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Gender and Focalization in the Reception of Classical Myth

Lillian Doherty

University of Maryland, College Park

While creative artists in the modern world have continually sought to reanimate and inhabit the figures of classical mythology, scholars of gender—both classicists and others—have tended to warn us against their seductive power. Characters such as Odysseus and Helen have been seen as embodying roles to which we are tempted to aspire, only to find ourselves trapped in relations of domination and submission. The challenge for the next generation of scholars is to balance this valid warning with an appreciation of the myths’ potential for empowerment in the molding of gendered selves. Using the tools of narratology, and specifically the dynamics of focalization, I will explore the simultaneously confining and liberating potential of mythic figures in the work of twentieth-century American writers. I will build on the pioneering research of scholars such as Sheila Murnaghan and Patrice Rankine, who have used the core insights of narratology, if not the terminology, to explore the ways in which shifts of focalization within mythic fabulas can reveal the multiplicity and mutability of subject positions within an apparently stable gender hierarchy.

To give one example, in her lyric/epic poem Helen in Egypt (1961), H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), an American poet of the twentieth century, took as her starting point an ancient alternative to the Homeric view of Helen. The story of Troy and its aftermath is told through Helen’s voice and eyes, inflected by H.D.’s own experience during and after the two world wars. H.D. also underwent psychotherapy with Sigmund Freud himself, yet resisted his view that gender roles were immutable. Her poem can be read both as an analytic journey and as a rejoinder to Homer and Freud, according primacy to the female voice and granting that voice the authority of the epic poet. Sheila Murnaghan’s research into H.D.’s experience led to the discovery that she had also been influenced in childhood by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales. Murnaghan and Deborah Roberts have been working for years on the importance of children’s versions of the myths, to which modern authors have responded by embracing them as a “personal possession . . . rather than a discrete cultural inheritance derived from a distant time and place” (Murnaghan 2009, 65). Thus H.D. inhabits the persona of Helen, using this shift of focalization to center the woman’s experience of war and H.D.’s own ambivalence about the gendered subject positions of her time.

Similarly, Patrice Rankine (2006) argues that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man re-frames the account of Odysseus in the Cyclops’ cave to reveal the “epic dimension” of a marginal and socially subordinate figure whose manhood is under constant threat in a racist culture. Both Ellison and Toni Morrison fuse the classical inheritance with the African-American experience as embodied especially in its folklore. Morrison in particular gives significant emphasis to gender relations within African-American culture. Like Ellison, and like H.D., she uses echoes of classical mythic plots to suggest the slippage between noble and enslaved, or between male and female, subject positions.

To be sure, these twentieth-century works are not to be reduced to the status of instantiations of classical myth; they are much more than that. But by studying their connections to classical myth, we become more aware of the mutability of mythic structures and of the transformations (psychic as well as social) enabled by shifts in focalization.

Session/Panel Title

Theorizing Ideologies of the Classical: Turning Corners on the Textual, the Masculine, the Imperial, and the Western

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