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279 pages, Hardcover
First published April 21, 2008
I think if you have lost a great happiness and try to recall it, you're only asking for sorrow, but if you do not try to dwell on the happiness, sometimes you find it dwelling in your heart and body, silent but sustaining.
But, you know, this book was not written, like Margaret Atwood’s “Penelope” book, to sort of right or wrong or set Homer straight. You don’t need to set [Vergil] straight on women. I mean, look at Dido. Everybody knows Dido for goodness sake. She’s much more famous than Aeneas, really. [...] Lavinia was my way into [Vergil’s] world and his discourse about power and about war. Because what [Vergil] is talking about in those last six books, I think, partly is what makes a real hero and what is the moral cost even of heroic victory. And that seemed a really relevant question to me.(Yes I sic’d the misspellings of Vergil’s name, sue me.) I’m not sure I’d agree with any of that, but it’s helpful in elucidating Le Guin’s perspective. Most of the classics retellings of the past decade or so—at least the ones I’ve read or seen my friends read—have been marketed as “feminist.” These retellings seem to be coming from a place of rage, bitterness, resentment that male poets and male audiences and male adaptors have been content to write and to read women as voiceless objects. Dr. Carson, for example, when discussing the role of the translator in regards to Antigone, wrote, “Dear Antigone: I take it as the task of the translator to forbid that you should ever lose your screams.” I find Dr. Carson’s interpretations of the classic Greek tragedies incredibly interesting, and I particularly appreciate her commitment to transliterating the inarticulate inhuman noises made primarily by the women in those plays; Dr. Carson referred to these screams as “bones of sound,” which I think is apt. Of course, in this instance, Antigone does have a voice (the play is named after her—suck it, Kreon!) and is not a minor character, but the same sentiment is replicated in a lot of these purportedly feminist retellings. There would have been screams, these retellings say, in reference to minor characters; the task of the person retelling this story is to fill in the gaps to imagine what those screams would have been. I’m not entirely sure how to feel about all of this. I don’t think the best way to do a “feminist” retelling of a classic story is to retroactively apply agency to a female character. That sort of flawed logic is why we get endless remakes of classic stories where Belle invents a washing-machine and Emma Watson refuses to wear a corset or hoop skirt with her dress, or the Little Women wear men’s clothes and have their hair down in public, or Jasmine sings a song about being a girlboss, because these are all things that are considered “progressive” or “feminist” in the modern day, and the majority of the audience for these retellings isn’t going to know enough about historical women’s suffrage and the fight for gender equality to be able to recognise that corsets were no more inherently anti-feminist than bras are or just because women didn’t overtly own shops didn’t mean they didn’t work in business.