005), re-visit popular myths and stories to re-vision the women snubbed by popular cultural history. These works not only serve as important literary predecessors to contemporary works of feminist retelling but also domesticate the myth. They hold a mirror to society’s misogyny at an uncomfortably close distance from us, helping us recognize the mundane trappings of a female’s life in these age-old mythical stories using good-natured and humorous imagination.
The Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy is more popular as the first female and openly bisexual British Poet Laurette. Her use of feminist revisionist mythology finds fruition in her collection of poetry, The World’s Wife, first published in 1999. In this collection, she re-tells the famous legends and myths around King Midas, King Herod, Tiresias, and Charles Darwin, among many others, mainly from the perspectives of their female partners. There is a distinct division between the two ways Duffy holds up the men and the previously invisible women in her retellings.
While the men are mostly represented as self-centered and futile in their efforts, making you feel exasperated at their pomposity, the women seem to possess sexual energy, confidence, and sarcasm that myths or legends could hardly have ever associated these characters with. She adeptly uses her pen to harness the style of a dramatic monologue, a style previously shaped to perfection in English poetry by white male poets, such as Robert Browning.
A dramatic monologue tends to tip off the balance of power as the male narrator directs his gaze upon a woman. However, in Duffy’s poems, she bestows the power of controlling the narrative and the gaze upon the female characters, also providing an opportunity for the female speakers to talk directly with the readers. Further, she peppers her words with tongue-in-cheek humor that both satirizes and rejects the hollow chalice of masculinity that society has come to worship since time immemorial.
One of my favorites from this collection is Pygmalion’s Bride, a poem that borrows its concept from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Ovid’s account focuses on the story of Pygmalion and his frustration at the shamelessness of women in the society around him. To find himself a perfect match, Pygmalion sculpts a woman he believes to be the ‘ideal’ of all womenkind. Aphrodite breathes life into her, and Pygmalion happily marries the version of a woman that fits his imagination. In Duffy’s poem, Pygmalion’s bride is disgusted with feeling like an object. As soon as the statue-turned-woman decides to take active charge of the lovemaking in bed after marriage, vocal about her pleasure and climaxing with passion, Pygmalion flees the scene. This is a straightforward satire that takes the ancient myth of Pygmalion by its hair, revises and re-focuses it to narrate the ‘what if…’ side of the story from the statue-turned-woman’s point of view.
Another favorite from the collection is the poem, ‘Eurydice’ in which Duffy makes the titular character straightaway confess in the first line that she was happily dead and living in the underworld when Big O (read: King Orpheus) decided to rescue her for his needs. Unlike the oft-romanticized moment of separation between the two across literature and arts, Eurydice confesses that she was doing “everything in my power/ to make him look back” to keep him from dragging her out of the Underworld. Ultimately, she strikes upon the golden idea to complement his poetry; it does the trick. Orpheus turns back, and Eurydice waves him one last goodbye before returning to her state of deathly bliss. I have always imagined Duffy in the guise of Eurydice almost sneering at male vanity in the ending lines of this poem.
The same disdain towards male vanity is echoed in Margaret Atwood’s poem, Siren Song, first appearing in 1974 as part of the poetry volume, You are Happy. According to Greek mythology, Sirens appear to be half bird – half woman and are primarily responsible for luring sailors to death. Their most prominent cultural representation has been found in Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus seals the ears of the sailors on his boat with wax earplugs to keep them from listening to these mythical sea creatures. They are painted as wicked, sympathizing mongrels by the misogynistic myth-making techniques of those times.
Atwood seeks to shift the gaze in understanding one of their ‘irresistible’ songs from the perspective of the Siren. She employs humor in re-affirming the image of the Sirens, never for a moment denying that the song’ forces men/ to leap overboard in squadrons”. The charm works in Atwood’s re-writing because it promises the men that they are unique in a woman’s eyes, tickling their male ego. It must be kept in mind here that the sexual politics channeled by Atwood in her poetic transgression of the image of the Sirens, echoing a brand of feminism that turns the tables of patriarchal oppression and gender roles, is built upon the misandry of the 1970s.
Carol Ann Duffy’s collection of feminist revisionist retellings too bears a hint of misandry, almost complicating the narrators by drawing them as biased, angry, unforgiving women. They are figments of imagination and unreliable characters. There’s a hint of nastiness in them, making them human, unlike the image of male protagonists in myths who fashioned a halo as a hair accessory to pronounce their greatness in this world.
The Penelopiad, the Atwood novella, which was released in 2005, also seeks to re-center the Homeric myth of the Odyssey. It explicitly imagines the life of Penelope, Odysseus’ bride, who got left behind in Athens when her husband left for the war and took an epic route back home after eighteen years. Atwood takes a step further in challenging ancient mythography by bestowing Penelope’s twelve maids with a voice (a chorus, mind you) previously unheard in history and grafts Penelope to writhe under the guilt of their deaths as she narrates her story from the Underworld. This brings to light the other aspect of ancient myths we casually tend to overlook – the stark lack of concern for the voice of the people in the middle and the below orders, the ordinary people. The slimness of the novella rarely gives us a chance to peep into the psyche of Penelope. Atwood here is evidently more concerned with voicing the subservience of Penelope’s maids and the unfair treatment meted out to them, a product perhaps of her already continuing engagement with the roles of domestic helps in her popular book, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Alias Grace (1996).
In the last two decades, feminist revisionist storytelling has been infused with the themes of intersectionality to help myths become more accessible to the general public. As a result, Madeline Miller’s ‘Circe’ in building lyrical prose around Circe as the protagonist and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s ‘The Palace of Illusions’ in re-focalizing the Indian Hindu epic, Mahabharata, from Draupadi’s perspective have collected accolades since their release. In fact, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is one of the best examples of intersectional feminist revisionist mythology because it not only directs the gaze away from the Trojan War and its heroes but also seeks to break free from the prevalent heteronormativity in myths by focusing on the queer love within Patroclus and Achilles. Myths and legends will always remain popular because of their universal appeal and touchstone familiarity with the human condition. If we ensure that we revise them and re-revise them to match the spirits of our times, they shall keep bearing the significance they commanded when they were composed. Here’s hoping that the future of myths is intersectional, feminist, and certainly directed as an effort at making a chink in the glass wall of hetero-patriarchy!