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Medea’s Chorus

Myth and Women’s Poetry Since 1950

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Veronica House

Women’s mythic revision is a tradition at the heart of twentieth-century literature. Medea’s Chorus explores post-WWII women’s poetry that takes Greek mythology as its central topos. The book investigates five of the most influential poets writing in the twentieth century (H.D., Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood, Eavan Boland) who challenge both the ancient literary representations of women and the high modernist appropriations of the classics. In their poetry and prose, the women engage with cultural discourses about literary authority, gender, oppression, violence, and age. Yet even while the poets rework certain aspects of the Greek myths that they find troubling, they see the inherent power in the stories and use that power for personal and social revelation. Because myths exist in multiple versions, ancient writers did not create from scratch; their artistic contribution lay in how they changed the stories. Modern female poets are engaging in a several millennia-old tradition of mythic revision, a tradition that has ruthlessly posited that there is no place for women in the creation and transmission of mythological poetry. Medea’s Chorus tracks mythic revision from the 1950s through the second-wave feminist movement and into turn-of-the-century feminism to highlight individual achievements and to show the collective effect of the poets’ highly varied works on post-WWII literature and feminist thought and practice. This engaging and beautifully written book is a must-read for any student, teacher, or scholar of the Classical Tradition, revisionist mythmaking, and twentieth-century poetry.
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Chapter Two: Sylvia Plath’s Complex Electra

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CHAPTER TWO

Sylvia Plath’s Complex Electra



The Myth of Real Life

During a psychotherapy session in 1958, Sylvia Plath’s doctor urged her to ask, “Who am I angry at?” Plath answered in her therapy journal that evening,

it is my mother and all the mothers I have known who have wanted me to be what I have not felt like really being from my heart and at the society which seems to want us to be what we do not want to be from our hearts: I am angry at these people and images. I do not seem to be able to live up to them. Because I don’t want to. (Journals 437)

Despite Plath’s assertion, “I don’t want to,” and despite her frustration with social and gender inequalities, she had internalized the pervasive messages and images that attested to the incompatibility of independence and happiness, of autonomy and family. Her poetry and prose fiction, which often mirror language and ideas from her journals, abound with characters unable to cope successfully with the cultural pressures of domestic womanhood. Adrienne Rich explains that during the 1950s, “in a reaction to the earlier wave of feminism, middle-class women were making careers of domestic perfection” (BBP 173). In Plath’s essay “America! America!,” written a month before her suicide in 1963, she writes of her need to fit into “the cherished Norm” (Johnny Panic 55). Indeed, throughout her adult...

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