Week 4: Surveying Sources & Modern Medeas
ey everyone! I spent several hours this week in the library, introducing myself to notable feminist theorists and touching on critical race theory. I still have hours of reading ahead of me, so in order to provide a better analysis of the numerous papers and articles, I’ll hold off on writing about the scholars and theories until I gain a better understanding of each. For this post, I’ll provide an overview of my contemporary sources and the potential connections I can draw among them, as well as their contrast to Euripides’ play.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward:
Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2011, Salvage the Bones follows the experiences of Esch and her family, consisting of three brothers and her father, in the days prior to hurricane Katrina while touching on the devastation following the storm. Ward’s masterful use of character voice portrays the impoverished condition of the family, highlighting Esch’s struggle as the only female after she lost her mother at a young age. Though she holds a strong relationship with her older brothers Randall and Skeetah, she lacks the guidance of a mother figure in her crucially formative teenage years, all while sharing the responsibility of taking care of her younger brother, Junior, as well as her alcoholic father. She faces sexual abuse from her brothers’ friends and must navigate the complications of her teenage pregnancy, which she hides from her family until the hurricane hits. An ardent fan of Greek mythology, she becomes fascinated by the story of Medea, soon finding comparisons between the mythological character’s situation and her own.
Here’s where the novel presents a modern rendition of the Greek classic. Esch falls in love with one of her eldest brother’s friends, Manny, later comparing their (non-existent) romance to that of Medea and Jason. Although Manny is dating a girl named Shaliyah, compared to Glauce, Esch has fallen in love with him and is carrying his child, convincing herself that he will love her once he knows about the child. Her hopes are shattered when he callously rejects her feelings and denies any relation to the unborn baby. Channeling Medea’s fury, she attacks him with slaps and scratches, later despising him and accepting that he has never, or will ever, love her. Through this emotional journey, and when facing the deadly hurricane, she finds comfort with her brothers and few close family friends, who readily defend her and plan to care for both her and her child.
Another parallel between the Greek tragedy and this novel is Skeetah’s prized dog, China. Their relationship is artfully written to describe that of lovers, where Skeetah works tirelessly to take care of China and her newborn puppies while she heeds his every word and remains victorious in dog fights. China is viciously loyal to Skeetah and ruthless towards other dogs and most people, possessing a female fury that Esch compares to Medea. Just as Medea directed her anger towards Jason, China despises the dog that fathered her pups, eventually fighting and seriously wounding him. In one instance in the novel, she kills one of her puppies, specifically the one that looks like his father. This reflects Medea’s actions where she slays both of her sons, acknowledging their individual innocence though despising their resemblance to Jason. An interesting detail mentioned towards the end of the novel is that Skeetah’s birth name is Jason Aldon Batiste, a direct reference to the Greek figure. While China is often compared to Medea, Skeetah’s sentiments directly oppose those of Jason, despite the ironic namesake. Skeetah deeply cares for China, sometimes going to irrational lengths for her benefit, and even jumps into flooding waters during the hurricane to search for her when they get separated.
The novel is beautifully written with vivid descriptions and cleverly placed references to Euripides’ Medea. It highlights the conflicts between Esch’s intersecting identities of her African American heritage, her family’s poor economic circumstances, and her being the only female among her family and friends while lacking guidance for her pregnancy. A related theory that I have begun looking into is critical race feminist theory, which unites ideas from both traditional feminist theory and critical race theory while acknowledging the areas where the two intersect and emphasizing how circumstances of racial identity affect a woman’s experiences.
Circe by Madeline Miller:
The second novel by popular author Madeline Miller, Circe provides the perspective of the enchantress of Aeaea, daughter of Helios, and aunt of Medea. The story opens with Circe’s childhood among the Titans and her feelings of discontent and lack of belonging with the immortal beings. After her powers of sorcery are revealed and she is exiled to the island of Aeaea, she cultivates the land, establishes her home, and practices her magic while receiving lost travelers, both friend and foe.
As she is an immortal being, she encounters famed figures over the centuries and becomes involved in several notable tales: she turns the nymph Scylla into the legendary sea monster, aids the birth of the Minotaur (technically her nephew), befriends Daedalus and his son Icarus, purifies the sins of Medea, becomes the lover of Odysseus, braves the challenges of motherhood, finds an ally in Odysseus’s widowed wife Penelope, and eventually finds a place of solace with her lover Telemachus.
Although Medea, as a character, is only present for a single chapter in the novel, the novel’s protagonist, Circe, holds similar experiences to her niece as they both practice misunderstood magic, have complicated romantic relationships, and are seen as the “other” in their respective communities.
This is one novel I would, personally, love to investigate in my research, though it is also the one that holds fewer connections to my other contemporary sources. Theories relevant to this novel include feminist theory, classical reception theory, and the “foreigner” or lost identity aspect of postcolonial theory. As much as I will try to keep this on my source list for the project, I may have to sacrifice it in order to deeply investigate and connect the other two novels. (Though I highly recommend this book for fans of Greek mythology!)
The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea by Cherrie Moraga:
The play presents Medea as a queer Chicana female in a dystopian world and unites elements from Euripides’ play, Greek myth concerning Medea, stories from Mexican mythology, tales of famed female figures like La Malinche and La Llorona, as well as elements of Aztec history and mythology.
This is the one (out of my three) sources that I have not read yet, though I finally received a copy through Link+ and am excited to delve into it in the next few days. This will most likely require a lot of reading about Mexican mythology as well and the similarities between Medea’s story and those of La Malinche and La Llorona. Relevant lenses include feminist theory, postcolonial theory (focusing on Latin American colonization, history, and culture), as well as dystopian literature theory to better understand the context of the play’s setting.
Thanks for reading!
- “The Mexican Medea: Queer Chicana Representation In The Hungry Woman.” Diverse Adaptations Of Classical Literature – UT Libraries Exhibits, The University Of Texas At Austin, 20 July 2020, Https://Exhibits.Lib.Utexas.Edu/Spotlight/Diversity-Classics/Feature/The-Mexican-Medea-Queer-Chicana-Representation-In-The-Hungry-Woman.
- Miller, Madeline. Circe. Little, Brown And Company, 2018.
- Ward, Jesmyn. Salvage The Bones: A Novel. United States, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011.
- Moraga, Cherríe L. The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea. West End Press, 1995.