Circling the StoriesPublished by Interview by Alison Bennie for Bowdoin Magazine
Bowdoin professors Barbara Weiden Boyd and Marilyn Reizbaum teach in different disciplines, and they are very different scholars.
Professor Boyd, Henry Winkley Professor of Latin and Greek, teaches courses in Greek and Latin languages and literatures, ancient epic, Rome in the age of Augustus and as a site of cultural memory and identity, and the Ovidian tradition.
Professor Reizbaum, Harrison King McCann Professor of English, works in the areas of modernist studies, contemporary Scottish and Irish literatures and film, Jewish cultural studies, and the history of ideas.
Although there are millennia between the material they teach, they circle around many of the same stories—to be an expert on James Joyce’s Ulysses, it helps to know Homer’s Odyssey; knowing what Virginia Woolf means when she calls Clytemnestra and Antigone women who “burnt like beacons” in A Room of One’s Own is best understood by a reader who knows those classical tales. In this semester and last, both professors dove deeply into women’s writing—the word choices the authors and translators make, the stories they tell, the gendered lens through which they are viewed, and the opportunity for imagination left by the gaps and silences themselves.
BOWDOIN: What made you decide to teach these classes?
PROFESSOR BOYD: My area of specialization is the Latin poet Ovid. And there’s been an explosion of Ovidian reception in the past couple of decades. I mean, there has been Ovidian reception since the Middle Ages—meaning people have used Ovid’s poetry and reused it and reinterpreted it and so forth. I had started teaching fifteen years ago on the reception of Ovid. And we read Shakespeare1.
There’s this whole thing happening now with books like Madeline Miller’s Circe and Pat Barker’s amazingly beautiful The Silence of the Girls2. I realized at one point that I had a bunch of students who’d read Circe even though they weren’t necessarily interested in classics per se, and I hadn’t read Circe [laughs]. And I thought, “You know, this is so interesting, that we have a whole series of creative works, coming primarily from women, about the women of antiquity, including the women of classical myth in particular.” That’s sort of the point of contact with Ovid, and where the idea for the class came from.
It’s about the continuing interest, fascination, relevance, and searching for identity issues that people are still finding in these ancient texts.
PROFESSOR REIZBAUM: My course stems from the book I’m writing on Muriel Spark3, which is about her aesthetics of ridicule and the way that is perceived. Spark—who was a very prolific and I think important writer—has only recently received her due. People have been coming back to her in the last part of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.
I think when you look at the ways in which she has been critiqued over the years, one thing that’s outstanding is that people write about her as mean, as cruel, as killing off her characters. Part of what I’m writing about is, “What does it mean to have an aesthetic of ridicule and what is the function of that?” One cannot help but think about it in terms of gender.
So, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to use that idea with a number of women writers who might have suffered the same fate at the hands of many male critics who, as I say in my introductory note to the syllabus, will have lauded male writers for a very similar kind of writing while they critique and diminish women writers who are hard-edged?” Somebody like [James] Joyce, who is this figure of scrupulous meanness4, but with him it’s said to be audaciousness. In Muriel Spark it’s cruelty, and there’s something prohibitive about it, as if you need to close your eyes and run away.
So, for me, it was less about the way feminism tried to change the Western canon and what we were therefore teaching and more about testing this idea and bringing a gendered view to certain ways that we critique fiction writing. So I thought about other women who would have suffered a similar kind of fate, who have suffered criticism in similar kinds of terms.
BOWDOIN: Who else do you read?
REIZBAUM: We started with [Virginia] Woolf, of course. And, when I teach Woolf, I always begin by saying, “Okay. Everybody knows who Virginia Woolf is, right? What’s the first thing you would say if somebody said, ‘Tell me something about Virginia Woolf.’” And guess what they say?
BOWDOIN: That she drowned herself.
REIZBAUM: That she committed suicide. So let’s talk about that as a gendered idea. David Foster Wallace5, nobody’s going to say first thing that he committed suicide. Infinite Jest is probably going to be the first thing. And then we talk about that, about what it means to have a profile that is determined by that one factor, one that goes also to the idea, the kind of romantic characterization, in a perverse way, of women writers like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Virginia Woolf. That somehow they die for their art, or that they’re deranged. And although there is a correlation made between madness and genius that is not gender-based, it has a particular expression when it comes to women—it’s “hysteria,” which then accrues to the aesthetic in which it’s perceived.
So we start with Woolf’s “The Mark On The Wall.” Because it’s there that she’s taking up that idea. What is male writing? What is female writing? What does it mean to interpret something in a particular way? What are the conventions that one feels overwhelmed by? And that piece is a great way to start, to take this canonical writer and to look at the way she’s also been treated.
I based the course on Muriel Spark, so we did The Girls of Slender Means. I was worried, because with Spark, her affect, her tone, you have to work to be able to really get it. She’s satirical. She’s ironic. And she can be mean. Although, what do we mean by “mean”? I spent the whole first part of the class talking about meanness and all the meanings that meanness has.
BOWDOIN: There is voice, which is what you’ve just been talking about, and then voices—what a woman sounds like and how that’s interpreted, and the fact that she gets to tell her story at all. I’m interested to know what you think about the intersection for those two things. What intersections do you think students see? They must bring a lot of contemporary politics into the classroom with them. What is their response?
BOYD: It’s interesting. As Marilyn was speaking, I was thinking about the luxury of reading [modern] texts written by women. In my course we are also reading texts written by women, but what they’re all doing is essentially filling this massive gap from all of classical antiquity.
There’s a famous line in the history of Thucydides6, where the Athenian general is commemorating the death of many warriors in war and talking about how men, the warriors, have the renown that their families will carry forward, but the women—the widows—their job and the way they achieve their glory is to be as little spoken about as possible and to be as silent as possible.
“The house sank into its centre, a high heap of rubble, and Joanna went with it.”
—The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark
A lot of scholars in the field have written things that play with that—the silent women of this, that, and the other thing. And that inspired my course title. But the reality is that we have very, very little—I mean, truly fragments—remaining from classical antiquity of anything written by women. The main name, of course, is Sappho7.
Their latest paper assignment is to write a fragment. They have to write something that has holes in it, that a scholar would have to struggle to figure out, “What’s going on here?” [laughs] “Who’s this character? What is she saying or what is he saying about this woman?” and so forth.
So we have Sappho, but everything else is just representation and ventriloquization, you might say, of women. But there’s also this fascinating phenomenon where, particularly in places like Greek tragedy, you have these incredibly powerful women. I have them read Medea8, for example. And one of my favorite students said about it, “You know, I think she’s really badass.”
But then we talked about, “Okay. So why do we have these male playwrights featuring females as the center of critical action on stage? Why does so much revolve around them and why are they the doers—why do they have so much agency and yet their audience is probably all men?” So we’ve had some great conversations about the ancient texts, and now I’m asking them to read contemporary works by female authors, such as (Margaret) Atwood, Barker, and Miller.
And it’s going to be interesting to see how my students think about it. Connecting to what Marilyn was saying, do they think there’s something distinctively female or male about the way these writers write?
BOWDOIN: These books are giving voices to women who didn’t have voices. It’s allowing them to speak and to tell their story. But in many cases it’s a very distinct woman author’s voice doing that. Does that matter?
BOYD: When I first read The Penelopiad9 I really didn’t like it. But it was interesting, because the students in my class really liked it. A lot of them wrote papers about it. They actually made me rethink my feelings about it.
REIZBAUM: That really was the nub of my course: that there are certain qualities of writing—characteristics, conventions, dynamics, and so on—that sometimes become gendered. The example I use compares Clarice Lispector10 with Joyce. What Clarice Lispector is doing with a certain kind of stream of consciousness, with having characters have a brusqueness, a quality to the writing that seems compressed, dense—with Joyce, that made him into one of the great writers of all time.
In women writers, that often becomes their opacity or “hysteria.” And in the case of somebody like Muriel Spark, people will say she’s heartless. She kills off her characters, which she does: “So-and-so was found strangled the next day.” It’s horrible, yes, in some ways. But with Spark, it’s seen as ruthlessness or a kind of unavailability. In Joyce it becomes innovative, edgy.
BOWDOIN: At the beginning of coeducation at Bowdoin, in classes like the ones you two are teaching, you’d probably have predominantly women interested in the subject. Now young men don’t seem to think, “This material isn’t for me.” Do you see that?
REIZBAUM: I still think they struggle with some of these questions, as we all do. And that is, “What does it mean to write like a woman or write like a man? And if there is such a thing, then what does it mean to read like a woman or read like a man?” And that’s very complex. My way of approaching that is to give them critical voices that address those questions and not try to foreclose on the answers for them.
And I think, increasingly, binarism becomes an even more complicated question. And that should be brought into the conversation. Like, the last text we looked at was Are You My Mother, by Alison Bechdel11, which addresses the question of gender binaries, and it was great that Bechdel came to speak around the same time.
Barbara, have you ever encountered Liz Lochhead, a Scottish writer, her version of Medea?
REIZBAUM: She has the murders take place off stage. But Medea comes out, and when she comes out she’s blood-drenched.
BOYD: So it’s a drama?
REIZBAUM: It’s Medea, but it’s in Scots. And it’s also her spin on the play. I would really recommend her to you. She’s great.
BOYD: Just as we’re trading—there’s also 15 Heroines. Do you know this?
BOYD: It’s a performance that was done by the Jermyn Street Theatre in London (and broadcast online in November 2020). Ovid wrote fifteen poems called, in English, “Heroines,” which are written as fifteen great characters from classical myth who write letters to the men who have abandoned them.
This theatrical group did this 15 Heroines with very broad reinterpretations. In many cases they kind of walk away from Ovid entirely. These reinterpretations are monologues... they’re no longer letters. And they’re really, really interesting. Some of them are better than others. Different actors and different writers for each one. Including a bunch of Scottish writers. But that’s interesting as well. It’s another way of always going back to the voice. There’s something they’re getting at that is interesting.
BOWDOIN: Do you think part of what’s going on is just what always goes on? Which is, Shakespeare shows up in all kinds of places. The Bible shows up in all kinds of places. Is it just a way to get at telling a story, by reinterpreting a story? Or do you think it is something more, to note specifically that it is women’s stories and voices that were left out?
REIZBAUM: You made a distinction between giving voice and having voice. And I think that the thing you’re asking is really answered by the first—it’s by giving voice. These days, talking about women’s writing is not the same. You don’t have that dimorphism, that kind of opposition—male, female. I was therefore a little concerned about making it into a course on women’s writing. So for me it was all about the style, all about the writing, and less about the canon. Interestingly, though, students in the class, including men, were just so thrilled to be reading all women. I think you’re saying a similar thing. We still have a sense that there’s something missing, that the default isn’t everything.
BOYD: Right. That’s still true.
REIZBAUM: That’s giving voice. But having voice is something slightly different. And by virtue of all these things, it’s much more complicated.
BOYD: And the way I hear what you’re saying is having that voice can be interpreted as a mean thing.
REIZBAUM: Well, if the woman is harsh or angry, then often it’s critiqued or framed in a gendered way. And what constitutes anger rather than...How shall I put this? A kind of combativeness or a sort of noble resistance. What I’m interested in is how the language that’s used will give you an indication of these gendered ideas. That language is used to critique writers, and their voice is revealing. And that’s part of what I try to bring through in a number of different critical essays, like Hélène Cixous in “The Laugh of the Medusa,” which was very controversial when it emerged in 1975. Because she was, as many critics were in that time, trying to carve out what was called l’écriture feminine, a woman’s voice, a woman’s kind of writing. And the debate was, Do you write like a woman? Do you write like a man? What does that mean?
And of course, the best way to understand that has to do with there being a kind of idiom that, when men have dominated the scene, would be infused or informed by a patriarchal kind of vision, a way of using language, where some kinds of uses are better than others, or are upheld over others. That there are male subjects and there are female subjects—you don’t write about tea parties, you write about war12.
So I tried to open this up. What does it mean to have a gendered language? And can we also understand it historically? In the period when Cixous was writing, that was the height of the critical challenge to the canon, to opening it up and saying what other kinds of languages, in what different ways, can we regard works as worthy of being in the canon? Why are some things dismissed?
I didn’t foreclose on any particular understanding. I said, let’s just examine the way various people have come at this question and think about it and respond to it. And the students were great. So thoughtful.
BOYD: I had a guest speaker13 just yesterday, a woman who has translated Metamorphoses. Hers is not the first modern translation by a woman, but it’s sort of the first that’s getting recognized.
There have been a bunch of women translating classics recently. Her talk was so wonderful because it was all about the choice of language and how down to the tiniest little details how important it is. And, of course, reading everything in translation raises a whole other interesting set of problems. We’re reading something written two thousand years ago in a world that was so different from ours in so many ways. The language is fundamentally different. We have dozens of translations by men who will describe someone’s hair as “her flowing locks,” or something like that. And my speaker yesterday said she had chosen to translate what a male translator had translated as “flowing locks” as “messy haired [laughs].” Students loved that. That was really interesting. But it really, again, brings out these amazing challenges with reading any text.
REIZBAUM: And I think, “Why haven’t there been women translators before this?” You know? And I think part of that is the idea that language was gendered, and that academia was gendered.
REIZBAUM: As we know. I would actually have people say to my face when I first started teaching, “Women can’t teach Romanticism. They’re incapable of it.” It was astounding. No! But when you have people saying that and it’s accepted, then of course it’s going to prevent women from approaching certain work, certain texts. Not that they wouldn’t want to but that they won’t be permitted.
BOYD: Within our own lifetimes there were women who were trying to get PhDs in classics at Harvard, and they had to sit in the back of the classroom and the professor said nasty things to them and they were told that they would never really be able to get jobs.
REIZBAUM: In other words, it’s a very common, very long history, and it’s involuted. There is just so much at work that has produced these various outcomes. To go back to your question, at this point we see lots of people cry “postfeminism.” You were asking, “Why are these women approaching these texts in this way?” It’s very interesting. That’s 2023.
BOYD: Absolutely [laughs].
REIZBAUM: Some of it is about the current moment. Look what’s happening in social media, for instance, the way TikTok is being critiqued for how girls are represented and spoken to there. And it’s post-MeToo. And I think it’s important—I have male students in the class who are not put off, who are engaging with all of this material and all of this background too.
BOYD: If nothing else, they’re still trying to figure out where they fit and, you know, just the whole identity issue.
REIZBAUM: That never ceases.
BOYD: No. Never. Absolutely it never ceases.
Agamemnon and Libation Bearers
The Silence of the Girls
Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama
Octavia E. Butler
Parable of the Sower
“The Laugh of the Medusa”
Medea and Hippolytus
“Under a Dark Angel’s Eye”
Illiad and Odyssey
A Small Place
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life
Near to the Wild Heart
“A Telephone Call”
Girl Meets Boy
The Girls of Slender Means
“The Mark on the Wall”
BOWDOIN: In a couple of these books there’s reference to taking up space, and it struck me as so contemporary. You hear now, “Don’t be afraid to take up space.” And it seemed to me that it was part of the voice question, in that it’s an idea that feels necessary for women, specifically, to hear.
REIZBAUM: One of the things that’s always been striking is that male voices dominate female voices in the classroom. And, you know, it hadn’t really changed all that much in the time that I’ve been here. But recently there is a change. And I think it’s not just that there were more women in my mean women’s writer class.
In my novel class just now it’s probably fifty-fifty. There might even be more men. But the women are not shy. They are not deferential. Now, this could be different women. I don’t know. But I have been struck by that. And I have been glad of it. So glad of it. Sometimes how they give voice might be different. That is, they might equivocate more.
BOYD: Put things in terms of questions.
REIZBAUM: Yeah, but they’re not deferring.
BOYD: I would say that’s absolutely true.
REIZBAUM: And it’s great. It’s a change. It’s a real change.
BOYD: I think you’re right, absolutely right, that women now don’t yield to men. They don’t say, “Oh. Well, he wanted to speak so I won’t speak.”
REIZBAUM: Well, I don’t even mean that. It’s more that women did not speak up and men often took the floor. I am struck by that, that that’s not going on in the same way. Glory, hallelujah.
BOWDOIN: I notice in both your reading lists the ideas of blame and comeuppance and retribution. That women are often characters used for that purpose in a story. That doesn’t seem to change, even with the women’s interpretation. I guess you can’t maybe change the story in retelling the story.
BOYD: That’s an interesting question. Because in [modern] fiction you have the luxury in a way of having this, you know, “Anything can happen [laughs].” Whereas my world is a world with boundaries—it’s not that they’re set, but there are certain expectations already.
BOWDOIN: Although, as in Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, Achilles can be in love with Patroclus in some tellings and not in others.
BOYD: Right. Exactly.
BOWDOIN: But the women sort of don’t change [laughs].
BOYD: Well, actually, there can be some change. And I think that’s one of the interesting things. In so much of classical literature, because women are objectified, there is often very little recognition of there being an internal life for them. Of what goes on inside, of how they’re thinking about what’s happening to them.
But, for example, in The Iliad, when Briseis is taken from the tent of Achilles to the tent of Agamemnon, there is one word: “unwilling.”
“She was led unwilling by the messengers who were sent to bring her.” That’s it. There’s no development. We don’t go there. But there is an opening, and I think that’s where the imagination comes in that is motivating so many of these works. Clearly there were emotions there. And there were desires and hope and, you know, whole lives that we’re losing.
It’s almost like a little opening that Homer left with that word, “unwilling.” Like he said, “Okay. I invite you, Pat Barker,” or whoever. “I invite you to think about that. I’m not going to think about that because I have too many other things to think about. And that’s not my world.” But it’s there, right? So there is something kind of great about seeing how these writers can find that point of entry.
REIZBAUM: But it’s not like they’re getting any kind of retribution—no. It wasn’t that they were trying to avenge something, you know, that had to do with gender.
BOYD: Right. It’s like, how are they being seen?
REIZBAUM: And why have they not? You get told a story the same way over and over again. And then you take a different character and look at it through their eyes, you vocalize it differently—it changes. That really lands with students.
1. Classical and Roman allusions abound in Shakespeare. Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a frequent source of inspiration. Titus Andronicus and Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance, retell the stories of Philomela, and Pyramus and Thisbe, respectively.
2. The Silence of the Girls tells the story of the Iliad, chiefly from the point of view of Briseis.
3. A Scottish novelist perhaps best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
4. James Joyce described his own writing as “scrupulously mean” in a note to his editor.
5. Writer David Foster Wallace died by suicide in 2008 at the age of forty-six.
6. In The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides writes “the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men.”
7. A sixth-century BCE lyric poet from the island of Lesbos whose works, many of which explore the world of women, survive almost exclusively on papyrus fragments.
8. A tragedy, by Euripides, in which Medea takes vengeance on her husband for leaving her by killing his new wife and her own two sons.
9. A novella by Margaret Atwood that reimagines the Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope, known for her fidelity to her husband, Odysseus, while he was away for twenty years fighting in the Trojan War.
10. A Ukrainian-born Brazilian novelist and short story writer.
11. A graphic novelist known for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and her graphic memoir Fun Home, she spoke at Bowdoin in March.
12. This is a reference to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.
13. Stephanie McCarter, a classics professor at the University of the South, whose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was included in The New Yorker’s Best Books of 2022 list.
Alison Bennie is editor of Bowdoin Magazine.
Harriet Lee-Merrion is based in Bristol, England. See more of her work at harrietleemerrion.com.
This story first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories from the magazine on the Bowdoin Magazine website.