One of the most thrilling trends in publishing in recent years has been the rise of the female-focused mythological retelling, books that reevaluate and reassess some of Western literature’s most famous tales through a distinctly female lens and putting the spotlight squarely on the women who are often left to languish in the margins of men’s stories.
From Madeline Miller’s Circe and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls to Natalie Hynes’ A Thousand Ships and Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, female authors are spinning heartbreaking and haunting tales about these female characters and telling their stories from fresh perspectives. I know I’m not the only reader who can’t get enough of this particular vein of book, but there’s just something so poignant and necessary about these stories and the way they acknowledge the women that history has done its level best to forget.
Elektra, Jennifer Saint’s follow up to her (also very good!) novel Ariadne, reframes the Trojan War as a specifically female story by grounding it in the distinct perspectives of three different but equally furious women: Clytemnestra, wife of Greek king Agamemnon who sacrifices their daughter on the altar of his own glory; Cassandra, the unheeded prophetess who can see the future but not stop it from coming to pass; and the titular Elektra, who comes of age over the course of the decade it takes Troy to fall.
On paper, the three women have little in common (despite one being the daughter of another), but in Saint’s retelling, their lives intersect and intertwine in thematically rich ways, as each tries to forge her own path in a world in which women are often denied the chance to have agency or voices of their own. These heroines rage at the dying of the light, refusing to go quietly into the fates that male authors like Euripides, Homer, and Aeschylus have set out for them, and though their endings remain as inevitable as always, for readers, the experience is a deeply cathartic one.
We got the chance to chat with Saint herself about her latest novel, why she felt she had to tell these women’s stories, the important female perspectives that often get left out of Greek myths, and lots more. (We even get to hear a little bit about her next mythological retelling—that bit’s at the very bottom, if you want to jump ahead.)
Paste: I loved both Elektra and your previous novel Ariadne as well. What makes you want to put a new spin on these very famous myths? Do you feel like the story of these women are similar to or complement each other in some way?
Jennifer Saint: With both Elektra and Ariadne, I felt that their stories were overshadowed by those of the men in their lives. I had seen Ariadne’s story told through the lens of Theseus’ adventures so many times and how she recedes into the background, consigned to being a footnote to his legend even though he could only succeed through her courage and cleverness.
Elektra is more prominent, the titular subject of tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides, but I felt that there was still a huge void in her story—she comes into these plays as an adult woman whose powerful feelings of rage and vengeance are already fully formed and joins forces with her brother to take action. I wanted to go back and to trace the development of her anger and delve into the loss and trauma that shaped her that way.
In particular, I wanted more of her relationship with her mother who by then had become the focus of Elektra’s bitterness. I felt the same with Ariadne and Phaedra – I wanted to see these women in the context of their female relationships as well, to understand better who they were separately to their male counterparts.
Paste: Where did the idea for this retelling of Elektra come from?
Saint: Like many classicists and enthusiasts for Greek mythology, I love stories of the Trojan War and I wanted to tell part of it myself. However, I was more interested in the wider effect of the war—how it shattered the lives of the women left behind while the men were on the battlefield. This terrible, drawn-out war that cost so many lives and wrought so much suffering was fought by men but blamed on a woman—Helen.
I found it enraging that Helen would take the blame for instigating a war when surely it’s far more likely that the legendary thousand ships sailed in pursuit of power, wealth and conquest rather than going to retrieve one man’s wife. But there is one female figure in the myths without whom the war really could never have happened: Elektra’s sister, Iphigenia. She was my starting point, and although the novel grew to be about so much more, her sacrifice is the catalyst for it all.
Paste: What do you think draws readers to these kinds of retelling that recenter famous myths and legends around female perspectives? It seems like they are especially popular right now (which, don’t get me wrong, I love!)
Saint: It’s really irresistible to lift the lid on stories we think we know so well and to see how viewing them from a different perspective changes and enriches them in so many ways. The myths are layered and complex, reflecting back at us from thousands of years ago a lot that we can recognize in ourselves today.
The women in myth have these hidden, wonderful stories that we can bring into the light and reinvent and I think it’s so exciting that there is so much more to discover in this rich treasure trove of mythology that we are so lucky to have.
Paste: How did you settle on the three women—Cassandra, Clytemnestra, and Elektra—that you used as POV characters here? And how did you decide that this was predominantly Elektra’s story? (Or at least enough so to give her the title of the book.)
Saint: It took a while! I knew that I wanted to write a novel about female rage. Anger is something that women are often taught to suppress, and these three women all have powerful moments of rage which makes them very compelling.
Clytemnestra seemed like a very natural choice to begin with: her rage is so righteous and justified. Her husband Agamemnon slaughters their child as a sacrifice to the gods in exchange for a fair wind to sail to Troy. Clytemnestra’s fury is utterly unyielding and completely understandable. Meanwhile, Cassandra’s plight is equally horrifying: cursed by Apollo to see the future but never be believed so that she alone can see the fate of Troy and be powerless to avert its annihilation. These are women whose voices and anger deserve to be heard!
Elektra, however, was much more difficult and that made her very intriguing. Her feelings and actions are far less sympathetic than the other two, at first glance anyway. She grew throughout the writing process, coming in the end to dominate it entirely as I came to understand her better and eventually to love her, as flawed and challenging as she is. Ultimately, the novel builds up to her decisions so by the end it seemed to belong the most to her.
Paste: I love the way this book so deftly turns a lot of the assumptions we have about these women, which admittedly, we all get from male authors like Homer and Sophocles on their heads. Tell me a bit about how you reevaluated each of them in your own mind? Whose story was most compelling to you?
Saint: I took a lot of delight in making Clytemnestra feel as real as I could. In Homer’s Odyssey, the shade of Agamemnon so bitterly laments that he had such a bad wife in comparison to Odysseus’ faithful Penelope. Penelope and Clytemnestra are held up as contrasting archetypes of women but no one ever seems to compare how Agamemnon and Odysseus stand up as husbands (spoiler: neither of them come out very well!)
But Clytemnestra to me is so much more than a nightmare dreamed up by the patriarchy as an example of how dangerous women might be if not kept under tight control. She’s a grieving mother, determined to avenge her daughter and she can’t be held back by anyone. Cassandra embodies another misogynistic stereotype of women—hysterical, unreliable, not worthy of being heard. I loved showing how insightful and knowledgeable she really is, what a good judge of character and how she sees right through her charming brother Paris who is so much more easily accepted than she is.
Elektra felt like the most incomplete of the three in the ancient portrayals of her that I’d read, so ultimately filling in the blanks of her story and discovering who she really was, became the most compelling part of writing the novel.
Paste: One of the most fascinating things to me about this book is the way these three women all relate to each other. (As limited as that may be in some capacities.) Talk to me a bit about how you see the dynamics between them.
Saint: Elektra and Clytemnestra have the ultimate dysfunctional mother-daughter dynamic. I saw them as being far too similar to one another—-both of them so utterly determined to do what they saw as right and completely unable to understand each other’s point of view. When they clash, they are both completely immovable, but both of them are trying desperately to avenge someone that they love. They’re both too rigid to see what the cost of that will be until it’s too late.
Cassandra is far more separate from them both, but her encounter with Clytemnestra after the Trojan war was a very important moment to me. I remember being told in college that when Clytemnestra sees her husband bring home a captive woman from Troy in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, she is consumed with sexual jealousy. It made no sense to me that she would feel that way. By this point, Clytemnestra has spent ten years despising Agamemnon. I couldn’t think that she would feel anything but pity for Cassandra at having had to endure him. I definitely wanted to write that scene very differently and to find a more believable dynamic to explain what happens between them.
Paste: All of these stories are so tragic in such different ways. I supposed Elektra “wins” in the end, but it’s a horrible sort of victory in several ways. Are women in these myths doomed to unhappy endings?
Saint: I suppose tragedy serves as a warning and as a way for us to work through a lot of our anxieties and emotions and that means in stories like this, the endings are unhappy especially for the women who generally wield less power and suffer under patriarchy. There is a lot of darkness in Greek mythology but it isn’t all doom and gloom and I am exploring some brighter stories in the future too.
Paste: What do you think is the biggest thing you changed from the original myths?
Saint: I gave Elektra much more of a back story, including a childhood friend. In Euripides’ play Electra, she is married off to an unnamed peasant who doesn’t really feature beyond being there to illustrate Elektra’s degradation and give her more reason to resent Clytemnestra. In my version, he is a much more significant part of Elektra’s life for much longer, and that’s a pretty major change. It gave me so much more scope to bring her to life and to find different aspects to her personality.
Paste: Though there are three female POVs here, there are still voices we don’t get to hear—I’m thinking specifically of Iphigenia, but also Helen and Andromache as well—I’d love to know how you feel about their stories and how you think you might have framed them.
Saint: Greek mythology is a labyrinth of tales—there are so many connections and such a vast array of voices to choose from. I felt in writing Elektra that there were half a dozen other novels bubbling away under the surface waiting to be written!
I would love to revisit Iphigenia, Helen, and Andromache and to draw them further out. In this retelling, I wanted to keep the focus on their sisters—Elektra, Clytemnestra, and Cassandra respectively—so as to foreground their experiences. But it would be really interesting to find out how Iphigenia feels when her wedding to Achilles is announced and when she finds out what really awaits her at the altar. Is she angry at her father? Does she suspect what her mother is capable of afterwards?
Likewise, I loved seeing Paris through Cassandra’s eyes but knowing Helen’s opinion of him would be fascinating too. She’s such a cool, composed character that to get a glimpse of what goes on inside her head—a woman who is the focus of so much attention, desire and resentment—would be really interesting. I’d also want to think about how Helen feels about being separated from her own daughter who is left behind in Sparta while she’s in Troy for ten long years. And a novel about Andromache and Hector would be beautiful and heartwrenching.
Paste: What’s next for you as a writer? Are there other mythological or legendary women whose stories you’d like to explore?
Saint:In my next novel, I’m turning my attention to an exciting heroine of Greek mythology with a really unique life—Atalanta, the only woman to join the Argonauts. She’s very different to any character I’ve written before and I can’t wait for the world to meet her!
Elektra, as well as Saint’s other Greek mythological retelling Ariadne, are both available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.