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Greek Tragedy: Sophocles’ Women

One of the standard criticisms of the Great Books approach is that nearly all of the texts are written by “dead white guys” and therefore have less resonance with members of other groups.  This is especially true of women who, despite making up more than half of the population of Western Civilization, are noticeably absent from most Great Books reading lists.  I have already mentioned Y, the (probably) female editor of the first four books of the Torah.  The books of Ruth and Proverbs were also quite possibly written by women.  Overall, though, very few women prior to the nineteenth century had the sort of educational background to produce a Great Book.  Of these, even fewer had the wherewithal to get their work published.  Nor were the male scribes of of the middle ages as interested in copying and preserving the work of women.  The result is that the writings of the few women we know of who might be included–Sappho of Lesbos, for example, are either completely lost or exist only in a few fragments.

Sappho Plays Her Lyre, Jules Elie Delaunay [public domain via Wikimedia]

Sappho Plays Her Lyre, Jules Elie Delaunay [public domain via Wikimedia]

While regrettable, this situation would be less of a problem if the male authors of the Great Books had written more about women, their issues, and their experiences.  In general, though, they did not do a good job at this.  It has been observed by many people in modern times that, while most female fiction writers are adept at writing male characters, relatively few male writers can write believable female characters.  This seems to have also been true in the ancient world.  Our first two Greek authors, Homer and Aeschylus, betrayed a rather shallow understanding of women.  Their female characters exist as prizes to be fought over or are on stage only to react to the words and actions of the male characters.  Even Aeschylus’ Electra, one of the great tragic heroines of all time, is almost painfully under developed.  This treatment is interesting since we know that the women of ancient Greece were actually fairly outspoken and aggressive compared to their contemporaries in the ancient world.  It is hard to reconcile the scared and fawning female choruses of The Supplicant Maidens or Seven Against Thebes with the angry female lynch mobs who occasionally tore men limb-from-limb or stabbed them to death with their broach pins.  Homer’s Penelope, waiting patiently for Odysseus to return and rescue her bears little comparison to Queen Artemisia, the Greek commander of a Persian Trireme squadron, whom Herodotus describes as deliberately ramming an allied ship in the straits of Eripus, then receiving a commendation from Xerxes after convincing him it was actually an enemy vessel.

Sophocles is different from Homer and Aeschylus in that he did write strong female characters.  His Antigone, Electra, and Deianira are all different portraits of an ideal woman:  brave, principled, and loyal.  All are internally conflicted between their perceived duty and emotional needs.  His Tecmessa (Ajax’s concubine) is a much more vulnerable and submissive character, yet still completely believable, torn between her loyalty to Ajax and her awareness that if he dies or is disgraced there will be no protection for herself or her son from the other Greek soldiers.

There are still deficiencies in the way Sophocles dealt with women.  Not one of his plays actually passes the modern Bechdel Test, a measure of female inclusion in a script–although the some of Antigone-Ismene scenes come close.  Then again, relatively few modern screenplays pass the Bechdel Test.  Overall, however, his writing does a better job of representing women than most in the Great Books.

Allison Bechdel's test for female inclusion in a script

I am myself a white male.  As a writer in the 21st century, however, I can not get away with writing stories about white males for consumption for other white males.  Aside from the fact that I would be frightfully boring, , white males make up an ever smaller share of the market.  Besides, our pluralistic society demands a literature that conveys the experiences of many different genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds.  This begs the question, then, “Why am I spending all this time studying a canon of works that were written by white males?”  One answer would be that I am heir to, and continue to write in a particular literary tradition and it isn’t my fault that the authorship lacks diversity.  A better answer is that Western Civilization’s Great Books contain timeless and universal ideas.  My challenge as a writer is to adapt them from their original context and make them accessible to everyone.

Hebrew Bible: Conclusion

It’s time to wrap up our discussion of the Hebrew Bible.  While there is no doubt a great deal more I could write, my mission in doing this series of posts is not to study any particular author or work in detail.  Rather, it is more of a reading journal to share my reflections on how the Great Books apply to my own writing and, hopefully, get some of my fellow writers interested in studying classics.  I think four posts on the Hebrew Bible is enough for that purpose.

Before I go on I should admit that I only read 26 of the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible this time around.  One reason was that these are the 26 book directly referenced in Jack Miles’ God: A Biography, which I was reading concurrently.  Partly it is because I have read the remaining books before and am eager to get back to the Greek classics.  The main reason though, is that all the rest of the books are prophetic works, and I tend to find prophecy hard reading.

The Prophet Isaiah, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia

The Prophet Isaiah, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia

Modern literature doesn’t have any direct parallel to the biblical genre of prophecy.  The closest thing would probably be those glossy hardbacks written by “experts” predicting financial doom.  I don’t tend to enjoy those either, because the writing tends to be poor, the advice is often self-contradictory and, if you pick one up from twenty years ago, you find out that few of the predictions actually happened.

Biblical prophecy is like that, except that the source of the revealed knowledge is supposed to be God, instead of some proprietary computer model or insider knowledge.  The writing style is often grating–Jack Miles refers to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel as “the manic, the depressive, and the psychotic” prophets, respectively.  Because most of the books are collections of different speeches to different groups, the same book will often contradict itself several times.  It doesn’t help that some of the books were written by multiple authors.  Isaiah, for instance, was probably penned by at least three writers.  And then, the fatal problem:  many of the prophecies never came to pass.

The basic premise of most of the prophets was that if Israel didn’t straighten out and stop sinning, God would wipe out the country.  Afterwards, however, a remnant of the people would survive and be rewarded for their holiness.  Well, the destruction certainly happened, several times.  The reward, at least in terms that would fulfill the prophecies, hasn’t happened yet.

Of course, Christians see themselves as the remnant, the coming of Jesus as fulfilling many of the prophecies, and their reward in terms of an afterlife and/or a coming kingdom of God on Earth.  Muslims also find meaning in the prophecies, although they assert that the words of Mohamed, the final prophet, were necessary to make sense of everything.  I don’t wish to detour too far into comparative eschatology, however, so let us stay within the context of Judaism and within the biblical period.  Reading the prophetic books, it really seems that the predictions were meant literally and were expected to happen quite soon, within a few generations at most.  Most of them didn’t, and Israel slowly lost interest in prophecy as a genre.

And yet, quite a few prophetic books ended up in the Hebrew Bible, and hence to the Christian Old Testament.  While the prophetic movement lasted, it deeply affected Jewish thought and history.  But I still find the prophetic books a tough read.

This brings us round to the issue of a canon.  I’ve already written about the purposes of the Torah and the historical books, but why were other books included in the “official” Hebrew Bible?  Why does it include so many prophecies that didn’t quite come true, a books of folk wisdom (Proverbs and Ecclesiastes), a temple hymnal (Psalms), or secular historical fiction (Esther) and love poetry (Song of Songs)?


hand-letered manuscript bible
In the days of scrolls, the cannon was not as important.  Scrolls were expensive, so people usually only bought the ones they liked or thought were important.  The Dead Sea Scrolls are the most intact library we know of from the period.  That collection includes several apocryphal works but omits the book of Esther.  Once the various books in the tradition began to be bond together into a single bible codex, though, the issue of what to put in and what to leave out became critical, since it would shape religious thought for the next two millennia (and counting).  We must wonder what criteria these ancient anthologists used, and what philosophical platforms they were trying to support.

Jewish canonization is interesting to us from a standpoint of studying the Hebrew Bible.  Canonization in general is a critical issue in any study of the Great Books.  Which books are Great, and why?  In my own Great Books study I am mostly sticking to Mortimer Adler’s list.  Adler’s criteria for a great book were that it had to be influential, you had to be able to read it over and over and get something new from it each time, and it had to be applicable to many times and places.  This sounds good in theory, yet other Great Books collections, such as the Harvard Classics, apply similar criteria and come up with very different lists.  If I Googled for an hour, I bet I could find fifty different reading lists which each contained someone’s idea of Great Books.

Luckily for me, I don’t need to buy all the Great Books in a single set, such as Adler’s Great Books of the Western World.  Rather, my situation is more like the Essenes as they collected the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Between free e-books from Project Gutenberg and used paperback classics, I have the freedom to collect and study the works that appeal to me, while still getting the ones that appear on most of the lists.