Here you’ll find reviews of novels and a few shorter stories, focusing on their links to the ancient world. If you’ve read a novel which has interesting classical connections, use the ‘Contact’ form to send me a review. It doesn’t have to be a highbrow piece of literature: all novels are welcome here!
Novels reviewed on this page:
Country by Michael Hughes.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.
The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
Animal Farm by George Orwell.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.
Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley.
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink.
The Human Stain by Philip Roth.
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy.
Dracula by Bram Stoker.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.
Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott.
Country by Michael Hughes
Reference: The Iliad by Homer
Description: Country by Michael Hughes lifts Homer’s Iliad out of Troy and superimposes the myth onto a very real and very fragile Northern Ireland in the mid-1990s; peace is on the horizon, but there is still some way to go before the ceasefire of the Good Friday Agreement.
Like Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (based on Antigone), there is real joy found in recognising the Homeric epic in Country, which has been repackaged in a very modern and very different setting. There are warming moments of familiarity as you spot the epic’s heroes in their modern guises. Additionally, Country and Home Fire stand alone as strong works of fiction in their own right; they are in some ways two books in one. Surely the fact that both texts can re-tell such ancient tales and still make them sound modern must prove that these stories are as relevant today as they were in the Classical world?
Country’s use of the Iliad tells us something: men are and have been a problem for a very long time. It also reminds us that the innocent will always be the victims, be they children, wives or bystanders… and no one will ever write an epic that celebrates them. These victims are the collateral that men need to build their legend. The vanity of men is palpable in this story.
Depressingly, when one considers the fact that if there was a siege of Troy, it happened over 3000 years ago. This is a damning indictment on humanity. We can find ourselves just as easily caught up in conflict today as we ever did. People (men) can say ‘ it’s about honour’, but most of the time, a conflict starts with an ego – and often ends in one too. Achill in Country does what Achilles does in The Iliad – he sulks and then revels in the death of another human being whilst being lauded by his peers for his ability to kill. It is no wonder that toxic masculinity permeates our culture so much when the cultural icons that have been handed down to us are such emotionally underdeveloped, murder machines. Achilles gets too much reverence from his adoring public and not enough rebuttal for my liking.
There is an interesting role-reversal in Country in relation to the warring sides. The Greeks in The Iliad are often considered to be an Imperial force, crushing the rival regional power for their own gain, yet in Hughes’ book, we see ‘The Ra’ as the Greeks and the British as the Trojans – the invaded countrymen wear the costume of the Greek invaders. Perhaps the message that Hughes is making is a prediction: empires grow and empires fall and currently the British have Northern Ireland; time will pass though and one day there will be a united Ireland and the British rule will fade into memory like the walls of Troy. No empire lasts forever. Hughes’ book teaches us that history not only repeats, but it has been repeating for a very long time.
Don’t get comfortable – things might be about to change again.
Contributor: David Hogg
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Description: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a book about Montag, a Fireman whose job it is to set books alight.
In Bradbury’s dystopian vision of the future, reading is banned and any literature that is discovered has to be burnt and any readers can be executed. However, Montag is not like the other Firemen; he has a natural inquisitiveness and although he doesn’t understand what books are, he knows that they are important. Montag then sets out to find someone who can teach him what books mean, why they are special and how to understand them. He successfully finds a guide, but his daring is rewarded with exposure to the authorities and he becomes the subject of a manhunt carried out by his old Firemen crew.
Once Montag has been discovered, Beatty, his station commander states, “‘Old Montag wanted to fly near the sun, and now that he’s burnt his damn wings he wonders why.’” This is clearly an allusion to Icarus, who against the better advice of his father, flew too close to the sun. The Greek myth of Icarus has often been interpreted as a warning to young people about ignoring parental advice; additionally it can also be seen as a tale of man’s arrogance and nature’s ‘slap down’. Other, more positive readings can also be made. For example, it can be seen as a story about ‘burning brightly’ and the preference to live in excitement at the edges rather than exist in mediocrity at the centre. Additionally it can be seen as a tale of human inquisitiveness – what is it like to push the limits; what happens if I do this…?
All of these interpretations can be applied to Montag. He broke the rules and was punished. He thought he knew better than his superiors. He wanted to see what was ‘behind the curtain’. And finally he preferred to allow his inquisitiveness to be fired up, rather than left to smoulder away.
It turns out that Montag is right to test the rules and his journey of discovery saves him. Icarus too can say that he was right – he did something that nobody else has done; it may not have saved him, but it did immortalise him.
As for Beatty, his quote betrays his own knowledge of literature and exposes the idea that those in power seek to control the access to information of the people below them. Perhaps Beatty and his kind are trying to do the impossible and they are in fact Icarus, fighting a ‘sun’ that will always revolt and win in the end.
Contributor: David Hogg
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Description: In Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood is a young woman from the American Suburbs who wins a writing competition and receives an internship at a New York women’s fashion magazine. Set in 50s America, proper moral behaviour is the order of the day and Esther, along with her other female co-winners, are given residence at the women-only ‘Amazon Hotel’. All of this happened to Plath – although the names were changed in her novel. Therefore, as Plath chose the names, it is interesting to consider the significance of the hotel’s title. In simple terms, the Amazons (in Greek mythology) were a race of female warriors whose community contained no men. Thus the Amazon Hotel reflects this ‘female only’ society (men were not allowed in the hotel and therefore the women were, in theory, ‘protected’ from men). In addition to this though, there are aspects of the Amazonian mythology that make the naming of this hotel more significant.
The setting up of these women in the Amazon Hotel essentially places a target on them and they become potential conquests for men; the women’s very isolation creates the allure/challenge that inspires male suitors. In Plath’s life, this led to some serious consequences for one of Plath’s friends; in the novel we are presented with some serious/comic moments when Esther encounters men in clandestine moments. In Greek mythology, it seems that to be considered a proper Greek hero, you had have conquered the Amazons in some way. Heracles had to steal a girdle from the Amazonian queen, Bellerophon slaughters them in battle and Achilles defeated and killed Penthesilea. It seems that the Amazonians’ isolation and their rejection of male company only encouraged men to hunt them harder, thus turning the Amazonians into trophies for the ‘heroes’.
In The Bell Jar, perhaps Plath is saying that women are not allowed to isolate themselves from men because the patriarchy, threatened by such radicalism, won’t allow it. And in a society like 50s America, where to conform was to be safe from McCarthyism, life options for women were extremely limited; you either accepted the men into your world, or expected to get targeted. It is a bleak view of our world and it is as much of an indictment of society’s misogyny as it is about its need for people to conform to its mores.
Contributor: David Hogg
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Reference: Bacchae by Euripides
Description: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an exploration of human desire and what happens when society’s mores are allowed to be placed to one side. It is extremely ambiguous in its message, seeming to simultaneously warn the reader not to explore their wild side and, at the same time, unleash the beast within for a happier life. As a Victorian gentleman, Jekyll is bound by religion and respectability to behave in a moralistic fashion. However, Jekyll wants to explore the darker sides of his desires but knows that this will lead to his ostracism; his alter-ego of Hyde is therefore perfect cover for him – he gets to fulfil his desires without any consequence. Eventually there is a punishment for Jekyll as Hyde, once unleashed, becomes harder to keep in line and Jekyll has to commit suicide to stop Hyde’s animalistic behaviour once and for all. It seems that moderation may well have been the key for a happier life for Jekyll and by restricting his indulgences, he ended up living a bi-polar life, where one extreme ruined the enjoyment of the other.
This is an idea that Euripides was exploring 2500 years ago in his play Bacchae. In this play, Dionysus’ divinity is denied by members of his own family so he sets out to teach them a lesson, initially by turning his aunts into Maenads. It is in the character of Pentheus that we see perhaps the earliest literary version of Henry Jekyll. Pentheus denies the power of Dionysus yet wants to see the Maenads for himself – he experiences a clear mix of revulsion and intrigue and desires to see the women’s wild behaviour on the premise of research but the truth is he wants to see it for his own pleasure. Pentheus is clearly denying his desires. He attempts to get Dionysus put in fetters by a servant (Pentheus insisting Dionysus is an imposter), but the servant ends up hobbling a bull instead after much physical exertion. This seems allegorical – it is impossible to bind your desires and the strength and struggle to do so will be great, and is ultimately futile. According to this play, “A wise man should always keep a balanced and easy temper”, they should realise that they can’t “master the invincible with force” and they should “happily pursue… the things that lead to a beautiful life”. If they show “moderation and piety towards the gods… the mortals who practise them possess the truest wisdom”. Unfortunately for both Jekyll and Pentheus these pieces of advice were not followed, with fatal consequences. As discussed above, Jekyll commits suicide and Pentheus is literally torn apart by his own mother (who is under the illusion that he is a lion).
The message in both texts seems to be clear – humans have ‘Bacchic’ desires. To indulge in these desires is to experience happiness, to deny them is to experience a living death. When Jekyll is combined with Pentheus we are given two clear pieces of advice – know thyself and nothing in excess.
Contributor: David Hogg
The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer
Reference: King Midas
Description: Long before the birth of the Renaissance, Geoffrey Chaucer was dropping more classical allusions than an episode of Game of Thrones. Whether Chaucer was illustrating his own incredible intellect and knowledge or showcasing the skills of his characters is debateable. The Wife of Bath perfectly encapsulates this uncertainty as she is by far the most paradoxical of all the pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury.
Derided by many for her possible promiscuity and five marriages, Alisoun is adept at supporting her arguments and beliefs through biblical references. Yet even more impressive (especially if you consider the educational opportunities available to women in Chaucer’s England) is her ability to refer to the Classics of Rome and Greece to manipulate her audience to see things from her perspective. Manipulating texts to context in order to influence the listener seems like a very modern piece of spin-doctoring, but Chaucer was aware of this technique in the 14th century.
My favourite of Alisoun’s numerous references actually comes from her tale rather than from her prologue. This is surprising as the story she chooses to tell is half the length of her interminable description of her own life! During her chosen narrative, Alisoun uses Ovid’s story about Midas keeping the secret of his ass’s ears to prove that women cannot be trusted to be discreet. Is the choice of this Classical reference yet another example for the cynics to suggest that Alisoun is not a proto-feminist? Openly criticising female flaws is, after all, a feature of her prologue.
However, perhaps this is another level of satire from Chaucer. Alisoun retells a distorted version of the Ovid story; she informs the pilgrims that the wife of Midas is tormented by trying to keep the secret and is forced to shout the truth to nature as she cannot keep it inside. Alisoun then encourages the audience to read the story in full to find out more. Ay, there’s the rub.
The Metamorphoses story underpins a wonderful feminist position because in Ovid’s tale it is not a woman struggling with discretion, but it is in fact the barber slave of Midas – who is (shock horror) a man! Chaucer may have stylishly linked the predicament of women in his time to slaves in the Classical world or perhaps he just wanted to give Alisoun the last laugh as she manipulates her scandal-hungry crowd.
Whatever Chaucer’s motivation, Alisoun uses Ovid to prove that men and women, despite the religious constraints and the stereotypes imposed by society, are exactly the same; especially when it comes to gossip. This is a message that continues to resonate.
Contributor: Paul Hussein
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Description: Donna Tartt’s novel starts with one of modern literature’s most intriguing lines: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” It is a stark opening for a fantastical novel that at no point feels in any way fantastical. The genius of Tartt’s book is that she has taken a preposterous idea and made it seem completely reasonable. This book may be about a Bunny instead of a Beetle, but the premise is just as unlikely as Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but like Kafka’s story, The Secret History is written so masterfully, that the reader is onside with the author’s vision from the very first line.
Tartt’s masterstroke was to base her college-campus whodunit within the frame of the Classical world – which is a world of lustful and vengeful gods, transforming humans, incest, patricide and every other crime against morality one can imagine. If you set your story within this reference point, you are setting yourself a pretty high ‘going too far’ marker. Tartt’s protagonists are Classics students who carry out a Bacchanal, resulting in one death and leading to another. They are a very small and tightly knit group (too tightly knit in the case of the brother and sister) who exist on campus within a bubble of their own creation – and we are given access to this secret organisation; an access we accept with glee and determination to understand their references to the Classical world. Who has not felt a surge of pride for identifying the locative case in the library? Or the self-satisfaction of understanding the Classical references that are not always translated or explained? For instance, “amor vincit omnia” is not translated, but its meaning is implied to the reader by the line that follows, “love doesn’t conquer everything”. You will be challenged and you must keep up if you are going to be allowed to stay with this group.
It is perhaps the awe of the reader for the group (although I have heard people say that they loathed the characters) that allows the protagonists to get away with what they do -we tend not to judge what they have done in a negative way. It is also hard not to be impressed by their commitment to the subject of Classics and to be intrigued as to what their Bacchanal actually consisted of. Bacchus was the Roman god of wine and Livy described the scandalous behaviour at Bacchanals that were held in honour of Bacchus (although he was writing 200 years after they were banned). There is no way that this book would have worked if the students were English Literature majors (perhaps Romantics would have worked) because it seems that only Classics provides the perfect blend of learning by enquiry, 100% commitment to the topic, love of the subject and an absolute encouragement of hedonism, the sublime and varied approaches and philosophies to life.
The Secret History plays with the spaces between what we know and the reams of things that we do not. Students of Classics know those spaces very well and know what can be found lurking amongst those gaps. A murder seems normal when it happens in the presence of those Classical gods; it is almost acceptable when you think about what they got up to!
Contributor: David Hogg
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Reference: Birds by Aristophanes
Description: Talking animals are with us from the day we are born. A baby’s first book will often have an animal talking the infant through a narrative and the voices of animals are sounds that never leave us. Loquacious animals appear in cartoons, books and movies and they include some of our favourite characters: Mickey Mouse, Aslan, Rocket, Kermit and Howard the Duck, to name just a few. In texts, animals are allowed to behave in ways and say the things that people cannot – they can be naive without being stupid, they can be honest without needing to be wise and they can be political without being… political. George Orwell knew this and so did Aristophanes.
Both writers have used talking animals to say what was perhaps unspeakable in their own societies – either because of censorship or because if humans said what the animal characters said, an audience may feel as though they are listening to a sermon rather than a story, which could turn people away from the desired message; and it is those who need politics the most who are the ones least likely to seek it out and most likely to turn away from tub thumping political stories. Orwell recognised this and gave Animal Farm the subtitle A Fairy Story. He used his idealistic animals as an allegory to deal with the heavyweight topics of communism, capitalism, tyranny and totalitarianism. By setting his story on a farm he was able to take away the weight of history and the complications of political theory which would have been present in a ‘human story’. His decision to anthropomorphise the animals allowed him to simply and effectively get to the crux of his argument.
In Birds, Aristophanes employed the same methods nearly 2500 years before Orwell. Both Animal Farm and Birds deal with the search for a utopia where ‘a kind of man’ can turn its back on the suffocation of modern life and get back to basics, start again, and focus on what is important. Both texts see an animal world as a place that has the greatest potential for optimism in the minds of the protagonists. Both communes are also founded by a sage-like visionary (Old Major and Peisetairos) who reveals ‘the truth’ about the subservient lives of the animals – a life that in the ‘new worlds’ they will not have to suffer. But neither Cloudcuckooland nor Animal Farm can escape the shadow of man which falls over both Utopias. Both host unwanted visitors determined to mire the new free zones in the shackles of the ‘old world’ and both have leaders who succumb to the temptations and corruptions of the ‘old world’, such as money, power and sex.
There are lots of differences between the messages of both texts, but it is in the brutal critiques of accepted systems where these writers find the clearest harmony. “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”, written by Squealer (in Animal Farm) topples communism as equally as the the vote between Poseidon, Herakles and Triballus (which Poseidon loses – to a gluttonous bore and an idiot) highlights the shortcomings of democracy (in the opinion of Aristophanes). It certainly helps that animals deliver these blows to the systems – we seem to listen more carefully when an animal speaks.
Contributor: David Hogg
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Description: The Greek myth of Antigone has been reimagined in Kamila Shamsie’s ambitious Home Fire. The reading of this book becomes something of a game as the reader attempts to find Creon, Oedipus and Antigone hidden amongst the Asian names in a modern British setting. Shamsie has not created a ‘like for like’ story – instead she has left us with just enough ‘Antigone clues’ to help us place her text alongside the mythology, but she has also left out some characters from the original mythology and instead has them ‘hanging’ in the story; these characters are often echoes of their Greek counterparts and more figurative in Home Fire than literal transpositions from the original play.
One character that looms large over both Antigone and Home Fire is the tragic, yet absent, father-figure Oedipus/Abu Parvaiz. Shamsie’s character of Abu Parvaiz seems to have had the blasphemous calamities of Oedipus replaced with the equally troubling abandonment of his own family in order to pursue his own political/religious agenda. A crime against the Gods has been replaced with a crime against the state. It is hard to decide whether Great Britain represents Jocasta or Laius or perhaps both at the same time. The love and rejection of the ‘mother country’ and the ‘Pater’ within patriotism are both entwined in Abu Parvaiz’s fateful decisions and the ambiguity is pleasing. More obviously, we are presented with an Antigone in the form of Aneeka and Haemon in the form of Eamonn. This young couple’s love is powerful, although it is not always the love for each other that controls their decisions. Their fate seems obvious from the start (very Romeo and Juliet) and we are asked to watch with voyeuristic intrigue as the pair hurtle toward their ends.
The use of hashtags and references to social media to supplement Shamsie’s narratives add to the sense that we are casually watching someone making very serious decisions; the reader is both to blame for what happens to Aneeka and Eamonn and is also allowed to walk away unscathed if they so choose – very much like being involved in an online campaign where a hashtag now means ‘investment’ without becoming ‘invested’. Antigone’s/Aneeka’s ‘stunts’ seem ripe for our times where the media can build-up and bury a person within 24-hours, depending on which way the wind is blowing.
Throughout Shamsie’s story, words from Antigone drive the plot: “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.”, “It is not right if I am wrong. But if I am young, and right, what does my age matter?”, “I have been a stranger here in my own land: All my life”, “A city which belongs to just one man is no true city” and “Grief teaches the steadiest minds to waver.”, to quote a few. It is when you hear the ideas of Sophocles echoing in our modern times like this that you realise what a timeless classic Antigone actually is and the true genius inherent in these old, old playwrights.
What Shamsie has done is therefore no mean feat – she has both made an Antigone for our times and created a book that stands alone as a challenging critique on modern Britain. Sophocles can stand proudly by his words, “We have only a little time to please the living. But all eternity to love the dead.” And surely we will love this dead playwright and appreciate his writings for all eternity. We have a lot to thank him for.
Contributor: David Hogg
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Description: Before Jane discovers the horrific truth about poor Bertha, she has every reason to feel as if her life has taken a turn for the better after her engagement to Rochester. However, Jane is not the typical giddy girl of Victorian romantic literature and it is her proto-feminist that makes this novel so radical. Just when things seem to be going in the right direction she says, ‘I never can bear being dressed like a doll by Mr. Rochester, or sitting like a second Danae with the golden shower falling daily round me’. This statement is incredibly prescient, when the reader finds out the truth regarding Bertha.
In mythology, Danae was imprisoned because her father hears a prophecy that states that Danae’s son will one day kill him; therefore, he locks her away in a bronze room. Whilst in her prison, Danae becomes an object of desire for Zeus who visits her in her cell (in the form of a golden shower) and impregnates her. Danae’s pregnancy sets her free from the bronze room, but exiles her from her home. Jane’s fear in this novel is that she is becoming ‘a Danae’, locked away, only to be visited when the controlling patriarch desires her. She values her independence and sees herself as more than just an object of desire or a ‘baby maker’.
It is interesting that this allusion to Danae is chosen, considering Bertha is the real Danae of this novel. It could be argued that by Bertha destroying Rochester’s house and blinding him, she gives birth to a new man – one that will not lock Jane away because he depends on her, perhaps like a child or even as her equal. Jane’s refusal to be a woman who is locked safely away, but without her freedom can be seen most clearly when she states, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” Victorian men and Greek Gods despair alike at statements like that.
Contributor: David Hogg
Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
Description: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has an alternative title, which is often missing from modern publications. The full title should be Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. It is a shame that this full title is not used more commonly as it is the starting point for one of the great conundrums of the book: who or what is God?
In the myths of Prometheus, we are shown a rebellious god who creates mankind in his own image, gives him the gift of fire so that mankind is no longer beholden to the Gods and colludes with mankind to trick Zeus and thus, in a sense, demote the status of the Gods even further. Prometheus is punished for siding with mankind by having his liver repeatedly eaten by an eagle, but the creations of Prometheus are still here and thus his audacious decisions are vindicated. Victor Frankenstein clearly has parallels with the Titan Prometheus: he creates the ‘monster’ in his own image, gives him the gift of ‘fire’ in the form of sentience/intelligence and belittles both the necessity of man and of God by showing that stronger, more durable life can be created that will outlast its creator. Victor’s punishment also echoes that of Prometheus as Victor sees his loved ones removed on an almost daily basis (instead of his liver).
Shelley’s book is 200 years old, yet its messages in our ‘A.I.’ times have never been more pertinent. Just because we can do something, should we? If we create something, should it be in our own image? Should we ensure that our creations are forever hobbled, so that they do not supersede us? All of these questions are frequently examined in the Sci-Fi genre (Planet of the Apes, Prometheus and Terminator, just to name a few).
It is a great vindication to the gamble of Prometheus that his creations are still stoking the flames of the fire that he lit and Shelley has carried on stoking those flames even further in his name. In hindsight, would Prometheus and Victor have changed what they did? One suspects not… vanity is a powerful motivator and with books like Frankenstein and the art that they inspire, I am glad that they did what they did.
Contributor: David Hogg
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
Reference: The Odyssey
Description: It is easy to link the references to The Odyssey found in this novel to the ‘journey’ that the narrator (Michael) embarks upon. He is a naive young boy at the start of the novel who becomes involved with a ‘Calypso-esque’ figure in the form of the illiterate Hanna. Hanna enchants him with her body and he becomes sick with lust/love.
The Odyssey (literally) appears when Michael becomes distracted by a girl (Sophie) in a lesson during a reading of the Homeric epic (does this attraction to another girl change Hanna’s symbolism? Has Hanna become ‘Penelope’ replaced by a new, younger Calypso?). The narrator then explains that he becomes distracted with thoughts of Nausicaa and he tries to work out whether he is super-imposing this idealised female form onto the older Hanna or the younger Sophie.
Time passes in the novel and Hanna is imprisoned for war crimes. Michael chooses to send her recordings of readings and he chooses The Odyssey as one of these texts. He mentions that he re-read it during Hanna’s trial and it is used by the narrator as a metaphor for the “history of law”. Homer’s epic changes its symbolism when Michael records it for Hanna. The poem clearly stands as a metaphor for Michael’s own journey and his feeling that after ‘being away’ for so long (living his life unhappily), he is in some way coming home. There are also echoes of Polyphemus in Hanna’s war crime: she locks Jewish prisoners into a burning church and we can interpret this as the Cyclops blocking the cave door and preventing Odysseus’s exit.
There is also scope to interpret Hanna as Odysseus. She makes a journey through life and encounters challenges and struggles. She follows orders, like a good soldier, without question. Her challenge though is not to get home, but to learn how to read and once this is done, her journey is complete.
As a final note, the book allows the reader to consider the act of ‘reading a text aloud’, something that many of us stopped doing after early childhood. We are perhaps asked by the author to pause and think about the way stories like The Odyssey were originally told and how it would have felt to have heard them for the first time.
Contributor: David Hogg
The Human Stain by Philip Roth
Reference: Alcestis by Euripides
Description: In The Human Stain, a Classics professor at Athena College is forced to resign over accusations of using racist language. There is a huge amount of intertextuality within this novel, but one of the references that stands out is Alcestis.
Professor Coleman Silk is asked to discuss his teaching and pedagogical style with his Dean after a female pupil complains that the teaching of Alcestis and Hippolytus is ‘degrading to women’. In his arrogance, Professor Silk dismisses this charge out-of-hand and refuses to adapt to a more ‘modern’ style when teaching Classical literature. The Professor is short-sighted here because, in the modern classroom, Alcestis lends itself to some complex discussions surrounding masculinity, death, parent/child relationships and feminism. Regardless of whether these discussions would have been held in ancient Athens, Professor Silk should have realised that great literature transcends the ages because it lends itself to the time of reading, and is not solely anchored to the time in which it was written.
In the novel, Professor Silk denies his true ethnicity as he has decided “to take the future into his own hands rather than to leave it to an unenlightened society to determine his fate”. This, in some ways, reflects what Alcestis does in Euripides’ play; by choosing when to die, she perhaps experiences the only occasion in her life when she actually has control of her-self. Professor Silk’s statement regarding ‘unenlightened societies’ is a clarion call to all marginalised groups, but his dismissal of the young female student’s opinions shows that one person’s awareness of the ‘unenlightened’ does not always enlighten them to problems faced by all oppressed groups.
Professor Silk misses a great opportunity to subject Alcestis to a feminist reading. It is a play that does not fit into a ‘nice niche’ and is therefore more open to interpretation than others. His failing perhaps reminds us that one of the best ways to keep the Classics alive is to subject them to the scrutiny of the modern world and use all of what we now think we know. We will always discover something new by constantly revisiting these ancient texts through modern eyes.
Contributor: David Hogg
Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Description: Sergeant Frank Troy is a womaniser who ruins one young girl’s life and almost destroys the protagonist Bathsheba Evadene. Hardy has included clues to Troy’s character in his name. Most obviously, the Trojans were famed horsemen and as a soldier, the name ‘Troy’ gives the bluntly British ‘Frank’ some Classical military punch. Troy was destroyed after a wooden horse provided the Greek soldiers with a route behind the impenetrable walls of the city. Like the city, Frank Troy is emotionally impenetrable, as well as being a liar, a cheat and a schemer who always gets what he wants – a Paris-style rogue perhaps?
This all stops when a ‘wooden horse’ gets behind his emotional façade. His ‘wooden horse’ is actually a coffin containing the bodies of his former lover and his own child. Troy’s emotional walls come tumbling down as he starts to show a raw honesty that had previously been unseen in his character; it does not last though and he is soon back to his Machiavellian best.
The iconography of Troy is somewhat ambiguous, which suits this character perfectly. In Greek mythology, Troy is deemed deserving of its fate, thanks to Paris’ kidnapping of Helen, thus, its destruction is inevitable. Conversely, in Roman mythology, Troy is resurrected by the creation of Rome. Just like the city of Troy, Sergeant Troy is both doomed to be punished and bound to return; and just like city of Troy, we both pity his fate and deplore his behaviour.
Contributor: David Hogg
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Description: Demeter is the ship which brings Count Dracula to the shores of Whitby. It is easy to gloss over the significance of this name without comment, especially as the notes in the back of my Penguin Classic explain that it comes from Dimetry, which was a real ship that got wrecked off the coast Whitby in 1885 (an event that Stoker actually documents in his diary). However, Demeter is not the same as Dimetry (the genders are different for a start!) and in such a revered classic, no Classical reference should be left unexplored.
In Greek mythology, Demeter was the goddess of agriculture, harvest, fertility and sacred law – all of which can be linked back to the Count. Firstly, it is his soil within the hold of the ship that allows him to move away from his Transylvanian base and terrorise ‘respectable’ England (hence the link agriculture). Secondly, he has come to England to ‘reap’ his desires (harvest). Thirdly, the fertility of his female victims has lured him towards them. Finally, his arrival and behaviour in this country breaks all sacred laws.
Interestingly, in a novel where Christianity is so interwoven into the subtext, it is a goddess from a pagan religion who gives Dracula access to these sacred shores. Demeter’s appearance may well be fleeting, but the significance of her inclusion can clearly be seen.
Contributor: David Hogg
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Description: Atticus Finch is the heroic protagonist of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. His one-man stand against the racism and prejudice of Maycomb County means that he has a welcome place in lots of readers’ hearts. We should not have been surprised by his enlightened approach to life however, as nominative determinism surely played its part in Atticus’ world view.
Attica was a region of Ancient Greece and Athens was its capital – which is the birthplace of western philosophy and democracy. A simple ‘masculinising’ of Attica, gives us Atticus and therefore his wise, tolerant and democratic approach to life is wrapped up in his name. At one point in the book (outside the jail during the attempted lynching of Tom Robinson) he is literally shining a light on Maycomb’s ignorance, as if he is channelling the wisdom of those ancient philosophers in his modern America. His approach to women also seems to echo the old Athenian view. Despite his tolerance when it comes to race, he is somewhat less flexible with his views regarding women; he still expects Scout to wear a dress and be a lady. The Athenians were not perfect and their democracy excluded many groups, including women, from voting. Feminism for Atticus was perhaps an ideological movement too far even for him.
Julius Caesar also seems to make an appearance in the form of the Finch’s housemaid, Calpurnia, who ‘stands by her man’ all the way to the ‘forum’ (the court) – although in this story, Bob/Brutus does not execute his nemesis. Finally, the juxtaposition of the Classical ‘Atticus’ next to the Germanic ‘Finch’ is an excellent allusion to the varied European make-up of the American migrants and highlights how a blending of cultures, as opposed to the segregation of people by law, produces e pluribus unum.
The juxtaposing of Latinate names with ‘earthier’ Germanic ones is a technique that Suzanne Collins has also applied to create clear lines of segregation in her Hunger Games series; the members of The Capitol have the Latinate names and the people in the poorer districts have the Germanic ones. There can often be quite a lot in a name.
Contributor: David Hogg
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Description: There are so many Classical references to choose from in Fitzgerald’s timeless 1920s American classic. In Chapter 6, Nick provides the reader with some background info for our protagonist’s history and links Gatsby’s creation of an alter ego directly to Plato. Speaking of overt links to the past, Chapter 7 opens with Fitzgerald comparing Gatsby directly to Trimalchio, a freed slave who ended up living a life of excess and debauchery amongst the Roman elite seen in The Satyricon by Petronius.
However, my personal favourite link to the Classics is through the impervious and omniscient eyes of T.J. Eckleberg. The description of The Valley of Ashes at the start of Chapter 2 clearly echoes Eliot’s Waste Land as poverty and decay cast a huge shadow over the modern world. It is little wonder the post-modernists sought inspiration from the Classics as the horrors of war had destroyed their peace of mind from 1914 onwards and history seemed to be repeating again. Yet Eckleberg’s eyes, like Tiresias, the blind prophet of Apollo, see through all the mist and ash. He sees the licentious and ostensible behaviour on Long Island. He knows it won’t last. He knows the ills of materialism will be punished in another world. Tiresias didn’t miss a thing; nor does Eckleberg. We have been warned.
Contributor: Paul Hussein
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Description: Poor old Pip… after being lured onto the rocks by the siren Estella and failing to safely negotiate his way through his own Scylla and Charybdis (in the shape of Havisham and his ‘great expectations’), he ends up in prison. Dickens creates a brilliant metaphor in this chapter to describe the lantern that lights his cell and keeps him awake – “I could no more close my own eyes than I could close the eyes of this foolish Argus.” This metaphor works visually as the lantern that he is describing is a cylindrical shape, with many pierced holes that emit the light – like the multiple eyes of Argus. It also works fantastically well to add meaning to his current situation; he is in prison and he is being watched. The reference to the mythical giant with many eyes therefore is apt here because he feels as though he is under constant surveillance. Eventually, he will complete his odyssey back to rural Kent and his own Penelope – Biddy (who doesn’t wait for him to return and why should she!).
As a side note about prisons, Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison idea allowed a single guard to watch over many prisoners in solitary confinement. The prisoners would never know if they were being watched or not and therefore the prison’s design forces them to assume that they are always being watched and therefore, they would always behave. What was Argus’ full name? Argus Panoptes = all-seeing Argus. Panopticon = all-seeing prison.
Contributor: David Hogg
Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Reference: Artemis, Demeter
Description: Angel Clare is the well-meaning and love-struck young man who tries to impress Tess by calling her the names of these goddesses. The irony of these references is that in her life she is the opposite of a goddess – she wields no power and as soon as she takes control, control is taken from her. She is a tragic figure and a reference to any one of the tragic females in Classical drama would have been more apt (but perhaps less complimentary). However, it would not have made any difference to Tess as she lacked the education to know what any of these names meant. Would her story have turned out differently if she had known who they were and, therefore, what Angel was talking about?
It is perhaps interesting to think that by highlighting the gaps in her knowledge, whilst simultaneously emphasising what the men know, Hardy shows us the importance of education; and how it can be used to manipulate those without it and keep the down-trodden trodden down.
The two goddesses that he chooses are also interesting for what that they represent in mythology. Artemis (Goddess of Hunting) can be seen in Tess’ family’s hunt for their ‘rightful’ ancestral position. It is Tess’ duty to snare the man who can give her this ‘name’. But soon the huntress becomes the hunted and this is perhaps where her ‘Demeter’ (Goddess of the Harvest) emerges. Her own ‘fecundity’ essentially ruins her life (when she becomes pregnant) and once again we are confronted with the idea that Tess is truly powerless. Maddeningly, the one thing she can do that a man definitely can’t essentially destroys her. It is nice to think that her ‘Artemis’ within rises again at the end of the novel, but those of us who have read this book know that it does little to help her.
Contributor: David Hogg
Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott
Description: Abbott’s book is fascinating and is clearly influenced by Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Much as Plato’s allegory can be manipulated to suit opposing argument, Abbott’s novella also leaves the reader wondering if their personal opinions have been affirmed or picked-apart.
The protagonist of the novel (a 2-Dimensional shape) is given knowledge that changes the way that ‘its’ world should be seen, but it isn’t well-received and the shape is not believed. The shape at one point states ‘like a second Prometheus I will endure this and worse…’, before sharing knowledge which he knows will place him in an unfavourable situation.
I won’t spoil the ending of the novel, but the fact that an atheist and a theist can close this book and feel as if their opinions have been validated tells you that it’s a great and ambiguous piece of writing. The text also uniquely explores the dangers of have having too much knowledge. Would Prometheus have been happier in the long-term had he been ignorant of fire, or was the sharing of what he knew and what that changed worth the punishment?
Contributor: David Hogg