While Pygmalion’s story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is popular, it can also be classified as being pretty misogynistic—Madeline Miller spins this narrative, subverting the gendered tropes in her retelling of the epic tale.
A marble sculptor has created the most beautiful statue of a woman ever in Ancient Greece, and with the blessing of a goddess, the woman miraculously comes to life. Named Galatea, she quickly learns that she’s now being constantly supervised and expected to be the sculptor’s submissive wife.
One of my favorite things about Madeline Miller’s works is the fact that she acknowledges the problematic aspects of certain well-known mythological tales – and she does this all through her storytelling. A tired trope, the ‘perfect submissive and humble wife’ is a character that is unrealistic (and frankly, boring to read.)
Galatea, on the outside is the ultimate embodiment of this character – everything her husband would ever want. But deep inside, she has plans to get out of her husband’s grasp. She’s no longer an object, so why should she be treated like one? Her husband makes a point to physically and mentally mark her as ‘his’:
“You make the rarest canvas, love.”
However, he greatly underestimates her, thinking that beneath all that stone is merely a cold interior. Galatea eventually realizes that she’s able to utilize her beauty to her own advantage as a tool for her and her daughter’s freedom.
Whereas Ovid’s Pygmalion story tells a traditional love story between the statue coming to life and her sculptor, Miller’s Galatea actually gives Galatea life; she’s not just a personification of an idyllic woman without ‘flaws’. The irony here is that the sculptor created her because of his disdain for other women, yet his attempt to mold her into the docile woman he wants her to be is of no avail.
With her intelligence, Galatea shows her independence, determination and ability of doing what it takes to rescue her loved ones – she’s much more than a damsel in distress. A very impactful story, I’d say this is ‘short but sweet’, but ‘short and satisfyingly bitter’ would be more accurate.