Jennifer Saint’s debut novel Ariadne is the most recent edition to a genre that has established itself as a literary phenomenon, the re-telling of Greek mythology from female narrators. Saint positions herself alongside recently acclaimed novelists such as Pat Barker, whose Silence of the Girls (2018) was shortlisted for the women’s prize for fiction, as was Madeleine Miller’s Circe (2018).
This genre’s ability to capture the literary imagination suggests a readiness, a need, to hear the stories of silenced and side-lined women; to rescue them from the periphery and dissect their integral roles. Their absence has become so obvious and the deficiency of the myths so unsatiating that it has conjured what is essentially a new literary tradition.
While it is somewhat futile to try and track the tradition of voicing the stories of these silenced or peripheral characters to a single text or era, the exploitation of the imaginative capacity of mythology gained significant momentum during the modernist period. James Joyce’s Ulysses (1920), a quintessential modernist text, exemplifies how mythology has been harnessed to reproduce narratives throughout literary history. Mapping what was contemporary and consistently relevant onto the ancient and fantastical, he allowed space for the mythological prototypes to exist outside of their original, often epic, narratives. Penelope, the wife who waited for Odysseus in Ithaca for twenty years, evolved from the waiting wife in Ithaca into the multi-dimensional Molly Bloom, whose infidelity in her own story embedded a deeper mistrust in the glossing over of her character in the original myth.
Proclaiming itself ‘feminist’, Saint’s Ariadne makes explicit what authors like Madeleine Miller and Pat Barker embed in the perspective of their fictions, psychologising the women so that they can no longer be dismissed as conveniently collateral to the inevitable progression of the heroic male-centred story. Through these psychologies, the authors question the very foundation of the manner in which we treat mythological narratives: the progression upon a sometimes glorious, sometimes tragic, but always inevitable trajectory is all of a sudden rethought, as us readers question how the misogyny and violence, that are treated as casual outcomes of the story, came to pervade our culture.
While it may initially appear a thankless task to transplant current feminist politics onto the ancient world, these mythologies remain insistently endurant. There is something metamorphic about their relevance, with their anachronisms obscured by fantasy. Saint touches on the emotional and sexual exploitation of Ariadne by Theseus, something that has always been glossed over but remains achingly poignant.
However, these novels do ask questions about whether we can consistently view feminine perspectives as feminist perspectives. In writing The Penelopiad, Margaret Attwood stated that she never set out for it to become the ‘feminist’ novel it was later hailed as. Perhaps it is this subtlety that Ariadne lacks that leaves its politics feeling jilted, forced and unsatisfying.
As the eponymous protagonist navigates her abandonment and manipulation, her story has the potential for a pervasive resonance into any era. Yet it is as though a personal or nuanced character has been traded for one of allegorical significance, so that Ariadne can stand as a typological ‘feminist’ figure, a woman who acts independently in an intensely masculine culture. Saint successfully draws attention to the misogynistic mistreatment of women in Greek myths, but Ariadne offers no new perspectives on what feminism means, feeling a little out of touch as conversations about intersectionality and white feminism become more mainstream. Giving Ariadne a voice is a feminist act because of the implications it carries in literary culture, but the nuances of feminism means that she does not need to be read as a feminist character.
What is most interesting for this genre though is how these mythological figures now exist in potential, waiting to be inscribed, brimming with narrative possibilities. The self-mythologising tendency is where I’d like to locate the sense of feminism, in all its vast glory. By creating this web of fictions, authors such as Attwood, Barker, Miller and Saint (to name a very select few) construct the overlooked characters from multiple perspectives, allowing them a certain sense of fluidity. They exist not as static or defined, but evolving. Just like the myths, a single character is not contained in a singular work or representation, but is textured, woven, constantly building upon the psychologising legacy of mythological rewritings.
Explaining her interest in mythology, Miller states that Homer tells us what happens, but not why. It is this impulse to imbue classic texts with a psychological depth that extracts their relevance, allowing them to exist in a mutable and timeless sphere. The stories currently lend themselves well to feminism in an era that wants to confront sexual violence and unpick the patterns of thought that have allowed some to irrationally accept the fates of victims as inevitable. But perhaps these stories are not their final forms.
(Illustration by Josephine Moir)