As a classics graduate and general bookworm, my current favourite literary trend is reviving stories from Greek mythology in the form of modern novels. Anyone who knows me knows I generally walk around with copies of such books as Madeiline Miller’s The Song of Achilles or Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls glued to my hand. These stories are generally a source of comfort for me: I often know the mythology that surrounds them, so they are rarely able to surprise me. It’s like watching a brilliant TV show that you’ve already watched before, even though you know what’s going to happen. Although these books are brilliant, they are often simply a retelling of a story lost to our culture: tales of lives, and lessons, often of women and girls, that we should never have forgotten. However, there is one such book recently that not only surprised me but absolutely entranced me, to the extent that I felt the need to share it with you all.
Jennifer Saint’s novel Ariadne tells the story of two sisters, Ariadne (of course), and her younger sister Phaedra. In Greek mythology, Ariadne is known, firstly, within the myth of Theseus. Although it is Theseus who slays the dreaded minotaur of Crete, it is Ariadne whose intelligence assures that this happens, as she gifts Theseus a thread which will allow him to navigate his way around the labyrinth where the beast is held. She is more commonly known, however, as the wife of the god Dionysus. This tale is well-known in the classical world as although it is not rare that a god falls in love with a mortal, it is exceptionally rare that a god as important as Dionysus should marry a mortal. Ariadne’s sister, Phaedra, however, is renowned for much more unpleasant reasons: in Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytusshe meets a tragic and grim end when she falls in love with her own stepson.
Before going into this novel, I knew these stories from my studies of Greek mythology. Although I was excited to see how Saint had portrayed these stories, I bought the novel intending to be reunited with Ariadne and Phaedra as old friends, whose lives I had read, studied, and memorised for exams before. Saint’s portrayal, however, was nothing like the meek and passive versions of these women that history had acquainted me with. Instead, Saint’s characters are strong-willed and richly-developed women, forced into tragic fates by a culture that has a miserable guarantee of female suffering.
The most striking thing about this novel is a common feature of Greek mythology, but one I have never seen discussed so openly before. It is that no matter what they do, in Greek mythology, women and girls are punished for the actions of men and gods. They are treated merely as pawns to male strategies, and invariably suffer consequences to male actions. It is a theme that Saint is sure to punctuate throughout every part of the novel from beginning to end. In the beginning of the novel, both Ariadne and Phaedra’s childhoods are tinged with this theme of female suffering, and, eventually ruined by it: as a result of their father, Minos, angering the gods, he is forced to welcome a bull/human hybrid into the world as his son. However, it is not Minos’s responsibility as the king to nurture his own children, and it is not his responsibility to birth this monstrous creature. Instead, Ariadne and Phaedra must watch their mother, Pasiphaë, her reputation and body in miserable tatters after birthing this creature, begin to gradually fall away to mental illness until she is merely a shell of the person she once was, whilst Minos is merely mildly amused by the nightmarish creature.
Both Ariadne and Phaedra are brought up to see suffering as merely a byproduct of girlhood. Throughout the novel, Saint depicts men as acting carelessly, manipulatively, and selfishly, and it is always women who must endure the outcome. It is impossible, regardless of your own political opinions about girlhood or feminism, to read Saint’s novel without feeling the unjust nature of this society. Therefore, I would recommend Ariadne to any girl who is interested in feminism, social politics, or patriarchy in general.
Another reason that I would recommend Ariadne is due to Saint’s presentation of motherhood. Motherhood was considered essential to the female experience in ancient Greek society: girls were raised with the expectation that they were to be good wives, manage the slaves in the household and, most importantly, bear lots of healthy children.
Both of Saint’s key characters have children, as was expected by society. But, what makes Saint’s presentation of maternal responsibility so interesting and fascinatingly feminist is the two characters’ attitudes towards it. Ariadne is a natural mother, with five children, and feels this was a role that she was born to do. Her sister, Phaedra, however, finds motherhood extremely difficult, and needs a lot of adjusting to it, as well as the strain that it has on her already unhappy marriage. Thus, although motherhood is unavoidable for both Phaedra and Ariadne, Saint’s novel is so valuable for young readers as it shows them if you’re unhappy about parenthood, or the idea of being a parent, you are not alone, and this is a responsibility that should not be expected of you.
There is so much more I could tell you about this fantastic novel and it’s feminist treatment of girls and women, but I wouldn’t dare to ruin such a great read for you! If you’re interested in any of the themes I’ve chatted about today, I really encourage you to pick up this book, and see what you think!
Girl Museum Inc.