Myth and the Role of Women: Self Love, Self Loathing, and Selfless Love

On the topic of women in literature, there are many different angles that one can take.  As I have been studying classical myth and C. S. Lewis’s retelling of Cupid and Psyche, I have learned a great deal about the roles of women.  I have looked at women in society, women and their relationship to children and sisters, and how women deal with men.  Each corresponding aspect reveals the failings as well as the virtues of women.  I now would like to consider the strongest vice and virtue of a woman…her love.

Orual’s love for Psyche is jealous love.  Like Paris stealing Helen, Orual wishes to steal Psyche from her husband.  Orual rationalizes her behavior, believing that nothing could be good if it hides his face.  This is mainly a self projection of Orual’s own lack of self worth—only ugly things veil their faces.  However, Psyche is not concerned by her husband’s strange request of secrecy.  She is content and takes joy in being his wife, calling him, “My god, of course. My lover. My husband. The master of my House” (Lewis 122).  But Orual is blind to this sort of love and loyalty.  She thinks of only the worst of Psyche’s god husband.  It is to this end that Orual designs a way to convince Psyche to betray him, “the best of lovers” (166).

Psyche knows that it is her duty to be faithful first to her husband, but Orual does not.  Orual uses Psyche’s love for her as a weapon to violate the trust and bond of husband and wife.  In the same moment that she destroys the bond of love between Psyche and her god, so Orual destroys the bond between her and Psyche.  It is a dirty trick and Orual will suffer the grief of it all her life.

Psyche, unlike the wanton Helen, once again acts selflessly towards Orual; nevertheless, her act is an act of love for another who is not her husband.  Fidelity to the husband should be her desire above all, and it is the fact that she betrays her lover for another love, which makes her like Helen, who destroyed her marriage bed with Menelaos for the bed of another love, Paris. The defilement of trust between a wife and her husband destroys the household.  This is the great theme of the Iliad; it is for this reason that the Achaians go to war with Troy.  This is how important the household, the marriage bed, is in the classical world.  What Orual does to Psyche, what Helen did to Menelaos, is perhaps the worst thing that could have happened not only to Psyche but to Orual and the community at large as well.

Fortunately, through all her trials, Psyche is restored to her god, and her marriage is once again as it should be—one of love, truth, and faithfulness. Her reunion with her husband is not like Helen who still does not love or respect Menelaos.  Psyche’s reunion is more like Penelope and Odysseus.  Penelope, who is faithful and constant to the very end, is able to reunite with her husband after twenty years and once again enjoy her place by his side.  Her marriage bed is no longer a place of loneliness and grief; it is a place of union and bliss (Homer 23.300-305).  Psyche too must suffer the pain of separation; she must endure the trials and prove her faithfulness (Lewis 246). Thus, she returns to her proper place – being wife and lady of her master’s House.  And as the marriage is restored, so is the household.

Orual’s jealous love destroys another household – that of Bardia and Ansit.  Orual in her account of her life does not mention Ansit often and only in the context that it is Bardia’s duty to his wife that takes him away from her, his Queen.  Orual is not pleased that there is this other woman who takes precedent over her. In fact “because he had loved her she was, in a way, surely enough the enemy” (Lewis 259).  But for all of Orual’s disdain for Ansit, the fault cannot be put on Ansit.  Once again the failure is Orual’s, as she does not grasp the different types of love and duty.  She struggles with her identity and her relationship with Bardia.  He is her counselor, her battle companion, her friend, and through it all she loves him.  Likewise, he loves her; he is faithful, good, prudent, and devoted.  But his love for her is as a Queen.  Unfortunately, Orual as Queen is more man than woman and the love that she has developed for Bardia is more than that of a Queen for a devoted subject.  She loves him as a woman loves a man, as a wife.  But she is not his wife, nor his kin; her love is unrequited. Therefore, she despises the woman whom Bardia loved as wife.  But knowing of no one who could understand her pain, she goes to Ansit to seek comfort.  She gets more than she bargained for.

Ansit is first seen spinning.  In the classical culture, there is nothing more domestic or proper for a woman to be doing than for her to be spinning or at her loom weaving.  All of the great women of Homer’s epics are portrayed at some point weaving.  Andromache, Helen, and most notably Penelope are all described at this occupation.  And they are always commended for it.  Ansit sitting there spinning in her home could not be exemplifying a more womanly or wifely duty than that (Lewis 259).  She is the good wife even after her husband is dead.

It is here in the confidence of Ansit’s sitting room and Orual learns the ugly truth about her love for Bardia.  Ansit describes Bardia as “a tree that is eaten away within” (Lewis 260).  Orual did not see; she could not see; it was not her place to see that Bardia was tired.  It was Ansit who saw “the times when a man shows his weariness” (260).  She tells Orual what she as a Queen missed about the man she loved:

You never saw his haggard face in early morning.  Nor heard his groan when you (because you had sworn to do it) must shake him and force him to rise.  You never saw him come home late from the palace, hungry, yet too tired to eat.  How should you, Queen?  I was only his wife.  He was too well-mannered, you know, to nod and yawn in a Queen’s house. (260)

Such words reveal the truth of not only Bardia’s character, but Ansit’s.  She did her duty for her husband.  She helps him, even when it pains her, to perform his duty to his Queen.  Ansit is the wife who tends the household for her husband never complaining, until the moment she is able to bare her grievances before the woman who caused her grief: “The mines are not the only place where a man can be worked to death” (261).

This is the stabbing blow. Orual’s inability to have her own household essentially causes her to steal another husband from his wife.  Envy and despair over unrequited love, turns Orual into a woman much like Klytaimestra who killed her husband.  Though Orual’s murdering scheme is unintentional and takes years to be accomplished, she still manages to kill the man she would have liked to call husband.  Granted, Klytaimestra did not love her husband; he had sacrificed her daughter and brought home another wife from Troy, but the emotions of the two women parallel each other.

After her husband has gone to war, Klytaimestra is unfaithful and finds a lover.  She destroys her household before Agamemnon has even come back with the new bride, which further destroys his household.  Orual’s household, which is never complete since she never married, is always in a sense destroyed.  She is envious of Ansit, as Klytaimestra is envious of Kassandra.  They both despair over lost loves—sister and daughter—and over the ruinous marriage of the man they love (or once loved) to another woman. In grief and rage, Klytaimestra kills her husband (Homer 11.404-434).  In a desire to have what she could not have, Orual kills the man she loves.  The result is the same, a household – a marriage – is left in decay.  Ansit only had what Orual did not first take away from her husband (Lewis 262) and the house of Agamemnon was destroyed by the Furies, all because Klytaimestra was not faithful to her husband and Orual did not know what faithfulness meant.

If Lewis had left Ansit and Orual in the silence after the declaration of what, or rather who, had caused Bardia’s death, Orual’s story would be more like the bitter end of Agamemnon.  However, Ansit and Orual both demonstrate a great fidelity to man and to their sex when they embrace each other (263). And in that moment, they forgave each other all of their grievances against one another.  Orual is learning about her role.  She unveiled herself and was not queen, only Orual who knew the pain of love lost the emptiness of a household without a husband. This is the beginning of understanding for Orual as she finally learns what it means to be a woman and what her place is in the world that she thought had been dominated by men.

Sadly, Orual is more often than not the negative example of how to a woman ought to behave.  She desires to be what she cannot be.  She wants to be mother and lover, master and redeemer to Psyche. She wants to be beautiful or a man.  She wants to be wife and lover to Bardia.  But Orual is not any of those things.  Had she known her place, had she been more like Penelope, Orual could have been what she ought to have been to the people she loved most. She could have been the loving supportive sister to Psyche and Redival; she could have had unveiled respect from the men in the pillar room; she could have loved Bardia selflessly, without murderous envy.

Next week I will conclude with  my thoughts on myth and the role of women…

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About LizzyBeth

There is a Story inside of me that I must give a voice. I write so that imagination can take me to Faerie and I can catch a glimpse of the Otherworld and hopefully so will you.

Posted on September 2, 2011, in Authors, Books, C. S. Lewis, Heroes, Homer, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Literary Criticism, Myth, Rachel Burkholder and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Lewis’s works of fiction sometimes have didactic counterparts (in the preface to That Hideous Strength he wrote that its “point” was made in The Abolition of Man). I always linked TWHF with The Four Loves. And in CSL’s treatment of the four loves, storge — which Orual has in spades — comes in for probably the most withering criticism.

    When I think of Lewis’s great strengths as a writer, one of the most unique ones is his ability to expose and disarm the various imposters that fly under the banner of “love.” His vivid illustrations in The Four Loves and some of the episodes in The Great Divorce examples of this. But his masterpiece in this respect (as in others) is TWHF.

  1. Pingback: Myth and the Role of Women: Dignity and Fidelity « While We're Paused

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